What do I have to lose?
All I needed to do was email the guy, set up the date, pray he was even a fifth as amazing as Emily said he was, and show up. That’s all.
I am such a Scaredy McFrightenedton . . .
Staring at the blinking cursor on my screen, I eyed the “x” in the upper right hand corner. I could just close the screen, go to the start menu, select shut down, and watch my computer screen fade to black.
One year. Twelve months. Just a week shy of three hundred sixty-five days.
Somewhere in the rebellious recesses of my mind, an annoying little voice that sounded suspiciously like mine reminded me that twelve months had passed since my last date. Since my boyfriend had broken up with me via text message, completely out of the blue, on Valentine’s Day.
On the scale of awful, it rated pretty high. This was because the text he’d sent was a picture of him kissing another girl.
In other words, he was a douche.
Sure, I had sworn off dating for the remainder of my life. Sure, I had been resigned to living my existence as a neurotic spinster. Maybe I would get a cat, or two, or four, or seven—might as well make it a baker’s dozen.
But now, after almost twelve months and Valentine’s Day looming, I was ready to throw my hat in the ring again. Get my groove on. Watch Netflix and chill.
And yet, still. I was not so sure.
What do you have to lose?
The thought troubled me. Pursing my lips as I contemplated loss, I realized—sans the possibility he was a serial killer—all I had to lose was time. Time I would most likely otherwise spend watching Room with a View and rewinding the scene on the hill over and over and over and over.
The one where Julian Sands grabs Helena Bonham Carter with his big, masculine hands, holding her around the waist and sliding his—I imagined—cool hand over her cheek, then pulling her to him with expectation. And as their lips meet for the first time, amidst the sea of golden barley, the kiss explodes with passion.
Screw fear of the unknown! Carpe Diem! Seize the fucking day!
I nodded, then began typing.
You don’t know me . . . and I don’t know how to do this. But rest assured, the most terrible and terrifying thing has already been written (the most terrible thing being the word “hi”, because—in this circumstance—it is also the bravest).
Now that my awkward reference to Anna Karenina has been made, let me start again:
You don’t know me. Our mutual friend (Emily Von) gave me your email address. Emily has told me many times that she thinks we would be perfect for each other, that it’ll be “love at first sight.”
Even though I’m a romantic, I don’t believe in love at first sight; the concept strikes me as frivolous and convenient. As Tolstoy said, “It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness.”
But I digress.
If you’re interested in meeting up, please come to Jake Peterson’s microbrewery on Fifth and Pine this Saturday at 6 p.m. (Valentine’s Day). I’ll be the one in leather pants.
Looking forward to it, Anna I. Harris
PS Don’t ask what the “I” stands for because I won’t tell you.
On a rush of adrenaline, I typed the email, the address from the card Emily had given me, and hit send. I reveled in my courage and guts and ability to seize the moment. I smiled at the inspiration of meeting at the microbrewery, most likely brought on by the picturesque barley field of Lucy and George’s first kiss.
I also considered myself to be quite ballsy, having scheduled the date for V-day.
I spent a full minute congratulating myself, dwelling on my amazingness before anxiety hit me like a punch in the throat.
What have I done?
Nervous wreck? Anxiety-ridden? How about deer caught in headlights?
Oh yeah, that and more.
What am I doing here? What are you doing?
I glanced down at my outfit—leather pants. Leather-fucking-pants. Leather pants purchased from a thrift store. I was in someone else’s leather pants.
I was a student, and therefore couldn’t afford brand-new leather pants. But I was also a cosplay aficionado, and therefore owned leather pants.
You know, for costumes.
My part-time job working at the Natural History Museum’s swanky restaurant as a server allowed me to maintain the lifestyle to which I’d become accustomed: copious jigsaw puzzles, tragic romance novels, and thrift-store-finds for my cosplay costumes.
But back to now, because right now, I was certifiable. I needed to find the nearest sane person and sign over my rights to decision-making, or at least give them my computer and passcode to the computer labs on campus.
I glanced around the microbrewery with severe apprehension, and my mind started rehearsing for the seventh time all the excuses to leave when he showed up . . . if he showed up.
It was already five minutes after 6:00 pm.
He is not coming. You are a moron in a stranger’s leather pants, and he is not coming because you are a moron. This is what you get for reading all those books.
I tucked my hair—worn in a cascade of curls down my mid-back—nervously behind my ear and glanced at my watch again, unable to miss the cleavage beneath the purple V-neck I’d decided to wear.
I’d justified it earlier by reminding myself that today was laundry day. What I didn’t want to think about was showing up in leather pants and my green granny sweater, the only other clean item in my closet.
I chewed on my lip and shifted in my seat. The waiter looked my way and our eyes met. His gaze flickered to my chest, and he smiled shortly; then he turned and attended to another table. The knot in the pit of my stomach twisted.
Oh great, now Mr. I-am-married-waiter-guy feels sorry for Ms. Ridiculous-in-leather-pants. I rolled my eyes, reminding myself that no one looks good in leather pants, not in real life.
Then, I looked up and saw leather pants . . .
Leather pants, leather boots, leather jacket, leather motorcycle gloves . . . and blue eyes. The bluest eyes I had ever seen. As mesmerizing as his eyes were, I couldn’t help but notice the rest of him—the entire package. Thick muscular thighs, broad muscular chest and arms, square-cut jaw, and blond spiked hair. For a moment, I thought he was . . . him. My blind date.
However, a split second later, as I attempted to swallow my lust, I’d convinced myself he was not him.
Yes, he had blond hair like Emily had described. Yes, he had blue eyes. Yes, he was tall. But, Lucas had also been described as artsy. This man sure as hell wasn’t “artsy.” Sure, his body was a work of art, his movements were artful, but I would never describe him as “artsy.”
Not-artsy was combing the brewery, turning his head this way and that as though searching for someone. I hadn’t had time to compose myself when his eyes locked with mine, and then it was impossible to tear my gaze away.
He walked toward me.
I swallowed again.
He halted at my table, but I was out of saliva and my mouth felt cottony and useless.
He dipped his head as though waiting for me to speak. Finally, raising his eyebrows, he asked, “Anna I. Harris?”
The sound of my name, especially coming from his mouth and said with his sexy man-voice, broke me out of the trance.
I stood inelegantly, causing the chair to scrape noisily on the wood floor, and extended my hand. “Yes, um—yes! I’m Anna, you must be—”
He cut me off, moving a chair closer to mine and said, “Sit.”
And I did. My face flushed with embarrassment. What am I? A dog? Sit. Bark. Roll over. My face flushed again, this time from unbidden images of me rolling over with him on top.
He was watching me, his elbow resting carelessly on the table, and I burned brighter under his scrutiny. Realizing I could clear my throat, I did.
“So, um, thanks for coming.” I glanced up, meeting his clearly amused stare.
He leaned closer, resting his cheek against his propped up palm. “Not what you expected?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.
My eyes widened and I instinctively shook my head. “No, of course I—” I looked away, closing my eyes. Then sighing, I lifted my eyes to his again, “Well, actually, yes. You are not what I expected.”
He raised his eyebrows and scooted his chair closer. “How so?”
I smiled at him, feeling more at ease and more anxious at the same time. “Well, Emily said you were artsy and somehow . . .” I gestured to him with my hand, unable to finish my sentence.
Watching me, his expression unreadable, he stated, “I’m not artsy.”
I couldn’t help it; I laughed. He watched my amusement with interest—giving in to a small smile—before clearing his throat. “Nice pants.”
My laughter faded. I tucked a strand of hair behind my ear and narrowed my eyes. “Yeah, well, yours aren’t bad either. Where do you shop? The Leather Warehouse?”
Leaning back in his chair, he smirked and pulled off the leather jacket and gloves, revealing a charcoal-gray T-shirt underneath that proved my suspicions about his chest right. Realizing I was staring, I forced myself to look away. “So, um, Emily said—”
Glancing to the side and sighing heavily, he shook his head. “Look, I need to tell you something.”
Oh God. He’s married. He’s a eunuch. He’s gay. He hates my leather pants.
I tried not to let my panic show as he lifted his eyes to mine. Making certain I was paying attention, he leaned in close. “I’m not who you think I am.”
My eyebrows pulled low, evidence of my confusion.
He continued, “I think you sent me that email accidently. I don’t know anyone named Emily. And no one tried to set me up with an Anna.”
My mouth dropped open in despair and a rush of intense embarrassment. “Oh my God.” I stood, reached for my bag, and backed away from the table.
Clearly anticipating my movements, the stranger grabbed my hand. This didn’t deter me from intermittently muttering curses and apologies.
“I’m so sorry, this is not, I mean, I’m sorry you came all the way to, I don’t know what the hell I was, you are definitely not, and I’m not, and fuck!”
“Listen,” he stood and moved his grip from my hand to my elbow, “wait.”
