|Amazon Price||New from||Used from|
Sylvain Reynard is a Canadian writer with an interest in Renaissance art and culture and an inordinate attachment to the city of Florence. (Parenthetically, it should be noted that the snarky narrator of Gabriel’s Inferno was contracted to write this biographical description, and he can attest that SR is, in fact, real, and has an enviable collection of argyle socks.)
In memoriam Maiae.
Dante and Virgil crossing the river Styx.
Engraving from 1870 by Gustave Dore
The poet stood next to the bridge and watched as the young woman approached. The world ground to a near standstill as he remarked her wide, dark eyes and elegantly curled brown hair.
At first he didn’t recognize her. She was breathtakingly beautiful, her movements sure and graceful. Yet there was something about her face and figure that reminded him of the girl he’d fallen in love with long ago. They’d gone their separate ways, and he had always mourned her, his angel, his muse, his beloved Beatrice. Without her, his life had been lonely and small.
Now his blessedness appeared.
As she approached him with her companions, he bowed his head and body in a chivalrous salute. He had no expectation that his presence would be acknowledged. She was both perfect and untouchable, a brown-eyed angel dressed in resplendent white, while he was older, world-weary and wanting.
She had almost passed him when his downcast eyes caught sight of one of her slippers—a slipper that hesitated just in front of him. His heart beat a furious tattoo as he waited, breathless. A soft and gentle voice broke into his remembrances as she spoke to him kindly. His startled eyes flew to hers. For years and years he’d longed for this moment, dreamed of it even, but never had he imagined encountering her in such a serendipitous fashion. And never had he dared hope he would be greeted so sweetly.
Caught off balance, he mumbled his pleasantries and allowed himself the indulgence of a smile—a smile that was returned to him tenfold by his muse. His heart swelled within him as the love he held for her multiplied and burned like an inferno in his chest.
Alas, their conversation was all too brief before she declared that she must depart. He bowed before her as she swept by, and then straightened to stare at her retreating form. His joy at their reunion was tempered by an emergent sadness as he wondered if he’d ever see her again…
Professor Gabriel Emerson’s voice carried across the seminar room to the attractive brown-eyed young woman who was seated at the back. Lost in thought, or lost in translation, her head was down as she scribbled furiously in her notebook.
Ten pairs of eyes swung to her, to her pale face and long lashes, her thin white fingers clutching a pen. Then ten pairs of eyes swung back to the professor, who stood perfectly still and began to scowl. His scathing demeanor contrasted sharply with the overall symmetry of his features, his large, expressive eyes, and full mouth. He was ruggedly handsome, but in that moment bitterly severe, which rather ruined the overall pleasing effect of his appearance.
“Ahem.” A modest cough to her right caught the woman’s attention. She glanced in surprise at the broad-shouldered man sitting next to her. He smiled and flicked his eyes to the front of the room, back to the professor.
She followed his gaze slowly, looking up into a pair of angry, peering blue eyes. She swallowed noisily.
“I expect an answer to my question, Miss Mitchell. If you’d care to join us.” His voice was glacial, like his eyes.
The other graduate students shifted in their seats and stole furtive glances at one another. Their expressions said what crawled up his ass? But they said nothing. (For it is commonly known that graduate students are loath to confront their professors with respect to anything, let alone rude behavior.)
The young woman opened her mouth minutely and closed it, staring into those unblinking blue eyes, her own eyes wide like a frightened rabbit.
“Is English your first language?” he mocked her.
A raven-haired woman seated at his right hand tried to stifle a laugh, smothering it into an unconvincing cough. All eyes shifted back to the frightened rabbit, whose skin exploded into crimson as she ducked her head, finally escaping the professor’s gaze.
“Since Miss Mitchell seems to be carrying on a parallel seminar in a different language, perhaps someone else would be kind enough to answer my question?”
The beauty to his right was only too eager. She turned to face him and beamed as she answered his question in great detail, making a show of herself by gesturing with her hands as she quoted Dante in his original Italian. When she had finished, she smiled acidly at the back of the room, then proceeded to gaze up at the professor and sigh. All that was lacking from her display was a quick leap to the floor and a rubbing of her back on his leg to show that she would be his pet forever. (Not that he would have appreciated the gesture.)
The professor frowned almost imperceptibly at no one in particular and turned his back to write on the board. The frightened rabbit blinked back tears as she continued scribbling, but mercifully she did not cry.
A few minutes later, as the professor droned on and on about the conflict between the Guelfs and the Ghibellines, a small square of folded paper appeared on top of the frightened rabbit’s Italian dictionary. At first she didn’t notice it, but once again, a soft ahem drew her attention to the good-looking man beside her. He smiled more widely this time, almost eagerly, and glanced down at the paper.
She saw it and blinked. Carefully watching the back of the professor as he drew endless circles around endless Italian words, she brought the paper to her lap where she quietly unfolded it.
Emerson is an ass.
No one would have noticed because no one was looking at her, except for the man at her side. As soon as she read those words, a different kind of flush appeared on her face, two pink clouds on the curve of her cheeks, and she smiled. Not enough to show teeth or what could be dimples or a laugh line or two, but a smile nonetheless.
She raised her large eyes to the man next to her and looked at him shyly. A wide, friendly grin spread across his face.
“Something funny, Miss Mitchell?”
Her brown eyes dilated in terror. Her new friend’s smile quickly disappeared as he turned to look at the professor.
She knew better now than to look up at the professor’s cold blue eyes. Instead, she put her head down and worried her plump lower lip between her teeth, back and forth and back and forth.
“It was my fault, Professor. I was just asking what page we were on,” the friendly man interceded on her behalf.
“Hardly an appropriate question from a doctoral student, Paul. But since you asked, we began with the first canto. I trust you can find it without Miss Mitchell’s help. Oh, and Miss Mitchell?”
The frightened rabbit’s pony tail trembled ever so slightly as she lifted her gaze.
“See me in my office after class.”
At the end of the seminar, Julia Mitchell hastily tucked the folded piece of paper she’d been cradling in her lap into her Italian dictionary, under the entry asino.
“Sorry about all that. I’m Paul Norris.” The friendly man extended his large paw over the table. She shook it gently, and he marveled at how small her hand was in comparison to his. He could have bruised it just by flexing his palm.
“Hello, Paul. I’m Julia. Julia Mitchell.”
“Good to meet you, Julia. I’m sorry The Professor was such a prick. I don’t know what’s eating him.” Paul gave Emerson his preferred title with no little sarcasm.
She reddened slightly and turned back to her books.
“You’re new?” he persisted, tilting his head a little as if he was trying to catch her eye.
“Just arrived. From Saint Joseph’s University.”
He nodded as if that meant something. “And you’re here for a Master’s?”
“Yes.” She gestured to the front of the now empty seminar room. “It probably doesn’t seem like it, but I’m supposed to be studying to be a Dante specialist.”
Paul whistled through his teeth. “So you’re here for Emerson?”
She nodded, and he noticed that the veins in her neck began to pulsate slightly as her heart rate quickened. Since he couldn’t find an explanation for her reaction, he dismissed it. But he would be reminded of it later.
“He’s difficult to work with, so he doesn’t have a lot of students. I’m writing my dissertation with him, and there’s also Christa Peterson, whom you’ve already met.”
“Christa?” She gave him a questioning look.
“The tart at the front. She’s his other PhD student, but her goal is to be the future Mrs. Emerson. She just started the program, and she’s already baking him cookies, dropping by his office, leaving telephone messages. It’s unbelievable.”
Julia nodded again but said nothing.
“Christa doesn’t seem to be aware of the strict non-fraternization policy set up by the University of Toronto.” Paul rolled his eyes and was rewarded with a very pretty smile. He told himself that he would have to make Julia Mitchell smile more often. But that would need to be postponed, for now.
“You’d better go. He wanted to see you after class, and he’ll be waiting.”
Julia quickly tossed her things into a shabby L.L. Bean knapsack that she had carried since she was a freshman undergraduate. “Um, I don’t know where his office is.”
“Turn left on your way out of the seminar room, then make another left. He has the corner office at the end of the hall. Good luck, and I’ll see you next class, if not before.”
She smiled gratefully and exited the seminar room.
As she rounded the corner, she saw that The Professor’s office door was ajar. She stood in front of the opening nervously, wondering if she should knock first or peek her head around. After a moment’s deliberation, she opted for the former. Straightening her shoulders, she took a deep breath, held it, and placed her knuckles in front of the wood paneling. That’s when she heard him.
“I’m sorry I didn’t call you back. I was in my seminar!” an angry voice, all too familiar now, spat aloud. There was a brief silence before he continued. “Because it’s the first seminar of the year, asshole, and because the last time I talked to her she said she was fine!”
Julia retreated immediately. It sounded like he was on the telephone, yelling. She didn’t want him yelling at her, and so she decided to flee and deal with the consequences later. But a heart wrenching sob tore from his throat and assaulted her ears. And from that she could not flee.
“Of course I wanted to be there! I loved her. Of course I wanted to be there.” Another sob emerged from behind the door. “I don’t know what time I’ll get there. Tell them I’m coming. I’ll go straight to the airport and hop a plane, but I don’t know what kind of flight I can get on short notice.”
He paused. “I know. Tell them I’m sorry. I’m so sorry…” His voice trailed off into a soft, shuddering cry, and Julia heard him hang up the telephone.
Without considering her actions, Julia carefully peeked around the door.
The thirty-something man held his head in his long-fingered hands, leaning his elbows on his desk and crying. She watched as his wide shoulders shook. She heard anguish and sorrow rip out of his chest. And she felt compassion.
She wanted to go to him, to offer condolences and comfort and to put her arms around his neck. She wanted to smooth his hair and tell him that she was sorry. She imagined briefly what it would be like to wipe tears away from those expressive sapphire eyes and see them look at her kindly. She thought about giving him a gentle peck on his cheek, just to reassure him of her sympathy.
But watching him cry as if his heart was broken momentarily froze her, and so she did none of those things. When she finally realized where she was, she quickly disappeared back behind the door, blindly pulled a scrap of paper from her knapsack, and wrote:
Then, not quite knowing what to do, she placed the paper against the doorjamb, trapping it there as she silently pulled his office door shut.
Julia’s shyness was not her primary characteristic. Her best quality, and the one that defined her, was her compassion, a trait that she hadn’t inherited from either of her parents. Her father, who was a decent man, tended to be rigid and unyielding. Her mother, who was deceased, had not been compassionate in any way, not even to her only child.
Tom Mitchell was a man of few words, but was well-known and generally liked. He was a custodian at Susquehanna University, and the fire chief of Selinsgrove Borough, Pennsylvania. Since the fire department was entirely volunteer, he and the other fire fighters found themselves on call at all times. He inhabited his role proudly and with much dedication, which meant that he was rarely home, even when he wasn’t responding to an emergency. On the evening of Julia’s first graduate seminar he called her from the fire station, pleased that she finally decided to answer her cell phone.
“How’s it going up there, Jules?” His voice, unsentimental but comforting nevertheless, warmed her like a blanket.
She sighed. “It’s fine. The first day was…interesting, but fine.”
“Those Canadians treating you right?”
“Oh, yes. They’re all pretty nice.” It’s the Americans who are the bastards. Well, one American.
Tom cleared his throat once or twice, and Julia caught her breath. She knew from years of experience that he was preparing to say something serious. She wondered what it was.
“Honey, Grace Clark died today.”
Julia sat upright on her twin bed and stared into space.
