Compliments (10 page)

“Prof. Harrison, I do believe you’re trying to tempt me.”

A coy smile spreads over his face. “Is it working?”

I think about it for a moment. Now that my Outreach presentation is more or less settled into a routine, I suppose spending a few hours in the coming weeks wouldn’t be too much of an inconvenience. Plus, if it also means I don’t have to draw such a big chunk of my next paycheck in an effort to pay Harrison back, and might get a shoe in with an advisor ...

Standing, I push my hand out to him, across the desk. “It is. Yeah, I’ll be happy to.”

His hand feels warm in mine, but dry. Harrison stands and shakes with me before telling me to plan on staying after Wednesday’s class so he can go over the outline of his talk with me. When I leave his office a few minutes later, I’m practically floating down the hallway. I’m thinking how I can’t wait to tell Hawk of my great opportunity when the realization hits me …

I can’t tell Hawk. He’ll be pissed, and I really don’t want him to feel like I’m betraying him. Working with Harrison for a few weeks doesn’t mean much, being that I don’t talk to anyone, and as far as I know, no one else from Manderson will be at the talk to hear my name in the acknowledgement.

I decide in that moment that Hawk doesn’t need to know.

X-6, where X=18

The thing I begin to wonder most is why we even pretend that we’re getting together to study. Hawk tells me that the main part of his nightly duties takes him about three hours, or half of his shift. After that he takes a lunch—which is actually his dinner—spends about another hour performing maintenance, and has the last one to two hours of his shift for studying.

And studying is what he used to do, before me …

Over two weeks, I develop a weekday routine. I slip in a few hours in the afternoon of studying, spending an hour here and there researching slash proofing Harrison’s keynote address. Twice a week, Prof. Ferris sends me to an Outreach appointment in the mornings. Every day, no matter when I’ve arrived on campus, I bike home around five or six to grab dinner and fetch a nap. Hawk texts me when he’s getting toward the end of his janitorial workload and I drive back to campus. We hang out in the shipping-receiving room with our books open, but it doesn’t take long before we end up making out until one of us—usually Hawk—has enough sense to draw back. The custom is both thrilling, and becoming painfully frustrating. Add to it that whenever we’ve met on the weekends it’s always been in public. We both decide keeping our relationship under wraps is best for now. Unlike our first encounter in the café, Hawk now acts the perfect gentlemen in public, not even doing as much as holding my hand. He also refuses to come up to my studio again, saying our first time alone almost got out of control.

For a person who’s always been a control freak all her life, I’m coming dangerously close to losing mine.

On this particular night, we’re both in fine form. His kisses make me dizzy and breathless, and I can tell that even Hawk is having problems simmering back down. The hunger in his eyes when our gazes meet tells me that we might finally be ready to take this to the next step.

I throw my leg over him and bring my mouth down to his, my knee-length white skirt billowing out around me and covering his lap like a blanket. I’m not sure what about Hawk draws me out this way, not that I’ve ever been a wallflower or demure. As Hawk’s hands circle around my hips, he fills his grip with my backside and pulls me forward, his erection grinding against my most sensitive area, barely separated between the linen of his janitor’s uniform and the cotton of my panties.

My breath goes racing out of me. “Oh, wow …”

“My thoughts exactly.”

I both hate and love the way he’s cut off the arms of his jumpsuit. I can see the full definition of Hawk’s biceps as he grips my hips and begins to handle me like a lover. The fear that he’ll stop teases at me, but I’m so wrapped up in the sensations as he pushes against me, his manhood seeking out what nothing more than a few layers of clothing deny, that I can’t bring myself to stop. I realize with a hint of mischievous glee that I’m close to climaxing. The awareness intensifies my pleasure, and I decide I’m not going to draw back this time. I want Hawk to see me fall to pieces in his arms. I’m no longer sated by a few hurried moments by myself before I go to bed, pretending it’s his hands, and not my own, that brings me to perfection.

My first boyfriend used to joke a strong wind could get me off if it was blowing in the right direction. As Hawk gives in to his impulses, he jerks beneath me, and I gasp. It won’t take much more for me to fall over the edge. As selfish as it is, I let Hawk manipulate my frame as though he were already inside me, hoping to find an end.

“You have no idea how much I want you right now.” His hands leave my backside. I see only his blond curls beneath me as I wiggle myself closer. He offers no argument when I knit my fingers on the back of his neck and use the leverage to move myself against him.