I raised my eyes to his, slightly shaking my head. “Why did you even come?”
He took a step forward, dwarfing me with his massive size. His hand—strong and calloused, I noticed without wanting to—shifted to my waist, holding me still and sending heat to my stomach.
Dipping his head to the side and leaning close, he whispered, “I wanted to know what the ‘I’ stood for.”
“So, did you tell him? What the I stands for?” Emily waved her celery stick through the air, her eager eyes betraying how completely absorbed she’d been in my telling of the story.
“What? No!” I shook my head, glaring at my friend; she’d lost her mind. “Of course not.”
Emily sighed, though I thought it sounded more like a deflating tire. “Why of course not?”
“Because he was in leather pants.”
“So were you.” Emily hopped up onto the counter next to where I was cooking the tomato sauce for dinner.
“Yes, but I don’t normally wear leather pants. He looked like he always wore leather pants. Like maybe he showered in them.”
Emily wrinkled her nose at this. “Gross.”
“No, no. He wasn’t dirty, what I mean is: he looked really good in the pants. He looked like leather pants were his thing.”
My friend crunched on the celery stick she’d been waving around earlier. “Okay, you’ve completely lost me. You didn’t give this hot guy your middle name—or your number—because he looks good in leather pants?”
“Unnaturally good. And he wore leather gloves. And a leather jacket. And he left on a motorcycle.” I thought for a moment, stirring the red sauce and becoming mildly flushed once again as I recalled the tall blond man speeding away while straddling the motorcycle. He didn’t know I’d been watching him.
After he’d asked me for my middle name, my brain and mouth failed me. I couldn’t physically form words. So I gave him a panicked smile, mumbled something mostly incomprehensible about going to the bathroom, shook my head, and bolted out the back door of the restaurant.
I hid in my car, unable to leave but too mortified to stay.
He strolled out ten minutes later, glanced around the parking lot, looking like a perfect mixture of James Dean and a young Paul Newman. I ducked, only peeking over my dashboard when I heard the rumble of a motorcycle. His back was to me, offering me a nice view of his long legs and leather-clad torso. Straddling the bike, he kicked up his stand and drove off into the sunset like a troubled hero from one of those movies I watched too much—Rebel Without a Cause or On the Waterfront.
I sighed at the memory and reminded myself out loud, “Definitely not my type.”
“Let me ask you this.” Emily nudged my knee with her foot. “Did he have a penis?”
I felt my face pinch, draw to a point as I inspected Emily’s wide, green eyes. “I didn’t see it if that’s what you’re asking.” Sadly.
“No. I’m asking you to guess. Did the sexy guy in leather, who I’m assuming you haven’t stopped fixating on for the last three days—don’t deny it!—do you think he has a penis?”
I squirmed where I stood and felt my face do odd things. Inexplicably, I was sweating. Maybe not so inexplicably, because I was now thinking about the stranger’s third leg.
“I’ll take your weird dance as a yes. Furthermore,” Emily’s next bite of the celery rang with a triumphant crunch and she spoke around the piece, “I maintain his leather-clad assets plus the existence of his penis makes him the right type for every heterosexual woman. Admit it, he was universal-hot-guy dating material and you let him slip through your leather gloves.”
I snorted inelegantly. Then, because it was just Emily and me, I did the huff-snort-laugh of disbelief. “Uh, I’d like to think I require more than just a beefcake with a frequent shopper’s card to the leather warehouse.”
“You said he was nice.”
She had me there.
I added more oregano to the sauce, but said nothing.
She nudged my knee again with her foot, smiling a smug smile as she sing-songed, “Admit it. He was nice. And hot. And he could have been smart and funny, but you’ll never know. You left, because you freaked out like a dork.”
“Fine. Fine, I freaked out like a dork!. You would’ve, too. I’m telling you, just looking at him, he wasn’t the kind of guy girls like us date.”
“Girls like us? You mean smart, funny, incredibly beautiful and talented girls?”
I gave her a reluctant smile, because we were normal girls.
Smart and funny? Yeah. Sure.
Incredibly beautiful and talented? Hard to say, mostly because I don’t think women who are beautiful by societal standards usually realize they’re beautiful, not really. I’ve never met a person who had an accurate grasp of their own physical beauty (or lack thereof).
Therefore, hard to say.
Was I beautiful? I didn’t think so.
Better just not to dwell on it.
“Nice girls,” I clarified. “We were nice girls. That’s what I meant.”
She gave me a face so I held up my saucy wooden spoon between us. “Don’t give me that face. We are nice girls. This guy, he was nice, but he wasn’t nice.”
“Look at you. You’re a judging-Jessica. Now who isn’t being nice?”
“That’s not what I mean. I’m not being judgmental. I’m just saying, I would have bored him. I’m boring-nice. I’m not riding-a-motorcycle-nice, or wearing-leather-pants-frequently nice, or going-to-the-gym-for-fun nice, or going-to-clubs-and-sexy-dancing nice.”
“Unless it’s eighties night. We go to clubs on eighties night.”
I reduced the heat of the sauce and turned my attention to the boiling pot of spaghetti. “See? That just proves my point. We like to dance to eighties music, where it’s acceptable to do the robot and other various and sundry dorky dances.”
Emily frowned. “So what? That’s not boring. That’s awesome.”
“Yes. To us and our kind, that’s awesome. To Mr. Leather-fine-pants, that’s boring and lame. He probably goes to clubs and sexes up strangers against walls. He looked like that kind of guy, like he could, like that’s what he does on Tuesdays.”
Now it was Emily’s turn to give me a pinched look. “And you know this how?”
I shrugged, pulling a string of spaghetti from the pot and testing its mushiness. “These are truths universally acknowledged. Men who ride motorcycles, who wear leather like a second skin, and look hot doing it don’t date dorks who idolize Tolstoy. Tuesday night is trivia night for me, unless I have a new jigsaw puzzle I’m excited about or I’m re-reading a tragic love story.”
“Again, awesome. Who doesn’t like trivia night and jigsaw puzzles?”
“Hot men who spend their Tuesdays having sex with hot women.”
“But he could do both. Hot sex, then trivia.”
I huffed, because I knew she was playing devil’s advocate without being serious. Time for her to face facts.
“Be honest with yourself, Em. What would you have done if you’d been in my place?” Emily opened her mouth as though to argue, but I gave her a hard look and challenged, “Be serious.”
She frowned as she considered my words, her shoulders slumping. I drained the spaghetti, a ball of irritation and restlessness forming in my stomach the longer she stayed mute. Part of me hoped she’d continue to tell me I was wrong. Tell me I was being narrow-minded, that she would have stayed and shared a drink, swapped numbers, gone on a motorcycle ride.
But she didn’t.
After several minutes, Emily hopped down from the counter and grabbed plates from the cabinet, asking, “You have the motorcycle guy’s email still? Has he tried to contact you?”
“Nope. He didn’t email me back. And I deleted the email.”
She nodded distractedly. “I guess I would’ve done the same as you, unless he emailed me. If he’d emailed me after the fact, then I would reevaluate.”
Ignoring my question, she changed the subject. “Do you want Lucas’s number? Like I said, he’s artsy, and definitely our kind of nice.”
“Sure. Yes. Thank you.” I tried to give her a smile.
And she tried to give me one in return.
I did call Lucas Kraft.
And he was definitely my kind of nice.
We played Pokemon Go together and assembled a puzzle for our first date.
It was good times.
But then we kissed.
That was not good times. He wasn’t a good kisser. Or maybe we weren’t good at kissing each other.
He didn’t call me. I didn’t call him. I got busy. I forgot about him. In fact, I forgot about dating a human man. I started reading a really good book by a new-to-me author who wrote alternate reality versions of Bronte novels and spent the next few weeks immersed in her backlist. I dated her fictional heroes instead in an unapologetic phase of serial book-boyfriend polygamy.
Now, two months later while talking to Emily over the phone about summer plans, I discovered Lucas had started dating a tattoo artist named Starla with three tongue piercings. They were moving in together after knowing each other for two weeks.
“Anna? Anna, are you still there?”
I nodded, frowning blindly at the syllabus for my Russian Literature class. “Yes. I’m still here.”
“Are you . . . okay?”
I nodded tightly, not understanding why she sounded so muffled or why my heart sounded so loud between my ears.
“I thought you didn’t hit it off?”
I shook my head, completely perplexed by how hard I was taking artsy Lucas’s alteration in love-life luck.
I should have called him. Then maybe I would be moving into an apartment with my new boyfriend . . .
No. No, you shouldn’t have called him. He was boring and kissed like a hamster.
I had to physically shake myself to break from my oddball crisis.
What is wrong with you?
Too late I realized I’d spoken What is wrong with you? aloud. “Sorry, nothing. No. I’m good. I’m fine. That’s great for Lucas and his lady friend. That’s really great.”
