Lu Danvers smoothed her starched skirts and adjusted the delicate Peter Pan collar that seemed to grow tighter with every breath. Her gaze darted around the front of the administration building. With no one in view, she pulled a pewter hip flask from the red handbag hanging at her elbow. She unscrewed the cap, the scent of whiskey assailing her nostrils before her lips even touched the spout. This was probably a bad idea, but she took a swig anyway, needing the liquid courage to face one of two possibilities: she’d been called to the Dean’s office to be fired— or to receive the promotion she’d been dying to get for years.
She wasn’t sure which was the most terrifying of those prospects.
“A little early for that, isn’t it?”
Lu jumped at the deep voice that rumbled from the side of the building, and turned her head to see a dark-haired man in glasses and expensive-looking striped navy suit moving in her direction.
She wiped her mouth with her fingertips and straightened her spine, affronted that this stranger dared to question her activities.
Even if drinking on campus was frowned upon at anything except sanctioned events.
She narrowed her eyes. “I would have put it in my coffee if I’d had time before I left home. But I needed this more today.”
He waved off the bite in her tone and reached another hand in her direction. “No, no. No objections from me. I won’t tell. If you share a little with me.”
Lu swallowed another drink for good measure before handing the flask over to the attractive stranger and took a deep breath. He was close enough that she caught the hint of spice and grass and sunshine that clung to him. Obviously cologne, as his pale, smooth hands conveyed that he’d likely not worked a hot day in the sun in a long time, if ever.
He flashed a blindingly bright grin. Her belly warmed a little—and not just from the whiskey. Her eyes remained fixed on him as he tilted his head back to drink, exposing the long, tanned column of his neck. His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down as the drink slid down his throat, and still, she stared. Lu had never paid so much attention to a man’s neck before, but couldn’t pull her eyes off of this one.
What the hell was wrong with her?
She was about to receive some life-changing news, and she was thinking about male body parts.
Her face grew hot, for as soon as she thought “body parts,” her eyes skimmed down to his torso, covered in a crisp white shirt and red tie, which ended right above the belt holding up the navy pleated twill trousers that seemed custom made to fit his body.
Metal scraped against metal, and she imagined those trousers sliding down his hips…
“Here. Miss—Here you go.”
The tap on her arm brought her back to the present, as the object of her fantasy stood before her, flask in hand.
Where anyone walking by could see.
She snatched it from his hands. “I—I’ve got to go.”
His mouth opened slightly as his eyebrows shot up. “Alright then. Thanks for the drink, Miss…”
“Lu,” she called over shoulder as she ran up the building steps. “Just Lu.”
“I hope to see you again soon, Lu.” His words trailed off as the heavy doors of the administration building closed behind her. She wanted to see him again, too. A whole lot more of him.
But that was the kind of thing that got her in trouble back home in Holton, a small town outside of Memphis. She’d been bored and had read too much Shakespeare, D.H. Lawrence, and Flaubert and wanted the passion and excitement. While of course like any teen girl in the 1940s, she wanted to be in love. But a raging war and an insatiable curiosity led her to the dance halls where she’d sent more than one soldier off with a special farewell, all by the time she was sixteen years old. And it was fun, until it was not—when she found herself pregnant and facing her parents with the news before she started to show.
She stumbled up the stairs in the impractical, but newly fashionable, stiletto heels she’d donned for her meeting. The memories of her troubled pregnancy, without her mama to comfort her, gave her pause. She’d wiled away the hours at the home for unwed mothers, but because of pain and maybe sadness, she’d spent more time in bed than out. She’d managed to earn her high school equivalency before the baby came. At the first stirrings of labor, she was taken to the hospital and put out. She remembered nothing about the birth, never held her baby. Lu hadn’t ever considered having children before she had one, and even after doing so, still did not want to be a mother. Maybe even more so because of her experience.
After her recovery, she applied to college.
The very same college whose halls she stood within at this very moment.
After nearly of decade of high honors and part-time teaching and loyalty and the blood, sweat, and tears she’d poured into two theater productions annually, she’d earned tenure. And she wanted it more than anything she’d wanted in her twenty-seven years. She wanted to show her family they needn’t be ashamed of her. That she could make them proud.
Lu fiddled in her handbag once more, fished out a pinwheel mint and popped in her mouth, hoping it would cover the tang of whiskey that lingered on her breath. She snapped her bag shut, stood at her full height, spine erect and chin held high.
She opened the door to the dean’s offices with chin held high. His secretary Doris greeted Lu with a warm smile. “Mornin’, beautiful,” she chirped in a sweet, high voice.