“Hawk.” I swallow a mouthful of air and his name in one moment. “I’m …”

His head turns, and with his chin he pushes aside one side of my open, button-down shirt. His teeth find my nipple, biting through and over the silky fabric of my bra. When he nips, he does so with perfectly balanced pressure, causing just the right mix of pleasure and pain to shoot through me. His act pulls the last threads tying me to the Earth, and I feel myself come apart in his arms. My climax is so intense, even I’m surprised by it; likely a release from all of the pressure we’ve built up over the last few weeks. Instinctively, I rock against him and arch my back. He holds me, keeping me from falling to the floor. I manage not to make too much noise, which might draw attention from anyone in the hall on the other side of the doors, though a tickle at the back of my throat is begging me to scream. Both perplexed and in awe, Hawk holds me as I quiver, as the wave of fulfillment first condenses, then confounds me. When it eases and I fall limp against his body, a chill begins to prickle at the flesh of my bare chest. It’s not until I hear him laugh against me that I’m able to push back against the couch and look at him.

“Um, wow. You just ...” He runs his hand through his hair, pulling. “You did, right?”

I feel my cheeks go supernova. I can’t believe what I’m about to say, but there’s not much hope for me to deny it. “I’m … really sensitive.”

“And you came?” he asks again. Hawk’s blue eyes sparkle. “Just like that. Without me even … Without my—”

I press two fingers to his lips and still his words. “Yes, just like that. V
ery
sensitive.”

His plastered grin makes me suddenly feel self-conscious. A laugh tugs at the corners of his mouth as I shift off him and sit back down on the couch, working to button my shirt back up.

“It’s not funny.”

“What? No, Robin, it’s nothing like that.” His hand goes to my chin, directing my eyes back to his. “I was just surprised, is all, and maybe a bit disappointed that it wasn’t my phenomenal kissing skills. But I love that you’re like that. I love that it will be so easy to give you pleasure. It just makes me a little nervous, though.”

“Nervous?” My hands pause on the top button. “Why would it make
you
nervous?”

“Because it makes me want to explore.” Hawk’s eyes turn heavy-lidded as he reaches to run a finger down my arm, staring at my shoulder and drawing a line down to my elbow, leaving a demarcation of gooseflesh. “Now I want to test your limits, so how much I can do to you before I’m even inside you. What’s your tipping point? If I touched just your breasts, would you scream for me? If I brushed a feather over you down there, would you howl? If I dusted your whole body with powdered sugar, then licked it off, would you come?”

It’s the first time he’s said something so sexually charged to me. “You might get an encore just talking that way,” I murmur, hearing my voice waver. I hold back on the temptation to tell him I have a canister of powdered sugar back at my apartment. Instead, my eyes settle on the prominent lap tent he’s still pitching.

As though sensing what I’m thinking, he waves a dismissive hand through the air. “Don’t worry about me, Robin. I don’t expect anything in return.”

“You don’t?” I take a sip from a bottled water I’ve just fished from my bag before pouting. “How disappointing.”

As he sits up, Hawk tries to adjust himself in a way that doesn’t make him look like Michelangelo’s tribute to sanitation engineering. “I want you. You have no idea how much I want you. But I don’t want our first time to be on this couch, like we’re two overly hormone-ridden teenagers making out in my mom’s basement.”

“Maybe out second time then,” I say more to myself that to him.

“I want to make it special for you.” He reaches for my hand and brings it to his lips. “Come over to my place this weekend?”

The bottle stills in my grip and I close my mouth to keep from drowning. His place? The idea fills me with a bubbly effervescence I can hardly believe. How is it that just two months ago, I was determined that I wasn’t even going to date anyone while I was at Manderson, and now I’m bouncing in place at the possibility of making love with Hawk Stephens? Instantly, I remember what happened the last time I got so carried away with my feelings, and I recall with crystal clarity the pain and drama it caused when it abruptly and tragically ended.

I clear my throat and try to sound nonplussed. “Hawk, I like you. I would love to come over, but are you sure? You know that I was resistant to having any sort of relationship to begin with. Not with you, just at all, and I have to know, if we’re going to keep down that path …”

His eyebrow raises and he leans his head down, looking at me with one wide eye. “Miss Lewis, are you asking if my intentions are honorable?”

We both laugh at his poorly executed attempt at a British accent. However, when we stop, I stare at him with an elephant’s weight of sincerity and ask him if he’s looking for a distraction while he awaits his fate, or something else.

