The three flights of stairs before me might as well be Everest, only instead of snow and rocks barring my way, it’s students loitering before their first class of the quarter.
Like them, I’m late. Unlike them, I hate being late. Especially today, as my class is a thousand times more important than whatever introductory English course these fresh-faced undergrads are too lazy to reach on time.
For starters, I’m not a student. At least not at the moment. I’m supposed to be assistant teaching a small group of English majors in a classroom that still, after two flights of stairs, seems to be a continent away.
On the plateau before my final ascension, I’m confronted by a group hogging the space. They’re talking and laughing loudly, unmindful of those of us who actually give a shit about academics.
“Excuse me, please!”
Despite my lofty graduate-student status, no one bothers moving. I’m forced to dive through them like I’m spelunking instead of mountain climbing. Not an uncommon occurrence, unfortunately. I blame my mother, who bestowed upon me her diminutive stature, pale blonde hair, and perpetually fey features.
A glance at my watch tells me I have less than a minute until I’m going to make a terrible first impression on the professor. I break into a run, messenger bag bouncing against my hip as I dart up the final staircase and down a rapidly emptying hallway. Ignoring the twinge in my bad knee, I skid to a stop before the desired door and yank it open.
Pre-class antics are still taking place. Students are chatting, slapping notebooks and pencils on desks, fiddling with smartphones, or surreptitiously slurping coffee and munching breakfast bars.
A glance toward the head of the room gives me my first look at Professor James S. Beckett, who was supposed to be at the faculty luncheon yesterday but never showed. On paper he’s scary as hell: acclaimed poet, award-winning, New York Times Bestselling author of crime fiction, and newly appointed Director of the Creative Writing Program.
Thanks to borderline-obsessive Google searching, I know what he looks like. But all I can see right now is longish brown hair tousled to the kind of accidental perfection normally not seen out of magazine spreads. His face is downturned, eyes on the open notebook on his desk. He writes furiously, the movements harsh and slashing. Left-handed.
As I walk closer, I have an unhealthy urge to snatch the notebook away and read it.
“Professor Beckett?” I ask breathlessly.
He grunts, not looking up. A glance back at the class shows me faces angled toward us in curiosity. Some are familiar from previous courses, and I trade a few smiles.
“Are you going to talk or just stand there?”
The rude question is made irritatingly musical by a smooth British accent. My head whips back around, a flush rising to my face.
“I’m sorry?” I squeak, then clear my throat. “I’m Iris Eliot. Your TA.”
The pen finally stops moving—it’s not a slow fading of mind-body transfer but a savage stop. His head comes up, vivid green eyes narrowing on my face. I stop breathing for a few moments, feeling like an insect under a pin. The dissection of my person lasts long enough that I hear students begin to whisper.
Then, with no shift in expression, he glances over my shoulder toward the wall clock. “You’re late,” he says sharply, and stands with a screech of wooden chair legs to address the class.
Still frozen like a brainless golem beside his desk, I watch him similarly dissect the fifteen faces seated before him.
“If you’re here, it means you want to be writers. Maybe you want to teach, too, but this class isn’t about teaching. It’s about writing.”
Stalking around the desk, he leans against it to cross arms over his sweater-clad chest. After another sweep of his gaze across the classroom, he continues, “If even the smallest part of you is unsure about your identity as a writer, pack up your things now.” He points at a student in the front row, a mousy girl not more than twenty-one, with thick glasses and lustrous dark hair. “Are you a writer?”
She turns beet red, mouth opening soundlessly. Finally, she gasps, “Yes.”
Beckett nods, gaze swerving to the back of the room. “How about you? Yes, you, the young man with gum in his mouth, a bad shave, and greasy hair.”
I wince, my eyes finding the shocked student’s face. A wad of white gum is stuck to his bottom molars, visible inside his open mouth.
“Uhh—” he starts.
“Nope,” snaps Beckett. “Get out.”
The student flushes. “I’m an English major—”
“Creative Writing focus?” grates Beckett.
The command snaps like a whip, and a second later the student gathers his belongings and rushes out the door. I stare after him, then turn to glare at Professor Beckett. If there’s one type of person I truly loathe, it’s a bully.
I’m so incensed, I don’t care that he’s already looking at me, brows raised in inquiry. When I recognize the glint in his eyes as amusement, I lose my shit.
“You can’t do that!”
His lips curl, but I hesitate to call it a smile. A snarl, more like. “Oh, can’t I? Are you a writer, Iris Eliot?”
“Yes,” I snap.
Satisfaction flares in his eyes. “There,” he says, jerking a thumb in my direction as he addresses the class. “That is the response of a writer. How about you—third row. Yes, you. Are you a writer?”
“Yes? I mean, yes!” The soft voice grows firmer.
“Weak, but there’s fire in your eyes so I’ll let you stay.…”
He continues until every student has answered in the affirmative, their voices gaining in confidence until the last virtually shouts the response. Beckett grins his approval, the expression so transforming that my lips part in soundless awe.