“Did you hear what I said?”
“Yes. Yes, I heard.”
“Her cancer came back. They thought she was fine. But it came back, and by the time they found out, it was in her bones and her liver. Richard and the kids are pretty shaken up about it.”
Julia bit her lip and stifled a sob.
“I knew you’d take the news hard. She was like a mother to you, and Rachel was such a good friend of yours in high school. Have you heard from her?”
“Um, no. No, I haven’t. Why didn’t she tell me?”
“I’m not sure when they found out that Grace was sick again. I was over to the house to see everyone earlier today, and Gabriel wasn’t even there. That’s created quite a problem. I don’t know what he’s walking into when he arrives. There’s a lot of bad blood in that family.” Tom cursed softly.
“Are you sending flowers?”
“I guess so. I’m not really good at that sort of thing, but I could ask Deb if she’d help.”
Deb Lundy was Tom’s girlfriend. Julia rolled her eyes at the mention of Deb’s name but kept her negative reaction to herself.
“Ask her, please, to send something from me. Grace loved gardenias. And just have Deb sign the card.”
“Will do. Do you need anything?”
“No, I’m fine.”
“Do you need any money?”
“No, Dad. I have enough to live on with my scholarship if I’m careful.”
Tom paused, and even before he opened his mouth she knew what he was about to say.
“I’m sorry about Harvard. Maybe next year.”
Julia straightened her shoulders and forced a smile, even though her father couldn’t see it. “Maybe. Talk to you later.”
The next morning Julia walked a little more slowly on her way to the university, using her iPod as background noise. In her head, she composed an e-mail of condolence and apology to Rachel, writing and rewriting it as she walked.
The September breeze was warm in Toronto, and she liked it. She liked being near the lake. She liked sunshine and friendliness. She liked tidy streets free of litter. She liked the fact she was in Toronto and not in Selinsgrove or Philadelphia—that she was hundreds of miles away from him. She only hoped it would stay that way.
She was still mentally writing the e-mail to Rachel when she stepped into the office of the Department of Italian Studies to check her mailbox. Someone tapped her on the elbow and moved out of her periphery.
She removed her ear buds. “Paul…hi.”
He smiled down at her, his gaze descending some distance. Julia was petite, especially in sneakers, and the top of her head merely reached the lower edge of his pectorals.
“How was your meeting with Emerson?” His smile faded, and he looked at her with concern.
She bit her lip, a nervous habit that she should stop but was unable to, primarily because she was unaware of it. “Um, I didn’t go.”
He closed his eyes and leaned his head back. He groaned a little. “That’s…not good.”
Julia tried to clarify the situation. “His office door was closed. I think he was on the phone…I’m not sure. So I left a note.”
Paul noticed her nervousness and the way her delicately arched eyebrows came together. He felt sorry for her and silently cursed The Professor for being so abrasive. She looked as if she would bruise easily, and Emerson was oblivious to the way his attitude affected his students. So Paul resolved to help her.
“If he was on the telephone, he wouldn’t want to be interrupted. Let’s hope that’s what was going on. Otherwise, I’d say you just took your life into your own hands.” He straightened up to his full height and flexed his arms casually. “Let me know if there’s any fallout, and I’ll see what I can do. If he shouts at me, I can take it. I wouldn’t want him to shout at you.” Because from the looks of it, you’d die of shock, Frightened Rabbit.
Julia appeared as if she wanted to say something but remained silent. She smiled thinly and nodded as if in appreciation. Then she stepped over to the mailboxes and emptied her pigeon hole.
Junk mail, mostly. A few advertisements from the department, including an announcement of a public lecture to be delivered by Professor Gabriel O. Emerson entitled, Lust in Dante’s Inferno: The Deadly Sin against the Self. Julia read the title over several times before she was able to absorb it into her brain. But once it had been absorbed, she hummed softly to herself.
She hummed as she noticed a second announcement, which mentioned that Professor Emerson’s lecture had been cancelled and rescheduled for a later date. And she hummed as she noticed a third announcement, which declared that all of Professor Emerson’s seminars, appointments, and meetings had been cancelled until further notice.
And she kept right on humming as she reached back into her pigeon hole for a small square of paper. She unfolded it and read:
She continued to hum as she puzzled over what it meant to find her note in her mailbox the day after she’d placed it at Professor Emerson’s door. But her humming finally stopped, as did her heart, when she turned the paper over and read the following:
Emerson is an ass.
There was a time when, in reaction to such an embarrassing event, Julia would have dropped to the floor and pulled herself into a fetal position, possibly staying there forever. But at the age of twenty-three, she was made of sterner stuff. So rather than standing in front of the mailboxes and contemplating how her short academic career had just gone up in flames and been reduced to a pile of ash at her feet, she quietly finished her business at the university and went home.
Pushing all thoughts of her career aside, Julia did four things.
First, she pocketed some cash from the emergency fund that was conveniently located in a Tupperware container underneath her bed.
Second, she walked to the closest liquor store and bought a very large bottle of very cheap tequila.
Third, she went home and wrote a long and apologetic condolence e-mail to Rachel. Purposefully, she neglected to mention where she was living and what she was doing, and she sent the e-mail from her Gmail account rather than her university account.
Fourth, she went shopping. The fourth activity was intended only as a weepy and somewhat heartbroken tribute to both Rachel and Grace, because they had loved expensive things, and Julia was in reality too poor to shop.
Julia couldn’t afford to shop when she came to live in Selinsgrove and met Rachel in their junior year of high school. Julia could barely afford to shop now, as she eked out a meager living on a graduate student’s stipend, without the eligibility to work outside the university to supplement her income. As an American on a student’s visa, she had limited employability.
While she walked slowly past the beautiful shop windows on Bloor Street, she thought of her old friend and her surrogate mother. She stood in front of the Prada store, envisioning the one and only time Rachel had taken her shopping for couture shoes. Julia still had those black Prada stilettos, tucked in a shoebox in the back of her closet. They’d only been worn once, on the night she’d discovered she’d been betrayed, and although she would have loved to have destroyed them like she destroyed her dress, she couldn’t. Rachel had bought them for her as a coming-home present, having had no idea what Julia was actually coming home to.
Then Julia stood for what seemed like forever in front of the Chanel boutique and wept, remembering Grace. How she always greeted Julia with a smile and a hug whenever she came to visit. How when Julia’s mother had passed away under tragic circumstances, Grace had told her that she loved her and would love to be her mother, if she’d let her. How Grace had been a better mother to her than Sharon ever had, to Sharon’s shame and Julia’s embarrassment.
And when all her tears were gone and the stores had closed for the evening, Julia walked back to her apartment slowly and began to beat herself up for having been a bad surrogate daughter, a lousy friend, and an insensitive twit who didn’t know better than to check a scrap of paper to see if it was blank before she left it behind with her name on it for someone whose beloved mother had just died.
What must have been running through his mind when he found that note? Heartened by a shot or two or three of tequila, Julia allowed herself to ask some simple questions. And what must he think of me now?
She contemplated packing up all of her belongings and boarding a Greyhound bus bound for her hometown of Selinsgrove, just so she wouldn’t have to face him. She was ashamed she hadn’t realized it was Grace that Professor Emerson had been discussing on the telephone that terrible day. But she hadn’t even contemplated the possibility that Grace’s cancer had returned let alone that she had passed away. And Julia had been so upset about having gotten off on the wrong foot with The Professor. His hostility was shocking. But even more shocking was his face as he cried. All she had thought about in that terrible moment was comforting him, and that thought alone had distracted her from considering the source of his grief.
It wasn’t enough that he’d just had his heart ripped out by hearing that Grace had died, without having an opportunity to say good-bye or to tell her that he loved her. It wasn’t enough that someone, probably his brother Scott, had effectively torn into him for not coming home. No, after having been destroyed by grief and crying like a child, he’d had the delightful experience of opening his office door to escape to the airport and finding her note of consolation. And what Paul had written on the other side.
Julia was surprised that The Professor hadn’t had her dismissed from the program on the spot. Perhaps he remembers me. One more shot of tequila enabled Julia to formulate that thought, but to think no further, as she passed out on the floor.
Two weeks later, Julia found herself in a slightly better state as she checked her mailbox in the department. Yes, it was as if she was waiting on death row with no hope of commutation. No, she hadn’t dropped out of school and gone home.
It was true that she blushed like a schoolgirl and was painfully shy. But Julia was stubborn. She was tenacious. And she wanted very much to study Dante, and if that meant invoking an unidentified co-conspirator in order to escape the death penalty, she was willing to do so.
She just hadn’t revealed that fact to Paul. Yet.
“Julianne? Can you come here for a minute?” Mrs. Jenkins, the lovely and elderly administrative assistant, called over her desk.
Julia obediently walked toward her.
“Have you had some sort of problem with Professor Emerson?”
“I, um, I…don’t know.” She flushed and began to bite viciously on the inside of her cheek.
“I received two urgent e-mails this morning asking me to set up an appointment for you to see him as soon as he returns. I never do this for the professors. They prefer to schedule their own appointments. For some reason, he insisted that I schedule a meeting with you and have the appointment documented in your file.”
Julia nodded and removed her calendar from her knapsack, trying hard not to imagine the things he had said about her in his e-mails.
Mrs. Jenkins looked at her expectantly. “So tomorrow then?”
Julia’s face fell. “Tomorrow?”
“He arrives tonight, and he wants to meet you at four o’clock tomorrow afternoon in his office. Can you be there? I have to e-mail him back to confirm.”
Julia nodded and noted the appointment in her calendar, pretending that the notation was necessary.
“He didn’t say what it was about, but he said it was serious. I wonder what that means…” Mrs. Jenkins trailed off absently.
Julia concluded her business at the university and went home to pack with the help of Señorita Tequila.
By the following morning, most of Julia’s clothes were packed into two large suitcases. Not willing to admit defeat to herself (or to the tequila), she decided not to pack everything, and thus found herself twiddling her thumbs anxiously and in need of a distraction. So she did the one thing any self-respecting, procrastinating graduate student would do in such a situation besides drink and carouse with other procrastinating graduate students—she cleaned her apartment.
It didn’t take very long. But by the time she was finished, everything was in perfect order, lightly scented with lemon, and scrupulously clean. Julia took more than a little pride in her achievement and packed her knapsack, head held high.
Meanwhile, Professor Emerson was stomping through the halls of the department, leaving graduate students and faculty colleagues spinning in his wake. He was in a foul mood, and no one had the courage to trifle with him.
These days he was ill tempered to begin with, but his fractious disposition had been exacerbated by stress and lack of sleep. He had been cursed by the gods of Air Canada and consequently seated next to a father and his two-year-old child on his flight back from Philadelphia. The child screamed and wet himself (and Professor Emerson), while the father slept soundly. In the semi-darkness of the airplane, Professor Emerson had reflected on the justice of government-enforced sterilization on lax parents as he mopped urine from his Armani trousers.
Julia arrived promptly for her four o’clock appointment with Professor Emerson and was delighted to find that his door was closed. Her delight soon left her when she realized that The Professor was inside his office growling at Paul.
When Paul emerged ten minutes later, still standing tall at six foot three but visibly shaken, Julia’s eyes darted to the fire exit. Five steps and she’d be free behind a swinging door, running to escape the police for illegally sounding a fire alarm. It seemed like a tempting proposition.
Paul caught her eye and shook his head, mouthing a few choice expletives about The Professor, before smiling. “Would you like to have coffee with me sometime?”