Sighing, Hawk sits up. He takes the water bottle from my hand and pulls a long, quenching draw. He’s silent for a moment before speaking, but when he does, it’s with complete genuineness and patience.

“Robin, in two weeks, I’m going to have a hearing that determines if I still have a chance of being a mathematics faculty someday, but that’s not going to change the kind of person I am or whether or not I’ll ever be in front of a classroom. I want to teach, be it at a community school like I do with the Outreach Program, or some backwoods high school, or Yale. I know, though, that when I get reinstated, I have six months, tops, before I’m done and can move away. The only thing that’s kept me from just saying screw it and leaving this place, besides knowing I’m in the right, is that I’ve put in too much too walk away without a fight. I was thrilled that I would only have a few months to go, but suddenly …” He pauses, draws in a deep breath, and runs his hands down his face. “Did you know I’ve been looking at the want ads the last few days?”

Confusion knits my eyebrows together. “Why? Are you going to leave your janitor job?”

“That’s not what I’m getting at.” Turning to me, Hawk reaches out to take my hands in his, drawing them to his lap. “I’m looking for another job around here, because if I do get kicked out for good, I don’t want to leave yet. I want to stay a little longer, Robin, for you. To give us more time to see if we’ve got something here.”

And just like that, the tattered remnants of a heart shattered a year ago meld together into a living, pulsing current of emotion. I lean forward to press Hawk’s lips to mine. The chaste kiss lingers, draws slowly through its due motions. We’re both trembling, and I feel like I should say something in return, but I can’t think what.

Hawk leans his forehead to mine. “So would you consider maybe, possibly, staying over at my place this weekend? I promise it’s not our relationship arriving at someplace, it’s you and me starting off toward someplace together.”

The tide turns, and I know what I need to say. “Absolutely.”

44÷4 +
√4

On Friday morning, when I walk into class, I hand off my last set of notes and references to Prof. Harrison before taking my seat. As another student rambles on for minutes about something, my stomach begins to twist. Harrison sits at his desk, thumbing through the stack of papers as his face screws up in disgust or revolt. I try to remember if there was anything in my findings that should illicit such a reaction, and for the life of me I can’t think of a thing. My insides squirm as class goes on until finally, as he’s wrapping up our session, Prof. Harrison’s eyes drag across the classroom and find my shriveled form in the corner desk.

“Miss Lewis, see me in my office?”

His gaze, full of foreboding, worries me, but I have no reason to say no. In fact, I remind myself, I have no reason to worry at all. I haven’t done anything wrong.

I use the restroom before making my way up the hall. Prof. Harrison invites me in with a quick, “It’s open.” He doesn’t turn to greet me, so I take a seat in the chair across from his desk and wait.

“Sir?” I finally venture after several minutes of my heart racing faster and faster.

“Robin.” He sighs and laces his fingers behind his back, turning to me with a half-smile. “I need to ask you something, and I’d appreciate an honest answer. I want you to know there will be no negative consequences.”

His assurance does little to calm me. “Okay,” I manage to say without sounding too perplexed.

Grabbing the stack of papers from the table, Prof. Harrison turns to the second to last page. “In your notes, you cited an unpublished paper by Prof. Silas Seymour. If it’s unpublished, how are you aware of it?”

The ache begins to ease. “Oh, that! Prof. Seymour sent me a copy of his first draft more than a year ago. He decided to hold off publishing until he had some additional data to back up his findings. But don’t worry, I gave him a quick call to make sure it was okay I cited it. Besides, he told me that it’s been accepted now and will appear in print in March.”

If I expected the suspicion etched into his features to ease, I’m severely disappointed. “I’ve met Silas Seymour. Not the most approachable man in the world.”

“He was a friend of a …
friend.

Which sounds a lot more respectable than the truth. Not that it’s a lie, but it’s a better response than,
My boyfriend-slash-professor, Matthias Gnomon, that is. Who? Matthias Gnomon. Yeah, you might not know him because he’s a pretty young faculty, but he’s brilliant and really good in bed. FYI: I was screwing him for four months in secret, all while I was a teacher’s assistant for his class.  Yeah, turns out he and Si went to Princeton together and were kind of roommates and all. Then one weekend when Matthias and I were, you know,
together
, Si dropped in unexpectedly. Kept our secret, though. Stand up guy.

Prof. Harrison only unwinds one notch. “If I gave Silas Seymour a call, he’d back you up on that?”

