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The Jade Rose: Beginning of the End (Part I of Book I)

Introduction:

In a world where the scientific community believed it knew everything, including that a zombie apocalypse was impossible, science learned the hard way that it, in fact, knew nothing at all… and the impossible happened. Yet, as the world was ravaged by the undead and people turned against each other to survive, there were still some who had hope. Among them was Jade Rose Malcolm. Raised to be a fighter, she refused to give up, even after suffering immeasurable hardships and loss. Jade was determined to find a way to rebuild… and to help others do so as well. In this world where both the undead and living predators sought to eat you alive, the only way to survive was to live free… to fight… and to band together.

Before the Dead “Rose”

Jade Rose Malcolm was like any other twelve-year-old girl with two big brothers: tough and strong-willed. She grew up in the Tennessee mountainous countryside on her family’s fifty-acre land with only a few neighbors around for miles. The closest neighbors were all within three miles from her home, and all had children around the same ages as Jade and her brothers: Billy, age fourteen, and Dan, age seventeen.

Jade was known for her way with animals, even wild ones, and for her loving heart. She was there in a pinch for anyone and everyone, whether they deserved it or not. However, despite her loving nature, she was also known for her refusal to take any crap from anyone. At the school that she and her brothers attended in town, she fought bullies who picked on the weaker kids. Most of the time, that meant fighting her oldest brother who often pushed others around, just like their father did to each of them.

Dan was a bully with a serious violent streak. Even so, he loved his little sister and his mother and would never even consider looking at them crossly, unless his little sister and he threw down. Even then, he never did so out of anger… only to toughen her up… while, admittedly, trying to show her who was boss… when he won… if he won… which meant that he rarely was boss by the time she turned eleven. Dan’s baby sister and his mother, along with his little brother, were his weakness. Yes, the siblings fought like cats and dogs a lot of the time, but in truth, they were closer than anyone else could ever imagine. They could scrap and act the fool in both laughter and fighting, but no one else had better try to mess with one of them. In doing so, the person messed with all of them… which never ended well for the instigator. Each would lay down his or her life for the others or their mother.

Their mother’s name was Angela, and she was one of six siblings. From oldest to youngest, they were named Angela, Amanda, twins Jessup and Skylar, Gary, and Kateri. Angela was very close to her siblings and her parents, Margaret and James Rolfe. Jessup and Kateri entered into religious vocations as a priest and a nun, serving at the same parish in a nearby town, Saints Michael and Gabriel Catholic Parish. The Rolfe siblings were so close that Amanda, Skylar, and Gary named some of their children after the others. In all, the family had twenty-three children between the four siblings who married, with Angela having three, Amanda having eight, Skylar having five, and Gary having seven. In addition to the blood-related children, Jessup and Kateri took in twelve children between them who were orphans, consisting of seven boys and five girls. These children were immediately welcomed into the family and were viewed as equal to the other children, family in every way. In time, the grandchildren numbered in the fifties, as the entire family was made up of active, devout Catholics who did not practice birth control.

Angela was as loving and nurturing as their father, Mark, was evil and heartless. Mark was the youngest of four brothers: Henry, Dexter, and Corbin, from oldest to youngest. Mark’s mother, Tabby, died when Mark was sixteen, leaving him and his brothers to be raised by a ruthless, tyrannical father, Charles, whose only joys were booze, women, and knocking his sons around. Oddly, Corbin grew up to be a priest. He moved away to escape his troubled family at the age of seventeen, and he never looked back. Henry and Dexter drank themselves to death by the age of forty, leaving behind a total of eight children between them. Unfortunately, the Malcolm clan on Mark’s side was toxic clean through with only one exception: Corbin.

As for Billy, he was a mixture of both his parents. Whereas Dan took after their father, and Jade took after their mother, Billy was known for being a bit of both and, therefore, unpredictable. He had a loving heart, but he was afraid to show it. He was also highly intelligent, able to figure out what made almost anything tick, but he was afraid to show that as well. This often revealed itself through him having a bad attitude most of the time.

Dan and Billy took most of the beatings from their father. This was due to the fact that when their father would start to focus his attention on Jade, they would put themselves between their father and their baby sister. The same held true for their mother. If they had anything to say about it, Mark would not touch either one of them. From the time the boys were eight and eleven, they were strong enough and scrappy enough to intervene and take their father on… and win. Their interference when Mark would go after Jade or Angela would result in horrible fights between them and their father, but to them, the beatings and broken bones were worth it. Or as others outside of the home understood it, the continued fights between one another.

Although some suspected the truth, they always looked the other way. At the age of twelve, however, Jade grew angry that others who clearly knew what was happening simply ignored it. They were fearful of getting involved, but she did not care. She began taking matters into her own hands and started fighting for her brothers, as they had always done for her. On more than one occasion, as their father was beating Dan to a bloody pulp, Jade approached her father from behind and hit him in the back with a baseball bat or whatever else she could get her hands on in a pinch, disabling him for days. The price she paid was a dear one each time. Mark would wait until the boys were busy away from the house before retaliating. Then, he took Jade out into the woods, beat her, and tied her to a tree, threatening to kill her if her brothers dared to release her… or to kill her brothers if she tried to get away. In truth, she could best him at that age, but threats against her brothers’ lives kept her from doing so. Mark learned quickly that the only real control he had over each one was his threats to kill the other two or their mother, and they knew he would not hesitate to make good on his threats.

The closest neighbors were the Lightfoots, and they lived about half a mile to the west of the Malcolm family’s home. The father, Ben, had purchased five acres of land from Mark and built the family’s home there with the help of others in the community, creating a rather lavish home. Other than the section of land where the Lightfoot home sat, the land belonged to the Malcolm family and extended further than the eye could see in all directions. The youngest child in the family was a son, Levi, Billy’s age, and the oldest was a daughter, Karen, who was one year older than Billy and Levi. Levi became one of the Malcolm siblings, and he could be found wherever Billy and Dan were. As they grew older, Levi and Dan were together most often, but you rarely saw one of the Malcolm boys without Levi at his side. And as Jade blossomed into womanhood, you rarely saw Jade without Levi somewhere nearby.

The Lightfoot parents were always kind and often let Jade and her brothers stay at their home to hide from Mark. At first, Ben and his wife, Linda, claimed not to know where the children were when Mark would come looking for them. Then, one day, they tried to end Mark’s reign of terror over his family by contacting the local sheriff and reporting the abuse. After the report, Mark spent three months in jail and was ordered to stop drinking before he could return to his own home. He was gone from the home for a total of five months, being under court-ordered observation for the last two months. Of course, the drinking resumed after returning home.

Mark never forgave Ben Lightfoot and made sure others knew the dangers of interfering with his family. Shortly after Mark’s return home, Ben ended up in traction from “falling off a ladder.” Who knew a ladder could leave multiple, blunt-force trauma wounds and cuts in the shape of the letters D-E-A-D on his back? The excuse given on the official report may have been a fall from a talented ladder with the ability to spell, but in the small town where they lived, the courts used at least a small measure of common sense. The sheriff knew this and was certain that Mark could be removed from the equation entirely if Ben would just speak up. Ben was urged by the sheriff to press charges and testify against Mark, promising that the local D.A. would go for the maximum penalty. However, fearful for his safety and the safety of his family, Ben stuck to his story about the ladder. That was the only time the Lightfoots, or anyone else, tried to intervene. Even so, Jade, her brothers, and her mother remembered those five months as the best of their lives.

During the times when Mark believed his daughter was tied to a tree in the woods, Billy and Dan told their father they wanted to go hunting. After fielding strict instructions not to go near where he had their sister held captive and multiple threats against all three and their mother should they violate this rule, they headed out with their rifles, handguns, ammo, and hunting knives. Of course, Jade’s location was their intended destination the whole time, but they had to walk the opposite direction into the woods and then circle around in case their father followed them. Once they were sure he had not followed, they headed for Jade. They were not a bit surprised each time to see her already loose, sitting on a log, reading one of the books she kept stashed in the woods, and petting a raccoon or some other creature on her lap. They had taught her well, and there was no way of keeping her tied if she didn’t want to be.