Julia looked up at him in surprise. She was already off kilter because of her appointment, so without thinking much about it, she agreed.
He smiled and leaned toward her. “It would be easier if I had your number.”
She blushed and quickly took out a piece of paper, checked it to be sure it was free of any other writing, and hastily scribbled her cell phone number on it.
He took the piece of paper, glanced at it, and patted her arm. “Give him hell, Rabbit.”
Julia didn’t have time to ask him why he thought her nickname was or even should be Rabbit, because an attractive but impatient voice was already calling her.
“Now, Miss Mitchell.”
She walked into his office and stood uncertainly just inside the door.
Professor Emerson looked tired. There were purplish circles underneath his eyes, and he was very pale, which somehow made him look thinner. As he pored over a file, his tongue flicked out and slowly licked his lower lip.
Julia stared, transfixed by his sensual mouth. After a moment, through a great effort, she dragged her gaze away from his lips to look at his glasses. She hadn’t seen them before; perhaps he only wore them when his eyes were tired. But today, his penetrating sapphire eyes were partially hidden behind a pair of black Prada glasses. The black frames contrasted sharply with the warm brown of his hair and the blue of his eyes, making the glasses a focal point on his face. She realized immediately that not only had she never seen a professor as attractive as he before, she had never encountered a professor who was so studiously put together. He could have appeared in an advertising campaign for Prada, something no professor had ever done before.
(For it must be noted that university professors are not usually admired for their fashion sense.)
She knew him well enough to know that he was mercurial. She knew him well enough to know that he was, at least recently, a stickler for politeness and decorum. She knew it would probably be all right if she sat down in one of his comfy leather club chairs without his invitation, especially if he remembered her. But given the way he had addressed her, she stood.
“Please be seated, Miss Mitchell.” His voice was cold and flinty, and he gestured to an uncomfortable-looking metal chair, instead.
Julia sighed and walked over to the stiff Ikea chair that sat just in front of one of his massive built-in bookcases. She wished he had given her permission to sit elsewhere but elected not to quibble with him.
“Move the chair in front of my desk. I won’t crane my neck in order to see you.”
She stood and did as she was told, nervously dropping her knapsack on the floor. She winced and blushed from head to foot as several of the smaller contents of her bag spilled out, including a tampon that rolled under Professor Emerson’s desk and came to a stop an inch from his leather briefcase.
Maybe he won’t notice it until after I’m gone.
Embarrassed, Julia crouched down and began to gather up the other contents of her knapsack. She had just finished when the strap on her very old bag snapped and everything she was carrying crashed to the floor with a loud bang. She kneeled quickly as papers, pens, her iPod, cell phone, and a green apple skidded across the floor and onto The Professor’s beautiful Persian rug.
Oh, gods of all graduate students and eternal screw ups, kill me now. Please.
“Are you a comedian, Miss Mitchell?”
Julia’s spine stiffened at the sarcasm, and she glanced up at his face. What she saw nearly made her burst into tears.
How could someone with an angelic name be so cruel? How could a voice so melodic be so harsh? She was momentarily lost in the frozen depths of his eyes, longing for the time when they had looked down at her with kindness. But rather than give in to her despair, she breathed deeply and decided that she had better get used to the way he was now, even though it was a grave and painful disappointment.
Mutely, she shook her head and went back to filling her now broken knapsack.
“I expect an answer when I ask a question. Surely you’ve learned your lesson by now?” He studied her quickly, then glanced back at the file in his hands. “Perhaps you’re not that bright.”
“I beg your pardon, Dr. Emerson.” The sound of Julia’s voice surprised even her. It was soft but steely. She wasn’t sure where her courage had come from, but she silently thanked the gods of graduate students for coming to her aid…just in case.
“It’s Professor Emerson,” he snapped. “Doctors are a dime a dozen. Even chiropractors and podiatrists refer to themselves as ‘doctors.’”
Sufficiently chastened, Julia tried to zip up her broken knapsack. Unfortunately, the zipper was broken now too. She held her breath as she pulled on it, trying to coax it back to life with unspoken curses.
“Would you stop fussing with that ridiculous abomination of a bag and sit in a chair like a human being?”
She could see that he was beyond furious now, so she placed her ridiculous abomination on the floor and sat quietly in the uncomfortable chair. She folded her hands, just to keep from wringing them, and waited.
“You must think you’re a comedian. I’m sure you thought this was funny.” He threw a piece of paper which landed just shy of her sneakers.
Bending down to pick it up, she realized it was a photocopy of the terrible note she’d left for him the day Grace died.
“I can explain. It was a mistake. I didn’t write both…”
“I’m not interested in your excuses! I asked you to come to the last appointment, and you didn’t, did you?”
“But you were on the telephone. The door was closed and…”
“The door wasn’t closed!” He tossed something at her that looked like a business card. “I suppose this was meant to be funny too?”
Julia picked up the discarded item and gasped. It was a small condolence card, the kind one would send with flowers:
I’m so sorry for your loss.
Please accept my sympathy.
She glanced over and saw that he was practically spitting he was so angry. She blinked rapidly as she tried to find the words to explain herself.
“It’s not what you think. I wanted to say that I was sorry and…”
“Hadn’t you already done that with the note you left?”
“But this was supposed to be for your family, who…”
“Leave my family out of it!” He turned his body away from her and closed his eyes, removing his glasses so that he could rub his face with both hands.
Julia had been evicted from the realm of the surprised and relocated right into the land of the astonished. No one had explained. He had completely misunderstood her card, and no one had set him straight. With a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach, she began to puzzle over what that meant.
Oblivious to her musings, The Professor appeared to calm himself through a Herculean effort, then closed the file and dropped it contemptuously on his desk. He glared at her.
“I see that you came here on scholarship to study Dante. I’m the only professor in this department who is currently supervising theses in that field. Since this—” he gestured between the two of them “—is not going to work, you’ll have to change your thesis topic and find another supervisor. Or transfer to another department, or better yet, another university. I’ll inform the director of your program of my decision, effective immediately. Now, if you’ll excuse me.”
He swiveled in his chair toward his laptop and began typing furiously.
Julia was stunned. While she was sitting there, silently absorbing not only his tirade but also his conclusion, The Professor spoke, not even bothering to lift his eyes in her direction. “That is all, Miss Mitchell.”
She didn’t argue with him for truly, there was no point. She dragged herself to her feet, still dazed, and picked up her offending knapsack. She cradled it to her chest, somewhat uncertainly, and slowly exited his office, looking very much like a zombie.
As she exited the building and crossed to the other side of Bloor Street, Julia realized that she’d chosen the wrong day to leave home without a jacket. The temperature had dropped, and the heavens had opened. Her thin, long-sleeved T-shirt was soaked only five steps outside of the department. She hadn’t thought to bring an umbrella, so she faced the prospect of walking three long city-blocks in wind and cold and rain to get to her apartment.
Oh, gods of bad karma and thunderstorms, have mercy upon me.
As she walked, Julia took some comfort in the realization that her ridiculous abomination of a knapsack was currently serving the very proper purpose of covering her wet and possibly see-through T-shirt and cotton bra. Take that, Professor Emerson.
As she walked, she contemplated what had just happened in his office. She had prepared herself by packing two suitcases the night before, just in case. But she had sincerely believed that he would remember. She had believed that he would be kind to her. But he wasn’t.
He hadn’t allowed her to explain the colossal fuck-uppery that was the note. He had misunderstood her flowers and card. And he’d effectively dismissed her from the program. It was all over. Now she would have to return to Tom’s little house in Selinsgrove in disgrace…and he would discover that she had returned and laugh at her. They would laugh at her together. Stupid Julia. Thought she’d leave Selinsgrove and try to make something of herself. Thought she could go to graduate school and become a professor…Who was she kidding? It was all over now, at least for this academic year.
Julia looked down at the destroyed and now soaked knapsack as if it were an infant and hugged it tightly to her chest. After her horrid display of gracelessness and ineptitude, she didn’t even have her dignity anymore. And to lose it all in front of him, after all these years, well, it really was too much to bear.
She thought of the lone tampon underneath his desk and knew that when he leaned down to pick up his briefcase at five o’clock her humiliation would be complete. At least she wouldn’t be there to witness his shocked and disgusted reaction. She envisioned him having a cow upon the discovery, literally—lying down on the beautiful Persian rug that graced his office and painfully and loudly giving birth to a calf.
About two blocks from her apartment, Julia’s long, brown hair was plastered to her head in stringy sheets. Her sneakers squished-squashed with every step. Rain poured off of her as if she were beneath a downspout. Cars and buses whooshed by, and she didn’t even bother trying to get out of the way as tidal waves of dirty water crashed over her from the busy street. Like life’s disappointments, she simply accepted it.
At that moment another car approached, this one slowing down appropriately so that she wouldn’t be soaked by its splash. It was a new-looking, black Jaguar.
The Jaguar slowed down even more and came to a stop. As Julia walked by, she saw the passenger door open and a masculine voice called out, “Get in.”
She hesitated; surely the driver wasn’t calling to her. She looked around, but she was the only one foolish enough to be walking in a torrential downpour. Curious, she took a step closer.
She knew better than to get into a car with a stranger, even in a Canadian city. But as she looked into the driver’s seat and saw two piercing blue eyes stare back at her, she walked slowly toward him.
“You’ll catch pneumonia and die. Get in. I’ll drive you home.” His voice was softer now, the fire gone. This was almost the voice that she remembered.
So for the sake of memory and for no other reason, she climbed into the passenger’s seat and pulled the door closed, silently apologizing to the gods of Jaguars for fouling their pristine black leather interior and immaculate car mats.
She paused as the strains of Chopin’s Nocturne 9, Op. No. 2 filled her ears, and she smiled to herself. She had always liked that tune.
She turned to face the driver. “Thank you very much, Professor Emerson.”
Professor Emerson had taken a wrong turn. His life, perhaps, could be described as a series of wrong turns, but this one was entirely accidental. He’d been reading on his iPhone—an angry e-mail from his brother—while he was driving his Jaguar through a thunderstorm in the middle of rush hour in downtown Toronto. Consequently, he turned left rather than right onto Bloor Street from Queen’s Park. This meant that he was headed in the opposite direction of his apartment building.
There was no possibility of a U-turn on Bloor during rush hour, and there was so much traffic he had a difficult time pulling over so that he could make a right and turn around. This was how he came upon a very wet and pathetic-looking Miss Mitchell, walking dejectedly down the street as if she were a homeless person, and how in a fit of guilt he came to invite her into his car, which was his pride and joy.
“I’m sorry I’m ruining your upholstery,” she offered hesitantly.
Professor Emerson’s fingers tightened on the steering wheel. “I have someone who cleans it when it’s soiled.”
Julia bowed her head, for his response hurt. Implicitly, he had compared her to dirt, but of course, that’s what he thought she was now. Dirt beneath his feet.
“Where do you live?” he asked, seeking to engage her in polite and safe conversation for the duration of what he hoped would be a short time together.
“On Madison. It’s just up there on the right.” She pointed some distance in front of them.
“I know where Madison is,” he snapped.
Watching him out of the corner of her eye, Julia cringed toward the passenger window. She slowly turned her head to look outside and drew her lower lip roughly between her teeth.
Professor Emerson cursed under his breath. Even beneath the tangle of wet, dark hair she was pretty—a brown-eyed angel in jeans and sneakers. His mind halted at the inward sound of his description. The term brown-eyed angel seemed oddly familiar, but since he couldn’t think of the source for that reference he put the thought aside.
