“Come in, Miss Fairchild,” called the clear baritone voice from behind the closed door.
Startled, Theodora Fairchild blinked at her fist, raised to knock on the dark mahogany panel below the brass nameplate. The lush Oriental carpet muffled any approaching footsteps…did he have closed-circuit cameras trained on his doorway? She glanced behind her, searching for hidden lenses, then shrugged. New student jitters. She straightened her skirt and opened the door into the office of Dr. Julian d’Amboise, head of the Classical Languages and History Department at John Winthrop University.
A man with sleek silver-gray hair looked up at her from behind an enormous polished desk. His turquoise-blue eyes regarded her with interest and something suspiciously like amusement. Before she could wonder why, he had risen and come out from behind the desk, hand outstretched.
“Salve, mea amica. Welcome to John Winthrop University,” he greeted her.
She shook his hand. “Gratias, Magister d’Amboise. Hic gaudeo esse,” she thanked him. Wow. Chairmen of classical language departments weren’t supposed to be so attractive. He looked more like a wealthy polo player than head of one of the most distinguished classics department outside of Europe. Theo couldn’t help covertly admiring his broad shoulders and the easy grace of his movements. His blue button-down shirt, sleeves casually rolled up over tanned forearms, bore an expensive logo.
He laughed and held up one hand. “I’m afraid that exhausts my conversational Latin. Greek’s my subject. Won’t you sit down, Miss Fairchild? Do you prefer to be called Theodora?” He waved her into the brown leather wingback in front of the desk and resumed his own seat. On the linenfold-paneled wall behind him were shelves with a few red-figured Greek vases and fragments of stone statuary. They didn’t look like copies. Wow again.
She tore her attention away from them. “Just Theo is fine. Fewer syllables.”
“But Theodora is a beautiful name. ‘Beloved of the gods.’ Hmm.” He leaned back in his chair and gazed at her.
Theo shifted uncomfortably. His eyes were disquieting; they were slightly prominent, which might account for the feeling she got that they saw everything about her. “I hope I’m not disturbing you,” she said to fill the silence.
“Hmm? Oh, not at all. I did request new students to visit, which is why you are here, I assume. Now, let’s see.” He picked up a pen and tapped it on the blotter. “Double major in Latin and history, with interests in historiography and, ah, the Republic/Empire transition? Three years teaching middle school Latin, and now here?”
Good lord. How did he know all that without looking it up? “You have an amazing memory, Dr. d’Amboise.”
He smiled again. “Please call me Julian. I imagine it must be difficult to go back to living like a student again. Is the graduate student residence tolerable? Finding decent affordable apartments in Boston is a nightmare, but maybe next year something better will turn up. Di always seems to be looking for roommates in that house of hers. Professor Hunter, that is. She teaches Greek and coaches field hockey.” He examined her, head to one side, and his eyes narrowed once more. “Though you may not fit in with that crowd. Hmmm. I rather hope not. It will be interesting to see.”
This wasn’t going quite as she had expected—the usual courtesy call due to one’s department head. There was a subtext running beneath Dr. d’Amboise’s conversation that she couldn’t quite read. She felt as if she were being assessed and measured for—for what? She reached for her notebook to cover her confusion. “I’ve got my course list here, as you requested,” she said, flipping it open. Anything to evade those all-knowing eyes. “Dr. Waterman suggested I take his Advanced Latin Rhetoric and Composition and Dr. Forge-Smythe’s Pre-Roman Italy. And maybe the course on Roman Religious Thought and Philosophy that’s being offered in the Philosophy Department.”
“Ah. Are you interested in religion as well?” Dr. d’Amboise—how could she call this elegant, self-assured man by his first name?—leaned forward.
“I’m interested in anything Roman. But religion was in as much turmoil as politics at end of the Republican era.”
“Indeed.” He sighed. “Will you be studying early Christianity as well?”
“It’s beyond my period. Besides, I find pagans more intriguing.”
“Do you?” Dr. d’Amboise rose and passed behind Theo’s chair to one of the room’s tall windows. He pushed aside the heavy blue draperies. Late-August sun flooded the room, dazzling her. “What do you find intriguing about pagans?” He leaned against the sill, watching her.
She turned in her chair and squinted up at him, silhouetted in the glowing window. “In the case of the Romans, how religion reflected their cultural attitudes. It was highly practical. Their gods had roles and duties that they were expected to perform in exchange for worship and sacrifice. Christianity was nothing like that. Though the Roman gods were in many ways just reflections of the Greek pantheon.”
“And does your interest extend to them as well?” There was a smile in his voice though she couldn’t see his face.