“What th’ hell ‘r you doin’?!” Dan exclaimed on one such occasion, scaring the animal away. “Yer s’posed t’ eat those, not pet ’em!”

Jade just smiled. “Yer just jealous ‘cause yer ugly face scares ’em off.” Billy started laughing, which fetched a punch in the arm from Dan. Jade laughed, closing her book and asking, “Didja bring me anything t’day?”

Dan grinned. “Yeah, a good ass-kickin’.” Then, he reached into his hunting bag as they all laughed and pulled out a piece of their mother’s homemade apple pie wrapped in a napkin and one of Jade’s favorite books. She always had at least three books that she was reading at once, something her brothers just could not understand… but they loved it about her. “Here. Momma said t’ give ya a good ass-whoopin’ for her too, so get on over here.”

Jade laughed, “She did not! Momma’d never say ‘ass’… or even do that t’ any of us.”

“The hell she wouldn’t!” Billy proclaimed. “Last week she tanned my hide but good fer me after I snuck a rattler int’ my room. She found it when she fixed m’ bed.”

The three laughed hard at recalling that, and Dan said, “You deserved that one, dumbass. Damn thing coulda killed someone.”

Billy shrugged. “Yeah, I know. Was gonna put ‘im in Pa’s bed durin’ one of his drunk sleeps. Didn’t…” He shrugged again, then returned to his point. “But it hurt!” Then he admitted, “I don’t think she cared as much about the snake bein’ in th’ house as she did about what I planned on doin’ with it. She knew… She always knows!”

Jade nodded. “I r’member. You howled t’ beat th’ devil when she whooped you, B. Ya shoulda put it in Daddy’s boot ‘r somethin’ b’fore she found it.” Then she shrugged, adding, “He’da found it fer sure before it got ‘im, but maybe he woulda realized then that we weren’t gonna be his punchin’ bags no more…” She paused, thinking back to how her own father had been looking at her lately. “…or worse.”

Dan looked at his baby sister and put his hand on her arm lovingly, knowing what she was thinking.

“Don’t worry yer pretty little head, Baby J. We won’t let ‘im lay a hand on you. I promise you that, Sis. No matter what we hafta do.”

Jade nodded again and forced a smile. She knew that her brothers would protect her, and she was determined to do the same for them. They had to stick together, no matter what. And they always would. Nothing, not even their father, death… or un-death, as they would later discover, could come between them. They were inseparable… and the best of friends. They shared a bond that no one and nothing could sever. Nor could anyone else ever replace any of the siblings within the hearts of the other two. They would live and die for each other. They were three bodies… one heart… one soul.

***

As Jade grew, it became harder for her brothers to protect her from her father, and Angela knew that the only way she could truly protect her children from Mark was to keep herself between them and their father… especially between Jade and Mark… and to make sure the children did well in school. She often told them that it was their key to escape, and because of her diligence, even Billy and Dan kept their grades up to at least passing levels. She hoped that all three would move away and make better lives for themselves elsewhere. So, as Jade approached the age of sixteen, her mother made sure the young woman focused on colleges far from home. Dan and Billy told their mother that they needed to stay home and not go to college so that they could look after her and Jade. No matter how much their mother begged, they would hear none of it. Not even when their mother told them to go and take Jade with them. The young men were determined to protect both their sister and their mother. Anytime Mark started in on either one, the boys were there to fight for them. Jade tried to do the same thing as her brothers: stay home to protect their mother. However, between her mother and her brothers insisting that she go, she accepted that her battle was one she would lose. Her only other option was to make the most of her future, for their sake, as well as for her own. So over the months to come, she did as she had already been doing and continued to focus all of her attention on her education, graduating early at sixteen that same school year and leaving home shortly thereafter.

Jade dated, but never seriously. Her only desire was to make something of herself, and after leaving home to begin her college career, she found herself accumulating multiple degrees: master’s degrees and doctorate degrees in Psychology, Medicine, Business, and English Literature, just to name a few. In all, she had more than a dozen degrees, with many being at doctorate levels. Unfortunately, she had focused so much on the degrees that she did not do much with them or live her life to the fullest.

Jade worked as a journalist her entire adult life, all while accumulating more degrees, and sometimes while earning multiple degrees at once. In the beginning, she returned home occasionally to see her mother and brothers, but she rarely stayed longer than a few hours because of her father. She then started going home only when Mark was away on business. However, that too did not last, as he picked up on her scheme and started returning home unexpectedly. Then one day, she realized she was now thirty-four years old and had nothing to show for her life. She was highly educated, but she had no one to share her life with: no husband or children to love or to love her in return. She found that she wanted that, but she simply had not met anyone who made her feel the way she dreamed of feeling for a man. This was when her life unexpectedly changed forever.

***

Jade moved to New York to attend yet another university. It had now been eighteen years since she left her home in the mountains of Tennessee, at the age of sixteen, leaving her brothers and mother behind. Although she originally went back as often as she could to visit them, she still found herself in the crosshairs of her father. Only now, he was more determined than ever to do more than just beat her. Even with her brothers and mother there, he could be uncontrollable, and since he would not allow her mother or her brothers to visit her, she rarely saw them. Yes, her brothers could do whatever they wanted, but their father gave them his word that if they tried to go see Jade, their mother would not be around to see them return. His intention was to lure Jade back home, to the one place he could have access to her. He truly was evil, and this reality meant that Jade had to stay far away. She could not even have her own home or car without worrying. Every time she had her own address or otherwise left a footprint that could be tracked, her father found her and traveled to her home. He broke in each time and attacked her. Even though she fought him off each time and filed police reports, he only served a few weeks in jail before being released. She knew her brothers tried to keep tabs on him, but he always managed to sneak away, claiming that he was going on business trips each time. Since his job often sent him on business trips, her family had no way of knowing what was real and what was not with his claims of more business trips. The beatings from Dan and Billy that awaited Mark upon his return each time, along with those he received at Jade’s hands when he showed up at her home, did not deter him. Starting from the age of thirty, Jade only provided her brothers and mother with her phone number, and letters sent back home did not contain her return address. For added security, her brothers started calling her every time Mark claimed his job was sending him somewhere. This allowed her to be on her guard.

After moving to New York at thirty-four, Jade moved in with a friend who had lived in New York for many years and avoided anything that would leave a paper trail other than school. For school and anything else requiring an address, she used a confidential mailing address through her friend’s work that then funneled the mail and packages to his home. This kept her name off of anything that might include a physical address, and he was happy to provide her with both a home and access to the confidential address that he himself used due to the dangerous nature of many of the cases he worked on at his job. He fully understood the need for residential secrecy after sending more than one dangerous individual to prison.

Jade’s friend, Thomas Neeley, was someone she had met years before in one of her college courses in Oklahoma when she was still sixteen. Despite the fact that he was three years older than her, with her being underage, they dated while she attended classes there. Their relationship rivaled the hottest steam room, but after graduation, they each went their separate ways. Tom went to New York, where he became a renowned, high-powered attorney, and Jade went to Texas to another university. Still, they stayed in touch and remained very close.

It was late into Jade’s first week attending classes at her latest university, and it was now two months after moving in with Tom. This was her second time being in New York for school, and the second time she had lived with Tom as well. Classes had started three weeks before, but she enrolled late and missed the first two weeks. Tom drove her to the first day of her Physics class on his way to work since she did not own a car, and he did not want her walking due to a storm that had rolled in during the night. Her classes ran from Monday through Friday, with this class meeting every Tuesday and Thursday. Her name had just been added to this class the day before after a technical error resulted in too many students being added to her original Physics class.

Whereas most people might have been annoyed at the last-minute change, she actually welcomed it. She did not care for the instructor of her original class, Dr. Mackey. Physics was clearly not his area of expertise, and she had no idea why he was teaching it. Dr. Archibald Mackey was heralded as an expert in Erotic Studies, but he was in no way qualified to teach Physics. In fact, during the class two days before, Jade had to correct him on multiple facts during his lecture. Even worse, she noticed how he kept leering at the female students, speaking in suggestive tones as he leaned over them to glance at their notes, and down their blouses, as he answered questions. Worse yet, the lascivious bastard had the nerve to suggest that she meet up with him later so that he could help her catch up on the lectures she had missed. Clearly, he was an ignorant letch who had no business teaching Physics, and Jade wanted no part of having him as a teacher.