“What number on Madison?” He softened his voice, so much so that Julia could barely hear him.
He nodded and shortly pulled the car in front of the three-story, red brick house that had been converted into apartments.
“Thank you,” she murmured, and in a flash she dove for the door handle to make her escape.
“Wait,” he commanded, reaching into the backseat to retrieve a large, black umbrella.
She waited and was stunned to see The Professor walk around the car to open the door for her, wait with an open umbrella while she and her abomination exited the Jaguar, and march her up the sidewalk and the front steps of her building.
“Thank you,” she said again as she pulled on her book bag zipper, trying to open it so she could find her keys.
The Professor tried to hide his distaste at the sight of the abomination, but said nothing. He watched as she struggled with the zipper, then watched her face as she grew very red and upset over the fact that the zipper wouldn’t open. He remembered her expression as she knelt on his Persian rug, and it occurred to him that this current trouble was probably his fault.
Without saying a word, he grabbed the book bag out of her hands and shoved the now closed umbrella at her. He ripped open the zipper and held the bag out, inviting her to stick her hand inside to retrieve her keys.
She found the keys, but she was nervous, so she dropped them. When she picked them up her hands were shaking so badly she had troubling locating the correct key on her key ring.
Having lost all patience, The Professor snatched the key ring away from her and began trying keys in the lock. When he’d successfully opened the door, he allowed her to enter before returning her keys.
She took the repellant book bag from him and murmured her thanks.
“I’ll walk you to your apartment,” he announced, following her through the hallway. “A homeless person once accosted me in the lobby of my building. One can’t be too careful.”
Julia silently prayed to the gods of studio apartments, begging them to help her locate her apartment key swiftly. They answered her prayer. As she was about to slip behind the door and close it firmly but not unkindly in his face, she stopped. Then, as if she’d known him for years, she smiled up at him and politely asked if he would like a cup of tea.
Despite being surprised by her invitation, Professor Emerson found himself standing in her apartment before he had the opportunity to consider whether it was a good idea. As he looked around the small and squalid space, he quickly concluded that it wasn’t.
“May I take your coat, Professor?” Julia’s cheerful little voice distracted him.
“Where would you put it?” he sniffed, noticing primly that she did not seem to have a closet or a hall tree near the door.
Her eyes dropped to the floor, and she ducked her head.
The Professor watched her chew her lip nervously and instantly regretted his rudeness.
“Forgive me,” he said, handing her his Burberry trench coat of which he was inordinately proud. “And thank you.”
Julia hung his coat up carefully on a hook that was attached to the back of her door and hastily placed her knapsack on the hardwood. “Come in and be comfortable. I’ll make tea.”
Professor Emerson walked to one of only two chairs in the apartment and sat down, trying for her sake to hide his distaste. The apartment was smaller than his guest bathroom and included a small bed, which was pushed up against a wall, a card table and two chairs, a small Ikea bookshelf, and a chest of drawers. There was a small closet and a bathroom, but no kitchen.
His eyes roamed around the room, looking for evidence of any kind of culinary activity until they finally settled on a microwave and a hot plate that were perched somewhat precariously on top of a dresser. A small refrigerator sat on the floor nearby.
“I have an electric kettle,” Julia said brightly, as if she was announcing the fact that she had a diamond from Tiffany’s.
He noticed the water that was continuing to stream off her, then he began to notice the clothes that were under the water, and then he began to notice what was under her clothes, because it was cold…and he hastily and somewhat huskily suggested that she forego making tea in order to dry herself.
Once again her head tipped down, and she flushed before ducking into the bathroom and grabbing a towel. She emerged a few seconds later with a purple towel wrapped around her upper body over her wet clothes and a second towel in her hand. She moved as if she was going to crawl across the floor to clean up the trail of water she’d scattered from the door to the center of the room, but The Professor stood up and stopped her.
“Allow me,” he said. “You should change into some dry clothes before you catch pneumonia.”
“And die,” she added, more to herself than to him as she disappeared into her closet, trying not to trip over two large suitcases.
The Professor wondered briefly why she hadn’t unpacked yet but dismissed the answer as unimportant.
He frowned as he cleaned the water from the worn and scratched hardwood. When he’d finished, he looked at the walls and noticed that they had probably been white once, but were now a dingy cream color and were blistered and peeling. He inspected the ceiling and found several large water stains and what he thought might be the beginning of mold in one of the corners. He shuddered, wondering why on earth a nice girl like Miss Mitchell would live in such a terrible place. Although he had to admit that the apartment was very clean and quite tidy. Unusually so.
“How much is your rent?” he asked, wincing slightly as he accordioned his six foot two frame in order to perch once again on the vile thing that masqueraded as a folding chair.
“Eight hundred a month, utilities included,” she called to him just before she entered the bathroom.
Professor Emerson thought with some regret of the Armani trousers he had disposed of after the flight back from Pennsylvania. He couldn’t bear the notion of wearing something that had been soaked in urine, even if it had been cleaned, so he’d just thrown them out. But the money Paulina had spent on those trousers would have paid Miss Mitchell’s rent for an entire month. And then some.
Looking around the small studio, it was both painfully and pathetically clear that she had tried to make it into a home, such as it was. A large print of Henry Holiday’s painting, Dante meets Beatrice at Ponte Santa Trinita, hung to the side of her bed. The Professor imagined her reclining on her pillow, her long, shiny hair cascading around her face, gazing over at Dante before she fell asleep. He dutifully put that thought aside and reflected on how strange it was that they both owned that painting. He peered at it and noticed with surprise that Julia bore a remarkable resemblance to Beatrice—a resemblance that had previously gone unnoticed. The thought twisted in his mind like a corkscrew, but he refused to dwell on it.
He noticed other smaller pictures of various Italian scenes on the peeling walls of the apartment: a drawing of the Duomo in Florence, a sketch of St. Mark’s in Venice, a black and white photograph of the dome of St. Peter’s in Rome. He saw a row of potted herbs gracing the window sill along with a single cutting from a philodendron that she was apparently trying to nurse into a full grown plant. He observed that the curtains were pretty—a sheer lilac that matched the bedspread and its cushions. And her bookshelf boasted many volumes in both English and Italian. The Professor scanned the titles quickly and was but mildly impressed with her amateurish collection. But in short, the studio was old, tiny, in poor repair, and kitchen-less, and Professor Emerson would not have permitted his dog to live in a place like this, had he had one.
Julia reappeared in what looked like an exercise uniform—a black hoodie and yoga pants. She’d knotted and twisted her lovely hair and fastened it near the top of her head with a clip of some sort. Even in such casual garb he noticed that she was very attractive—extremely attractive and dare he say it, sylphlike.
“I have English Breakfast or Lady Grey,” she spoke over her shoulder, descending to her hands and knees in order to snake the plug from the electric kettle back to the outlet that was underneath the dresser.
The Professor regarded her as she kneeled, just as she had in his office, and silently shook his head. She was without arrogance or selfish pride, which he knew was a good thing, but it pained him to see her constantly on her knees, although he couldn’t exactly say why.
“English Breakfast. Why do you live here?”
Julia stood up quickly in response to the sharpness of his tone. She kept her back to him as she located a large, brown teapot and two surprisingly beautiful china teacups with matching saucers.
“This is a quiet street in a nice neighborhood. I don’t have a car, and I needed to be able to walk to school.” She paused as she placed a small silver teaspoon on each of the saucers. “This was one of the nicer apartments I looked at in my price range.” She placed the elegant teacups on the card table without looking at him and returned to the dresser.
“Why didn’t you move into the graduate student residence on Charles Street?”
Julia dropped something. The Professor couldn’t see what it was.
“I was expecting to go to a different university, but it didn’t work out. By the time I decided to come here, the residence was full.”
“And where were you going to go?”
She began to worry her lower lip between her teeth, back and forth.
Professor Emerson just about fell off his very uncomfortable chair. “Harvard? What the hell are you doing here?”
Julia smothered a secret smile as if she knew the reason behind his anger. “Toronto is the Harvard of the north.”
“Don’t be coy, Miss Mitchell. I asked you a question.”
“Yes, Professor. And I know that you always expect an answer to your questions.” She arched an eyebrow, and he looked away. “My father couldn’t afford the contribution he was expected to make to my education, so the fellowship they offered me was not enough, and the living expenses were much more in Cambridge than in Toronto. I already have thousands of dollars of student loans from Saint Joseph’s University, so I decided not to add to them. That’s why I’m here.”
She returned to her hands and knees to unplug the now boiling kettle as The Professor shook his head in shock.
“That wasn’t in the file Mrs. Jenkins gave me,” he protested. “You should have said something.”
Julia ignored him and began to measure loose tea into the teapot.
He leaned forward in his chair, gesturing wildly. “This is a terrible place to live—there isn’t even a proper kitchen. What do you eat here?”
She placed the teapot and a small, silver tea strainer on the card table and sat down on the other folding chair. She began to wring her hands.
“I eat lots of vegetables. I can make soup and couscous on the hot plate. Couscous is very nutritious.” Her voice shook a little, but she tried to sound cheerful.
“You can’t live on that kind of rubbish—a dog is better fed!”
Julia ducked her head and blushed deeply, suddenly blinking back tears.
The Professor looked at her for a moment, then finally saw her. As he regarded the tortured expression that marred her lovely features, he slowly began to realize that he, Professor Gabriel O. Emerson, was a self-absorbed bastard. He had shamed her for being poor. But there was no shame in being poor. He had been poor once too, very poor. She was a smart, attractive woman who was also a student. There was no shame in that. But he’d come into her little home that she had tried to make comfortable because she had no other place to go, and he had said it wasn’t fit for a dog. He had made her feel worthless and stupid when she was neither. What would Grace say if she could hear him now?
Professor Emerson was an ass. But at least now he knew it.
“Forgive me,” he began haltingly. “I don’t know what’s gotten into me.” He closed his eyes and began to rub them.
“You’ve just lost your mother.” Julia’s gentle voice was startlingly forgiving.
A switch inside him flipped. “I shouldn’t be here.” He stood up quickly. “I need to go.”
Julia followed him to the front door. She picked up his umbrella and handed him his trench coat. Then she stood with downcast eyes and flaming cheeks, waiting for him to leave. She felt regret for having shown him her home, since it was clearly so far beneath him. Whereas a few hours earlier she had taken pride in her small but clean hobbit hole, now she was mortified. Not to mention the fact that being humiliated again in front of him made matters so much worse.
He nodded at her, or at something, muttered under his breath, and exited her apartment.
Julia leaned her back against the closed door and finally allowed herself to weep.
She knew who it was. She simply didn’t want to answer the door.
Please gods of over-priced, not-fit-for-a-dog hobbit holes, just let him leave me in peace. Julia’s silent and spontaneous prayer went unanswered.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
She quickly wiped her face and opened the door, but only a crack.
He blinked at her like a Christmas tree, somehow having a difficult time registering the fact that she had clearly been crying in between his departure and his return.
She cleared her throat and looked down at his Italian made wing-tipped shoes, which he shuffled slightly.
“When was the last time you had a steak?”
Julia laughed and shook her head. She couldn’t remember.
“Well, you’re going to have one tonight. I’m starving, and you’re joining me for dinner.”
She allowed herself the luxury of a small but wicked smile. “Are you sure, Professor? I thought this—” she mimicked his gesture from earlier “—was not going to work.”
He reddened slightly. “Never mind about that now. Except…” His eyes wandered to her clothes, resting perhaps a little too long on the curves of her lovely breasts.