“How can it not?” She paused, and decided to be honest. “I grew up on the stories of the Greek gods. My father’s an amateur classics scholar and read me Ovid’s Metamorphoses instead of fairy tales. No handsome princes and dragons—just Zeus and Athena. I’ll take them over Saint Paul any day. There’s an old story in my family that we’re descended from a child Emperor Constantine begot with a native woman when he was a general in Roman Britain. Dad always says that Constantine was a complete spoilsport because he ended official worship of the old gods and it was up to us to keep the old stories alive.” She gave him what she hoped was a self-deprecating smile.
Dr. d’Amboise was silent, watching her from within his halo of light. She wished she could see his expression, but the light was too strong. Damn. Had she sounded like a silly schoolgirl, rattling on about mythology and Daddy’s crazy story? Was he going to laugh at her?
“My dear Theodora,” he said at last. No laughter edged his words. “I can see we chose this year’s students well.” He left the window and prowled gracefully back toward her, seating himself on the edge of his desk in front of her. “Are you sure I can’t interest you in studying Greek with me? If you love Ovid, you’d also love Hesiod and Homer. I’d be happy to tutor you myself.”
His smile was wide and charming. Theo began to feel oddly warm. Hmm, Greek. She’d never had time or opportunity to explore Greek very much. It had always been Latin for her. But maybe it was time to expand her horizons a little—
“She’ll be busy enough with her required classes, Julian.” The deep, disapproving voice hit her like a splash of cold water. She looked back over the top of her chair. Dr. Arthur Waterman, senior professor of Latin, stood with crossed arms in the doorway, his eyes grim above his full salt-andpepper beard. The stern expression on his face contrasted oddly with his exuberantly flowered blue-and-red Hawaiian shirt.
“Hello, Arthur. Nice shirt. Didn’t hear you knock,” Dr. d’Amboise said cheerfully. He didn’t move from his perch next to Theo.
“That’s because I didn’t. Good afternoon, Theo.”
“Hello, Dr. Waterman.” She started to rise. Dr. d’Amboise glanced at her and she sat down again. His look had felt like hands pushing her back into her chair.
“I think Theodora has much potential, Arthur. Surely a working knowledge of ancient Greek will enhance her Latin scholarship,” Dr. d’Amboise said, smiling down at her.
“She and I have discussed the matter already, Julian. Her schedule will be full both semesters this year.” Dr. Waterman came to stand next to Theo’s chair.
“Oh, you and your required courses. After three years of teaching Latin, I doubt she needs a course in rhetoric—”
Dr. Waterman ignored him and looked down at her. “Won’t you stop by my office tomorrow morning around eight? I’ll go to registration with you.”
“Oh, you don’t have to do that—” Theo began.
“Yes, I do.” His face was stern. “Eight o’clock? I’ll see you then.”
Theo got the hint and stood up. She was relieved to find that this time she could. “Yes, Dr. Waterman. Thank you for meeting with me, Dr. d’Amboise.”
“Julian, my dear. We’re not formal in this department. Atleast, some of us aren’t.” He rose and extended his hand to her again, holding it a fraction of a second too long. “I’ll look forward to chatting with you tomorrow at the department dinner.”
“Thank you, Dr. d’Amb—Julian. Good-bye.” Theo nodded at Dr. Waterman as she passed him. He smiled back, but his eyes were somber.
She slipped out the door, shutting it behind her, then leaned against the wall next to it and closed her eyes with a sigh. Obviously there was bad blood between the two professors who just happened to be her degree adviser and her department head…would she be drawn into it too? This was why she’d been nervous about returning to school for her doctorate—the politics, the turf issues and squabbles over issues real or imaginary. But it was too late now. She was committed—
“Was it that bad?” asked a voice.
People walked too quietly on these thick carpets. Theo opened her eyes.
A man stood before her, smiling companionably as if they had just shared a joke. She couldn’t help smiling back into his deep-set, twinkling gray eyes, then got caught by the small dimples that punctuated the corners of his mouth. They contrasted with the stern brows and thin, ascetic face framed by high cheekbones that reminded her of a painting of an early Christian martyr. He seemed too old to be a student despite his longish dark hair, but not self-important enough to be a faculty member. Whoever he was, those dimples were wreaking havoc in her midsection.
“I don’t know. I hope not,” she replied.
He nodded. “I can understand that. Julian’s a law unto himself. Always has been.” The dimples vanished, sweetness subsumed in a bitter curl of his lips. “You must be one of the new students.”