Surly and scowling, he could pass as a prematurely crotchety forty. Grinning, however, he looks his age. Thirty-three, if my memory serves. And every bit as handsome as Google warned.
“Ms. Eliot, are you going to stand there for the next fifty minutes or would you like to take a seat?”
I blink away cobwebs of scandalous thoughts and realize he’s caught me staring. That snarly half-smile is back. My cheeks burning, I grip my bag tight to my side and stride to the back of the classroom to claim a desk. As Beckett begins his first-class spiel, I set up my laptop, listening with half an ear until I hear my name.
“…will send you an email with her office hours. The workshops for this class are Tuesday and Thursday mornings. Ms. Eliot will be sending me weekly assessments of your participation and progress, so do take her seriously. Unless you’re suffering from a debilitating disease, I recommend you attend every one. If you don’t, you’ll see your lack of commitment reflected in your final grade. I also plan on spot checking the workshops myself.” Another lightning-flash of a grin. “Not even Ms. Eliot will know which ones I plan to attend.”
As he continues rattling on about syllabus, midterm and final projects, and weekly journaling assignments, I eventually grow used to his accented, rapid-fire speech. I even muse that his voice matches how he writes. Concise. Eloquent. Cutting.
Thinking of his smile, I add another adjective.
“—all I have. Any questions?”
No one moves.
Beckett nods shortly. “Very well. Journals out. Twenty minutes of freestyle writing to be turned in at the end of class. Stop staring at me and start now. First impressions matter.” His eyes, electric emerald in the sunlight dancing through the nearest window, find my face. “Ms. Eliot, if you’ll join me in the hallway a moment?”
Taking a steadying breath, I close my laptop and stand. You can’t quit. You need the TA stipend. You need to finish your Masters. One more year. You can do this. However brilliantly talented and obnoxiously handsome he might be, he’s just a man. More importantly, he’s the freaking head of your program. Be professional.
Bolstered by my internal pep talk, I follow Beckett’s tall frame into the empty hallway. The door snicks closed behind us, sounding disproportionally ominous. Arms once again crossed over his chest, he stares down at me, a frown puckering the skin between his eyebrows.
“Aren’t you a little young for a graduate student in her final year?”
The question triggers a lifetime’s worth of emotional baggage and professionalism flies out the window. “Are you joking? Is there an age requirement I’m unaware of?”
His lips do an odd, quirking dance; I think he might be trying not to smile. “How old are you?”
I gape. “Didn’t you read the Code of Conduct? You’re not supposed to discriminate based on age, sex, orientation—”
He waves a hand imperiously. “Fine, don’t tell me. And call me Beck or Beckett. Professor makes me think of graybeards with food in their teeth. Did you get all my emails?”
The abrupt shift in topics sends my already malfunctioning head-to-mouth filter into full meltdown. “Sure did. All eight hundred of them.”
Oh my God, I’m so fired.
But to my shock, his eyes crinkle with mirth. “You’re a cheeky one, aren’t you? I was told you’d have no other assignments beyond your course load. Is that correct?”
I nod again, less enthusiastically. What mere weeks ago had seemed like a gift from the heavens has degraded in the last fifteen minutes to a silent plea of, Please let me survive this quarter.
By the amount of work he’s assigned the students and his insistence that his TA have no other duties, I’m now relatively certain he wants me to be his assistant-bitch for the next twelve weeks.
And we’re off to such a promising start.
When he doesn’t say anything else, merely pinning me with his focused stare, I feel my neck heating beneath my scarf. Whatever his thoughts, the look he’s giving me is not appropriate between teacher and student.
At length, he murmurs, “You seem familiar.”
“Familiar how?” I ask nervously.
He blinks, shaking his head a little. “We haven’t met before? You are over eighteen, aren’t you?”
In a flash of sickening insight, I recall a particularly lurid article about his reputation as a whiskey-swilling philanderer.
He thinks I’m a one-night stand.
“We haven’t met,” I say forcefully, then summon a modicum of the poise I’ve been lacking since I slept through my six a.m. alarm. “Professor, I’m very much looking forward to assisting you this quarter. Did you receive my schedule and contact information?”
He nods. “It’s Beckett or Beck. And I did, thank you. I saw that you’re also taking my Advanced Fiction Writing class Wednesday evenings. And you’re on my docket for a meeting tomorrow, is that correct?”
“Yes, to review progress on my thesis.” Which will probably end in me stabbing myself in the eye with a pencil.
“Good, good. Seems we’ll be seeing a lot of each other for the foreseeable future.” He reaches for the door handle, flashing that dangerous grin at me. “The former Director spoke very highly of you, Ms. Eliot. I look forward to learning what makes you tick.”
On that titillating and terrifying note, he sweeps back into the room. I stare at the floor, realizing several disturbing truths at once.
1. My heart is racing a mile a minute.
2. My knees are weak.
3. I haven’t felt this alive in years.