Julia lowered her gaze. “I could change.”
“That would be best. See that you dress appropriately.”
She looked up at him with a very hurt expression. “I may be poor, but I have a few nice things. None of them are immodest, if you’re worried I might embarrass you by looking cheap.”
The Professor reddened again as he kicked himself, inwardly. “I just meant…appropriate for a restaurant where I will have to wear a jacket and tie.” He hazarded a small smile as a means of apology.
Julia’s eyes traveled over his button down and sweater, perhaps lingering a little too long on the planes of his lovely pectorals. “I’ll agree on one condition.”
“You’re really not in a position to argue.”
“Then good-bye, Professor.”
“Wait.” He stuck his expensive Italian shoe in between the door and the doorjamb, wedging it open. And he didn’t even worry about the scuffs that would result. “Let’s hear it.”
She cocked her head to one side and regarded him mutely before she spoke. “Tell me why, after everything you’ve said to me, I should join you for dinner.”
He looked at her blankly. Then he blushed to the roots of his hair and began to stammer. “I—um…that is, I think…you could say that we…or you…”
Julia lifted a single eyebrow and slowly began to close the door on his foot.
“Wait.” His hand shot out to hold the door and to provide some relief for his now injured right foot. “Because what Paul wrote was correct: Emerson is an ass. But at least now he knows it.”
In that instant she smiled up at him, and he found himself smiling back in spite of himself. She really was very pretty when she smiled. He would have to see to it that she smiled more often, purely for aesthetic reasons.
“I’ll wait for you here.” Not wishing to give her a chance to demur, he reached out and pulled her apartment door closed.
Inside her apartment, Julia closed her eyes and groaned.
Professor Emerson paced the hallway for a few minutes, then leaned up against a wall and scrubbed at his face with his hands. He did not know how he got there or what had propelled him to behave in such a way, but he was about to be caught in a clusterfuck of epic proportions. He’d been unprofessional to Miss Mitchell in his office, perilously close to harassing her verbally. He’d picked her up in his car, without a chaperone, and entered her apartment. All of these behaviors were highly irregular.
If it had been Miss Peterson who he’d picked up, she probably would have leaned over and undone his zipper with her teeth while he was driving. The Professor shuddered at the thought. Now he was about to take Miss Mitchell to dinner, for steak, no less. If that didn’t violate the non-fraternization policy set up by the university, he didn’t know what would.
He took a long and cleansing breath. Miss Mitchell was a Calamity Jane, a vortex of vexation. She’d had a remarkable string of misadventures, starting with her inability to go to Harvard, and things seemed to fall apart in her wake—including his calm and collected disposition. Although he was sorry she was living in deplorable circumstances, he was not going to risk his career to help her. She would be well within her rights to go to the chairman of his department tomorrow and file a harassment complaint against him. He could not let that happen.
He crossed the hall in two long strides and raised his hand to knock on her door. He was going to offer some feeble excuse, which would be better than just disappearing. But he stopped as soon as he heard footsteps from inside.
Miss Mitchell opened her door and stood, eyes downcast, in a simple but elegant V-necked black dress that fell to her knees. The Professor’s eyes raked over her gentle curves and down to her surprisingly long and very shapely legs. And her shoes…she couldn’t have known this, but Professor Emerson had a thing for women in exquisite high-heeled shoes. He swallowed noisily as he took in her breathtaking and obviously designer black stilettos. The Professor wanted to touch them…
“Ahem.” Julia coughed slightly, and he reluctantly dragged his eyes up from her shoes to her face. She was staring at him with an amused expression.
She had pinned her hair up, but several of the curls had escaped and were falling delicately around her face. She wore a little makeup, her porcelain skin pale but luminous, with two delicious swathes of pink on her cheeks. And her eyelashes seemed even darker and longer than he remembered.
Miss Julianne Mitchell was attractive.
She shrugged into a navy blue trench coat and quickly locked her apartment door. The Professor gestured to her to lead the way and followed her mutely through the hall. Once outside the front door, he opened his umbrella and stood somewhat awkwardly.
Julia looked up at him, puzzled.
“It would be easier for me to cover both of us if you took my arm.” He offered her the crook of his left arm, which was holding the umbrella. “If you don’t mind,” he added.
Julia took his arm and looked up at him with a soft expression.
They drove in silence down to the harbor front, a place that Julia had heard of but not yet explored. Before The Professor gave his keys to the restaurant’s valet, he asked Julia to hand him his tie from the glove compartment. She obliged, smiling to herself at the fact that he kept a boxed and immaculate silk tie in his car.
When she moved toward him, he caught a whiff of her scent and closed his eyes, just for a second. “Vanilla,” he murmured.
“What?” she asked, not quite having heard him.
He pulled off his sweater, and she was rewarded momentarily with the sight of his chest and a few curls of dark hair through the open buttons at his neck. Professor Emerson was sexy. He had an attractive face, and Julia believed that underneath his clothes he would be just as attractive. She tried very hard not to think about that too much, for her own sake.
But that didn’t stop her from watching in mute but rapt admiration as he effortlessly tied his tie without a mirror. Alas, the tie was crooked.
“I can’t seem to…I can’t see.” He fussed as he tried to straighten his tie, but to no avail.
“May I?” she offered shyly, not willing to touch him without his consent.
Julia’s deft fingers quickly straightened and smoothed his tie, and she lightly traced the top of his collar back to the nape of his neck, where she tugged the top of the collar down so as to cover the tie at the back. By the time she withdrew her hand, she was breathing rapidly and very red in the face.
The Professor was oblivious to her reaction because he was too busy thinking about the strange familiarity of her fingertips, and wondering why Paulina’s fingers never felt familiar. He removed his jacket from the hanger that hung behind his seat and quickly put it on. Then with a smile and a nod, they exited the car.
Harbour Sixty Steakhouse was a landmark in Toronto, a famous and very expensive restaurant popular with CEOs, politicians, and various other impressive personages. Professor Emerson ate there because their steak was superior to any other he had tried, and he was impatient with mediocrity. So it never occurred to him to take Miss Mitchell anywhere else.
Antonio, the maître d’, greeted him warmly with a firm handshake and a torrent of Italian.
The Professor responded equally warmly, also in Italian.
“And who is the beauty?” Antonio kissed the back of Julia’s hands while he chattered away to her in very descriptive Italian about her eyes, her hair, and her skin.
Julia flushed and thanked him, shyly but determinedly answering him in his own language.
Miss Mitchell had a lovely voice, it was true, but Miss Mitchell speaking Italian was something celestial. Her ruby mouth opening and closing, the delicate way she almost sang the words, her tongue peeking out to wet her lips from time to time…Professor Emerson had to remind himself to close his mouth after it had dropped open.
Antonio was so surprised and pleased at her response that he kissed her cheeks not just once but twice and quickly led them to the back of the restaurant where he provided them with his best and most romantic table for two. The Professor hovered over his chair reluctantly as he realized what Antonio was doing. He’d sat at that table before, not long ago, but with someone else. This was a mistake and one he needed to correct, but just as he cleared his throat to offer a clarification, Antonio asked Julia if she would accept a bottle of a very special vintage from his family’s vineyard in Tuscany.
Julia thanked him profusely, but explained that Il Professore might have other preferences. He sat down quickly, and not wanting to offend, said that he would be delighted with whatever Antonio offered. Antonio beamed and quickly withdrew.
“Since we’re in public, I think it would it be best if you didn’t refer to me as Professor Emerson.”
Julia smiled brightly and nodded.
“So just address me as Mr. Emerson.”
Mr. Emerson was too busy looking at the menu to see the way that Julia’s eyes widened before her gaze fell.
“You have a Tuscan accent,” he remarked absently, still not looking at her.
“How did you come by that?”
“I spent my junior year in Florence.”
“Your Italian is fairly advanced for only a junior year abroad.”
“I began studying it in high school.”
He looked across the small and intimate table and saw that she actively avoided his eyes. She was studying the menu as if it were an exam, worrying her lovely lower lip between her teeth.
“You are invited, Miss Mitchell.”
Her eyes darted to his with a questioning look.
“You are my guest. Order whatever you like, but please order some meat.” He felt the need to add that qualification since the express purpose of their dinner was to provide her with something more fortifying than couscous.
“I don’t know what to choose.”
“I could order for you, if you prefer.”
She nodded and closed her menu, still worrying her lip back and forth.
Antonio returned just then and proudly displayed a bottle of Chianti with a handwritten label. Julia smiled as he opened the bottle and poured a little into her glass.
Mr. Emerson watched, almost breathless, as she swirled the wine in her glass expertly, then lifted it so that she could examine it more closely in the candlelight. She brought the glass to her nose, closed her eyes, and sniffed. Then she placed the glass to her plump lips and tasted the wine, holding it in her mouth for a while before swallowing. She opened her eyes, smiled even more widely, and thanked Antonio for his precious gift.
Antonio beamed, complimented Mr. Emerson on his choice of dining companion a little too enthusiastically, and filled both of their glasses with his favorite wine.
Meanwhile, Mr. Emerson had been adjusting himself under the table because the sight of Miss Mitchell tasting wine was the most erotic thing he’d ever witnessed. She was not merely attractive; she was beautiful, like an angel or a muse. And she wasn’t merely beautiful; she was sensual and hypnotic, but also innocent. Her pretty eyes reflected a depth of feeling and radiant purity that he had never noticed before.
He had to drag his eyes away from her as he adjusted himself once more for good measure, suddenly feeling dirty and more than a little ashamed of the reaction she was eliciting from him. A reaction that he would need to attend to later that evening. When he was alone. And surrounded by the scent of vanilla.
He ordered their meals, making sure that he requested the largest possible portions of filet mignon. When Miss Mitchell protested, he dismissed her concern with a wave of his hand, remarking that she would be able to take her leftovers home with her. If Mr. Emerson had his way, this meal would feed her for a couple of days.
He wondered what she would eat after her leftovers were exhausted but refused to allow himself to dwell on the problem. This was a one-time event, and only because he’d shouted at her and shamed her. After this, things between them would be strictly professional. And she would be left to face future calamities alone.
For her part, Julia was happy to be with him. She wanted to be able to talk to him, to really talk to him, to ask him about his family and the funeral. She wanted to comfort him over the loss of his mother. She wanted to tell him secrets and have him whisper secrets to her in return. But with his eyes determinedly but somewhat distantly fixed on her, she knew she could not have what she wanted. So she smiled and fidgeted with the silverware, hoping that he wouldn’t find her nervousness and its desperate outlets annoying.
“Why did you start studying Italian in high school?”
Julia gasped. Her eyes grew wide, and her beautiful red mouth hung open.
Mr. Emerson’s eyebrows furrowed at her reaction. It was completely out of proportion to his question; he hadn’t asked her for her bra size. His eyes dropped involuntarily to the swell of her breasts and returned to her eyes. He reddened as a number and a cup size miraculously entered his head.
“Um, I became interested in Italian literature. In Dante and Beatrice.” She folded and refolded the linen napkin in her lap, a few loose curls hanging forward around her oval-shaped face.
He thought of the painting in her apartment and her extraordinary resemblance to Beatrice. Once again, the thought twisted in his mind tauntingly, and once again he pushed it aside.
“Those are remarkable interests for a young girl,” he prompted, allowing himself to memorize her beauty.
“I had…a friend who introduced me to them.” She sounded pained and more than a little sad.
