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Authors: Kate Vale

Package Deal

BOOK: Package Deal
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Package Deal

 

Kate Vale

 

*
Vale keeps us rapidly turning pages in this contemporary novel that is as suspenseful as it is romantic. –
Chanticleer Book Reviews

 

 

 

 

 

Cha
p
t
e
r 1

 

Cecelia
Gardner
followed her mother into her
office.
They’d already spent most of the last week running back and forth between home and the campus as her mother got ready for the school year. Cecelia was beginning to feel like this might be a cool place to hang out and do her homework if Mom
woul
dn’t let her stay home alone.

“Cecelia, sit here, hon.” Her mother motioned to the e
xtra chair
as she
glanced at the man who
shared
the
cramped office
.
He’d barely looked up when they
entered
.

“I won’t be long
, Carlton,
and Cece knows to be quiet. I’m sure she won’t disturb you.”

The man named Carlton grunted, continuing to peer at the papers on his desk
, not seeming to care that she was in the
office
.

Cecelia sat down, swinging her legs in the too-tall chair. She pulled her favorite book from her
backpack
and sighed. At least her mother hadn’t told her
to do
her homework.

“What’s your name?”
The man looked over at her
, a half-smile on his face
.

“Cecelia.

The man’s
black hair was shiny, and his grey eyes squinted at her
, reminding her of her best friend
’s
cat
when it stared at her, never blinking.

“I’m Professor Winslow. Y
ou
must be
Amanda’s daughter.” He gave her a quick, sidelong
grin
.
“Your hair is all curls. Do you always keep it in pigtails?”

Cecelia nodded.

“My mom said she’d be right back.”

“I’m sure she will be.
Is she in a meeting
?”

“I think so. Then we’re going home.”


How old are you?”
He straightened in his chair and
then
leaned closer.

“Nine, going on ten.
Next summer I’ll be ten.


What grade are you in
?”
His chair slid in her direction.

She
eyed
the man
briefly
.

Fourth
.”
No more questions,
she thought, as s
he shrank down in the chair and raised the book up to hide her face.

“At the Campus S
chool?
I’ve met some of the teachers there. Do you like it?

He placed a hand on the back of her chair.
His breath reminded her of cigarettes. Nasty.

“It’s a nice school
. And
I’m on the soccer team.”

“Good for you. Is this your first year—
on the
soccer
team
?”

She shook her head. “No. But I don’t know all the other girls yet.”

“I saw some
soccer players
on the field the other day. One girl had bright red hair. Is she on your team?”

“That’s Gloria. Her dad is our coach.”

“I see you’re a reader.

He
place
d his hand over
the spine of the book, his fingers
, stained yellow,
splaying across the words.

What are you reading?”

“It’s my book—
Misty of Chincoteague
.” She pulled it
closer
when he
slid his
big chair
closer
and continued to stare at her
.

“You have very pretty eyes—blue, like the sky.
Has anyone ever told you that?”
The man’s beard reminded her of sandpaper, like what she’d touched in class when they were studying different textures.

She shook her head
and opened the book
again
,
want
ing to
get back to
the story
. If only
she could move her chair away
so he couldn’t touch her book
, but there wasn’t enough room
.
Something about the way he was
watching her
made her uncomfortable.She wished he would stop talking to her
,
stop asking her questions
.

But t
he man
move
d his chair closer so that it bumped hers.
She didn’t like that h
e smelled
bad
.
His big hand
with dark hairs on
his fingers
trac
ed
the air just above
her
knee
.

“Your hair smells nice.”

Cecelia
pulled
down her skirt
, tucked her feet under her, and
scoot
ed as far away fro
m him as she could, wishing she could leave the room. But she didn’t know where her mother was
and
she’
d
been told
to stay in the office.

“Where
di
d you get that scar on your leg?”

“I fell down—when I was playing soccer,”
she answered,
her voice a near-whisper
, her heart thudding like a drum in her chest
.

The doorknob rattled.
The man abruptly repositioned his chair
in front of his big computer
.

“Yes,
I’ll drop it off on my way out
.”

Her mother
’s voice carried through the door
, to Cecelia’s relief
. When
she opened it, Cecelia smiled
at her mother,
and
looked over at the man in the big chair. He was
fiddling with his tie,
and
the skin under his right eye
was
twitching.

Cecelia lowered her feet to the floor. “Can we go home now?”

“In a minute, Cece.”
Her mother
reached for her briefcase
as she
glanc
ed in
the man
’s direction. He stared down
at
his papers and
resumed typing
.