Upon arriving, she walked into class and took a seat in the front row. The professor looked up from his desk, and their eyes met. He welcomed her to class in a thick Scottish accent that made her smile… and her heart race. She nodded at him and rifled through her bag as she scolded herself for being such a giddy girl.

He stood and approached her, holding a piece of paper and smiling as he said, “You must be Ms. Malcolm. I’m Professor Seanix Flannery, and this…” He held out the paper. “…is the syllabus for my class. I’ll give you three weeks to get caught up since you missed the first two weeks of class and will have the work from this week as well to complete. But, please bear in mind, I don’t give extensions.”

He was thirteen years older than Jade at forty-seven years old and had brown hair, with just a touch of gray at the temples, and slight stubble. His hair was shoulder length and wavy, and his eyes were brown. They sparkled with great youth as he smiled. She could not help but notice how attractive he was and his strong, yet slender, build. Looking younger than he actually was, Jade thought that he was much closer to her own age. In fact, before he had removed glasses that had adorned his face to walk over to her, she found the sexy professor look to be a bit too much for her to handle without blushing.

Composing herself, Jade shook her head and pulled papers from her bag saying, “It’s nice to meet you, Professor, but there’s no need for the syllabus or the extension.” She handed him the papers and smiled. “I downloaded it a few days ago and did all the work. Here it is.”

By this time, she had long since left her backward, country drawl behind in her efforts to escape her past. It now only came out when she was angry, trying to prove an emphatic point, or was otherwise worked up.

Professor Flannery raised his eyebrows, surprised, and breathed a laugh as he took her papers, reacting with, “Wow. I have to say…” He looked the papers over and gave a sideways nod. “…in my many years of teaching, this is a first.”

Jade returned his laugh. “Well, I’m not your usual student. This ain’t m’ first rodeo.” They snickered at this, and she added, “I’m hardly new at this. I actually have all the assignments done through the entire course, but at the risk of seeming like a kiss-up, I’ll just hand these in for now.”

Professor Flannery winked and pointed at her as he walked away. “I can tell I’m gonna have trouble with you.”

Jade snickered. She could not help but look at his buttocks as he walked away. She found him incredibly attractive and felt herself grow hot when he looked at her. He was far from the first attractive teacher she had had, but he was the first to make her feel like that. She even dated her fair share of professors during her scholastic career, and many of the relationships were rather steamy. But none of the other instructors had such a sexy accent, or such an immediate and intense effect on her. She quickly brushed it off as an infatuation because of his accent; she loved all things Scottish. She just was not the type to react that way to a man, and in fact, she would rather do without them, for the most part. After growing up with the father she had, she did not trust them any further than she could throw them. Moreover, the only males she truly trusted with her heart were her brothers and Tom. This largely accounted for why she never married, even though she blamed it on her continued pursuit of education.

***

Jade attentively sat through class, taking notes, and listening to the lecture as she had done so many times before in so many other classrooms. This was not the first time she had taken Physics, but she found that different instructors tended to put a different spin on the information. This time was no different. It was like taking a new class.

After class was over, she did as she always did at the end of her first week: decided which class she liked best and approached that instructor to see about working as his or her “TA”: Teacher’s Assistant. This time, she chose Professor Flannery.

Once all of the other students left the room, Jade gathered her things and walked over to Seanix’s desk. He sat on the corner of the desk looking through papers just handed in by the students as they left the room. He looked up and smiled at her as she approached, making her knees weak, and causing her to scold herself once more.

“How can I help you, Ms. Malcolm?” he asked.

Jade answered, “Please, call me Jade.”

He nodded and set the papers on his desk before turning back to her. “Okay, then. Jade, what can I do for you?”

She replied, “Well, I was wondering if you already have a TA?”

He shook his head. “No, I don’t. I actually don’t use one.”

Jade felt more than a little disappointed as she inquired, “Would you consider using one? It’s something I do to keep myself busy and to get more out of my educational experience.”

Seanix folded his hands on his leg and looked at her inquisitively, commenting, “If I may say so, you’re not exactly what I expected when your name was added to my class roster.”

Jade asked, “How so?”

He thought for a moment and stated, “Most of my students are the usual college-age, roughly eighteen to twenty-five years of age, but even the older students who choose to return to college to better themselves… How can I put this respectfully? They aren’t… in their… thirties?… and so driven. They especially don’t finish all their work before their first day of class.” He scoffed with polite amusement. “You might as well just hand me all of your papers and go home with your grade for the year.” He smiled slyly at her and winked, making her laugh. “So, why are you here?”

Jade answered, “First off, I’m thirty-four, so good estimation. And, I’m here to learn. Just like everyone else. And I really would like to be your TA.”

Seanix stood and walked around his desk to his chair. He sat down and leaned back in his seat, looking down at his hands which were folded in his lap. Finally, he looked up at her and rubbed the scruff at his chin as he responded to her.

“I’d like to say yes, but the truth is, I just don’t participate in the TA program. I’m afraid I can’t accept your offer.” He smiled again and added, “Thank you, but I just can’t.”

Jade was terribly disappointed. She could not understand, but she did not want to argue with him.

Dejected, she remarked, “I truly wish you would change your mind. If you do, please, let me know. I’ve been to my other classes already this week, and yours is the one I really would like to help with.”

Seanix nodded. “If that happens, I will. However…” He shook his head. “…please, don’t get your hopes up. I don’t see it changing.”

Wishing she could say something to change his mind, but not wanting to appear argumentative, Jade thanked him for his time and left the room. As she walked to her next class, she contemplated ideas for how she might be able to change his mind. It was then that she looked down and saw a paper in her hand. She groaned, realizing she neglected to hand in her paper from that day’s class: a pop quiz. Professor Flannery had tried to excuse her from the quiz, with it being her first day, but she insisted on taking it with the rest of the class… and would surprise him as he graded it later by getting every answer right. She spun around and jogged back to the classroom, hoping to catch the professor before he left the room.

When Jade reached the room, she saw the door closed, but the light was still on and shone through the door’s window. She peeked inside and saw the professor with the president of the university, Devon Maxwell. A tall, imposing black man of six-foot-four who was a third-generation Jamaican-American, he looked frightful next to Seanix’s smaller stature of only five-foot-six. They appeared to be having an intense conversation. Devon even seemed angry, while Seanix appeared to be trying to convince him there was nothing to worry about. Whatever it was, it was important… and from the look of the closed door, private. Jade stood and watched, trying to hear, but unable to. All she could make out was Devon saying something about Seanix not pressing his luck and how next time, Seanix would lose his tenure. Then, she made out Seanix saying something about being fully aware of how lucky he had been and how much he owed Devon for sticking his neck out for Seanix. Other than that, she could not make out the rest. She then realized they could see her standing there if they looked over, so she quickly walked away from the door and sat on a nearby bench to wait for the two men to finish speaking. She did not have long to wait before the door opened and Devon emerged with Seanix at his side.

Devon shot Seanix a look, to which Seanix sighed, held up his hands in concession, and said, “Don’t worry, Devon. I know.”

Devon was clearly agitated. He rubbed the back of his neck and walked away without another word. After watching Devon make his way down the hall and up a flight of stairs, Seanix turned to Jade and smiled, but this time, she could tell it was forced.

“You’ll be late for your next class.”

Jade smiled back and held out her paper. “I was so caught up with our discussion that I forgot to hand you this.”

“Ah, yes,” he replied, taking the paper from her. “Now, off you go! I can’t have my star pupil being late for her next class.”

Jade laughed and quipped, “It’s okay. I have to be a rebel at some point in my life.”

He leaned his head back and laughed. Then, he thought for a moment, rubbing his chin, and said, “I’ll tell ya what… Come on back in here, and I’ll give you a pass instead.”

Jade shook her head. “Nah. Like you said, I’m not your normal student. If I’m late, I’m late. I already have all that class’s work done too, so I’m not worried about being late one time. In fact…” She paused and then added saucily with a slight lift of her chin, “I think I’ll just take my time walking over.”