But it wasn’t great.
How come lazy-tongued Lucas gets a Starla? Shouldn’t he get a Suzie or a Suanne? Or an Anna? A nice, normal-named woman who matched his type of nice?
Not a tri-pierced Starla!
She probably wears leather pants . . .
“Well, anyway.” I heard Emily start the engine of her car. “I can’t believe you’re taking classes over your senior summer, and Russian Literature of all things. Gag!”
“Don’t gag at me. You know I love all things needlessly angsty and dramatic. Who dressed up like Rodion Raskolnikov last year for Halloween and won all the awards? Me.”
“You won one contest. One. And it was for ‘Most Awesome Costume No One Can Identify.’”
“It doesn’t matter, I still won.”
“Shouldn’t you be trying to enjoy your last summer before becoming a real adult?” Emily made no attempt to disguise her disgust for my summer plans.
“You mean binge-watching Netflix and picking up extra shifts at the museum?”
“No. I’ve been trying to get into this class for three years and it’s always full. This is my last chance.”
“That’s because the professor is supposed to be a hottie.”
“Of course he is. Professor Kroft talks about classical Russian literature for a living. If that author guy taught a course in classical Russian literature, that actress lady would leave her dancer husband for him.”
“You mean Natalie Portman?”
“Who? No. The other one. Maybe it was a supermodel and he plays football. There are too many famous people. How am I supposed to keep them all straight?”
“Point is,” I lowered my voice to a whisper as entered the lecture hall, “being a world-class expert in classical Russian literature would make anyone hot.”
Emily chuckled, but tried to hide it with a cough. “Right. Well, anyway. I’ll leave you to it. Don’t forget, trivia night tomorrow. And it’s the semi-finals. We need your brain for the book questions.”
“Ah. Yes.” I scanned the auditorium, irritated that all the seats toward the front were already taken. The closest I could get to the lecture stand was fourteen rows back. The place was packed. “I’ll be there.”
“Good. Talk later. Enjoy your angst.”
“I will. It will feed my dark, dark soul. Bye.” I clicked off, careful to turn my phone all the way off before slipping it in my bag. If three years of college had taught me anything, it was that professors hated being interrupted by cell phones.
I spent the next several minutes arranging my laptop on the table in front of me, organizing my pens, notepad, and the two paperback novels I’d already re-read (and highlighted, and flagged) as a prerequisite for the class. Once everything was organized to my liking, I allowed myself to look around.
The room was buzzing with excitement, which made my heart do a flip. I was obviously with my people. I was with the lovers of Dostoyevsky and Chekov.
The last of my freak-out vibes from earlier dissipated. I didn’t need Lucas and his hamster kisses. I decided my peculiar reaction must’ve been temporary insanity. So what if I didn’t have a boyfriend? So what if I never had one? Loneliness and self-sacrificing despair were staples of all great classic novels. Maybe true happiness was embracing the tragedy of a solitary existence.
That sounded nice.
Cats and coffee and wretchedness.
I couldn’t wait for the lecture to begin.
“Hiya, I’m Taylor.”
I turned to my left, encountering a bright-eyed brunette with her hand outstretched. I accepted her handshake.
“Good to meet you. I can’t believe I got into this class.” She leaned forward as she said this last part. “I’ve been trying for two semesters, but it’s always full.”
“I know,” I enthusiastically agreed. “I love that it’s so popular. Which of the pre-recs did you read?”
She blinked at me. “What?”
“The pre-recs? Which did you read? I’ve already read Crime and Punishment one hundred times, so I opted for Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, which I’ve read before, but not recently.”
I stopped talking because Taylor was giving me a blank stare. Confused, I glanced behind me. Finding nothing amiss, I turned to her again.
“Is there something wrong?”
She shook her head, issuing me a look that made me feel as though I might have sprouted antlers. “No. It’s just, I can’t believe you’ve already read these books. And on purpose. And more than once.”
Her response startled me, but before I could interrogate her further, a hush fell over the lecture hall. Soon the only sound in the large room was leather soles on the wood floor as I craned my neck to get a peek at our professor.
“Holy cow,” Taylor exclaimed under her breath, also twisting her neck and dipping her head to the side. “That man can wear a suit.”
I didn’t argue, because she was right. Professor Kroft did look good in a suit. At least, his backside looked good in a suit. He’d entered through a side door and was currently standing with his back to us. The professor was organizing paper printouts and books on the long table at the front of the lecture hall.
And then he turned around.
And I almost fell out of my chair.
“This course is entitled Classics of Russian Literature, and I am your professor, Luca Kroft.” He paused, the bluest eyes I’d ever seen dispassionately surveyed the inhabitants of the first few rows.
I knew they were the bluest eyes I’d ever seen because I’d been up close and personal with them once before.
On Valentine’s Day.
At Jake Peterson’s Microbrewery on Fifth and Pine.
Except, instead of a suit, he’d been wearing leather pants.
“Russian literature, as you’re likely aware, probes into the complexities and depths of the human soul. And since we are dealing with matters of the soul, I will tolerate no disruptions.” Professor Kroft’s entirely too attractive voice was the only sound in the room. “Let me be clear before we begin. If you are late, you will be locked out. If you leave, you will be locked out. The doors, which are now closed, are locked.”
He held us captivated with his arresting gaze as it scanned the hall, looking at all of us and none of us at once.
I ducked, my heart in my throat, my face flushed.
Oh my God.
It’s Mr. Leather-fine-pants.
I forced myself to breathe, not meeting Taylor’s eye as she inspected me. My hands were shaking. I gripped the desk.
What is wrong with me?
It was the shock. That’s what it was. That’s why I was behaving like a loon. Again. The temporary insanity had returned. I was overreacting. I just needed to . . . leave.
But I couldn’t, not yet. He was speaking. If I left then I’d draw attention to myself.
Stay until the end of class, then leave!
Yes. Much better plan.
And act normal.
“What?” Taylor whispered at my side.
I frowned at her and whispered in return, “What what?”
Gah! I’d spoken aloud again without realizing.
I shook my head. “Sorry. Nothing. Ignore me.”
“You’re weird.” She giggled.
“Do you talk to yourself often?”
“Ladies . . .?”
I stiffened, my blood pressure rocketing.
He was looking at us. He’d stopped lecturing and was looking right at us. His hands were on his narrow hips, one of his eyebrows was cocked in displeasure. Also, he was wearing a bowtie.
What the what?
And yes, he looked hot in a bowtie. How was that even possible?
“Is there something you’d like to share with the rest of the class?”
“Sorry, Professor. We were just debating the finer details of . . .” Taylor glanced at the title of my book, “Eugene Onegin. It won’t happen again.” Taylor grinned and preened under the singular weight of his attention.
Meanwhile, I sunk lower in my chair, brought my hand to my forehead to obscure my face as much as possible without completely covering it, and shook my head quickly.
The silence that followed was deafening. I didn’t dare look up. I was still in the throes of my overreaction and I was sure my cheeks were on fire.
Professor Kroft broke the silence. “Your debate is timely, as Yevgeniy Onegin is the first book we’ll be discussing.”
I closed my eyes; his voice, the words he’d spoken hitting me square in the abdomen, driving the air from my lungs. He’d used the Russian pronunciation of Eugene. Life was not fair. Not only did he look good in leather pants, fabulous in a suit, look good in a bowtie, was a world expert on Russian literature, but also he apparently spoke Russian. Flawlessly.
Flee! He is temptation incarnate! He will steal your soul with sexiness!
“Uh . . .” Taylor’s eyes darted around the room and finally, finally she shrank back.
“Tell me, Miss . . .?” He paused and I opened one eye, attempting to discern if he was waiting for me or Taylor to provide a last name. Thankfully, his steady gaze was locked on my classmate.
“Miss Garrison,” she supplied, her voice cracking with nerves.
I wanted to shake my head at her in disgust, or shake some sense into her for volunteering a boldfaced lie. Instead I kept my head down, hoping against hope he’d continue to target bigmouth Taylor.
“And Miss . . .?”
DAMNIT, DOSTIYEVSKY! Why did you have to be so tragic and compelling?
I said nothing, but I might have moaned in mental anguish.
“Miss?” he prompted again, an edge of harassed impatience stealing into the word.
I gathered a large bracing breath—because what else could I do?—and blurted, “Harris.”
I waited, but he was silent again. This time the silence stretched much, much longer. It stretched for such a substantial length of time that most of the class turned in their seats to give me the once-over. After they gave me the once-over, they looked between the Professor and me, then gave me a twice-over, and a thrice-over.
“Miss Harris,” he said finally, like he’d discovered something wonderful for him, and terrible for me.
I opened both my eyes, met the force of his, and grimaced. Yet I managed to choke out, “Professor Kroft.”