He realized he was treading very closely to an old wound, and so he quickly retraced his steps, trying to find more comfortable ground to venture upon.
“Antonio is very taken with you.”
Julia looked up and smiled prettily. “He’s very kind.”
“You blossom under kindness, don’t you? Like a rose.” The words escaped his lips before he had time to consider them, and by the time they were pronounced and Julia had looked at him with no little warmth, it was far too late to retract them.
That did it. Professor Emerson began focusing his attention on his glass of wine; his features clouded, and his demeanor grew very cold. Julia observed the change, but accepted it and made no further attempt at conversation.
Throughout the meal the clearly charmed Antonio spent more time than was necessary at their table, chatting in Italian with the beautiful Julianne and inviting her to join his family at the Italian-Canadian Club for dinner next Sunday. She accepted his invitation graciously and was rewarded later with tiramisu, espresso, biscotti, grappa, and finally, a small chocolate Baci, in leisurely succession. Professor Emerson was not rewarded with these delights, and so he just sat there, brooding, as he watched Miss Mitchell enjoy herself.
By the end of the evening, Antonio had pressed something that resembled a large food hamper into her hands and would not allow her to refuse it. He kissed her cheeks several times after he helped her with her coat, then he begged The Professor to bring her back to them soon and often.
Professor Emerson straightened his shoulders and fixed Antonio with a stony glare. “That isn’t possible.” Turning on his heel, he exited the restaurant, leaving Julia and her heavy food hamper trailing dejectedly behind him.
As he watched the mismatched couple depart, Antonio wondered why The Professor would bring such a lovely creature to a romantic place and sit stoically without speaking to her, looking all the while as if he were in pain.
When they arrived at Miss Mitchell’s apartment, Professor Emerson obligingly opened her door for her and removed the hamper from the backseat of the Jaguar. He peered into it curiously, moving a few things around so he could analyze its contents.
“Wine, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, biscotti, a jar of homemade marinara made by Antonio’s wife, leftovers. You’re going to be very well fed for the next little while.”
“Thanks to you.” Julia smiled, holding her hand out for the hamper.
“This is heavy. I’ll carry it for you.” He escorted her to the front porch of the building and waited while she unlocked the door. Then he handed her the food.
She began to examine her shoes, and her cheeks grew warm as she thought of what she needed to say.
“Thank you, Professor Emerson, for a nice evening. It was really generous of you to…”
“Miss Mitchell,” he interrupted, “let’s not make this more awkward than it already is. I apologize for my…previous rudeness. My only excuse is, ah, reasons of a rather private nature. So let’s just shake hands and move forward.”
He held out his hand, and she took it. He shook her hand, trying very hard not to bruise her, and absolutely ignoring the thrill that coursed through his veins at the feel of her soft and delicate skin against his.
“Good night, Miss Mitchell.”
“Good night, Professor Emerson.”
And with that, she disappeared into her building, leaving The Professor on slightly better terms than she had that afternoon.
An hour or so later, Julia sat on her bed staring at the photograph she always kept under her pillow. She gazed at it for a very long time, trying to decide if she should destroy it, leave it where it always was, or put it away in a drawer. She’d always loved this picture. She loved the smile on his face. It was the most beautiful picture she’d ever seen, but it also hurt her terribly to look at it.
She gazed up at the lovely painting that hung over her bed and fought back tears. She did not know what she had expected from her Dante, but she definitely hadn’t received it. So with the wisdom that comes only from having experienced a broken heart, she resolved to let him go once and for all.
She thought of her now crammed make-shift pantry and the kindness Antonio had shown her. She thought of the voice mails she’d received from Paul, how he had expressed concern at leaving her alone with The Professor and begged her to call him at any hour to tell him she was all right.
She padded over to her dresser, opened the top drawer, and placed the photograph reverently but determinedly at the very back, underneath the sexy underwear that she never wore. And with the contrast between the three men well fixed in her mind, she went back to bed, closed her eyes, and dreamed of a neglected apple orchard.
On Friday, Julia received an official form in her mailbox indicating that Professor Emerson had agreed to be her thesis supervisor. She was staring at the form in amazement, wondering why he had reversed his decision, when Paul came up behind her.
“Ready to go?”
She greeted him with a smile as she placed the form in her crudely mended knapsack. They exited the building and began walking down Bloor Street to the nearest Starbucks, which was only about half a block away.
“I want to ask you about your meeting with Emerson, but before I do that, there’s something I need to tell you.” Paul sounded serious.
Julia looked over at him with an expression that resembled anxiety.
“Don’t be scared, Rabbit. It’s not going to hurt.” He patted her arm. Paul’s heart was almost as big as he was, and so he was very sensitive to the pain of others.
“I know about what happened with our note.”
Julia closed her eyes and cursed. “Paul, I’m so sorry about that. I was going to tell you that I screwed up and wrote on your note, but I didn’t get a chance. I didn’t tell him it was your handwriting.”
Paul pressed his hand against her upper arm to stop her. “I know that. I told him.”
She looked up at him in astonishment. “Why would you do that?”
As he probed the depths of Rabbit’s large brown eyes, he knew, without doubt, that he would do anything to keep someone from hurting her. Even if it meant his academic career. Even if it meant dragging Emerson out behind the Department of Italian Studies and giving him the serious ass kicking that he and his pretentious posterior so richly deserved.
“Mrs. Jenkins told me Emerson was hauling you in, and I figured he was going to chew you out. I found a copy of our note in a pile of photocopying he left for me.” He shrugged. “Occupational hazard of being a research assistant to a total dick.”
Paul tugged Julia slightly to persuade her to keep walking but waited to continue their conversation until he had purchased her a very large sugar-free vanilla latté. Once she’d settled in a purple velvet armchair, like a cat, and he had satisfied himself that she was both warm and comfortable, he turned to her with a sympathetic expression.
“I know it was an accident. You were so shaken up after that first seminar. I should have walked you to his office myself. Honestly, Julia, I’ve never seen him act the way he did that day. He can be kind of uppity and touchy about things, but he’s never been so aggressive with a female student before. It was painful to watch.”
Julia sipped her coffee and waited for him to continue.
“So when I found a copy of our note with the junk he left for me, I knew he was going to rake you over the coals. I found out what time your appointment was and scheduled a meeting with him before it. Then I confessed that I’d written the note. I even lied and tried to say I’d forged your signature as a joke, but he didn’t buy it.”
“You did all that for me?”
Paul smiled and casually flexed his substantial arms. “I was trying to be a human shield. I thought if he shouted at me and got it out of his system, he’d have nothing left for you.” He studied her expression thoughtfully. “But it didn’t work, did it?”
She looked at him in gratitude. “No one has ever done something like that for me before. I really owe you one.”
“Don’t mention it. I only wish he’d taken his anger out on me. What did he say to you?”
She focused all of her attention on her coffee and acted as if she hadn’t heard the question.
“That bad, huh?” Paul rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Well, it must have blown over because he was polite to you in the last seminar.”
Julia snickered. “Sure. But he wouldn’t let me answer any questions, even when I put my hand up. He was too busy letting Christa Peterson do all the talking.”
Paul observed her sudden flash of indignation with amusement. “Don’t worry about her. She’s in for some trouble with Emerson over her dissertation proposal. He doesn’t like the direction she’s taking. He told me.”
“That’s terrible. Does she know?”
He shrugged. “She should be able to figure it out. But who knows? She’s so focused on seducing him that she’s letting her work slide. It’s embarrassing.”
Julia noted all of this and tucked it into her memory for future reference. She sat back in her chair, relaxed, and enjoyed the rest of her afternoon with Paul, who was charming and thoughtful and made her glad she was in Toronto. At five o’clock, her stomach rumbled, and she clutched at it awkwardly.
Paul laughed and smiled in order to ease her embarrassment. She was so cute about everything, including the way her stomach growled. “Do you like Thai food?”
“I do. There was a great place in Philadelphia I used to go to with…” She caught herself before she said his name out loud. That restaurant had been the place she’d always gone with him. She silently wondered if they were going there now, eating at her table, laughing at the menu, mocking her…
Paul cleared his throat to gently bring her back to him.
“Sorry.” She ducked her head and rummaged in her knapsack for nothing in particular.
“There’s a great Thai place down the street. It’s a few blocks away, so it would be a bit of a walk. But the food is really good. If you don’t have plans, let me take you to dinner.”
His nervousness was telegraphed only in the slow and subtle tapping of his right foot, which Julia detected out of the corner of her eye, just visible over the edge of the coffee table. She looked up into his warm, dark eyes and thought briefly about how kindness was worth so much more in the world than passion, and she said yes before she could even contemplate saying no.
He smiled as if her acceptance gave him more than a secret delight, and picked up her knapsack, effortlessly swinging it to his shoulder. “This is too heavy a burden for you.” He said, gazing into her eyes, choosing every word carefully. “Let me carry it for a while.”
Julia smiled at her toes and followed him outside.
Professor Emerson was walking home from work. It was a short walk, although on inclement days and days on which he had evening engagements, he drove.
While he traveled, he thought about the lecture that he was going to deliver at the university, on lust in Dante. Lust was a sin that he found himself thinking of often and with much enjoyment. In fact, the thought of lust and its myriad satisfactions was so tantalizing, Professor Emerson found himself pulling his trench coat closed so the slightly spectacular sight of the front of his trousers would not attract untoward attention.
That’s when he saw her. He stopped, staring across the street at the attractive brunette.
Except she was not alone. Paul was holding her abomination of a book bag and walking with her. They were chatting easily and laughing and strolling dangerously close to one another.
Carrying her books now, are we? How very adolescent of you, Paul.
Professor Emerson watched as the couple’s hands brushed against each other, drawing a small but warm smile from Miss Mitchell. A growl rumbled low in Emerson’s throat, and his lips curled back from his teeth.
What the hell was that? he thought.
Professor Emerson took a moment to collect himself, and as he leaned against the window of the Louis Vuitton boutique, he tried to figure out what the hell had just happened. He was a rational agent. He wore clothes to cover his nakedness, he drove a car, and he ate with a knife and a fork and a linen napkin. He was gainfully employed in a job that required intellectual ability and acuity. He controlled his sexual urges through various civilized means and would never take a woman against her will.
Nevertheless, as he stared at Miss Mitchell and Paul, he realized that he was an animal. Something primitive. Something feral. And something made him want to go over there and rip Paul’s hands from his body and carry Miss Mitchell off. To kiss her senseless, move his lips to her neck, and claim her.
What the fuck?
The thought scared the living hell out of The Professor. In addition to being an ass and a pompous prick, he was a knuckle-dragging, potentially mouth-breathing Neanderthal who felt some proprietary ownership over a younger woman he barely knew and who hated him. Not to mention the fact that she was his student.
He needed to go home, lie down, and breathe until he calmed the fuck down. Then he was going to need something else, something stronger to calm his urges. As Professor Emerson continued his journey home, dragging himself painfully away from the sight of the two young people together, he pulled out his iPhone and quickly pressed a few buttons.
A woman answered on the third ring. “Hello?”
“Hello, it’s me. Can I see you tonight?”
The following Wednesday, Julia was walking out of the department building after Emerson’s seminar when she heard a familiar voice call to her.
“Julia? Julia Mitchell, is that you?”
She whipped around and was drawn into a hug that was so tight she thought she’d choke.
“Rachel,” she managed as she fought for air.
The thin, blond-haired girl squealed loudly and hugged Julia again. “I’ve missed you. I can’t believe it has been so long! What are you doing here?”