Seanix pointed at her, smiling as he jested, “I told you you’d be trouble.” The two laughed, and then, becoming more serious, he admitted, “If I did participate in the TA program, you’re just the assistant I’d want.”

“Thank you,” Jade replied, feeling herself blush a bit, something she never did. “I’m not giving up.”

He looked at her seriously and observed, “Something tells me you’re not the type to give up. What degree are you going for?”

“Physics, of course,” she answered.

He nodded and looked thoughtful as he asked, “How about if I set you up with one of the other Physics instructors as their TA?”

“No, thank you,” she said. “I’m really hoping you change your mind.”

He shook his head. “Even if I did, I’m afraid I still couldn’t do it. But, if you change your mind, let me know. I’ll set you up with another instructor who I think you’ll like. She’s a bit of a free spirit.”

Jade did not understand why he could not accept her as his TA, but instead of pursuing the issue right then and there, she thanked him and parted ways with him. All the way to her next class, she thought about what she saw through the window and wondered if it had anything to do with why Seanix could not have a TA. She just could not figure it out, but for now, she decided to focus on her classes.

***

Jade finished her classes for the day and sat in the courtyard of the university reading a book and snacking on crackers. She still had her way with animals, and a squirrel sat on the seat next to her. She took a cracker for herself and then gave one to her furry friend, while still reading. When she took too long handing out the crackers, her furry friend would chirp at her and try to get into the box himself. She laughed each time and handed him a handful of crackers, instead of just one, to reward his boldness.

As she sat reading, she also contemplated an important decision she had to make. Tom had asked her to stay with him permanently. During dinner the evening before, he had invited her to be his permanent housemate, pointing out that with his position of authority, any further attempts by her father to harm her would be met with swift action. He would not get away with it again. Likewise, her brothers and mother could then relocate to a place nearby, and they would also be protected from her father. She did like it in New York, and next to her brothers and her childhood friend Levi, Tom was the best friend she ever had. It would be nice to stay with him and know that she was safe, not having to hide or move again. Tom’s house was even surrounded by a security fence with a secured gate that required admission from within the home or a code to enter. She was tired of moving around just to stay safe. The idea appealed to her.

After a while of sharing a snack with the squirrel and reading as she mulled over Tom’s offer, she decided it was time to head home and fix supper for herself and Tom. She gathered her things, said goodbye to her furry friend with a gentle pet on the head, and stood to leave.

As she started walking, she looked around at the other people in the courtyard, most of whom were nearly half her age, and smiled to herself. She enjoyed college, but she found it amusing that she was still going at it at thirty-four, with no plans to stop any time soon. Then, her eyes stopped on one person. She saw Seanix sitting on a bench in the courtyard, drinking coffee, and engrossed in grading papers. He looked up and glanced around him, stopping as he caught sight of her. He smiled, nodded with a raise of his coffee mug, and then returned to his work after she nodded back. She walked away with the image of his smile still in her mind, and she realized she was smiling at the thought of it. She told herself she was being silly for how she felt every time their eyes met. After all, she didn’t even know anything about him. Was he married? She saw no ring. Did he have a girlfriend? She had no way of knowing. Did he even like women? Again, she could only guess. She knew nothing about him. Still, she could not help but smile at the thought of him, and she really wanted to get to know more about him.

Pulling earbuds from the pocket of her leather jacket and inserting them into her ears as she started the music on her phone, she continued walking and thinking about Seanix. It was a long walk, and the music helped the walk seem faster. Within minutes, she was lost in the music that streamed through her earbuds.

The campus was connected to the main road by a long street that was lined on either side by a wooded area that surrounded the campus on all sides. The road was roughly two miles long. She was about a mile away from the university, walking along this extended road when her thoughts were interrupted by a car pulling up next to her. Seeing Seanix behind the wheel, she removed her earbuds and slowed her stride as the car approached, keeping pace with her as the front passenger window lowered slowly.

“Could I give you a lift somewhere?” he asked, smiling that beautiful, crooked smile that had an obvious effect on many of his female students.

Wishing she could hop right into the car with him, Jade returned his smile and answered, “No, that’s okay. I enjoy the walk. Since it’s not raining anymore, I called my ride earlier to let him know I’d be walking.”

Seanix looked concerned. “I’d rather not just leave you to walk alone. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but there have been some assaults on our female students on campus.”

Jade laughed, “My ride was also concerned about me, with it being New York and all. But, I grew up with two brothers and an abusive father. I can handle myself pretty well. Anyone who messes with this country girl deserves what he gets. Thank you, though.”

Still, Seanix persisted, “Please, let me drive you to wherever you’re going. I’d feel better about it.”

Jade stopped walking, and Seanix stopped his car. She looked at him and thought for a moment before giving in and climbing into the car. She fastened her seatbelt and thanked him.

“I appreciate the ride, but it really isn’t necessary.”

He started the car moving again and asked where she wanted him to take her. She gave him her address, and he nodded knowingly, familiar with the part of town where she lived.

After a moment, he commented, “That area of town is quite exclusive. Very nice homes there. So, your ride… You said it was a ‘he?’ Husband?”

Jade laughed, “Not hardly. An old friend. Probably the very best friend I’ve ever had, next to my brothers and a neighbor boy I grew up with. My friend’s a lawyer here in town, and I’m staying with him.”

Seanix raised his eyebrows and sucked in air through his teeth, proclaiming, “A lawyer? I’d better mind my manners then. I don’t wanna make any lawyers angry. I had enough of that with my divorce.”

Jade laughed again. “Divorced, huh? How long ago?”

“Two years,” he answered. “How about you?”

Jade shrugged. “I never married. My life has been a series of universities. That’s how my friend and I met… in college many years ago.”

“Another piece to the puzzle,” he said, winking with a hint of intrigue and making her laugh again. “What brings you to New York?”

Jade told him about her many degrees: masters and doctorates, many of which were earned simultaneously, and her quest for more. She explained that she was from Tennessee and that she didn’t really have any family to speak of, other than a mother and two brothers who she rarely saw. She left out why she rarely saw them, but she told him how her friend offered her a place to stay if she moved to New York for her next set of degrees. She followed this up by telling him how it was actually her second time both in New York and living with this friend and that her friend had offered her a permanent place to live if she was tired of moving around.

The time went by so fast as she told him how she ended up in New York that she did not realize they had arrived at her home. Before she knew it, they had been sitting in front of her home for over an hour visiting.

She laughed about this and said, “Well, now you know about me. Next time, it’s your turn.”

He laughed too and shook his head, grimacing a bit. “My story would bore you. But, I’m glad to know a wee bit more about you now. I enjoy knowing about my students.”

Jade’s heart sank at hearing that. She hoped his interest in her story indicated at least a small interest in her, but that was ridiculous. He was her professor, and she was his student. Period. Although she had dated some of her professors in the past, most of them were unwilling to cross that line, and rightfully so. Seanix was likely among those instructors with a strict code of ethics, unlike the professors she dated in the past. She smiled politely, thanked him for the ride, and climbed out of the car. She felt like she could cry as she walked to the front door, unlocked it, and opened it. She then turned with one last wave and a forced smile, watching as he drove away.

Entering the house and slamming the door behind her a bit harder than she intended, she chastised herself for being so emotional over a man she just met. She then made her way to the kitchen and started fixing supper, but she could not stop thinking about Seanix saying that he enjoyed knowing about his students. With how it upset her, you would think he had insulted her.

Her thoughts continued to be consumed by him throughout the evening, and Thomas noticed that she was preoccupied as they ate supper together.

“Jade?” he said, apparently not for the first time, hoping to snap her out of her trance. “Is everything okay, J?”

Jade looked up, surprised, and answered, “Oh, yeah. Sorry. Just thinking about my day, that’s all.”

Thomas knew her better than that, so he tilted his head and pressed, “Okay. What happened that has you so preoccupied?”

Jade sighed, “I dunno. I’m just being stupid. I need to just focus and stop being some silly school-girl.”

Thomas smiled and observed playfully, “Oh, a man. Find your latest conquest, have you?”

