Galen reluctantly pulled back and ran his hand through the silky strands of her hair, carefully disentangling the now useless rubber band that had bound it into a tail.
A ponytail. Oh, gods, she was so young. Young enough to be his daughter! What the hell had he just done?
“You’re thinking too much.” Her voice was still soft and sweet but the wry humor he’d been so drawn to in class was back, even though her eyes were still closed.
“Lydia—I—this…” He had no earthly idea what to say.
“Don’t. Please don’t ruin this.” Her voice cracked.
Not the tears again. He could handle anything but those. If she cried again, he’d end up taking her home and locking her up in his house where no one else would ever have the chance to hurt her again. And he couldn’t, just couldn’t do that. It wouldn’t be fair to her.
He pulled her to her feet, to stand in the vee between his legs, then he hugged her close to his chest.
“Nothing could ruin this. What just happened will always be one of the most beautiful memories of my life.”
“But?” He could tell by her sigh that she knew what was coming next and was as resigned to it as he was.
“But you know as well as I do that it can’t go any farther and it can never happen again.”
He felt her nod against his shoulder. “I understand.”
“Just so you know…” He had to fight past the lump in his throat to get the rest of the words out. “I want to make it absolutely clear. What I told you about earlier—helping you find a job, an apartment—none of that had anything at all to do with this.”
“I know that.” Her voice hitched but she soldiered on. “And for the record, if I had thought that, even for a second, then it wouldn’t have happened. I was completely willing and participatory. There was no misconduct whatsoever on your part.”
“I see.” He sucked in another deep breath. “Umm, thanks. Okay then.” He patted her back and dropped his hands so she could step away. Neither of them made any attempt at eye contact as they righted their clothing and Lydia combed her fingers through her hair, then put it back in an even sloppier ponytail.
“Right. We forget this ever happened. ” She nodded her head and squared her shoulders before picking her exam paper up off his desk. She unzipped her backpack and shoved it inside. “I’ll have this in your mailbox by tomorrow morning, if that’s all right. I think you trust me not to cheat.” The essays had been open book anyway, so the only thing she could do was add extra time.
He trusted her, more than he had any reason for. Hell, like it mattered. With one word she could destroy his entire career not that he thought she would. “Fine. I’m sure you’ll do a great job.”
“Thanks.” She turned to go, pausing with her hand on the door. “Can I say one more thing, Professor?”
He tried to laugh but the sound was shaky and hoarse. “Go ahead. But given the circumstances, I think I’d feel a whole lot better if you called me Galen while you said it.”
Her answering laugh didn’t sound any too steady either. “Fair enough. Galen then. I just wanted you to know that what just happened—it wasn’t out of the blue. I’m twenty-nine years old, not seventeen. Old enough to know exactly what I’m doing. I’ve been wanting you for a very long time, grown-up to grown-up. So—thank you. It’s nice to know my interest was reciprocated, even if for some reason, you don’t want to continue.”
Fuck! Her words hit him harder than a kick to the gut. “You’re still fifteen years younger than me, and you’ll always be a former student. I just don’t think that’s ethical, do you?” He wasn’t sure who he was trying to convince—him or her.
“It happens all the time.” She shrugged. “I guess it’s a case of wanting the person, the relationship, more than you care what other people think. For me, it would have been worth any gossip. Apparently not for you, and that’s your right. I just don’t want you to feel guilty over a kiss. I sure as hell don’t and won’t. Not unless I’m poaching on someone else’s relationship.”
“I—no.” Galen shook his head. “I haven’t been involved with anyone in years. Please don’t worry on that account.” Her answering smile was thin and marked by lines of fatigue as well as the hurt he’d inflicted. It killed him to know he’d caused her pain, but he had no choice. His morals just weren’t that flexible. If they were, she wouldn’t need an apartment. He’d just have her move in with him.
“Don’t you have a boyfriend?” How could a Gem like Lydia not have a string of young guys lined up and waiting? Was every twenty- or thirty-something on campus a blithering idiot? Lydia stood out in every way—brains, kindness, humor and on top of that, she looked like a centerfold model.
She lifted her chin, finally meeting his gaze with hers. “No. I don’t. I’m completely and utterly single. Why? Because for the last few years, the only man in whom I’ve been interested, is one who thinks it’s a bad idea to be seen with me.”
She fled out the door and slammed it behind her before he could reply.