“Yes, sir.” My words come out a little sharper than I meant them to, but I almost feel like he’s trying to force me in to a defensive position. Luckily, there’s also enough confidence in my reassurance that Prof. Harrison accepts it. I watch his stress deflate as he melts into his chair, pinching the bridge of his nose.

“Thank goodness, for a moment there I thought history was repeating itself.”

“Sir?”

Prof. Harrison leans forward and takes my notes in his hand from where they sit on his desk. “Nothing, Robin. Just, you did a really good job. That Seymour reference is ideal. It supports my theory in perfect harmony. Of course, I won’t mention the paper in public, but it’s just good to know this research line is well-substantiated.”

“Happy to help, Professor. If there’s nothing else …” I rise to leave, but he motions for me to remain seated.

“No, wait. I wanted to let you know, I’ve spoken to Lamertus about you. Told him that you’ve shown a strong foundation and he’d be wise to offer you a place in his group.”

My smile feels too big for my face. “Prof. Harrison, thank you. I—”

“But,” he holds up his hands and my gratitude, “he does have one concern about you.”

Just as quickly as I inflated with joy, I fizzle with frustration. “What’s that?”

“You’ve never had a professional credit,” he says. “You’ve gotten a few awards, and your recommendation letters from your faculty at Colorado were some of the greatest we received last year. However, they were just strong enough to make up for the fact that you barely passed any of your courses during your last year of undergraduate work. He wants to see work you’ve contributed to, accepted work in a journal or at a conference to prove you’re on track and can perform at a level he expects of his researchers.”

“How am I supposed to do that?” I ask. “It’s not like I can write, vet, and publish a paper by the end of the term, and that’s assuming it was even accepted. It takes months for that process to run its course.”

“True.” Harrison folds his hands into his lap. “What if you were given a contributor credit in the proceedings of a conference? Say, if you were listed as coauthor in the print version of a keynote address?”

The idea seems so ludicrous that for a moment I can’t imagine what he’s talking about. Then I remember that each major conference produces an archival record of all the talks presented at it for posterity. The volumes, called proceedings, are published just like a journal or book would be. Appearing in one, then, counts as a publishing credit.

When clarity hits and I realize what he’s suggesting, I find myself coughing a laugh.

“I hardly contributed to your keynote, Professor. I just proofed it and did a little vetting.”

“I wouldn’t say that, exactly, Miss Lewis. I’ve made several modifications based on your suggestions, some of them more than minor.”

“Yeah, but what you’re suggesting …” I search for an excuse. “Besides, it takes a few months for the proceedings to be published. By then, it would be too late for me to be able to show him anything to prove such a credit.”

Harrison spreads his fingers over his chest, mocking indignation. “You don’t think he’d take a colleague’s word for it?”

I hadn’t thought about that. For some reason, I always see the faculty as an island unto themselves, forgetting that they’re colleagues, and some of them even friends.

“I wouldn’t feel right about it. There’s other students that work much harder than me, students in your own group …” As I trail off, I sense that Harrison picks up on the softening in my voice suggesting my resolve on the matter is weakening.

“I want you to understand, I can’t guarantee the plan will work,” he says, “but I do think there’s a way we can make it almost foolproof. Prof. Lamertus will be at the conference, as I’ve mentioned before. If you were to come and be seen there, I could even intervene to get you two talking at some point. It would be up to you to pour on the charm and win him over.”

“The conference is
this
weekend.”

When I’m supposed to be with Hawk. At his house. Doing anything but math.

Well, maybe cross-multiplication …

Harrison considers this latest retort with only a moment of sincerity. “It’s short notice, but I’ll have the departmental secretary handle the particulars. We’ll reimburse your travel expenses. The department provides me a small budget each year to fund student travel such as this. Robin,” he slows the tempo of his conversation, “you’re under no obligation to come. I only thought this would be too good of an opportunity for you to pass up. However, if you want to take the chance that Prof. Lamertus will overlook what he sees as your one major shortcoming, then—”

“No!” I blurt out my reply so loudly, Harrison winces. “I mean, yes. I would love to come. Thank you. Thank you, Professor.”

Half of me hopes my call goes through to voicemail. As I hear the electronic trill on the other side of the phone line, I feel the lurch in my stomach shift and grow. On the third tone, I breathe out a sigh of relief that Hawk’s not going to answer, but then a click comes across the line and I hear his velvet voice.

“Hey, beautiful.”

“Hey.” I swallow, both my fear, and literally. “So, about this weekend …”

I hear a stack of papers in the background as he shuffles them. “I still haven’t given you my address, have I? I’ll text it over in a few minutes, or if you want me to email—”

“I can’t come.”