“No!” she exclaimed. “I only have one use for a man, and it’s not a relationship!”

“Hence the word ‘conquest.’” He choked on his food laughing but saw she was not amused. So, he sighed, taking a sip of his wine. “You protest too much, My Dear. That tells me I’m right. And the fact that you said ‘relationship’ when I was just talking about your usual flings also speaks volumes.”

Jade angrily snapped, “Tom, you c’n just shut th’ hell up, ‘n stop lawyerin’ me. I ain’t got no need fer a man but one, ‘n it ain’t love.”

“Oh, she protests too much, and her redneck comes out. It must be love.” He continued laughing as she irritably started clearing the dishes. Then, he held out one hand over a plate that she was about to grab, saying, “Relax, I’ll get those later. Sorry. I guess the lawyer in me came out a bit there. But really, J… If you don’t have a crush, and you’re not in love, then what is it?”

Jade sighed and sat back down, responding, “I dunno. I guess I’m just irritated that the professor I want to be a TA for doesn’t use them. I’ve been trying to figure out a way to change his mind, but I’m coming up empty.”

“Is that all?” Tom asked. “That’s easy, J. Go to the powers that be. Convince them that he needs an assistant and that the one he needs is you. Another option is to show him that he needs your help.”

“How can I do that?” she groaned. “Steal some of his papers and grade them for him?”

Tom laughed, “As a lawyer and an officer of the court, I can’t advocate thievery. But…”

Jade laughed too and then remembered the stack of ungraded papers on Seanix’s desk more than a foot tall. She knew that was the way. She had to show him what she could do.

“That’s actually a great idea about talking to the higher-ups and showing him what I can do. I mean, I have over a dozen master’s and doctorate degrees, for crying out loud.” She paused before adding, “Hell, even if it doesn’t get me in as his assistant, they might wanna offer me a job. Either way, I’ll be working with him.”

Tom shook his head, laughing even harder as he asked, “Why do you have your heart set on this one professor? It can’t be love because I know you love me.”

He smirked, and she scoffed, “Keep dreamin’, Son.”

He sighed playfully, “Every night, My Dear… and sometimes twice in the shower.” He roared with laughter as she groaned before becoming more serious and asking, “Seriously, J… Why?”

She shrugged. “I dunno. I just like his style. The way he teaches and his demeanor in the classroom… Well, he just seems like the perfect professor to work with. Honestly, straight out o’ the gate, he seemed like the best teacher I’ve encountered in all my years of schooling.”

“Jade,” Tom said, taking her hand and looking into her eyes. “Have you ever thought about teaching? Just quitting your media work and settling down here as a college professor? You know so much, and you’d be great at teaching. Hell! You could still do your journalism on the side if you wanted to. Plus…” He stopped and looked down. Then, he looked back up at her again. “You could stay here with me as long as you want. You don’t have to move again. Just move in with me permanently. This can be our home, not just mine.”

Realizing that Tom was hinting at the feelings that she knew he had for her, she looked at him sadly, replying, “Tom, I am considering your offer to stay here. In fact, I’ve decided that I want to. So, yes, I happily do accept. But you know how I grew up. You know that I would tear apart any man I tried to be with because of my inability to truly trust a man.”

“I’d like to think you trust me,” he whispered. “You know me, and you know I could never be like your father. I could never hurt you or cheat on you. You know that.”

Jade nodded. “Yes, I do know that, and I do trust you.” She smiled at him and stood up, kissing him on his forehead. “I’m blessed to have the affections of such a good man. Thank you for a home to call my own and for your patience with me. But I just can’t trust myself with a good man romantically… and besides, you know I don’t feel that way about you, Tom. You’re my best friend, and I do love you… but not in that way. I’m sorry.”

With that, she excused herself and went upstairs to her room as he watched her walk away. She closed her bedroom door and lay on her bed, thinking about the day and her conversation with Tom until she fell asleep.

***

Two weeks later, Tom dropped Jade off like he had done multiple times before on his way to work, and she made her way to class. In truth, she knew her eagerness to get to class had less to do with the class itself and more to do with Professor Flannery. This thought made her smile to herself as she approached the open classroom door.

She was half an hour early due to Tom needing to get to work early, but she was more than okay with that. She intended to sit and read while she waited for class to start, but she knew Seanix would be there already and hoped for a bit of conversation as well. Over the past two weeks, the two had enjoyed many conversations and laughter together as they got to know one another. They seemed to be friends more than professor and student, and she believed their ages played a role in the reason way.

Upon reaching the classroom, she saw the door was already open, indicating Seanix was there early, as expected. She started to walk in, but she stopped abruptly at seeing a young woman standing at Seanix’s desk talking to him. The woman, who Jade recognized as a student named Lexie Barnes, was standing rather seductively, deliberately leaning over the desk in a way that ensured Seanix could see down her shirt. She seemed to be speaking sensually to him. He was visibly irritated and was looking down at some papers in his hands, obviously avoiding looking up because of her pose that positioned her rather voluminous breasts right at eye level.

“Sean, I’m hoping for a bit of extra credit for your class. I just can’t seem to keep up, and I thought maybe I could stop past your house tonight for a little help catching up,” she said, making it clear that she intended to exchange sex for a good grade.

Seanix purposefully continued to look down at his papers. Then, sighing, he set the papers down on his desk and thought about how to respond, still without lifting his eyes. After a brief moment, he rubbed his face with his hands, stood up, walked over to his whiteboard, and started writing on it as he replied to her.

“Lexie, I told you already that I’m not interested. I tried to think of a way to say this politely, but instead, I’ll be direct… No… I will not entertain your offer… Not now, not ever. You need to leave. Now.”

Ignoring his refusal, she sauntered around his desk, whispering, “C’mon, Sean. I know how to change your mind.”

She then wrapped her arms around him from behind, rubbing against him, and running her hands sensually from his chest down toward his belt buckle. Seanix quickly took her hands and removed them from his belt as he spun around to face her.

He stepped away from her, and ordered, “Stop that right now, Lexie. I said no, and I mean no. If you try this again, I’ll drop you from my class.” He stopped and then corrected himself after a moment’s thought. “On second thought, consider it done. You’re out of my class. Now leave.”

Lexie looked shocked. She started to say something, but then she saw Jade standing silently, clearly unsure of what to do, in the doorway.

Instead of continuing her efforts to change Seanix’s mind due to having company, she glared at him and spat, “Fuck you, prick.”

Lexie then angrily stormed from the room, nearly knocking Jade over in the process.

Jade stumbled over herself to find the words, before finally saying, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt. I just got here early and thought I’d sit and read a bit before class.”

Seanix shook his head. “It’s alright. How much of that did you hear?”

Jade answered, “Not much. Just her trying to get you to do something unethical and you saying no.” She stopped and added, “You did the right thing.”

He forced a smile. “Thank you. I guess it’s one of the hazards of teaching college.”

Jade smiled at him reassuringly. “I guess so. There are those who would’ve happily accepted her advances. But you obviously hold yourself to a higher standard than that. Looking at her, it couldn’t have been easy.”

Seanix looked at her as though he was going to say something, but then forced a laugh and just shrugged instead. Jade felt bad for him, and she could see that the confrontation with Lexie took a toll on him. Although she wondered how Lexie felt comfortable enough to try such a thing, she figured Lexie was just a bit too bold… and loose. Dropping the matter, she took her usual seat in the front row and retrieved one of her books from her bag, a book about real-life accounts of undocumented and mysterious creatures. She opened the book and tried to read it, but she could not focus on it. Her attention kept returning to Seanix, who sat at his desk deep in thought. He had papers in front of him as though he was grading them, but he seemed instead to simply be staring right through them. Her heart broke for this man she barely knew. He seemed to be a million miles away, perhaps mourning a past like her own, perhaps not, but it seemed his conversation with Lexie triggered something within him… some internal struggle. Finally, she could stand it no longer and wanted to help get his mind off of it.

“Ya know,” she said, startling him back to reality and causing him to quickly look up at her. “It’s hard being around all these kids half my age with no one to really talk to. Would it be against any rules if I invited you to join me later for a drink or something? Just as two adults enjoying time together, of course. Not anything inappropriate.”