Theo wished she could think of something to say to make him smile again. “I’m Theodora Fairchild. And I am new,” was all she could manage. A familiar heat suffused her cheeks. Why had she buried herself in the library all summer? At least if she’d spent some time getting a tan her agonizing habit of blushing might not be so obvious. Her eighth graders at Sneed used to tease her unmercifully about it whenever they translated any of Catullus’s love poetry in class.
“Greek or Latin?” the man asked, brows drawn again.
His brow smoothed. “That ought to help. Grant Proctor.” He held out a hand. “Visiting fellow.”
She shook his hand and began to feel better. “Visiting from where?”
“No place you’ve heard of, probably. It’s a small research institute in New Hampshire. We share the property with a lot of moose.”
“Do they speak Latin or Greek?” she asked. He seemed like he might have a sense of humor.
“Both, by the time we’re through with them. Their enunciation is dreadful, though.”
Theo laughed, and her anxiety eased a little. Maybe the year wouldn’t be so bad, if there were others in the department as nice as this man. Not that Dr. Waterman or Dr. d’Amboise—darn it, would she ever be able to bring herself to call him Julian?— hadn’t been nice enough. But as she’d left them it had felt like thunderstorms and earthquakes were imminent, so palpable was the tension between them.
A rumble of thunder startled her just then. She glanced toward the nearby window and saw that dark blue-gray thunderheads loomed in the late summer sky, blotting out the day’s earlier sunshine. The university clock tower stood outlined against them in vivid contrast.
Grant Proctor looked up too. “Maybe I should come back later. I doubt Julian will be in a very good mood by the time he’s ready to see me.”
“Do you already know him?”
“We’ve met.” His tone was curiously flat.
But before she could question him, the door opened again, and both Julian and Dr. Waterman stepped out. Dr. Waterman’s face was still somber, but he managed a smile at Theo and a nod to Grant as he walked by them. She stole a quick peek at Julian, who was frowning at Dr. Waterman’s retreating back. Then he recollected himself and turned to her. “So stubborn. But I’ll have you studying Greek yet.” He glanced at Grant Proctor next to her. An expression of puzzlement flitted across his face, replaced at once by his usual charming smile. “Good afternoon. May I help you?”
“Grant Proctor.” Grant nodded pleasantly but did not offer his hand.
Neither did Julian. He continued to regard Grant appraisingly. “Ah. The visiting fellow. You seem familiar but I don’t quite place the name. You’re from—”
“The Eleusinian Institute.” Grant’s voice was cool.
“Indeed? Are you sure we haven’t met? You’ve lured a few of our faculty there over the years. How’s Olivia?”
Theo began to feel superfluous. “I’ve got to run. Goodbye,” she said.
Grant looked at her as if he were about to speak, then glanced at Julian. “Nice to meet you, Theo. See you later,” he said after a pause.
“Till tomorrow evening, Theodora.” Julian nodded at her, his eyes warm turquoise as they moved over her, then darkening to match the clouds outside as he turned to the other man. “Won’t you come in?” he asked Grant politely.
She headed down the paneled hall to the stairs, dark now with the storm hovering outside. Rats. If Julian’s door hadn’t opened just then, she had been thinking about inviting the very interesting Grant Proctor to go for a beer at the graduate student lounge. By the expression in his eyes, she got the feeling he might have said yes.
* * *
Promptly at eight o’clock the next morning, Theo ascended the stairs in Hamilton Hall. Julian’s door was still closed, but Dr. Waterman was standing by his. His shirt today was a purple and orange print, swirling with curiously tame-looking sharks. He looked relieved when he saw her approaching. “Come in while I get a few things together.” He waved her past him.
She walked in, then stopped short. “Oh,” she breathed.
Built into the walls of the office were three enormous fish tanks, softly lit and teeming with myriad exotic fish. They turned the dark-paneled office into a kaleidoscope of moving colors and shapes.
“It’s my hobby,” Dr. Waterman said from behind her, sounding a little apologetic. “I’ve got more at home. They remind me of—that there’s more than just the university, in the world.”
“They’re amazing!” Theo bent to peer into the nearest one. This was not what she’d expected. Dr. Waterman had seemed so stern yesterday, despite his funky shirt. “Are they fresh or salt water?”
“Salt. It’s a little trickier to keep them happy, but I flatter myself that I’ve done all right by them.” He pulled out a handkerchief and polished a spot on a glass side with a proprietorial smile. The fish moved serenely around the crystalline water, their scales bright and glossy. Plants swayed in the current generated by the aerators.
“I should say so—oh, is that a sea horse?”