There’s a silence that slices my guilt into bite-sized pieces and arranges them on a serving tray. There’s a moment of torment before he finally speaks. “What?”

“I can’t come,” I repeat, and then feel my mouth go out of control. “This thing about finding an advisor is so stressful, and I’m running out of time. Most of the other people admitted to the department this term have already found placements. I’m running out of time and … I’m really, really sorry. I feel terrible about it, but I promise I’ll …”

“Robin, it’s okay,” he assures me, but I can still hear the disappointment in his voice. “Remember, I’m a student, too. I know how things go. If you can’t come, we can just do it the next weekend. I mean, as long as you haven’t changed your mind about spending the weekend with me. You know you wouldn’t need to come up with an excuse, if that’s the case, right? As much as I want you, I don’t want to rush you. If you need more time before we do … that …”

I’m so relieved to hear his compassion and understanding that I let the whole truth out before I realize. “Don’t be silly, I haven’t changed my mind about you. It’s just, at the last minute Harrison invited me to come to a conference this weekend where Lamertus is also going to be. This way, I can impress him when Harrison thanks me in his speech for all of the fact checking and vetting I did the last few weeks. I really did want to spend the weekend with you, and yes, we can do next weekend, right?”

Hawk boils down everything I’ve just said into one strained response. “Harrison?”

I gulp, remembering the history between them, and suddenly feel like somehow I’ve betrayed his trust. Which, I remind myself, I haven’t. Unlike Harrison himself, Hawk has never entrusted anything to me about the run-in the two of them had. I feel myself bristle and my voice takes on an edge of vigor. “Yes, Prof. Harrison. Is there a problem with that?”

“Yes there’s a problem with that. The guy’s a bastard and I don’t want you anywhere near him. I know you have to take his class, so I can’t expect you to stay completely away from him, but I … Wait, did you just say you’ve been working for him?”

“When I tried to pay him back for getting my car out of hock, he offered to let me pay him back by editing and vetting the points of his keynote address for a conference in Miller’s Valley.”

“Oh, I see.” I can’t ignore the venom in Hawk’s tone. “So you’ve been keeping this from me. And just where was this work going on? Please tell me that you haven’t been alone with him.”

“As a matter of fact, I have. Several times, in his office.” I find myself returning his poisoned pitch tit for tat. “What are you getting at? Do you think I’m doing something inappropriate, like trying to grab an advisor with my body?”

“What? No! I don’t think that at—”

“Or are you angry because your run in with him is the reason you’re suspended, and now he’s taking a shine to me?”

I only see the last statement for the ‘waving the red flag in front of the bull’ idiocy it is in hindsight. When Hawk speaks again, I can practically see him gnashing his teeth in my mind’s eye.

“You have no idea what really happened. Don’t talk out your ass, Lewis.”

“Tell me what really happened then,” I dare him. “You’ve been dancing around what your problem is with Harrison every time I mention his name. Is it true you hit him?”

“Yes, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat. I
will
do it again, if it comes down to it. Robin, listen to me, I forbid you to go to that conference with him. You hear me? You’re
not
allowed.”

Red flashes behind my eyelids as I try not to hit the wall. I don’t understand how this boy … this
man
who I’ve been growing close to and who has shown me nothing except respect for weeks, can turn on a dime like this and become some caveman, dominating pig.

“Excuse me? What makes you think you have any right to tell me with whom I’m allowed to do anything?”

“I’m a person who cares about you and doesn’t want you put in a dangerous situation.”

“And, pray tell, what danger is he to me? Look, Hawk, the guy went out of his way to drive me into a dangerous part of town and make sure I got my car back. He even paid for it. Then he respected me enough to let me work back that money so I could keep my pride. Yeah, he sounds like a real jerk.”

“He … Oh, God, will you please just trust me on this.”

“Not unless you can tell me definitively what happened. Tell me, Hawk. Tell me what in the Hell is so terrible about Harrison.”

Every silent moment is a condemnation not of the professor, but of the man I’ve been dating. I hear Hawk exhale his frustration, and in my mind’s eye I can see the tightness of his jaw, the steeliness of his eyes. “I wish to hell I could, but I can’t risk getting permanently expelled for something as flimsy as a technicality.” His voice shifts and becomes pleading. “Robin, please … I know this is a great opportunity for you to impress Lamertus, but don’t go. There’s got to be another way.”

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