He smiled—teeth and everything—as he leaned backward onto the table behind him. He tilted his head to the side, crossed his arms, and pinned me with his gaze. Rather, he paralyzed me with the twin-blue laser beams of sadism pointed at my soul.
He recognized me.
And it was obvious he didn’t like me very much.
Perhaps he was merely irritated that he’d been interrupted on the first day of class, or perhaps he hadn’t liked my hurried departure all those months ago. I couldn’t figure out which of my regrettable actions were the culprit.
Either way, whatever the reason, I was in trouble.
“Tell me, Miss Harris, is Pushkin a precursor to the realism later found in the legendary Russian prose novels?”
“Uh,” my attention flickered to the side, to Taylor, who was watching me with a please-don’t-murder-me expression. She was terrified. For some reason her terror lessened mine.
“I’m waiting, Miss Harris,” he said, demanding my attention once more, in a harsh tone that sent goosebumps racing up my arms and over my chest. “And I don’t like to be kept waiting.”
I shook my head and blinked rapidly, endeavoring to clear the riot of flailing cobwebs from my mind, and repeated his question silently.
Is Pushkin a precursor to the realism later found in the legendary Russian prose novels?
Yes, he is.
Say something. Answer him. You can do this. You love discussing this stuff.
“Um, so, realism. Yes.” I nodded again, my mind finally engaging. “Yes, Pushkin is a precursor to the realism found later in prose novels.”
“Why?” he asked.
“Why?” I parroted.
His gaze grew hooded and his teeth slid to the side. “Yes. Why?” The question was now a harsh staccato. Exacting. Punishing.
I answered without allowing myself to overthink, sensing that haste in responding was the only thing keeping me from being tossed out in abject humiliation. “Because he described the differences in social classes during his time. And not just easily discernable differences. He described their lives, everything from high society, to lower gentry, to peasants in the countryside. He displayed a proto-realist attitude later adopted by other authors.”
The last syllable of my last word seemed to echo in the room. Or maybe it echoed in my head. Once again, silence stretched.
Professor Kroft’s features had arranged themselves into a stoic mask as he continued to stare at me through half-lidded eyes. I was holding my breath. It might have been my imagination, but I was pretty sure half the class was as well.
Finally, he announced, “That is correct.”
His gaze shifted from mine, releasing me from the purgatory of his austere attention. “We may find examples of this attention to detail in his tour through Petersburg high-society life with Yevgeniy in the first chapter, and the bucolic descriptions of the provincial nobility,” he continued.
I took the opportunity to breathe.
My heart was still racing, but heady relief pumped through my veins. He could still toss me out. He could eject me from the class. He could ridicule and embarrass me.
My heart began a slow descent to the floor as I watched him pace in front of the class, waxing poetic about quotidian elements. I had to drop the course. I’d read the reality in his eyes when he’d challenged me. They’d glowed with a keen, sinister attentiveness. If I stayed, if I tried to finish the semester, he would make my life extremely unpleasant.
Embrace the wretchedness, Anna. Embrace it.
I’d just resigned myself to embracing wretchedness when I felt eyes on me again. I looked up from the sad faces I’d been doodling in my notebook and discovered I was, once again, the focus of the entire class and Professor Kroft.
“Miss Harris?” His tone was studiously polite. The politeness struck me as infinitely more dangerous than his palpable exasperation earlier.
“Yes?” I croaked, gripping the desk again, hoping he wasn’t about to toss me out of the lecture hall.
He held my gaze, and I swear one side of his mouth inched slightly upward with a knowing smirk, though his expression hadn’t altered.
“Please stay after class, Miss Harris.”
A low murmur rumbled through the hall at the professor’s demand framed as a request. Instinctively, I sunk lower in my seat, shying away from the multitude of eyes pointed at me, and gritted my teeth.
Great. Just . . . great.
In Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, there’s a scene where Bazarov realized his strict nihilist philosophies and assumptions about the values of provincial life, might be erroneous. His entire worldview was challenged, and he was forced to accept that his radical ideas and how he had wielded the sword of his charisma may have irrevocably hurt those who trusted him.
And then—spoiler alert—he contracts blood poisoning and dies.
It’s a terrible moment.
However, I was sure that this moment, right now in my life, rivaled his moment. At least to me it did.
As my fellow classmates departed, I felt my will to live go with them.
Sorry. That was melodramatic. Let me clarify: I didn’t want to die, I wanted to be unconscious. I wished for a blood illness, albeit a temporary one. I’d even settle for a good old-fashioned fainting spell.
If only I had an autopsy to perform—like Bazarov, in Fathers and Sons—it certainly would have been an excellent excuse to flee.
Instead, after I finished packing my bag, I sat still as a statue. I folded my hands on my lap and waited, staring at the top of my desk. My mortification plus the anticipation of what was to come fashioned a figurative blood illness within me, overheating my skin and making me shiver.
Professor Kroft was motionless as well, except he wasn’t sitting. He was leaning against the long table at the front of the room, his arms crossed over his broad chest. He’d removed his jacket during the two-hour lecture, which left him in a charcoal-gray vest, white dress shirt, and gray bowtie. He’d rolled up his shirtsleeves during the lecture, presumably so he could write on the dry-erase board with ease.
The last of my classmates’ footsteps echoed through the nearly empty lecture hall, trailing away until the door closed with a resounding click. My brain reminded me that the doors were locked.
No one could get in.
We were utterly alone and wouldn’t be interrupted.
Neither of us made a sound, not at first, although I’m sure my bracing facial expression and averted gaze spoke volumes.
I wanted to leave. The urge to flee was strong. Like the dark side of the force, it called to me. The only thing keeping me in my seat was the fact that he was a professor. A tenured professor. My instincts and upbringing demanded I stay and accept the reprimand.
“Come here.” His voice echoed in the vacant hall and I started at the command, my eyes lifting from the top of my desk to clash with his.
His gaze was . . . I don’t even know how to describe it. Not exactly probing, but not precisely attentive either. He scrutinized me and yet looked bored.
God, let this be over quickly. You cancelled both Firefly and Arrested Development. Haven’t I suffered enough?
Recognizing that the time was now, I stood and slung my backpack over my shoulder. I then traversed the stairs leading to the front of the hall, where Professor Leatherpants waited, halting just after the bottom step. With the weight of his gaze following each of my movements, I’m shocked I didn’t tumble down the steps, ass over ankles.
My heart thrummed between my ears and in my throat. One thing was for certain: I would not be the first to speak. Mostly because I didn’t know what to say. Therefore, rather than exacerbate the situation with inarticulate apologies, I decided silence was the best course of action.
He unfolded his arms and scratched the back of his neck, his stare narrowing until the glacial blue of his irises were small slits. My attention snagged on his forearm. I suspected the baring of his forearms earlier had been an attempt at torture. His forearms were magnificent. And so were his hands. Not that I was staring at them.
Nope. Not staring. Just looking. Yep.
“Anna,” he said, making me blink his face back into focus.
“Yes?” I squeaked. Again, I was startled. This time by the use of my first name.
He studied me for a protracted moment before stating, “You’ve read Onegin.”
I nodded and said, “Yes,” even though he hadn’t asked me a question.
“Which of the others on the class syllabus have you already read?”
I shifted my weight from one foot to the other, confused. He didn’t sound angry. That was good, right?
“Uh, let’s see,” I fiddled with the strap of my bag, “Maybe it would be better for me to list which of the books on the syllabus I haven’t read.”
One side of his mouth hitched upward. “Fine.”
“Okay, so, um. I haven’t read Nikolay Chernychevsky’s What is to be Done? Or Maxim Gorky’s Mother.” I tried not to butcher the name Chernychevsky, but it was ultimately impossible. I had no idea which syllable deserved the emphasis.
He waited for me to continue with my list, his eyebrows lifting by millimeters when I remained silent.
“Those are the only two you haven’t read?”
I nodded again.
His jaw slid to the side while his gaze flickered down then up my body. “Did you know it was me?”
My lips parted while my eyebrows danced on my forehead; I didn’t understand his question. “Pardon?”
Professor Kroft pushed away from the table, stuffing his fine fingers into his pants pockets, and strolled forward, his gaze searching.
“On Valentine’s Day. Did you know who I was?”
I tried to take a step back only for my heel to connect with the stair behind me. “Uh, no. No, I had no idea. I thought you were just a biker dude, or something.” My thwarted retreat might have been responsible for the unrehearsed, blunt honesty of my words.
He slowed his advance, both sides of his mouth curving upward for a split second before he erased the almost smile from his face.
“But you figured it out eventually?”
I shook my head again, bracing my feet apart to stand my ground. “No. I had no idea you were a professor. Not until today.”
“Then why are you in this class?” he demanded quietly, three feet separating us; the size of his frame made his proximity feel imposing.
“Because I like tragic stories.” More unrehearsed and clumsy honesty.
He frowned. “In your email you said you were a romantic.”