“Come on, Mom.
” Cecelia slid out of the
little
chair, keeping her mother between herself and the man. She pulled on
her mother
’s hand, eager to get away from
the man’s
prying eyes and bad breath.

 

Amanda Gardner fingered her grandmother’s filigree heart
on its chain at her throat
, her anxiety heightened by Carlton’s recent
unpleasant
ness.
Why couldn’t he be nicer?
Today, as she strode out of the English department of Buckley College on her way to th
e student u
nion, she was nearly jumping out of her skin. So much rested on the coming fall quarter.Like maybe her entire life?

Her grandmother. Now there was a woman who never seemed afraid.
I have to be
more
like her—brave, not
so
afraid of the unknown.
Leaving Iowa and moving west had
been an adventure
of sorts
. No storms in the middle of the Atlantic to worry about, just the one
flat tire halfway through Nebraska
.
I just need to
do my job and make friends among the faculty.
Except for
her officemate, Carlton Winslow, they
seem
ed
very nice.
How
long would it take before she felt
comfortable, on campus, in Shoreville, Washington, so far from her home in southern Minnesota
? Was it simple bad luck she was sharing an office with a man whose mood seemed so dark whenever she was present, who insisted on taking up most of the space in their office?

“Just get out of my hair, Amanda. I’ve got work to do here.” He had turned his back on her and begun moving her files from the second drawer of their shared cabinet to the bottom drawer, as if he owned the top two sections.

But his words to her when she left made her wonder. He’d complimented her on nine-year-old Cecelia’s picture that adorned their shared desk. Actually, it was her daughter he’d complimented. Right before he made clear he considered their shared space
his
office.

Maybe he’ll loosen up. Be nicer, more accommodating. It’s his first year, too.

Amanda crossed the campus, nodding to a group of students and their parents as they passed.Up ahead she saw one of the instructors she’d met at the dean’s new faculty gathering. He was talking with another man, tall, with sandy hair. When they entered the science building, she saw them in profile.
T
hat journalism guy, the tall one—he’d passed out questionnaires for everyone to fill out. Questions she hadn’t answered
yet
, she realized with a guilty jolt.
Marcus Dunbar.
He had
blue eyes—just like Dylan
’s
.

Stop that!
she berated herself. The last thing she needed was to compare men to Cecelia’s father.

Even fully dressed
,
the man had
a body any woman would drool over
. His neatly pressed slacks
fit him
perfectly.
His
spotless, white golf
shirt
emphasized his tan and well-developed pecs. She decided h
e must
lift weights to build those muscles
,
or run in his off hours—something other than
push
ing
a pencil or pound
ing
a laptop
.

Except she hadn’t taken this job to ogle men. Her first teaching appointment was critical, the key to establishing herself in her chosen field
,
providing for her daughter
and paying off her student loans. She’d
accepted the job at Buckley College
—so far from home, her mother kept reminding her—to work, not look for a man. Although that’s exactly what her mother kept pushing her to do.

Amanda entered the student u
nion and looked around. Spotting two of the other English faculty members, Scott and Jim, she headed for their table.

“Glad you could make it, Amanda. Coffee or tea?” Scott moved his briefcase off her seat.

Where’s your officemate? We invited him, too. But h
e’s not exac
tly the friendly sort, is he
?”

Amanda shrugged. “He was filing when I left.” But he’d acted more put out than busy when she’d reminded him of the invitation.

Jim grinned as he rubbed the top of his baldin
g head. “What was with the full-
name bull when he introduced himself at the faculty meeting? Did you see how his cheek kept twitching when he answered Greg’s questions? He needs to chill. Wanna bet he demands that his students call him ‘Professor’
even though technically he’s not entitled
?”

Scott reached for the sugar canister. “How much work does he have to do with classes almost a month away? I’m surprised Greg hired Winslow. His dissertation isn’t even finished.”

“You know Greg didn’t have much choice—after Harvey died,” Jim said. “Poor guy. One week sick and the next week gone. Greg had to fill the position so we wouldn’t be short-handed.”

Amanda
’s
glance bounced from one to the other of her
colleagues. “That’s terrible. I don’t believe I m
et Harvey when I interviewed.”

“You’d have liked him. But I think we’ve got a winner in you, Amanda,” Jim’s expression was friendly, admiring
.
“Those magazine articles you
submitted
when you
interviewed
? N
ice style, breezy but factual.
K
ind of halfway between literary and journalistic.I think the students ar
e going to like working with you. Maybe you’ll
snag some of the better journa
lism students for our department.

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