“Rachel, I’m so sorry. I’m sorry for everything and for your mom and…everything.”
Two friends were quiet in their shared sorrow and held one another for a long time.
“I’m sorry I missed the funeral. How’s your dad?” Julia asked, wiping away tears.
“He’s lost without her. We all are. He’s on a leave of absence from Susquehanna right now, trying to sort some things out. I’m on leave too, but I had to get away. Why didn’t you tell me you were here?” Rachel reproached her, tearfully.
Julia’s eyes shifted uncomfortably from her friend to Professor Emerson, who had just exited the building and was gaping at her like a codfish.
“I wasn’t sure I’d be staying. The first couple weeks have been really, um, rough.”
Rachel, who by all accounts was very intelligent, noticed the strange and somewhat conflicted energy radiating between her adopted brother and her friend, but for the moment she overlooked it.
“I was just telling Gabriel that I’m going to cook for him tonight. Come home with us.”
Julia’s eyes grew wide and round, and she looked mildly panicked.
Gabriel cleared his throat. “Ah, Rachel, I’m sure Miss Mitchell is busy and has other plans.”
Julia caught his look, pregnant with meaning, and began to nod obediently.
Rachel whirled around. “Miss Mitchell? She was my best friend in high school, and we’ve been friends ever since. Didn’t you know that?” Rachel searched her brother’s eyes and saw nothing, not even a glimmer of recognition. “I forgot that you two never met. Regardless, your attitude is a bit much. Do me a favor and lose the pole from your keister.”
She whirled back around to see Julia swallowing her tongue. Or at least that’s what it looked like she was doing, as she almost turned blue and began to cough.
“We should meet for lunch, instead. I’m sure The Profess—your brother wants you all to himself.” Julia forced a smile, conscious of the fact that Gabriel was staring daggers at her over his sister’s head.
Rachel narrowed her eyes. “He’s Gabriel, Julia. What’s wrong with you two?”
“She’s my student. There are rules.” Gabriel’s tone began to grow increasingly cool and unfriendly.
“She’s my friend, Gabriel. And I say screw the rules!” Rachel looked between her brother and her friend and saw Julia gazing down at her shoes and Gabriel scowling at both of them. “Will someone please tell me what’s going on?”
When neither Julia nor Gabriel replied, Rachel crossed her arms in front of her chest and narrowed her eyes. She considered briefly Julia’s remark about the first weeks of university being rough and came to one swift conclusion.
“Gabriel Owen Emerson, have you been an ass to Julia?”
Julia smothered a laugh, and Gabriel frowned. Despite their collective silence, either reaction would have been enough to tell Rachel that her suspicion was correct.
“Well, I don’t have time for this nonsense. You two will just have to kiss and make up. I’m only here for a week, and I expect to spend lots of time with both of you.” Rachel grabbed each of them by the arm and dragged them toward the Jaguar.
Rachel Clark was nothing like her adopted brother. She was an assistant to the press secretary of the Mayor of Philadelphia, which sounded important but really wasn’t. In fact, the majority of her days were spent either scouring local newspapers for any mention of the mayor or photocopying press releases. On especially auspicious days, she was permitted to update the mayor’s blog. In appearance, Rachel was fine-featured and willowy, with straight, long hair, freckles, and gray eyes. She was also very outgoing, which sometimes exasperated her much older, introverted brother.
Gabriel kept his lips firmly pressed together during the drive to his condo, as the two women chatted in the back seat like a couple of high school girls, giggling and reminiscing. He didn’t relish spending an evening with both of them, but his sister was suffering at the moment, and he wasn’t about to do anything to add to her suffering.
Soon the two-thirds-happy trio was riding the elevator in the Manulife Building, an impressive luxury high-rise on Bloor Street. As they exited the elevator on the top floor, Julia noticed that there were only four doors opening onto the hallway.
Wow. These apartments must be huge.
Once Julia entered the condo and followed Gabriel through the small foyer into the central and open-concept living space, she realized why his sensibilities had been so offended by her studio. His spacious apartment boasted floor-to-ceiling windows, which were hung with dramatic ice-blue silk curtains, facing south to the CN tower and over Lake Ontario. The floors were a rich, dark hardwood, with Persian rugs adorning them, and the walls were light taupe.
His living room furniture looked as if it had been chosen from Restoration Hardware, and ranged from a large chocolate brown leather sofa with nail-head detailing, to two matching leather club chairs, to a red velvet, wing-backed chair that was angled next to the fireplace.
Julia looked at the lovely red chair and its matching ottoman with more than a little envy. It would be the perfect place to sit on a rainy day while sipping a cup of tea and reading a favorite book. Not that she would ever have that opportunity.
The fireplace had a gas insert, and Gabriel had suspended a flat plasma screen television over the mantle as if it were a painting. Various pieces of art, oil paintings, and sculpture adorned the walls and some of the furniture. He had museum quality pieces of Roman glass and Greek pottery interspersed with reproductions of famous sculptures, including the Venus de Milo and Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne. In fact, thought Julia, he had entirely too many sculptures, all of them female nudes.
But there were no personal photographs. Julia considered it a good deal more than strange that there were black and white pictures of Paris, Rome, London, Florence, Venice, and Oxford, but no photos of the Clarks, not even of Grace.
In the next room, near the large and formal dining table, stood an ebony sideboard. Julia took in its richness and expanse appreciatively. It was bare except for a large crystal vase and an ornate silver tray that held various decanters containing amber-colored liquids, an ice chest, and old-fashioned crystal glasses. Silver ice tongs completed the vignette, angled across a stack of small, square white linen napkins with the initials G. O. E. embroidered on them. Julia giggled to herself when she envisioned what those napkins would look like if Gabriel’s last name had been, say, Davidson.
In short, Professor Emerson’s apartment was aesthetically pleasing, tastefully decorated, scrupulously clean, intentionally masculine, and very, very cold. Julia wondered briefly if he ever brought women home to this frigid space, then she tried very hard not to imagine what he would do to them when he brought them here. Perhaps he had a room for such purposes so that they wouldn’t soil his precious things…She ran a hand across the cold, black granite countertop in the kitchen and shivered.
Rachel immediately preheated the oven and washed her hands. “Gabriel, why don’t you give Julia the grand tour while I start dinner.”
Julia clutched her knapsack to her chest, unwilling to put so offensive an item on his furniture. Gabriel took it out of her hands and placed it on the floor under a small table. She smiled at him in appreciation, and he found himself smiling back at her.
He didn’t want to give Miss Mitchell a tour of his condo. And he certainly wasn’t about to show her his bedroom and the black-and-white photos that adorned those walls. But with Rachel there to remind him of his obligations as a (reluctantly) gracious host, he didn’t see a way out of giving a tour of the guest rooms.
So that is how he came to be standing in his study, which had been a third bedroom, but which he had converted into a comfortable working library by installing dark wood bookshelves from floor to ceiling. Julia gaped at all the books—titles new and rare and mostly hard-covered in Italian, Latin, French, English, and German. The room, like the rest of his condo, was intentionally masculine. The same ice-blue curtains, the same dark hardwood, with an antique Persian rug centered in the room.
Gabriel stood behind his ornate and rather large oak desk. “Do you like it?” He gestured to his library.
“Very much,” said Julia. “It’s beautiful.”
She reached out to stroke the velvet of the red wing-back, the mate to the chair she had admired by the fireplace. But she didn’t think he’d like that. Professor Emerson was the sort to object to his things being handled, and so she stopped herself just in time. He’d probably snap at her for soiling it with her grubby little fingers.
“That’s my favorite chair. It’s quite comfortable, if you’d like to try it.”
Julia smiled as if he’d given her a present and eagerly sat in it, pulling her legs under herself and curling up like a kitten.
Gabriel could swear that he heard her purring. He smiled at the sight of her, momentarily relaxed and almost happy over such a trivial event. On a whim, he decided to show her one of his most valuable things.
“Here’s something for you to see.” He waved her over, and she came to stand in front of his desk.
He opened a drawer and withdrew two sets of white cotton gloves.
“Put these on.” He handed her a pair, which she accepted mutely, copying his movements as he pulled them over his long fingers.
“This is one of my most precious possessions,” he explained, withdrawing a large wooden box from a now unlocked drawer. He placed the box on his desk, and for one horrible moment Julia was afraid of what she might find inside.
A shrunken head? Perhaps from a former graduate student?
He opened the box and withdrew what looked like a book. Opening it, it became evident that it was a series of stiff paper sleeves accordioned together, each labeled in Italian. He leafed through it carefully until he found the sleeve he wanted, then he removed something, cradling it in both hands.
Julia gasped at the sight of it.
Gabriel smiled with pride. “Do you recognize it?”
“Of course! But this…this can’t be the original?”
He chuckled softly. “Sadly, no. That would be beyond the reach of my small fortune. The originals date from the fifteenth century. These are reproductions, from the sixteenth century.”
He held in his hand a copy of a famous illustration of Dante and Beatrice and the fixed stars of Paradise, the original having been drawn in pen and ink by Sandro Botticelli. The illustration was about fifteen inches by twenty inches and even though it was only ink on parchment, the detail was breathtaking.
“How did you get this? I didn’t know there were any copies.”
“Not only are they copies, they were probably done by a former student of Botticelli’s. But this set is complete. Botticelli prepared one hundred illustrations of The Divine Comedy, but only ninety-two of them survived. I have the full complement.”
Julia’s eyes grew wide and round, shining in excitement. “You’re kidding.”
Gabriel laughed. “No, I’m not.”
“I went to see the originals when they were on loan to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. The Vatican has eight, I think, and the rest are owned by a museum in Berlin.”
“Quite. I thought you’d appreciate them.”
“But I’ve never seen the remaining eight.”
“No one has. Let me show you.”
Time flew as Gabriel showed Julia his treasures, and she was very quiet in her admiration until Rachel’s voice called to them from the hall.
“Gabriel, get Julia a drink, would you? And stop boring her with your antique crap!”
He rolled his eyes, and Julia giggled.
“How did you get them? Why aren’t they in a museum?” she asked as she watched him store his illustrations in their respective sleeves.
He pressed his lips together. “They aren’t in a museum because I refuse to give them up. And no one knows I have them but my lawyer, my insurance agent, and now you.”
He set his jaw as if he was shutting down all further discussion, so Julia decided not to press him.
It was probable that the illustrations had been stolen from a museum and that Gabriel had purchased them on the black market. That would explain his reticence in revealing their existence to the world. Julia shivered when she realized that she had seen what less than half a dozen people in the world had seen. And they were so breathtakingly beautiful—a true masterpiece.
“Gabriel…” Rachel stood in the doorway, scolding him.
“Fine, fine. What would you like to drink, Miss Mitchell?” They exited the study, and he walked to the wine refrigerator in the kitchen.
She started at the unfamiliar name as it dropped from his lips. Rachel noticed her strange reaction and disappeared into a cabinet searching for her brother’s pots and pans.
“Anything would be fine, thank you Prof—Gabriel.” Julia closed her eyes at the pleasure of finally being able to pronounce his name to him. Then she settled herself on one of the elegant stools at the breakfast bar.
Gabriel removed a bottle of Chianti and set it on the counter. “I’ll let it come up to room temperature,” he explained to no one in particular. He excused himself and disappeared, presumably to change into more casual clothes.
“Julia,” Rachel hissed, putting a pile of vegetables into one side of the double sink. “What’s going on with you and Gabriel?”
“You need to ask him that.”