“But you like tragic stories.”
He scowled. “That makes no sense.”
“It does. The most romantic stories always have tragic elements.”
“War and Peace.”
It might have been my imagination, but I could’ve sworn he swayed toward me. But then he said, “That’s ludicrous. War and Peace isn’t romantic.”
I didn’t like his tone—it was dismissive—like he thought I was an idiot.
I stiffened my spine and lifted my chin. “It is.”
He shifted a step closer, shaking his head, taunting me. “It’s Tolstoy’s naturalist reflection on inequality and the inevitable disappointment of life. It’s about the stark pragmatism required to navigate a reality ripe with injustice. It’s about settling. War and Peace is brilliant because of the very fact that it’s an anti-romance.”
Oh, HELL no.
Those were fighting words.
“Then why does it make me feel so much?” I blurted fervently, clutching my chest, clearly forgetting to whom I was speaking. “Why then does Pierre’s love for Natasha—”
“Natasha is a faithless twit and Pierre is vapid and brainless. She didn’t belong to Pierre, she belonged to Andrei, but she was blind and selfish and she ruined him.”
My mouth fell open, wide with outrage. Sacrilege!
“I can’t believe you just said that.”
He shrugged, unconcerned, but his eyes seemed to brighten as they examined me. He smirked, looking more like some biker dude in that moment than like a Ph.D. professor in Russian Literature.
“Like Andrei, everybody who is worthwhile or interesting dies before their time. That’s how life works.”
“I would argue that the canvas of death and tragedy provides depth to the growth of the characters and underlying romanticism.”
“Then you’re delusional. And a masochist.”
“Then you’re a sociopath,” I volleyed back, shoving my face in his because he was pissing me off, “incapable of feeling empathy or passion.”
His eyes narrowed menacingly as they flared, flickering to my mouth and chasing my anger with something equally hot and confusing.
“You think so?” he rasped on a whisper; it sounded like a challenge. Or a dare. Or both.
“It’s a definite possibility.” My words arrived breathless because my heart was beating erratically.
His body swayed toward mine again and this time it wasn’t my imagination.
What was happening? What was going on?
We shared a breath. And then two breaths. Our eyes clashed. His darkened. The muscle at his jaw ticked. My stomach did a somersault and the back of my throat burned with anticipation.
I felt a tug, a pull, a force like gravity urging me to touch him, to place a hand on his magnificent forearm, to incline my chin just two inches.
He’s my professor.
And he’s still not my kind of nice.
How do you know?
Just look at his forearms!
. . . sigh.
I was the first to blink.
I lowered my face, turned, breaking the tense moment. My hair fell forward obscuring me, and I leaned away. Confusion and something akin to fear tasted bitter in my mouth. Uncertain what to do next, I improvised.
“Anyway,” I endeavored to say, but it sounded garbled and shaky, my heart beating as though I’d run ten miles. I cleared my throat and tried again, “Anyway, I, um,” I tossed my thumb over my shoulder, “I’m leaving.”
Still confused, still caught in his gravitational field, I loitered for a moment, my eyes on the floor. He was torturously close. Some perverse impulse had me glancing up just as I turned for the stairs. His eyes were still trained on me—now hooded, but no less intense. His expression was unreadable.
My thundering heart twisted and jumped to my throat. I tore my gaze away.
Jeeze. This guy.
I’d made it halfway to the door when he called after me, “Are you going to drop the class?”
I halted, tugging my bag higher on my shoulder, and gave him my profile. I couldn’t look at him, not yet. I blamed the bowtie. It should have decreased his attractiveness, but instead it was the equivalent of his wearing leather pants.
No one looks good in leather pants.
No one looks good in a bowtie.
But he did.
Frazzled, I admitted, “I don’t want to drop the class. I like . . . the subject.”
“Fine.” His tone was clipped, succinct, like everything was settled. “I’ll see you on Wednesday.”
I rolled my lips between my teeth, still undecided, and eventually asked the most relevant question bouncing around my brain, “Are you going to pick on me? If I stay?”
It took him a beat to respond, but eventually he did, his tone steady and flat. “Not any more or less than my other students.”
I nodded, but confusion distracted me. I was sluggish. What precisely had just happened between us? Had we been about to kiss? Had he wanted to kiss me? Had I imagined that? Had I wanted to kiss him?
I meant, yes. I wanted to kiss him, theoretically. But in reality, the kissing of Professor Kroft would be anchored in complications and drama.
He’s your professor. You don’t kiss your professor. It isn’t a thing. In fact, it’s an anti-thing.
I shook myself, realizing I’d been lost untangling my bewilderment instead of moving.
I sprinted up the stairs, calling over my shoulder, “Yes. Sorry. I’m leaving. See you later,” and bolted out the door, running to my car.
I didn’t stop running until my rusted Civic came into view. And then I stopped, berating myself for running, because now I had one of those god-awful stitches in my side. I was not a runner. I could power-walk like a boss, but I never ran. Never.
However, considering the fact that I’d just run away from Luca Kroft—for a second time—I guess I made an exception for misanthropic men, who looked outstanding in leather pants and bowties.
I didn’t go to class on Wednesday.
Instead I went to the movies. Alone.
Now it was Friday and I had until 11:59 p.m. to decide whether or not to drop the class. I didn’t know what to do.
And I was rushing. I was rushing everywhere. I’d rushed through my shower this morning, brushing my teeth, getting dressed. My socks didn’t match and, based on the way my underwear tugged unnaturally, I was pretty sure I’d put my panties on backwards.
At present, I’d just rushed into work. I wasn’t late. I was ten minutes early.
“Hey, Anna. How was your week?”
Oh, you know, reading, rollerblading, puzzles; on Monday I almost kissed my hot professor, and on Tuesday I went to trivia night and won second place in the semi-finals. The usual.
“Fine. Good. Fine,” I said too loudly and in a voice much higher than my normal tone.
My boss, Tim, gave me a perplexed smile. “Are you okay?”
I nodded, tying on my apron. “I’m good. Fine. Good. Fine.”
He stared at me for another few seconds, then shrugged. “Okay, so, you’re in zone four tonight and we have two big-top reservations. One for twelve, the other for twenty. Sasha will be with you and Frank will bus.”
I nodded as Tim spoke, and kept on nodding after he was finished, forcing myself to absorb his words.
Zone four, two big parties, one table for twelve, one table for twenty, Sasha would be helping me, and Frank would be bussing the tables.
“Got it. Sounds good.” I gave Tim two thumbs up.
He glanced at my thumbs then at me. “Are you sure you’re okay? You seem . . . anxious.”
I tried to swallow, but I rushed it, and experienced a swallow-misfire. It took every ounce of my self-control not to cough.
Instead I rasped, “Sure, yeah, good. I’m good.”
Tim wrinkled his nose, his eyebrows forming a deep V on his forehead. “Well, maybe cut back on the coffee then.”
As a server, if you rush you make mistakes, a fact I’d learned the hard way. This job had taught me how to pause and reflect before taking action, because the alternative was spilling seven beers on yourself while jogging across the dining room.
“Sure thing, boss.” I stuffed my hands in my pockets and nodded once slowly. My slow nod seemed to pacify him because he walked away with less concern plaguing his features.
As soon as he was out of sight, I coughed and cleared my throat until I could swallow again.
He was right.
I was anxious.
I was anxiously obsessing about what to do.
I hadn’t told anyone about my encounter with Professor Kroft. Not even Emily. I didn’t want to get him in trouble. Or . . . something.
He didn’t do anything wrong.
He hadn’t. We hadn’t kissed. He hadn’t touched me or said anything inappropriate.
But still. Still.
Of note, I accidentally looked up the University’s policy on fraternization. There I was, minding my own business, when BAM! the Internet navigated to the University’s guidance on the subject of relationships between professors and students.
Since the web page was already up, I decided to read it. What could be the harm in that?
The University’s policy was ambiguous. As consenting adults, fraternization was not forbidden. But faculty (and staff) were encouraged to avoid practices and behaviors that give the appearance of favoritism, harassment, or discrimination. Of course, true favoritism, harassment, and discrimination were outright prohibited, not to mention usually illegal.
Either way, it didn’t matter.
If I dropped the class I would never see him again. Problem solved.
If I didn’t drop the class then he would be my pessimistic professor, and I would be his quixotic student, and that would be that. Problem also solved . . . sorta.
I pushed my obsessive thoughts to the deep recesses of my mind—where I stored information about folding sheets correctly and how to be a proper lady—and occupied myself with work, being mindful not to rush.
Immersing myself in waiting tables did the trick. I’d completely forgotten about the class and Professor Leatherpants until I saw him.
. . . wait! WHAT?
I strolled out of the kitchen alcove, ready to welcome the table of twenty that had just been seated, when I spotted him. I had no other choice but to jump behind a potted plastic tree and do a double take, hoping against hope that the super hottie in black pants and a black dress shirt was not my professor.