“It is. Here, feed them for me while I get organized. I haven’t had a chance yet this morning.” He stepped back to his desk, opened a drawer, and handed her a plastic tub.
Theo pulled the top off. A clean, sweet odor wafted upward from the bowl, subtle yet strong. The sunlight filtering in the east window seemed brighter all of a sudden, and the fish more colorful. A warm tingling sensation spread from her nose down to her toes.
“This is fish food?” she asked, lifting the tub to her nose and sniffing. It smelled of hyacinth and lilies and something else too, something indefinable, elusive, but rich and deep.
“Oh…er, yes. My own blend.” Dr. Waterman hastened over and took it from her. “Here, I’ll show you.” He folded back the cover from the tank and sprinkled some of the silvery flakes onto the surface of the water from a small silver spoon. The fish darted upward, snatching at the food.
“You do the others. Not too much in each.” He held the tub and spoon out to her and watched as she shook flakes onto the water. Fish circled and lunged.
“Oh, good, they like you. Maybe you wouldn’t mind taking care of them occasionally when I’m with—when I’m at conferences.” He whisked the fish food from her hands and slipped it into a desk drawer.
“That would be fun. Do you go to many?” She turned away from him as if to study the fish, and surreptitiously smelled her fingers where a flake or two clung. The tingle surged through her again, and she shivered with pleasure. What was Dr. Waterman feeding his fish? They were darned lucky, whatever it was.
“A fair number.” He gave her a sharp glance as she turned back toward him. “Shall we go?”
The graduate student union was still quiet at this hour. Only a few students stood waiting in line to register, most clutching Starbucks cups and looking dazed. Theo and Dr. Waterman joined the queue.
“Why, good morning,” said a pleasant baritone voice.
Dr. Waterman stiffened. Theo turned.
Julian d’Amboise stood behind them, a cup of coffee in one hand. “What a nice surprise,” he continued, smiling. “You’re here early, Arthur.”
“So are you,” Dr. Waterman growled. The building seemed to tremble around them.
“I’d just stopped in for a bit of breakfast and thought I’d see how registration was going. How nice of you to help Theodora. I’m happy to wait with her if you’d like to run out for your tea.”
“No thank you, Julian.” Dr. Waterman’s bushy gray brows were drawn.
“Next!” said the bored-looking woman at the desk. Theo and Dr. Waterman walked over to her, trailed by a humming Julian.
“Is your form filled out and signed?” The woman eyed Julian’s coffee with such a yearning expression that Theo was tempted to go get her a venti espresso at the kiosk downstairs.
“Yes.” Theo opened her portfolio. She stared. The paper had vanished. She looked up, frowning. “But it was right here this morning when I—”
“Is this what you were looking for?” Julian said, waving a piece of paper at her. “It was on the floor behind you. Must have slipped out.” He held the document out to the woman behind the table, but Dr. Waterman snatched it out of his fingers.
“Nice try, Julian,” he said. Frowning, he read it, shook his head, then blew across the paper and looked at it again. “That’s better.” He handed the form to Theo with a nod of approval.
She took the paper from him with a quick glance at Julian, who wore an expression of pained boredom on his handsome face. This was starting to get more than a little weird. She looked down at the paper. It was her registration form all right, neatly filled out in black ink in her tidy teacher printing. So what had all that been about? She gave the form to the woman, who tapped on her computer keyboard for a moment, then nodded curtly. “You’re all set. Next!”
Julian nodded to Theo. “Till later, my dear.” Ignoring his colleague, he strolled to the door. Dr. Waterman watched him with the same somber expression he had worn yesterday.
“Dr. Waterman? Is everything all right?” Theo asked. Julian’s posture as he strode from the room all but screamed annoyance. At her, or at Dr. Waterman? “That was…er…a little strange.” Strange didn’t begin to cover it, but how else could she politely word it?
“It’s nothing to do with you, Theo. I’m sorry you had to see that. Please don’t let our…er, discussions color your impression of us too much. Julian and I have known each other a long time. Sometimes we disagree on things. Put it out of your mind.”
“He has his own ideas about what classes you ought to be taking. He gets excited when promising students arrive. He’ll settle down shortly. He really is an extraordinary teacher. His students worship him.” His mouth quirked.
Something about his evasive tone bothered her, but she couldn’t say why. “Thank you for helping me register, Dr. Waterman.”
“It was nothing, really. I’ll see you this evening at the department dinner.” He nodded and followed Julian out the door.
* * *
“I’m not sure I did the right thing, coming here.”
“But you were miserable at Sneed, darling,” Mom replied. “Remember?”
“I know. But sometimes the misery you know is less miserable than the one you don’t.”