“I plan on it. But why is he acting so weird? And why didn’t you just tell him who you were?”
Julia looked as if she was about to burst into tears. “I thought he’d remember me. But he doesn’t.” Her voice shook, and she looked down into her lap.
Rachel was puzzled by her friend’s words and by her overly emotional response and immediately flew to her side to press her into a hug. “Don’t you worry. I’m here now, and I’ll straighten him out. He has a heart, somewhere, underneath everything else. I know, I saw it once. Now help me wash some vegetables. The lamb is already in the oven.”
When Gabriel returned, he eagerly opened the wine, smiling to himself wickedly. He was in for a treat, and he knew it. He knew how Julianne looked when she tasted wine, and now he would have a repeat of her erotic performance from the other night. He felt himself twitch more than once in anticipation and wished that he had a video camera secretly placed in his condo somewhere. It would probably be too obvious to pull his camera out and take snapshots of her.
He showed her the bottle first, noting with approval the impressed expression that passed across her face when she read the label. He’d brought this special vintage back from Tuscany, and it would have pained him to waste it on an undiscerning palate. He poured a little into her glass and stood back, watching, and trying very hard not to grin.
Just as before, Julia swirled the wine slowly. She examined it in the halogen light. She closed her eyes and sniffed. Then she wrapped her kissable lips around the rim of the goblet and tasted it slowly, holding the wine in her mouth for a moment or two before swallowing.
Gabriel sighed, watching her as the wine traveled down her long and elegant throat.
When Julia opened her eyes, she saw Gabriel swaying slightly in front of her, his blue eyes darkened, his breath somewhat affected, and the front of his charcoal gray trousers…She frowned at him. Hard. “Are you all right?”
He passed a hand over his eyes and willed himself into submission. “Yes. Sorry.” He poured a large glass for her and one for himself and began to sip it sensuously, watching her intently over the rim of his glass.
“You’re probably starving, Gabriel. I know what a beast you turn into when you’re hungry.” Rachel spoke over her shoulder as she stirred some kind of sauce on the stove.
“What are we having with the lamb?” He was watching Julia like a hawk as she brought her wineglass up to her luscious mouth once again and took a large swallow.
Rachel placed a box on the breakfast bar. “Couscous!”
Julia spat out her wine, drenching Gabriel and his white shirt. In shock at her sudden expectoration, she dropped the wineglass, dousing herself and his hardwood floor in the process. The crystal goblet shattered on impact at the foot of her barstool.
Gabriel began shaking the wine droplets off of his expensive dress shirt and cursed. Loudly. Julia dropped to her knees and swiftly tried to pick up the scattered glass shards with her bare hands.
“Stop,” he said quietly, peering down at her over the edge of the breakfast bar.
Julia continued her desperate mission, tears escaping her eyes.
“Stop,” he said more loudly, walking around the counter.
She transferred some of the glass shards to her other hand and tried picking up the remainder piece by piece, crawling on the floor pathetically like a wounded puppy that was dragging a broken paw.
“Stop! For God’s sake, woman, stop. You’ll shred yourself to ribbons.” Gabriel towered menacingly, his anger descending on her from on high like the wrath of God.
He pulled her to her feet by her shoulders and forced her to dump the glass from her hands into a bowl on the countertop, before guiding her down the hall and into the guest washroom.
“Sit,” he ordered.
Julia sat on the top of the closed toilet and heaved a subdued but shuddering sob.
“Hold out your hands.”
Her hands were stained with red wine and some small trickles of blood. A few crystals of glass sparkled on her palm amongst the cuts. Gabriel cursed a few times and shook his head as he opened the medicine cabinet. “You don’t listen very well, do you?”
Julia blinked at her tears, sorry that she couldn’t wipe them away with her hands.
“And you don’t do what you’re told.” He looked over at her and abruptly stopped.
He didn’t know why he stopped, and if you had asked him why afterward, he would have shrugged and given you no explanation. But once he stopped what he was doing and saw the poor little creature that was huddled in a corner crying, he felt…something. Something other than annoyance or anger or guilt or sexual arousal. He felt compassion for her. And he felt sorry that he’d made her cry.
He leaned over and began to wipe her tears away very tenderly with his fingertips. He noticed the hum that came from her mouth as soon as he touched her, and he noticed once again that her skin felt very familiar. And when he’d wiped away her tears, he cupped her pale face in his hands, tilting her chin upward…then retreated quickly and began cleaning her wounds.
“Thank you,” she murmured, noting the care with which he removed the glass from her hands. He used tweezers, meticulously searching out even the smallest fragment from her skin.
“Don’t mention it.”
When all the glass had been removed, he poured iodine onto some cotton balls.
“This is going to sting.”
He watched as she steeled herself for his touch, and he winced slightly. He did not relish the thought of hurting her. And she was so soft and so fragile. It took him a full minute and a half to work up the courage to put the iodine on her cuts, and all the time she was sitting there, wide-eyed and biting her lip, waiting for him to just do it already.
“There,” he said gruffly, as he wiped away the last of the blood. “You’re all better.”
“I’m sorry I broke your glass. I know it was crystal.” Her soft voice interrupted his reverie as he returned his first-aid implements to the medicine cabinet.
He waved a hand at her. “I have dozens. There’s a crystal shop downstairs. I’ll pick up another if I need it.”
“I’d like to replace it.”
“You couldn’t afford it.” The words escaped his mouth without him realizing it. He watched in horror as Julia’s face first reddened then grew pale. Her head went down, of course, and she started chewing at the inside of her cheek.
“Miss Mitchell, I wouldn’t dream of taking your money. It would violate the rules of hospitality.”
And we couldn’t have that, thought Julia.
“But I’ve stained your shirt. Please let me pay for the dry cleaning.”
Gabriel stared down at his lovely but obviously ruined white shirt and cursed inside his head. He’d liked this shirt. Paulina had bought it for him in London. And there was no way Julia’s spittle mingled with Chianti would ever come out.
“I have several of these as well,” he lied smoothly. “And I’m sure the stains will come out. Rachel will help me.”
Julia raked her upper teeth across her lower lip back and forth and back and forth.
Gabriel saw the movement, and it made him rather queasy, like a kind of seasickness, but her lips were so red and inviting he couldn’t look away. It was a bit like watching a car wreck while standing on the deck of a ship.
He leaned over and patted the back of her hand. “Accidents happen. They’re no one’s fault.” He smiled and was rewarded with a very pretty smile in return as she released her lower lip.
Look at her. She does blossom under kindness. Just like a rose, opening her petals.
“Is she all right?” Rachel asked, suddenly appearing beside them.
Gabriel withdrew his hand quickly and sighed. “Yes. But apparently Julianne hates couscous.” He winked at her slyly and watched as the flush spread from her cheeks and over the surface of her porcelain skin. She truly was a brown-eyed angel.
“That’s fine. I’ll make rice pilaf instead.” Rachel disappeared, and Gabriel followed, leaving Julia to stop her heart from trying to escape out of her chest.
While Rachel packed away the disdained grains into the refrigerator, Gabriel went to his bedroom to change his soiled shirt, depositing it with more than a little regret in the garbage. Then he joined his sister in the kitchen to clean up the broken glass and wine from the floor.
“There are a couple of things I need to tell you about Julia,” she began, speaking over her shoulder.
Gabriel walked the glass shards to the garbage bin. “I’d rather not hear it.”
“What’s wrong with you? She’s my friend, for crying out loud!”
“And she’s my student. I shouldn’t know anything about her personal life. Her friendship with you already presents a conflict of interest that I was unaware of.”
Rachel squared her shoulders and shook her head stubbornly, her gray eyes darkening. “You know what? I don’t care! I love her a lot and Mom did, too. So you remember that the next time you’re tempted to shout at her.
“She’s been broken, you jackass. That’s why she hasn’t kept in touch with me this past year. And now she’s finally crawled out of her shell, a shell I might add, that I thought she would never leave, and you’re forcing her back into it with your…your arrogance and condescension! So drop the Mr. Rochester-Mr. Darcy-Heathcliff British stuck-uppity bullshit and treat her like the treasure she is! Or I’m coming back here and putting a pump in your ass!”
Gabriel straightened his spine and cast her a withering stare. “By ‘pump,’ I take it you’re referring to a lady’s shoe?”
She didn’t back down. Or flinch. In fact, she grew taller. And almost menacing.
“Good. It’s hard for me to believe that you didn’t recognize her name, after all the times I told you about how much she loved Dante. I mean, how many Dante enthusiasts from Selinsgrove do you know?”
He leaned over to her and placed a kiss across her furrowed brow. “Go easy on me, Rach. I try not to think about anything connected with Selinsgrove if I can help it.”
Her anger melted at his words, and she hugged her brother tightly. “I know.”
A few hours and another bottle of expensive Chianti later, Julia stood up to leave. “Thanks for dinner. I should be getting home.”
“We’ll drive you,” Rachel volunteered, disappearing to find her coat.
Gabriel frowned and excused himself to go after her.
“It’s all right. I can walk. It’s not far,” Julia called to the siblings.
“No way. It’s dark out, and I don’t care how safe Toronto is. Besides, it’s raining,” Rachel shouted before finding herself engaged in a heated discussion with Gabriel.
Julia walked toward the door so that she wouldn’t have to hear him say that he didn’t want to drive her home. But the siblings reappeared shortly, and the three of them walked down the hall to the elevator. Just as the elevator was arriving, Rachel’s cell phone rang.
“It’s Aaron.” She hugged Julia tightly. “I’ve been trying to get hold of him all day, and he’s been in meetings. Let’s go to lunch. No need to worry, big brother, I have your spare key!”
Rachel strolled back to the apartment, leaving a scowling Gabriel and an uncomfortable Julia to take the elevator down to the garage.
“Were you ever going to tell me who you are?” His voice was slightly accusing.
Julia shook her head and hugged her ridiculous knapsack more tightly.
He looked at her book bag and decided then and there that it had to go. If he had to see that hideous thing one more time, he was going to lose it. And Paul had touched it, which meant that it was polluted. She’d have to throw it away.
Gabriel led her to his parking space, and she immediately walked to the passenger’s side of the Jaguar.
He pressed a button and the Range Rover next to the Jaguar chirped. “Um, let’s take this one instead. The four-wheel drive is better in the rain. I don’t like taking the Jaguar out in weather like this if I don’t have to.”
Was very disappointed as I thought I was going to be reading a more erotic book. This was more like a harlequin romance.Published 1 day ago by Pam rembaum
I just loved this story. Gabriel and Julia were a shining example of a real life couple. They were so easy to relate to. Every emotion was so beautiful written. Read morePublished 11 days ago by Karine
I have read a lot of 'classic' romance and 'modern' romance. There have been so many novels that inspired sweeping fantasies and naughty daydreams. Read morePublished 18 days ago by Trisza Ray
This book was just OK. I would NOT consider it an "erotic book" or the "perfect antidote for 50 Shades of Grey" ..... this is more of a romance novel. Read morePublished 21 days ago by Silly4Lilly
One of the best contemporary romances I've ever read. The plot and characters had depth, and it was exciting to read. Very seductive, and often funny. Read morePublished 22 days ago by JT
Well, what can I say? I guess this book is exactly what it's supposed to be. It's a good follow up to 50 shades of you went down that dreaded road like me... Read morePublished 1 month ago by Juliana De Carvalho
I don't understand why authors can't finish a story in one book. Why, oh why, does everything have to be a trilogy? Read morePublished 1 month ago by EarthAngel