Seanix smiled and leaned back in his chair. Her suggestion seemed to lift his spirits, and the darkness that had clouded his eyes before dissipated, leaving only the sparkling brown eyes she knew.

“Well, the university would likely frown on its professors socializing with the students, but I understand why you’d ask. There are a few other older students on campus you could socialize with, but I don’t think they’d be your cup of tea.”

Jade asked, “Why is that?”

He shrugged. “You seem a wee bit more refined. The other older students…” He stopped and laughed. “Well, they seem to be trying to relive their youth through partying with the eighteen to twenty-year-olds.”

Jade laughed too. “Yeah, that’s not me at all. I wouldn’t relive that age for anything. I was still trying to …” She abruptly stopped as she caught herself nearly saying something she did not want to say. She almost said, escape my abusive father, but then she thought better of it. It was bad enough that she had mentioned him once before already. She stopped smiling, remembering her own past. Then she said, “Well, it wasn’t a pleasant time.”

Seanix could see that something had changed her mood. He continued to look at her, wanting to say something to cheer her up again. After a moment, he started to speak, only to be interrupted by students entering the room for class. He looked at his watch and realized it was nearly time for class to start.

He smiled at her and said, “I guess I’d better prepare for work.”

She smiled back and nodded. She felt a connection with him, and she was glad they had a chance to talk before class started. It was nice having someone to talk to on campus that did not seem like a child to her. As the students continued to pour in, she looked at each of them and wondered if she had been as naïve when she was their age as they seemed to her now.

There was one student in particular who caught her attention. His name was Todd Miller, and he seemed to dislike Seanix. He often sneered at Seanix and spoke to him in a disrespectful tone. However, Seanix dismissed it with veiled derision that seemed to also bring a subtle touch of sadness to Seanix’s eyes, while still outwardly appearing strong, as though Todd did not bother him. Jade had lost count of how many times Todd had gone out of his way to be verbally abusive toward Seanix during previous classes. She had also witnessed this numerous times while walking around campus and seeing encounters between the two. She wondered why Seanix ignored Todd’s behavior, but today Todd seemed even more disrespectful than usual. As he entered the room, he was even fouler than he normally was toward the instructor.

Seanix looked up at Todd as he entered the room and welcomed Todd to class, with his usual reference of ‘Mr.’ or ‘Miss’, to which Todd muttered, “Whatever, prick. Go fuck yourself.”

This needless remark infuriated Jade, and unable to stay silent any longer, she spoke up, saying, “Todd, I realize that kids your age have no respect for authority, but that was uncalled for.”

Seanix waved it off, saying, “It’s okay, Jade. Thank you.”

Todd sat down and glared at Jade, sneering, “Ya know, I don’t remember asking your opinion.”

Undaunted, and perhaps with the country girl inside of her thrilled at finding a fight, Jade smiled. “No need. It was my pleasure to give it to you anyway. Now stop acting like a spoiled brat and show some respect, Son.”

“I’m not your son, bitch,” Todd retorted, causing Seanix to snap his head up from papers he had been looking over.

Without hesitation, Seanix firmly said, “Mr. Miller, I realize you don’t care for me, and that’s fine. But you will conduct yourself with respect in my classroom, or you can get out and not come back.”

Todd sat straight up and looked at Seanix in obvious defiance. “You mean like my sister? You know, today is a special day… an anniversary of sorts. I’m sure you remember what happened to my sister on this day two years ago.”

“That’s it,” Seanix said, angrily dropping papers onto his desk and standing from his chair. He pointed to the door, ordering, “Get out.”

Todd leaned back in his seat and crossed his legs. “No.”

He then looked at Jade as though daring her to say something.

She just shook her head and said, “Why don’t you change classes if you dislike Professor Flannery so much? Why does it seem like you’re only here to be an ass and make his job more difficult?”

Todd shrugged and grinned smugly, looking at Seanix. “Do you want to answer that, or should I? Or maybe you’ve found a new favorite student in her?” He then looked at Jade and added, “Let’s just say, I like this room… and this seat.”

Jade replied, “Then sit there and shut the hell up so the rest of us can do what we came here for.”

Todd leaned in toward her and said, “You can come over here and suck my…”

Seanix heard enough. He interrupted Todd, exclaiming, “That’s it! I’m dropping you from the class as of now. Talking to me like that is one thing, but I won’t have you talking to her like that. Get out, or I’ll call security to escort you out.”

Todd scoffed, “You sure you really wanna do that?”

In answer to the question, Seanix walked over to the open door and pointed into the hall, saying simply, “Out.”

Todd laughed, gathered his things, and left. On his way out, he smiled at Seanix and said, “You can drop me, but you haven’t seen the last of me.”

As Todd left, Seanix slammed the door behind him. He then turned to the class and said, “My apologies, class. Some people just like to make waves. However, now that that’s over with, let’s get down to business, shall we?”

Seanix then started his lecture, after making eye contact once more with Jade. As he began, Jade saw him in a different light: strong, yet not overbearing. She liked seeing that side of him, and she was taken aback by it. She was unaccustomed to seeing a man like that, and she wondered how he kept from picking Todd up by his scruff and tossing him out. It showed a great deal of restraint, and it showed her more about who he was as a person… and as a man. She found herself liking him even more after the confrontations with both Lexie and Todd. This was how she felt a man should be, and she just had to be his assistant.

***

After class, Jade once again waited for everyone else to file out of the room before gathering her things to leave. She approached Seanix’s desk, where he was sitting on the corner and looking through papers that students had handed him on their way out. She eyed the ever-growing stack of ungraded papers on his desk.

“Ya know,” she supposed, “if you had an assistant, you could get those graded much faster.”

He breathed a laugh, responding, “And if I had one, I’m sure you would be a great one. It’s a pity that I can’t do that.”

She asserted, “Maybe you can and just don’t know it yet. I’m not giving up.”

He looked at her, smiling. He admired her polite persistence, and if he were completely honest, he would have admitted that he found her quite endearing.

“I admire your determination. I can still set you up with another professor.”

She shook her head, stating happily, “No, thanks.” She thought for a minute and added, “How about this… Don’t have me as your official assistant. Just let me take that stack home over the weekend, and you’ll have them all back and properly graded by Monday.”

He looked at the stack as though he was actually considering her offer, but then he shook his head with a sigh that sounded a touch disappointed.

“No, I’m sorry. I just can’t. Although, I would be quite impressed if you did so.” He suddenly looked over at the doorway, causing Jade to look too. Devon stood there looking stern, and Seanix politely smiled as he told Jade, “Excuse me for a moment.”

Seanix stood and walked over to Devon. They stepped outside of the room to talk, closing the door behind them. She could see through the window that their conversation was once again intense, but she was not concerned with that right then. She instantly thought back to her conversation with Tom and remembered her idea of thievery. She had not yet gone through with it because she was worried about doing so and getting caught, but was it really a bad thing if done for the right reason? She decided that she no longer cared, and she just had to jump in with both feet and take a chance. So, she looked up to see if either of the two men was looking her way. Seeing that neither was, she quickly, yet carefully, removed a large section from the bottom of the ungraded papers and slipped them into her bag. She then hurried to the door, opened it, and walked past the men before Seanix could notice what she had done. She stopped a few yards from the men as they spoke in hushed, yet heated, voices and turned back around.

She called over to Devon, “Pardon me, Mr. Maxwell?” He looked up at her. “I was hoping to have a meeting with you tomorrow morning regarding an important matter. Do I need to make an appointment?”

Devon shook his head, forcing a smile. “No, my door is always open to the students. Just come to my office first thing in the morning, and I’ll be happy to meet with you.”

She thanked him, nodded a farewell to Seanix, which he returned, and turned away, hearing their hushed voices resume behind her. Instead of going to her next class, she skipped it and walked straight home, where she began grading the papers. She worked on them for eight hours, finishing around supper time. She was completely unaware of the late hour until Tom knocked on her bedroom door. She hurriedly covered the papers, feeling guilty as though she had been caught doing something wrong, and he opened the door.

“Hey,” he said. “Everything alright?”