Apparently, hope is for hipsters because hope failed me.
He was sitting in the chair closest to the kitchen and facing the alcove, I had a clear view. His hair was elegantly styled rather than spiked like it had been at Jake’s Microbrewery, or natural and lose like it had been at class. He was also without bowtie or leather pants, as far as I could tell. But it was definitely Professor Kroft.
And he was sitting among nineteen other people at one long table. In my section.
Why me? WHY ME??
Oh the wretchedness.
“What’s going on? What are you waiting for? Do you want me to get their drinks?” Sasha stopped next to me, already frantic.
Five years older than me and an underserver, Sasha hadn’t quite learned how to be mindful. She was panicky and we hadn’t even taken their orders yet.
“Calm down, Sasha-frantic.” I patted her shoulder, still peering at the table where the professor sat. Next to him was a very, very pretty woman who looked a lot like him: same blonde hair, same blue eyes, same mouth. Different nose, though.
Unless they were one of those creepy brother-sister couples—you know, the ones that aren’t related but look like they could be—this woman was his actual sister. Which meant he was out with his family.
“Anna? What are you doing?”
I straightened my shoulders and tried to shake off my creeper complex. “This is what we’re going to do: I’m going to take the drink orders. You go grab some bread, butter, and water for the table. When you come out, I’ll give you the orders I’ve taken so far, you enter them and wait at the bar for the order. I’ll enter the rest so—hopefully—everything will be ready at the same time. I’ll carry out the first load, you get the second. Meanwhile, I’ll tell them about the specials, and so forth. Sound good?”
She nodded. “I can do this.”
I grabbed her shoulders and gave her a reassuring squeeze. “You can, Sasha. You can do this. You are Sasha-fantastic.”
I turned from my coworker, lifted my chin, and prepared to meet my doom.
Or just the really, really uncomfortable next few minutes.
As I approached I eyeballed the rest of the table. They were all dressed really nicely, like designer-cut suits on the guys and more diamonds than I’d seen outside the Tower of London on the women. Luca’s sister—or cousin or whatever—wore a diamond necklace and matching earrings. The older woman across from him had on three diamond bracelets and a stone on her third finger the size of a marble.
I forced myself to look away. That rock would hurt in a fistfight.
I didn’t know if he was looking at me or not. I didn’t check. Instead I walked to the opposite side of the long table.
“Hello. May I start you off with something to drink?”
A woman in her mid-thirties glanced at me and offered a sincere smile. “Please. You have Zyr Vodka, yes?”
“Yes. Yes, we do.” I endeavored to hide my surprise. She had a Russian accent.
“Zyr martini on the rocks, please.”
I nodded and moved to the man on her right, repeated the same question and was met with a similar response. With each person I worked myself closer to Luca, but I dared not look at him. Five Zyr Vodka martinis, two white wines, and one bottle of champagne later, I gathered a deep breath and lifted my eyes to him.
He wasn’t looking at me.
I blinked at his profile then forced myself to say, “May I start you off with something to drink, sir?”
“Vodka, neat. Titos if you have it, Zyr if you don’t.” He waved a dismissive hand in my direction then continued his discussion with the older woman across from him. You know, the one you’d want on your side in a fistfight because of the rock on her finger.
But back to Professor Passionless.
I didn’t know what to expect, but I hadn’t expected antipathy. Again I stared at his profile.
Thank God Sasha chose that precise moment to tap on my shoulder so I could pass her the first of the drink orders. Otherwise I might have spent the rest of the night standing there, glowering at him.
Shaking my head to clear it, I moved to the other side of the table and continued. I felt eyes on me, but mindfully told myself I was imagining things. Nevertheless, by the time I finished collecting all the orders, my cheeks were burning, and I had the sensation of non-gross creepy-crawly things on the back of my neck, like a finger whispering down my spine.
“Did you get the rest of the drink orders?” Sasha asked as I walked to where she was waiting at the bar.
“Was it my imagination, or did—like—half of those people have Russian accents?”
I shrugged, evading her question. She was wrong, sixteen of them had an accent, well over half. But about half of them were speaking in Russian.
I was in a tangle of feelings by the time I made it back to the table with the first of their drinks and being mindful was becoming increasingly difficult. But I would persevere and relay the specials, even if it killed me.
Which, unless that woman with the ring punched me in the temple for running out of halibut, relaying the specials probably wouldn’t kill me.
“Good evening,” I addressed the half of the table where Luca wasn’t, plastering a mild smile on my features before recapping the specials. I wrote down the first ten orders, growing calmer as I answered questions about the menu.
Then I was off to the other side. I kept my gaze focused on the deathbringer—what I’d nicknamed the large diamond ring on the older woman’s hand—while I launched into the same spiel I’d given to the first half of the table, finishing with, “Can I interest you in our seasonal steamed clams to start? Or the escargot?”
“How are the snails cooked?” Luca asked, making me jump a little.
I swallowed a tremor of nerves and lifted my eyes to his. Unsurprisingly, he was looking at me. Other than the looking, I had no expectations. Therefore, the glint of challenge in his eyes and the barely there hovering smile were neither surprising nor unsurprising.
They were flustering.
I cleared my throat before responding, “The escargot are served Bourguignon style, with butter and garlic.”
“What about the halibut? I saw it was one of the specials, but you didn’t list it.”
My smile grew brittle. “We’re out of the halibut. We have bass instead.”
“How is the bass prepared again?”
I opened my mouth to respond, but the one wielding the deathbringer cut me off. “Luca, you don’t even like bass. Leave the pretty girl alone and stop quizzing her. She’s not one of your students to torture.”
His eyes cut to mine again, pinning me, sending a jolt of white hot hello and you’re in trouble and maybe also hot for teacher to the pit of my stomach.
Meanwhile the woman sitting next to him spoke up, “Ignore him. My brother is just enamored with you and lacks basic people skills.”
“Dominika,” he growled.
She disregarded his warning. “I apologize for his bad behavior. Here, he’ll have salmon with risotto cake, I’ll have the bass, and you can ignore him for the rest of the evening.”
I glanced at her wide, apologetic smile as she handed me her menu. I accepted it with a garbled thanks, new feelings surfacing to tangle my throat and thoughts. Somehow I managed to jot down the rest of the orders without asking his sister to repeat the part where she’d said, he’s enamored with you so I could record it.
Like the professional I was, I turned from the table graciously, crossed the dining room with an even stride, and then hid behind the potted plant so I could ogle him from behind a fake tree.
He looked unhappy. He was leaning back in his chair as though relaxed, but the frown marring his features gave him away. His sister was laughing and nudging him with her elbow. Not to be outdone, deathbringer glinted in the candle light.
“Anna? Did they order? I was about to go refill water glasses.”
“Go ahead. I’ll enter the order.” I waved Sasha off, unwilling to remove my eyes from Luca’s stern expression.
Leather pants. Bowties. Stern expressions. All things that shouldn’t be attractive, but were damn sexy on Luca Kroft.
“Someone tell me about the relationship between the story and the way it’s told in Pushkin’s Queen of Spades.”
I lifted my hand in the air.
“Anyone?” Luca’s gaze swept over the class, sliding over my extended hand as though it were invisible.
Gritting my teeth, I waved my fingers. Just a tad. I even tried to lengthen my arm by sitting forward in my seat.
“Not even a guess?” He regarded the lecture hall with disappointment. When no one else moved, he pulled out the class roster. “Emma Nixon. Tell me about Queen of Spades and why Pushkin’s method of telling the story is as important as the story itself.”
His target sat directly in front of me. I watched as she straightened and fiddled with the pencil she held.
“Is this about his use of numbers? Because I didn’t understand that.” Emma was a good student, just not great with the philosophical models characteristic of Russian literature.
I let my hand fall quietly to the table top and tried to hide my frown. I didn’t know why I bothered anymore. Four weeks into the semester and he hadn’t called on me since that first day.
Luca tilted his head to one side, considering her. “Do you understand the concepts of fabula and siuzhet?”
Emma shook her head, now twirling the pencil between her fingers with nervous abandon. I could tell she was frustrated by her lack of ability to engage with him. But he took her nerves in stride, re-explaining the concepts in a new way and encouraged her to help him fill in blanks. He even gave her a small smile of praise when she arrived at the right answer without him having to spell it out.
Bitterness blossomed on my tongue as I watched their exchange. I glanced at the big clock over the board, five minutes left before the end of class. Five tortuous minutes.
Obviously, I hadn’t dropped the class three weeks ago when I’d had the chance. If I were being honest with myself, the reason I didn’t drop out was because I wanted to see him again.
Also now obvious, Professor Kroft wasn’t enamored with me. His sister had been delusional, although I was still inclined to like her.
Meanwhile I’d become completely enamored with him.
