I could easily forgive his pride, if he had not mortified mine.
Shelby Roswell rooted through her purse for the third time, tossing receipts and gum wrappers onto the cluttered desk. Those keys had been right in her hand a few minutes ago.
Squeezing her eyes shut, she sped through her morning in her mind, from unlocking her office until she arrived at her Introduction to the Civil War class. An image flashed through her mind—she’d dropped the keys onto the ledge of the old oak podium. Bingo!
Office hours didn’t end for thirty minutes, but she’d just slip out. Hardly anybody came to visit this early in the term, anyway. She thought of how different it would look in another two months, when a line of students would be eager to haggle over their papers’ grades.
The phone rang, a harsh trill that she could hear even when she was in the main office down the hall. Shelby puffed out an impatient breath and snatched the old black receiver.
“Shelby, it’s Daddy,” Phillip Roswell’s familiar drawl sounded in her ear.
She loved how he called her office phone but never her cell. He didn’t trust anything that tiny to work right.
“Your mama wanted me to remind you to come early weekend after next. She wants to introduce you around before the party.”
“Hope springs eternal,” Shelby muttered.
“Now, now. Just think how bored she’ll be after she gets you married off.”
“So, I’m her hobby?” she asked, laughing. Only he could make her see the humor in being considered a spinster at age twenty-nine. Shelby’s mother spent more time trying to find her eldest daughter a husband than all the other mothers of Flea Bite Creek did for their daughters, combined.
“Now you got it. And I wanted to know how the new addition was working out,” her daddy said, a smile in his voice.
She could just see her father, probably sitting in his study, feet propped on the corner of the antique desk, morning sun filtering through the diamond-cut windowpanes. He rarely left that room now that he was retired.
“Haven’t seen hide nor hair. I heard they gave him an enormous office over in Agate Hall.” She fiddled with a ballpoint pen, beating a staccato rhythm against her desk calendar. “And there was such demand for his classes that he’s using a lecture hall to fit in the hundred or so who signed up.” It galled her to admit that last bit. She was thankful to get the thirty or so kids she did.
“Well, as long as he stays out of your way, I won’t have to come up there and have words with him.”
Shelby snorted, imagining her mild-mannered Southern daddy having “words” with anybody. As the gentleman lawyer son of a gentleman lawyer, he didn’t often resort to arguing. Power spoke for itself.
“I’m sure he will. He’s far too important to deal with me. They’ve already had two receptions this week so people could meet him.”
“Did you go?”
“Daddy, how could I sit there, smiling and playing nice? The review he did of my book was so mean, so low . . .” Her voice trailed off as she struggled to put into words what they both knew. It had not simply been a bad review. It had been a literary lynching in a national magazine.
“Why don’t you have Arlen Beasley review it?”
Shelby sighed. An old family friend, Arlen would have nothing but good things to say. But no one would care to hear them either, since he was almost completely unknown.
“It’s done. Ransom Fielding wrote the definitive series on the history of the Civil War. And the review came out in NewsWorld.” She bit her lip and doodled in the margins of her calendar. Everything had been going so well. Her membership in the Southern Historical Society was almost assured, and she had nearly finished a groundbreaking article. But she had to bounce back from this catastrophe somehow. Her tenure application depended on it.
“No matter how many times I say that his criticisms weren’t valid, nobody seems to listen. He didn’t even have a problem with the work, just the way I wrote it.”
“Why is he there teaching a college course if he’s a writer?”
“Well, he holds a position up at Yale, so he definitely can teach a course. I know Finch was thrilled to have him join our department even for a year.” Shelby nibbled her nail, a nervous habit she’d had since childhood.
“He should be thrilled to have you, brilliant girl,” her father growled.
“You’re like my own cheering squad. But I’d better get off the phone and go find my keys.”
“Again? You remind me of your mother’s aunt Kitty. She got so bad we had to hire a minder so she wouldn’t set the house on fire.”
“I don’t think I’m that bad yet. But I could do with an assistant.” Shelby eyed the teetering pile of research papers on her desk. Her housemate, Rebecca, liked to say Shelby used the EAS filing system: Every Available Surface.
“For Christmas, then. No more old books, just someone to keep your keys from walking off,” he promised before hanging up.
Shelby sighed, wishing her Christmas present included going back in time and muzzling a man who seemed hell-bent on ruining her career.
After taking the stairs at a quick clip, Shelby was halfway down the first-floor hallway when she heard a voice drifting from the open classroom door.
“I understand we all want to be comfortable, but—”
The hallway echoed with the deep, unfamiliar voice. Shelby involuntarily slowed her steps.
“—even here, there must be a certain level of—”
The door was fully open, and as she came closer, Shelby could see the students packed solidly in the tiered lecture hall, every one of them riveted. A feeling of foreboding crept up her spine as she inched forward, her eyes finally confirming what her instincts told her: Ransom Fielding stood at the front of the room, and he seemed different from the man she’d glimpsed last week, striding across campus.
He was tall, but not gangly, with broad shoulders. His suit was well made, much better than what an average professor would wear, and he carried it with style. An almost too-handsome face was saved by severe brows, and his blue eyes flashed as he spoke. His intensity seemed to ripple outward.
“—the second day of class and there are still those of you who insist on disregarding my guidelines concerning classroom behavior.”
The students seemed on the younger end of the undergraduate spectrum. Most of the girls were clustered down in the front three rows. The room was packed—nothing like the few rows she had filled earlier.
“—there in the red baseball cap, turned backward. Yes, you.”