Her tone was a little too sweet for Doris’s normally gruff morning demeanor. Lu had known Doris for all her years at Asheville College, and she was never this cheerful at this hour.
Lu narrowed her eyes at her friend. “What’s going on?”
“Oh, nothing, nothing!” Doris waved her hand at Lu, and got up to escort her to the heavy double-doors that signified the entrance to the esteemed dean’s quarters.
“Dorie, what are you doing? I know the way!”
“Oh honey!” The tiny woman threw her arms around Lu’s body, her curly red hair tickling Lu’s nose. Now things were getting weird.
Lu tugged Doris’s arms from around her body and stared down into her face. “Go get yourself some more coffee. You’re not quite yourself this morning.”
Doris nodded, but when she looked up, her eyes shimmered with something that looked like tears. This woman was not a crier. Something was wrong, but Lu would have to ask later what was troubling her friend.
“I need to go.” Lu tipped her head at the doors. “But we can talk when I get out.”
Doris nodded and ran back to her desk, sniffling all the way. The distinctive honk told Lu Doris was blowing her nose. Lu shook her head, and then rapped lightly on the imposing door before her.
Lu took a deep breath and pulled the heavy door open with all her strength. Behind the dark walnut desk sat the dean, white-haired and distinguished still in his tailored suit, even if the buttons of his crisp white shirt strained from the expanding girth of his waistline. He stood up and taking stock of her in her new heels, straightened up so that he could be a little taller. He still fell a couple inches under her chin, if she were gauging correctly across the ten feet of floor space that separated them.
“Miss Danvers, please do come in.”
“Please, call me Lu, Dean Clark. We’ve known each other for years.”
Nearly ten, since Lu had first applied to college and at the behest of one of her tutors from the maternity home, Dean Clark had interviewed Lu in his role in admissions at that time.
“Alright then, Lucinda, sit. Did Doris offer you anything? Coffee, water, tea?”
“Oh no sir, I’m fine.” She patted her pocketbook, wishing for a swig of fortitude from her flask.
Dean Clark took his seat and pulled forward until his soft belly pressed against the edge of the desk. “I know you are wondering why I called you here today. Well, likely not. You applied for tenure to replace Professor Anderson, and I cannot begin to tell you how happy that made me.”
Lu smiled and nodded as her belly flipped and then flopped.
“Of course, we wanted the most qualified person to fill Anderson’s rather impressive shoes. And you have been such an asset to the school. I knew from the moment I met you that you had a certain, what’s that phrase I’m looking for?” He snapped his short fingers. “Je ne sais quoi, as the French say! An exceptional student, you’ve always been, and invaluable as a teacher assistant and now drama instructor.”
Oh goodness, would he just get to it? She wanted to wave her hands for him to hurry up, but kept them primly folded in her lap, as expected.
“And the shows! Your productions are always killer-diller. What is it you’re doing this semester?”
Lu smiled at his attempt to sound modern despite his use of dated slang that went out almost with the end of the war a decade ago. Much Ado About Nothing, sir. One of my favorites. I am so excited to do one of the comedies.”
Dean Clark steepled his fingers and nodded. “Ah, yes. Shakespeare. The Bard. Excellent choice.”
A loud knock on the door startled Lu nearly straight out of her chair.
“Righty, then. Perfect timing!” He grinned broadly at Lu.
Perfect timing? By whom? Why would Dorie interrupt them?
A rush of the outdoors enveloped her; Lu stood and turned to find herself face-to-face with the handsome man from outside, now wearing a stern, formal expression compared to the easy casual smile he’d so easily worn outside.
“Miss Lucinda Danvers, meet Max Fischer, straight to our humble little school direct from Hollywood.”
Lu’s forehead wrinkled, adding to the headache she’d developed from her lack of coffee plus listening to the dean ramble for the last ten minutes. She glanced at Max- who nodded at her, like he’d never seen her before in his life-back to the dean. She shook her head and opened her mouth to speak, but no sound came.
“Oh, I’m sorry Lucinda. You must be confused. Max here is replacing Dr. Anderson. He’s our newest tenured professor. You understand, of course, best person for the job and all.”
Lu dug her fingernails into her palms and bit her tongue.
Dean Clark snapped his fingers again, an old habit of his Lu was now quickly becoming annoyed with. “Right! Max here will also be your co-producer on the play. Should make for an excellent pair, you two!”
Not in this lifetime, if Lu had anything to do with it.