I should have listened to that woman with the ring. You don’t get a ring like deathbringer without knowing what’s what.
Professor Kroft had both kept and broken the promise he’d made to me weeks ago. He didn’t pick on me any more than the other students. The problem was, he didn’t pick on me at all. He pretended I didn’t exist. And this was a special kind of torture because Luca Kroft was a fantastic teacher.
Like, the best I’ve ever had.
He engaged his students rather than talking at them. He forced them to become a part of the narrative, grow invested in Tolstoy and Gogol. He challenged them to confront their ideas about life, nature, morality, and—yes—even the human soul.
Last week he’d made several groups of students act out a scene from The Brothers Karamazov, casting women in the roles of the men, asking them to explain their motivations as though they were the characters. I’d wanted desperately to be chosen for the role of Ivan, but I was passed over, given no role except silent spectator.
So, I guess he did pick on me by not picking on me.
Every week found me falling a little more head over heels. And I wasn’t the only one.
Taylor, the troublesome talker from the first class, along with at least seventy-five percent of the other students, had basically become his disciples. The books she’d scoffed at on that first day now littered her desk, pages flagged and ear marked. She’d invited me out to dinner last week with a few of our classmates and we’d spent the entire meal debating the superiority of Tolstoy over his contemporaries.
Luca Kroft had made them all Russian literature zealots.
After each class I’d leave feeling both energized and despondent. I wanted to debate with him, with the other students. I wanted to be a part of what felt like a movement and an awakening. Instead I’d been relegated to the sidelines.
I was frustrated.
Even if I’d never met him months ago in his leather pants, I was pretty darn sure I’d still be smitten with him now.
Abruptly, Luca glanced at his watch. “Ah, times up.”
A quiet murmur of regret rippled through the class. This was usual at the end of his lectures. If he heard or noticed it, he never made a sign.
“I have your papers from last week at the front, stacked alphabetically. Letters ‘A’ through ‘H’ are here, ‘I’ through ‘M’ here, and so forth. Pick them up before you depart. If you have any questions about your grade, schedule an appointment through my secretary.”
I perked up at this news. He’d warned us before we turned in our first term paper that he was exceptionally critical. Most of us could expect Ds and Cs, but that he anticipated we would improve over time.
Determinedly, I spent every free minute on my paper for a week and a half, crafting it, perfecting it. Plus, I loved the subject matter: Onegin’s relationship with the young Tatyana Larina and how the role of superfluous man shaped their combined destiny.
Since Luca refused to call on me during class, I poured every ounce of frustrated thoughts and feelings into the paper.
He left through the side door and I turned to my classmate. “Hey, Taylor? Could you watch my stuff? I’ll grab our papers.”
Not waiting for the rest of her sentence, I jogged down the steps and power-walked to the front table, waiting my turn for the ‘A’ through ‘H’ stack. Upon reaching the papers, I grimaced.
He hadn’t been lying about being critical. The top paper—and all the others I flipped through—looked like they’d been bled upon. Red pen colored every page—crossed-out sentences, questions in the margin, culminating into at least a paragraph of comments at the end of each paper, in what I presumed was his scrawling handwriting.
I pulled Taylor’s from the stack, noticing how red it was, but making a concerted effort to avoid seeing her final grade.
Then I found mine.
My heart stuttered. And then it dropped to my feet. Adrift, I blinked at my paper, dumbly flipping through the pristine pages.
Except for the final grade—which was a B+—he hadn’t written on it at all.
Not at all. Nothing. No thoughts. No questions. No comments.
A potent mixture of confusion and anger swirled in my stomach. Tears pricked behind my eyes. My hurting heart sent a wave of heat up my neck and to my cheeks.
He’d ignored me.
“Hey, Anna? Are you done?”
I glanced over my shoulder and realized I was holding up the line. Clutching my paper to my chest, I quickly moved out of the way and numbly climbed the stairs to a waiting Taylor.
“Ah! I’m so nervous. I don’t think I did very well.” She accepted her paper, flipping through his red marks without reading them and searching for her final grade. “Damn. I got a D.”
I gritted my teeth, irritated with Taylor. Actually, I was jealous. She had a treasure trove of Luca’s comments and insights, and she’d ignored them, instead focusing on the grade. I wanted to throttle her.
“I did, too,” Jordan Washington, the boy who sat on her other side chimed in. “And so did Carter, Jayden, and Gretchen, and everyone I’ve talked to so far.”
“What did you get, Anna?” Taylor eyeballed me, her frowning gaze moving to the paper I held clutched to my chest.
I shrugged and stuffed it into my bag, trying to keep my tone even. “I guess everyone got a D,” I said without outright lying.
“Don’t take it so hard, Harris,” Jordan gave me a sympathetic smile. “He did warn us.”
I huffed a bitter laugh, shaking my head but saying nothing, and hoisted my bag to my shoulder. My stomach hurt and my eyes felt scratchy.
“See you guys later.” I gave my classmates an uneven wave and, for no reason in particular, walked down the stairs. This would take me to the side door of the lecture hall and into the Russian Studies department instead of outside and to the parking lot.
I left the large classroom, turning toward faculty offices—for no reason in particular. I stopped at the reception desk, where the department secretary usually sat, and stared at it. Unsurprisingly, no one was there. Class ended at 8:00 p.m., well after the end of normal business hours.
It took that long—the walk from my desk in the lecture hall to the desk of the department secretary—for my brain to catch up with the intentions of my feet. I scanned the top of the desk, looking for the administrator’s business card. My aim was to find her number, call her in the morning, and make an appointment with Professor Kroft, as he’d instructed, to ask about my grade.
Because I had no idea why I’d received a B+ instead of an A, or a C, or a D, or a F. He’d given me nothing to go on.
So, yeah, I had questions about my grade. I also had questions about why he was such an arrogant asshole. Given my state of mind, I decided to make the appointment for next week; hopefully time would help me simmer down so I could focus on my grade, and not his assholeishness.
Something out of the corner of my eye snagged my attention. I glanced to the right just as a blur of movement at the end of the hallway disappeared into an office. I stared at the open door, at least thirty feet from where I was standing. It was a corner office at the end of the hall and the door faced out, toward the secretary.
I spotted a window, a desk, a shelf laden with books, stacks of books next to the desk, and white fringe on a red carpet.
Then I spotted a man walking around in the office. My pulse ticked up, because the man was Luca. I recognized the clothes he was wearing from earlier, but more than that I recognized the way he moved.
I faced the hallway. My feet and my brain discussed the situation very, very briefly, a la:
Feet: He’s right there.
Brain: Go get him.
Feet: Rodger that, we’re on our way.
Then my feet moved me toward the open door of the office. My heart beat loudly between my ears, not with nerves this time but with irrational anger, and the misguided determination that accompanies aforementioned irrational anger.
I halted at the doorway to his office and found him standing in front of an open file cabinet, his profile to me. Tangentially, I noticed his office was large, much larger than the ones I’d been in over the course of my college career. But then most of my courses were in science and engineering, where the buildings were newer, more efficiently designed. This building was over one hundred years old.
Glaring at my professor, I knocked on the doorjamb.
He glanced over his shoulder, his pale blue eyes distracted. And then he did a double take. He stiffened, frowning severely as his attention flickered down then up my body before capturing my gaze.
He looked . . . guarded.
“Are you lost?” He sounded gruff and argumentative to my ears.
I shook my head while I stepped into his office, shut the door behind me, and dropped my bag to a brown leather sofa at my side.
Luca’s eyes followed my movements as he turned to face me, slowly shutting the file cabinet drawer. He stuffed his fine fingers into his pants pockets. But he said nothing.
I yanked the term paper from my bag and held it up between us. He glanced at it, then moved his guarded scowl back to me.
I had so many questions. So many angry, hurt, irritated, frustrated questions. I had a torrent of them.
Instead I asked, “You gave me B plus?”
He swallowed before responding. “I didn’t give you a B plus, Anna. You earned a B plus.”
I felt my frown intensify. “How so?”
His lips parted as though he was actually going to answer, but I cut him off by obnoxiously balling up the term paper and dropping in his trash can. He watched me do this, his attention lingering on the waste bin for three or four seconds before he blinked and glared at me again.
“How did I earn a B plus? Tell me, because I have no idea. I have no idea.”
Luca set his jaw, his eyes narrowing, again regarding me in silence.
Luckily, I didn’t need him to respond; the momentum of my anger had carried me too far to listen or to engage in a meaningful discussion. I didn’t care what he had to say. I needed to be heard.
“Do you know why I have no idea? Because you give me nothing. Nothing. I get nothing from you.” My voice broke. I had to clear my throat before I could continue. “You won’t call on me in class. You won’t even look at me. Why am I suddenly invisible to you?”
“You’re not invisible to me.”