A kid halfway up the room paused midbite. He had a bag of chips and an orange sports drink on his desk, his notebook not yet opened, one foot propped on the back of the seat in front of him. He slowly swallowed.
“Come here and bring your food. No, just your food, not your books.”
The student was somewhat lanky, and it seemed to Shelby that it took ages for him to get his foot down, gather his things and wander down the steps to the front. He stood to the side of the podium, shifting his weight nervously.
“Tanner Keene,” the boy said softly. He smiled tentatively and looked out at the class. There wasn’t the slightest rustle of movement. No one stirred.
“Well, Mr. Keene, did you bother to read my class notes before this course began?”
The silence in the room was absolute. The boy cleared his throat. “I read a little of it, Professor Fielding. Your office hours, I think.”
“Ah, yes, office hours. Very handy to know for the day you will come to argue about the low grade on your midterm paper.”
There was a soft giggle from somewhere near the front. Shelby’s stomach churned. This man was like a grade-school bully, obviously enjoying himself.
“Did you read where I specifically state there will be no eating or drinking in my class? Because, Mr. Keene, it’s inconsiderate and distracting to other students, and to myself. More than that, it is impolite.”
These last words were spoken so clearly that Shelby flinched.
“I’m sorry, sir. I can throw it away.” The boy moved to toss the little bag and the drink into the trash near the door.
“No, you won’t throw it away. I think you should finish your snack. We will wait for you. All of us.”
Shelby felt Fielding’s words drop one by one into the room like pieces of ice down her back. The boy gaped at him.
“Go on. We’re waiting.”
As Fielding spoke, the words stopped making any sense, and all Shelby could think of was that review he’d written. Did he think humiliating people was funny?
Slowly, Tanner opened the little cellophane sack and withdrew a chip. He put it into his mouth and chewed, glancing up at the other students. Every crunch was magnified by the utter silence.
Shelby’s eyes swept around the room. The students were riveted, most with fear, some with amusement. As Tanner chewed and swallowed, he again brought out another chip from the crackling cellophane bag. A few giggles sounded from the front rows.
Something stirred in Shelby, deep down where the words Fielding had written about her book had taken on a life of their own. Just as a blind hog finds an acorn every now and then, so this author stumbles on a startling insight or two. The challenge is to find them in the fifty-six murky chapters that should have been cut to ten.
It hadn’t helped that she had never been considered willowy. Well, not never. One year in grade school she had been skinny, knock-kneed, with front teeth too big for her face. Since then, she’d grown some serious curves. Her friends assured her that curves were better than looking like a marathon runner, but Shelby still secretly wished God had gifted her with a lean athlete’s body.
She moved to the door and knocked softly.
“—what we will do is—yes?” Powerful shoulders straightened with a jerk as she pushed open the door. His bright blue eyes widened, then narrowed.
“Excuse me, Professor Fielding. I believe I left my keys on the podium.” Shelby strode forward and peered at the ledge of the wooden stand. “Yes, here they are.”
There was the faintest waft of a woodsy smell as she reached under his arm. He was tall enough that she could grab her keys without having to bend too far. She glanced up at Fielding’s face. His dark brows were drawn together. A thrill went through her that was only partly anger. He opened his mouth to speak, but Shelby turned away and stopped near the guilty student at the door.
“Oh, those look tasty! May I?” Without waiting for an answer she reached into the bag and grabbed a handful. Only a few were left, and Shelby managed to put them in her mouth all at once. She chewed thoughtfully, ignoring the sudden rustles and laughter from the students. A few crumbs fell from her lips and she brushed them from the front of her white shirt. The boy in the backward cap stood perfectly still, brown eyes wide, holding the empty bag in one hand and the drink in the other.
“These are so salty. Do you mind?” Shelby hated drinking after anyone else. Her sisters used to tease her that she would die of thirst in the desert rather than share a glass. But a fury was burning inside, and she wanted the bully to know that he would not win. Not here, not today.
She grabbed the sports drink and drank deeply, chugging the contents of the half-full bottle. Peering into the bottom, she exclaimed, “Well, looks like that’s finished.”
She turned to leave, chuckles turning to laughter all around her, but paused midstep. On the board Fielding had written:
General Beverly crosses the Ranawah Mountains after his hometown of Oxford is threatened.
She read it twice, just to be sure. Had the country’s most lauded Civil War scholar really made such a glaring mistake? Yes, he’d not only made it, he was teaching it.
“Oh, and by the way, Beverly was from Flea Bite Creek, not Oxford,” she said in a clear voice. “I covered him in chapter three of my book about the Civil War battles in this area. I can loan you a copy if you’d like to read it.”
Ransom Fielding had not moved. A muscle jumped in his jaw and the tendons on his large hands stood out where he gripped the podium. He seemed incapable of speech, but if he could speak, she had no doubt what he would say.
With a nod, Shelby strode toward the door. The last thing she saw as she walked through the doorway, amid another wave of raucous laughter from the students, was Mr. Finch, the head of her department. His balding head was a shade deeper red than his face, which bore an expression of deep disapproval. His knobbed hands were splayed flat on the desk, his entire posture one of shocked fury.
And to his right was Mrs. Greathouse, the head of the Southern Historical Society, who was currently reviewing Shelby’s application for membership. A membership she desperately needed.
Gone was the polite smile from their previous, and only, meeting. Mrs. Greathouse’s lips were now a thin, pale line of anger. From under her trademark silver crest of hair, her black eyes met Shelby’s with a startling malevolence.
Shelby forced herself to keep walking, but her mouth had gone completely dry. Her professional woes had taken an ugly turn, and a bad book review was suddenly the least of her problems.