She nodded. “Yeah, why do you ask?”

He answered, “Usually when I come home, you have supper ready.”

Jade looked at the clock and gasped, “Oh, no! I’m so sorry. I totally lost track of time.” She quickly began gathering the papers and sticking them into her bag. She jumped up and grabbed her purse saying, “I actually have somewhere to be, but I can warm something up for you real quick first if ya need. I’ll be grabbing something out for myself.”

Tom shook his head and looked at her curiously as he responded, “No, that’s okay. You don’t have to fix me supper all the time. I was just worried because you normally do.”

She kissed him on the cheek as she rushed past him and down the hall toward the stairs, declaring, “Okay. Don’t wait up for me. I’m not sure how long I’ll be.”

“Where are you going?” he called after her as she ran down the stairs.

However, she did not hear him. She was a woman on a mission, and she had tunnel vision at that moment.

She simply called back up the stairs, “Can I use your car?”

“Yes,” he answered. “But where are you …”

He heard the front door shut before he could get the question out. He laughed and shook his head. She clearly would have taken his car whether he responded or not, and he found that both funny and nice. It showed that she was comfortable living there and sharing his things. That was what he hoped for when originally inviting her to stay with him, handing her copies of his house and car keys, and then recently asking her to stay there permanently. He always knew how impetuous she could be, and it was one of the many things he loved about her. He did not know what she was up to, but that was okay. He could see that she was on a mission that only she could possibly understand.

Tom fell in love with Jade when they dated years before, and he always wanted her to be his. This impulsive nature of hers was just one of the many things that attracted him to her. Tom was of Native American heritage. With understated muscles, long black hair, a substantial income, and a handsome, youthful appearance, he never had any trouble attracting women, but Jade was the only one he ever truly wanted… the love of his life. He had previously believed that he could talk her into staying in New York and being with him. Now that she was living with him, he felt like that was a huge step, and it was enough for the time being. All he had to do next was help her see how great they were together, and he had no doubt that she would love him too… in time. Until then, he was happy just having her near him, and he was willing to be patient.

Turning of the Tide

Later that evening, Seanix sat on his couch with a glass of wine in one hand and a pen in the other. He leaned over his coffee table, where he had the stack of ungraded papers that previously sat on his desk, and he was now working on grading them. His supper was cooking on the stove, and he had Tchaikovsky playing on his stereo. He found it hard to focus on his work because he could not get Jade off of his mind. He found himself smiling at the thought of her and her diligence at wanting to be his assistant. He had brought the matter up with Devon, who outright rejected the idea, but Seanix still tried to convince his old friend to make an exception this one time. The conversation did not go well… a fact which made Seanix breathe a laugh as he thought back to it. He knew he had no one but himself to blame for not being granted the ability to have an assistant, and he hoped he never had to explain why to Jade. Even so, he found her resolve quite appealing.

He leaned back on the couch and sipped his wine thinking about her. Getting to know her over the past two weeks had been quite nice. They had run into each other in the courtyard on campus, as well as off-campus, multiple times, and their visits were always quite enjoyable. She was unlike any other woman he had ever known, and he wished he could tell her so. He wished he could get to know her one-on-one, but this concept held many perils.

First and foremost, since she was one of his students, it was out of the question. He felt a bit saddened by that, but at the same time, he felt it was for the best. Therein lay the second, and likely most important, peril of all: his past. If she knew about his past, she would have nothing more to do with him. He was divorced for a reason. He was alone for a reason. No matter how much he wished otherwise, it had to stay that way, and he could not tell her the reasons why. At least this way, by keeping her from discovering his past, he could enjoy interactions with her, albeit brief ones. Finally, she was a good woman. He saw it the moment their eyes first met. Her heart and soul shone through in those amazing green eyes of hers and that country-girl smile that brought a smile to his own lips by merely thinking about it. Then, there was the way she stood up to Todd. He breathed a laugh at recalling how she gave the young man fits not only in class that day but also in previous encounters with him. She did not back down when he disrespected her, and for every rude remark he had, she wasted no time in putting him down with one of her own. Seanix could see that Todd actually liked her; that was why he continued coming at her. He seemed to enjoy their verbal sparring sessions, but she ended up giving him fits every time, making him “madder than a wet hornet,” as Jade would say, while barely even ruffling her feathers. A woman like her had no business being with a man like him; he would only hurt her… a cautionary fact that he would call to mind countless times after the first time they met.

He sighed and took another sip of his wine. Then, the smile returned to his lips along with a slight breath of laughter as the thought returned to him of what he had found when he returned to his desk after speaking with Devon; he saw that some of his papers were missing, and he knew Jade had taken them. He knew it was part of her efforts to show him that he needed her help, and he knew she was right. He was terribly behind in grading papers. Many of the papers that currently sat in front of him were from his advanced studies classes from the month before. The class ran through the summer and wrapped up that week, but he was nowhere near ready to post final grades.

He was contemplating how to address the matter of Jade swiping his papers when his thoughts were interrupted by the doorbell. He looked up, a little surprised because he rarely had visitors. Then, he remembered Lexie’s offer to stop past his house, and he grew worried. Hoping the visitor was not her, he stood and walked to the door, nearly afraid to open it. He took a deep breath, ready to turn Lexie away, and opened the door. To his surprise, there stood Jade, holding Chinese take-out and smiling happily, trying to hide how nervous she was.

He could not help but laugh heartily as he playfully quipped, “So, the thief comes bearing gifts.”

Jade was relieved to see that he wasn’t angry, and she sighed, “Oh, good, we can joke about this. I was worried that you’d be mad at me. But yes, I come bearing gifts. And they weren’t cheap, so you have to let me in.”

Seanix leaned his head back and laughed again. He stepped back and motioned for her to enter.

“I hope you know I could get fired for this.”

Jade walked in and put the food on the coffee table next to his papers, saying, “I won’t tell if you won’t.”

He closed the door, shaking his head as he walked over to her and sat on the couch. He thoughtfully watched as Jade unpacked the food and handed him some.

After she finished getting her own food from the bag, he said, “Miss Malcolm, you are truly a puzzle for me. I can’t figure you out.”

“Don’t try. You’ll only give yourself an aneurism,” she quipped, causing them both to erupt into laughter. After they stopped laughing, she smiled and became more serious as she sat next to him with her food. “I’m really not that complicated. Ask me anything, and I’ll tell you. I’m pretty much an open book.”

“Fair enough.” He looked her squarely in the eyes and asked, “Why are you so set on being my assistant?”

She looked back at him with genuine emotion in her eyes that touched his heart and answered, “Because you are a puzzle to me, and very few people are.” He gazed at her with those beautiful brown eyes and a slight smile, and she felt her knees go weak. “You’re an amazing teacher, and you fascinate me as both an instructor and a man. Most men your age would jump at the chance to take Lexie up on her offer, yet you didn’t. You’re a good man.” He stopped smiling and looked down at his food uncomfortably. She noticed this but continued speaking as though she had not. “I have a lot of respect for you, and I really want to work with you.”

He looked back up and smiled again, saying, “Thank you. I appreciate your kind words. I just wish I deserved them. There’s a lot about me you don’t know.”

To his astonishment, she replied, “Nor do I care.” She saw his amazement and that he was even a bit confused by her words. “Let’s just say that I want to work with you, not another instructor, and I am going to do whatever I have to do in order to be your assistant.”

“You’re that determined?”

“Yes,” she answered softly.

They sat in silence for a moment as he thought it over. Then, he sighed and nodded.

“Okay, then. I’ll do what I can to make it happen.”

She exclaimed ecstatically, “Really?!”

He smiled warmly and asserted, “Really. I’m happy to have you in my class, and I’d be honored to have you as my assistant. But, just know that it won’t be an easy sell. In fact, it’s safe to say that it won’t happen. President Maxwell and I have been friends for many years, and in fact, he’s my best pal going back to our college days. But he’s not at all likely to approve it, for good reason. Either way, if you have the request card on you, I’ll happily sign it.” He sucked in loudly through his teeth and lifted his eyebrows, adding, “I’ll likely get my ass handed to me by Devon for this, but… I think it’s worth it, so I’ll do it anyway.”