Theo lay on her bed in her room in Graves Hall, the graduate residence hall, talking to her mother on the phone as she stared at the ceiling. There was a crack spanning it that reminded her absurdly of a map of the Via Appia in the textbook she had used to teach her seventh graders last year. A faint clinking sound on the other end of the phone told her that Mom was probably on her chaise on the porch sipping a gin and tonic, the way they often had together this summer. A sudden homesickness surged through her. “Where are you, Mom?”
“Is the connection bad? I’m on the porch, but I can—”
“No, it’s fine. I’m just picturing you there and missing you. How’s my small furry beast?” Leaving Dido, her Abyssinian cat, with Mom and Dad when she left for Boston had been the hardest thing she’d had to do, worse than giving up the lease on her adored apartment or leaving her few faculty friends at Sneed. She missed Dido’s sleek golden head butting against her legs when she worked in her kitchen, her seismic purr as they sat together while Theo corrected homework, even her maddening ability to find and lie down on whatever part of the Sunday newspaper Theo happened to be reading.
“Dido’s fine. She’s taken to sitting on your father at every opportunity. He grumbles but won’t move a muscle if she falls asleep on him. Is it that bad, honey? Haven’t you met any nice people?” Mom’s voice was warm and sympathetic.
“Oh, yes. Very nice.” Theo had a memory of deep-set gray eyes.
“What about the faculty? You liked Dr. Waterman.”
She didn’t want to tell Mom about Professor d’Amb—Julian’s—slightly strange behavior. Mom sometimes forgot that she was an adult now. “I still do. They’re fine, too—the ones I’ve met.”
“You don’t sound convinced.”
“Well, I’ve only met a couple of them—”
“Give it a chance, honey. You know that if you were back at Sneed, you’d be sighing that if only you had your doctorate, you wouldn’t have to deal with those adolescent monsters and could spend your time teaching college students who actually want to learn Latin.”
“I know. You’re right.” Theo flung an arm across her forehead and hissed in pain.
“What was that?” demanded Mom.
Theo stopped cursing under her breath and got up to peer into her mirror. Her glowing red face clashed with her red-gold hair. “It was me being dumb. I stayed up till two thirty last night reading. Then I was up at seven to register, and then this afternoon I decided to lie out in the sun and get a little healthy color so I didn’t look too much like the Elgin Marbles at the dinner tonight. I fell asleep, of course. I hope they’re not serving lobster, or they might mistake me for the main course.”
“Oh, Theo.” Mom sighed. “You know you have to be careful with the sun. You and your father have such fair skin.”
“It’s not that bad. I just look kind of red, that’s all. It’s embarrassing, but at least no one will be able to see if I blush.”
“They will, too. You’ll turn purple,” said a new voice.
“Lionel!” said her mother. “Get off the extension!”
“Oh, hi, Dad. Thanks for the vote of confidence.”
Dad chuckled. “I’m sorry, sweetheart. I’m sure you’ll be fine. Send me your reading lists when you get them. I want to be able to quiz you when you come home.”
Theo groaned. “I think I’ll be getting enough quizzing here. I’ll email them when I can. Classes start tomorrow. Be nice to my cat, you hear?”
“Hmmph. She’s a spoiled brat, but I suppose I will. Vale,cara rufula filia.”
“Are you referring to my red skin or hair? Vale, stercoreus senex. Amo te.”
“Ah.” Dad chuckled again. “Good alliteration. Love you, too. Vale.” There was the beep of a phone being switched off.
“Theo, stop calling your father bad names in Latin,” Mom scolded. “Yes, I know you called him a nasty old man.”
“He called me ‘little red child’ first. And anyway, he loves it when I come up with new Latin insults. Mom, I’ve got to go get ready for the dinner.”
“All right, dear. Please wear your hair down and not screwed up in that tight little knob you used to wear it in at Sneed. You’re so pretty when you let yourself be.”
“Yes, I promise.”
Theo hung up and gathered her toiletries, then headed down the hall to shower in the communal bathroom. It was hard to go back to being a student after three years of paid working life and her own apartment. But she’d dreamed of coming here, dreamed of spending her time discussing the finer points of historical prose and making convoluted Latin puns over glasses of merlot at department gatherings. Most of all, she’d dreamed of being with people who understood her love of the past, who would share her enthusiasm andspeak her language, in all senses of the word.
Gray eyes and unexpected dimples flashed across her mind’s eye again. Well, that was true. Not everyone she had met was that bad. Surely Grant Proctor would be at the dinner tonight.
© Marissa Doyle 2014