Crap! Being alone with Galen Forsythe in his small, cozy office was something Lydia had hoped to avoid. Her defenses were so low she wasn’t sure she could keep up the pretense of indifference she’d so carefully cultivated. She was humiliated enough that her brain had flat-lined during the exam. She didn’t need him to know that the mere sight of him made her want him. He was so bloody handsome with his golden brown hair just starting to go silver at the temples and his piercing blue eyes. He was tall, with the build of someone who’d played football in high school or even college and who’d worked hard to stay in shape ever since.
And oh, gods, his scent! She walked beside him down the hallway and up the stairs to his office trying not to notice the aroma of male musk and sandalwood. She’d never figured out if it was soap or shampoo or cologne but the fragrance of sandalwood clung to the man more consistently than even his favorite camel-hair blazer. And that fit like it was custom-made.
It didn’t surprise Lydia that he was courteous. The few times she’d met with him outside class he’d always been unfailingly polite. He stepped ahead to open doors and when they reached his office, a comfortable space jumbled with books and antiques and reproductions, he held a chair for her and offered her a bottle of water from a small fridge near his desk. Lydia accepted, just to give her hands something to do. He took one for himself, then sat down as well, the broad cluttered expanse of his desk providing a welcome barrier between the two of them. It was warmer in here and he shrugged out of his blazer. Lydia tried not to notice just how perfectly his pale blue broadcloth shirt hugged his well-muscled chest.
It was so embarrassing to have such a massive crush on her professor, especially one that had outlasted early hero worship and turned into a raging case of lust that three years had done nothing to dissipate. He didn’t wear a wedding ring but that was the extent of her knowledge about his personal life. He was such an old-school gentleman that she knew he would never remotely consider a relationship with a student, even if he was unattached. So she gritted her teeth and squeezed her thighs together, hoping she wouldn’t leave a damp spot on her chair.
“So what happened today, Ms. Curry? I know you have a firm grasp of the material that was on the exam.” Back to last names, she noticed. Today in the classroom had been the first time he’d called her Lydia and it had sounded sinfully good spoken in his rich deep voice.
“I’m sorry, Professor,” she repeated. “I know it’s no excuse but the last twenty-four hours have been kind of—difficult.”
“Ms. Curry—” He broke off, slammed his bottle of water down and stood. He rounded the desk and sat down on the edge right next to where Lydia was sitting. “Lydia.” His voice had gentled this time. “Is there something I can help you with?”
His kindness was the final straw and the tears she’d been holding in finally burst free and started rolling down her cheeks. She spared a moment to be glad she wasn’t wearing any makeup to smear. At this point she’d gladly take any small mercies she was granted.
“Please don’t.” His words were practically a groan. She buried her face in her hands and tried to stop. She held her breath, forcing the sobs to quiet down, until she couldn’t hold it anymore and the sobs burst through with a noisy gasp. Her mortification only made things that much worse. She’d spent three years trying to convince this man she was intelligent and professional and here she went acting like the frivolous twit he’d so obviously thought her from the very beginning.
But then the strangest thing happened. He slid along his desk until his knee was right alongside the arm of her chair. Then he reached out and awkwardly patted her shoulder. “Tell me what’s happened.” His other hand rummaged in his pocket, emerging with a clean oversized handkerchief which he thrust into her lap.
“I’m so—so s-s-sorry,” she managed to get out between sobs. “It’s okay if you j-j-just give me the—the z-z-zero. R-really.”
“I’m not going to fail you, Lydia. Not unless you don’t tell me what has you so upset.” His hand on her shoulder began to rub gently. “Is someone ill? Injured? You’re not—sick—or anything? Are you?” He sounded so horrified by that last possibility that she had to laugh. Except it came out as a hiccup instead.
“N-no,” she hastened to assure him. “N-n-nothing like that. J-just homeless and j-j-jobless at the m-moment. Th-that’s all.” Saying the words induced another round of sobs and somehow she found herself gathered close to his warm, broad chest.
“Don’t cry, sweetheart. Jobs can be found and so can apartments. It’ll be okay. You’ll see.”
She nodded. Her logical self knew that. She wasn’t even truly worried about it. It was just that the shock of being evicted and fired in the same twenty-four hour period as her finals had all been a bit more than she could handle. She burrowed into his shoulder and slid her arms around his waist, grateful for the simple human comfort of touch. Since her parents had died when she was twelve and her grandmother when she was twenty, physical comfort had become a very rare luxury in her life.
He held her, stroking her back and murmuring words of comfort until her crying stopped and her breathing went back to normal. When she settled against his chest with a sigh, he gave her a brief squeeze then used one long finger to tip her chin up so she was looking at him. “Okay now. Tell me what happened.”
She nodded, forcing herself to look away from his intense ice-blue gaze. A girl could drown in those eyes and smile while she was doing it.
“You know I finished my doctorate today. I did my dissertation defense last month. Your class and one in the English department were my last two hurdles before being completely done. I’ve applied for teaching positions all over the place but nothing has come through yet. Apparently brand new English PhDs are a dime a dozen at the moment.”