I huffed a bitter laugh in response, shaking my head, because the last three weeks painted a different picture. Plus I was too preoccupied with the crushing burden of thoughts and emotions I hadn’t realized I was feeling.
“You said you wouldn’t pick on me any more or less than your other students, but you lied. You’re an outstanding teacher, Luca, but you’re also a liar. Why won’t you teach me? Everyone else gets to debate with you, share ideas, challenge you, be challenged by you. Everyone else gets papers so covered in red ink with your thoughts and ideas that they look like evidence from a crime scene. But mine is white. Mine is blank. Mine is empty. You give me nothing.”
An irritating tear rolled down my cheek and I swiped at it angrily, furious with myself for crying even a little.
“Everyone else gets to have you,” I whispered brokenly. “And I get nothing.”
The muscle at his jaw ticked, but otherwise he remained still. Standing like a perfect, impervious statue. Glaring at me.
I needed a minute before I trusted my voice again and looking at his impassive features made my chest hurt, so I dropped my eyes to the carpet and gathered several steadying, mindful breaths.
What am I even doing here?
My anger deflated in the face of my foolishness, leaving me feeling wretched—truly wretched—and miserable.
What do you hope to accomplish, Anna? You’re making a fool of yourself. What do you want from him?
“Something. Anything,” I whispered to myself.
That’s pathetic. Why are you doing this?
I sighed sadly, the ache in my chest intensifying. I had the sudden sensation of being hollowed out, because the voice inside my head was right. I was pathetic. I had ridiculous, unrequited feelings for a statue.
I needed to leave.
I turned from him and reached for my bag, tugging it on my shoulder. I couldn’t bring myself to look at him again, so I directed a short wave at the room. “Right. Well . . . as always, thanks for the stimulating chat.”
My hand closed over the knob and I’d opened the door just three inches before it was slammed shut again. Luca’s open palm was pressed against the wooden door, level with my face. He’d pushed it closed and now stood directly behind me.
I didn’t have a moment to register shock, because in the very next second I was turned. He pulled the bag from arm, pushed my back against the door, and kissed me.
Warning to your delicate sensibilities: This part is not G.
Or was that me?
Not that it mattered, and not that I possessed the higher brain function at present required to debate the matter, but I was pretty sure we were lost in each other to an equivalent degree.
He kissed me. A deep, searching, demanding kiss that tasted like urgency and annihilated restraint. And he placed his hands on me, under my shirt, his fine fingers digging into the skin of my back, pulling me against him even as he roughly pressed my body against the door with his body.
It took me point-five seconds to move beyond my shock, and when I did my response was instinctual, primitive. I melted against him, opening my mouth and searching for his tongue. I sucked on it, so very hungry for the taste of him, and grabbed fistfuls of his shirt, yanking it from his pants.
Holy wow, I didn’t care how I got here, how we’d arrived at this moment, but I never wanted it to end. I wanted to drown in him, in the hot, claiming slide of his mouth, in this dizzy combination of euphoria and uncertainty.
I touched him—his glorious stomach, sides, and back—and shivered at the contact. His muscles tensed beneath my fingertips, his skin hot, and his body so very reactive to my touch. Luca made a sound like a growl in the back of his throat, pressing his thigh insistently between my legs, shifting it up then down with a purposeful and brazen movement. My heart slammed against my ribcage as lust pooled low in my abdomen.
And then someone knocked on the door.
Three quick raps followed by, “Professor Kroft?”
The voice—close behind me, just beyond the door—crashed over my brain, body, and libido like a bucket of iced water. It was Taylor.
Abruptly stiff as a board, I sucked in a startled breath. My eyes flew open, crashing into his. Comprehending where I was, who I was with, and what we’d just been doing, a spike of disbelief and frenzied panic coursed through my veins.
Yet, to my utter surprise, Luca didn’t appear at all flustered.
No. Not panicked.
Not even startled.
More like . . . a heady mixture of insatiability and irritation.
His stare singed me as he calmly mouthed, Shhh.
She knocked again. “It’s Taylor. I . . . I wanted to talk to you about my paper. I saw your car in the parking lot and thought, if you have a free moment now—”
“Make an appointment.” Luca’s tone was tight and controlled. He held my gaze captive, the heat of his palms still burning my skin.
I sensed my classmate hesitate before responding. “I would, but I’m usually working during your office hours and—”
“I’m busy with another student,” Luca snapped, his voice now unyielding and laced with hostility. “Make an appointment.”
I flinched at the word student, my eyes falling to his throat as I tried to swallow. Heat flooded my neck and cheeks.
Crap. Crap. Craaaaaaaaaaaap.
“Oh. Sorry, sorry. I guess I’ll schedule an appointment or come back later.” Her voice faded, dull footsteps leading away from the door followed. Meanwhile I held my breath, staring at his bowtie, battling the crushing wave of turmoil holding my throat and lungs hostage.
His hands were still on my body, wrapped around my waist and digging into my back. Luca’s muscular leg still pressed shamelessly against the apex of my thighs. I felt his eyes on me, weighted like a sandbag laying on my chest.
“Anna,” he said, drawing my focus to him, his voice just above a whisper.
Even so, I jumped at the sound of my name, my fingers falling from his torso as though caught with my hand in the cookie jar, and I automatically responded, “Professor Kroft.”
He winced. And then he closed his eyes. And then he exhaled.
I stared at him, the severely beautiful lines of his face, and attempted to find the right words to express the many colors and shapes of my emotions vying for dominance. I was part elation, part trepidation, and part craving a gin and tonic.
But before I could give voice to my thoughts, Luca stepped back, shoving his hands in his pockets and turning, walking several paces away to the center of his office.
He cleared his throat once, then said in a firm voice, “You should leave.”
. . .
. . .
. . .
His words landed like a physical blow and the wind was forced from my lungs leaving me breathless.
Breathless and Wretched, the new fragrance by Calvin Klein.
My gaze moved over the expanse of his back, his broad shoulders encased in a white dress shirt, presently untucked because of me. He felt distant, much farther away than the five steps he’d placed between us.
If I’d been a different kind of nice, I might’ve sauntered across the room, slid my arms around him, and whispered naughty alternatives in his ear.
But I wasn’t that kind of nice. I was the take-people-at-their-word nice. And he wanted me to leave.
A sharp ache filling my chest, I retrieved my backpack, not quite able to lift it to my shoulder, and turned from the sight of him. A million thoughts circled my brain as I gripped the doorknob and twisted it.
Numbly, I stepped out of the room and pulled the door shut behind me. But I didn’t leave. I couldn’t. I was caught in a labyrinth of turmoil and indecision, unsure if I was upset by what had happened, by the kiss and by Taylor’s disruption, or happy, or relieved, or . . . what I was.
A sound of movement from inside Luca’s office spurred my feet into action. I jogged quickly away, down the hall, out of the Russian Studies department, and outside to tepid heat of a mid-summer evening. As I unlocked my car, wading through my mess of feelings about the kiss and subsequent interruption and rejection, I decided three things:
- I liked being kissed by Luca Kroft. I liked it a lot. A. Lot.
- I was upset and angry and (as of yet, some undetermined level of) hurt that he’d dismissed me afterward.
- We would never be a we, because we were doomed. I was . . . goofy. And he was . . . not goofy. Again, we were two different kinds of nice, and narry the twain shall meet.
- Because of things 1, 2, and 3—and because my drama-free, sedate existence appealed to me more than hot kisses paired with riding the roller coaster of rejection and failure—I was going to late-withdraw from Professor Kroft’s class, thereby greatly reducing the chances of ever seeing him again.
Worst of all, I genuinely liked Luca Kroft. I admired him. At least, I admired the version of him he shared freely with everyone but me.
Being perpetually ignored and then rejected by a person I admired made me want to cry into a big pillow and listen to The Cure while watching Old Yeller and reading the world statistics about the Zika virus . . . but I wouldn’t.
Instead, I would act. I would do something to extract myself from the overwhelming and oppressive feelings inspired by the last several weeks.
Swallowing thickly, I pulled the smartphone from my bag with unsteady fingers, navigated to my student account, and selected the dropdown box labeled enrollment status. Without allowing myself to debate the matter, I chose “late-withdraw” and hit the submit button, waiting just long enough for the next screen to load, confirming my selection, before turning off my phone and stuffing it in my bag.
The interior of my car had become tyrannically hot and judgmental. The word cowardbounced around my brain, as though the upholstery of my aging Honda Civic had whispered the accusation in my ear.
I ignored the creeping doubt in favor of rewarding my pragmatism and swift action with a new jigsaw puzzle. Puzzles wouldn’t kiss me one moment, then push me away the next.
No. Unlike moody, gorgeous, brilliant Russian lit professors, puzzles were safe. Puzzles were solvable. Puzzles didn’t move my soul and inspire me to wish for things beyond my reach.
Most importantly, puzzles couldn’t break my heart.