“I don’t understand that.” Jade frowned as she fished the card from her bag and handed it to him. “But, I won’t ask why. I can tell there’s something there that’s none of my business. Still, I do hope we can make this happen.” Next, she pulled the graded papers from her bag and held them out toward him. “But first, take a look and see if you even want my help before you risk an ass-kicking. These took me roughly eight hours to grade. I went straight home from your class and started them at around eleven this morning.”

She sat, quietly eating as he looked through the papers. After looking through a few of them, he raised his eyebrows and shook his head slowly as he flipped through the rest, estimating how many there were.

“I’m impressed. It would have taken me all day, if not longer, to grade this many, and from what I can see so far, you did an incredible job with both the grading and the written feedback… Although you probably should not have pretended to be me with the comments, they’re spot on.” He inquisitively shifted his gaze from the papers to her. “Why are you sitting in my classroom, instead of teaching it? You don’t need me or my class.”

Unsure what to say, Jade thoughtfully shrugged as he signed her TA request card and handed it back to her. After a moment, she turned to him.

She confessed, “I’ve never really settled down anywhere long enough to consider a profession in teaching. I know that many teachers now work from home, but that hasn’t always been the case… and it’s really only for online colleges. I work as a journalist, and I can do that from anywhere. I work from home, or wherever I am. I write for over a dozen newspapers and eight magazines. I could easily afford to settle down anywhere I’d like, but… I just don’t want to…” She paused and added softly, “…until now. I recently decided to stay here in New York and not move around anymore.”

Seanix offered her some wine, which she accepted. He stood up with his empty glass and crossed the room to a small bar, pouring the wine and thinking about what she said. He then returned, handing her one of the glasses of wine as he sat back down.

He inquired, “So, you’ve just been going from one university to another all these years?”

She nodded. “Yep. Since attending my first college at sixteen. I tried to settle down several times, but things happened that reminded me of why I keep moving.”

She looked at him and saw that he was genuinely interested in what she was saying, so she sighed and told him about her family and her past. She told him the whole grueling story about her father and why she never married. She had never told anyone the whole story before, not even Tom who had simply come to know her story over time through getting bits and pieces of the story here and there and then piecing it together for himself. When she finished telling her story, he sat quietly. He looked down at his glass of wine, and she saw a tear run down his cheek, which he quickly wiped away. He removed his reading glasses and leaned forward, laying them on the coffee table with his glass and putting his hands over his face. After a few minutes of silence, he leaned back again and looked at her.

Choosing his words carefully, he said, “I quite understand. I’m not sure how to respond though. As I said, there’s much you don’t know about me, and seeing as how we are student and professor, it’s best that way. After our visits over the past two weeks, it would be foolish to ignore the friendship that… I believe it’s safe to say… we both feel has developed between us. Let’s just say, however, that I am probably the last professor you should want to work with… much less the last person you should be friends with.”

Jade could tell he was struggling inside. She did not know what his struggle was, but it did not matter.

She put her hand on his arm and acknowledged, “I get that I don’t know much about you. I don’t care about the part of you I know nothing about. We all have a past, and we all have our struggles. All I know, sitting here right now, is that you’re a good man… and even though we’re student and instructor, I do also consider you a good friend. Plus, you’re a great teacher. I want to work with you. In fact, that’s why I’m meeting with President Maxwell tomorrow. I plan to make that happen.” She then smiled playfully. “As you saw with these papers, I’m not above being devious to get what I want… and I always get what I want.”

Seanix smiled and nodded. He felt butterflies in the pit of his stomach at her touch, something that had never happened to him before, and he could not help but hope her words were true… and that what she wanted was him… as more than a professor or even a good friend. As taboo as that thought was on every level, he still hoped. And he was flattered that she wanted to work with him so badly. After a brief, contemplative pause, he nodded.

“Okay then. But, you have your work cut out for you. You’d have better luck…” He lingered thoughtfully and then tilted his head asking, “How would one express ‘there’s not a bloody chance in hell’ where you’re from?”

She responded matter-of-factly, “You’d have better luck gettin’ a fish from a grizzly, Son.”

Laughing heartily, he nodded and pointed at her. “That would be it.” He then looked at the stack of ungraded papers on the coffee table and sighed. “Since you’re here, and since I’m likely getting fired tomorrow for this anyway, how about we get started on these?… As my secret, unofficial assistant, that is.”

Jade eagerly proclaimed, “Oh, do let’s!”

They both laughed and continued eating as they graded papers and chatted well into the night. Between the two of them, they got through his entire stack of papers that was over a foot tall. It was nearly four o’clock the next morning when they realized they had worked all night.

“Oh, wow!” Jade exclaimed. “I have to get back home. Tom will need his car for work in a couple of hours.”

Seanix yawned as they both stood and walked to the door. “Do you not have your own car?”

“No,” she answered. “I try not to leave a paper trail with my address on it, and a car title would be public record. My father could find me if I did that. So, I just walk everywhere or use Tom’s car.”

Seanix was curious about Tom, so he asked, “This Tom guy… Does he know he’s just a friend?”

Jade laughed, “Yes, he does. Although, I worry about him sometimes. I know that he wants us to be more. He’s a good man, but I just don’t feel that way about him. We dated years ago, but I never really thought of him as a prospect for anything long-term. I just never felt that way about him. Or anyone for that matter.”

“Sounds lonely,” he observed, softly.

Jade looked at him and nodded. Staring into those mesmerizing eyes hit her hard, thinking about loneliness and the fact that she was standing at the doorway of this man who affected her so deeply. She felt tears fill her eyes as they gazed at one another. A tear rolled down her cheek, and Seanix gently wiped it away, seemingly without giving the gesture a single thought. She closed her eyes at his touch, feeling guilty and trembling at how his soft, yet strong, hand felt on her skin.

Then, suddenly jolted by his own lapse in judgment and his desire to take her into his arms and give into this intense attraction, he was ripped from his trance and stepped back to gather himself.

Collecting his wits unto himself once more, he forced a smile and murmured, “Maybe someday you’ll find someone who you do see as a long-term prospect.”

She had no idea that he was secretly referring to himself, while at the same time knowing he could not risk allowing himself to be with a good woman like her. She only knew that she furtively wished that person could be him.

Collecting her own wits, Jade nodded, and they agreed to see each other the following evening to unofficially do more work together. She then said goodnight and hurried out the door, jogging to Tom’s vehicle and quickly climbing into it. After watching her pull away, he closed the door slowly before he turned and walked up the stairs to bed. He did not give the cluttered coffee table or his food that still sat on the stove, which he had turned off hours before, a second thought. All he could think about was her. As he dressed for bed, his mind raced with what he should do. He panicked as he thought back to his evening with her, and he realized how close he came to kissing her more than once… especially at the door when she left. He could not risk that happening again, but he also could not stop himself from following through with his desire to have her as his assistant, therefore enabling him to spend more time with her. He knew he broke the rules by allowing her in his home, even more so by letting her help him with his work. For that matter, nearly his every deed, word, and thought since meeting her was pushing a dangerous envelope. He was walking on very thin ice, but he could not stop himself… nor did he want to. He was torn between the ethics to which he was bound as a professor, his fear of her discovering his true nature and his past sins, and his deep desire for her.

After lying awake thinking about her for quite some time, he fell into an uneasy sleep for the next few hours before his alarm sounded. He had to be strong and resist what he was feeling for her, but the truth was, he didn’t believe he could… and he didn’t completely care about the consequences.

***

Jade spent the next three weeks trying to meet with President Maxwell. However, each time she visited his office, he was either out or busy, tending to ‘urgent university matters.’ On Wednesday of the third week, she finally had enough and expressed that she felt she was simply being “handled.” She stated that she would not allow them to continue giving her the run-around, and the office secretary, Samantha Newman, looked around nervously. She and Jade had become friends during Jade’s time at the university, and they had even gone out for drinks together multiple times.

With a quick, cautious scan around the room to ensure no one was listening, Samantha leaned forward and whispered, “I’m not supposed to say anything, but the campus rapist struck nine more times over the past few weeks. He hit five times this week alone. The latest attack was last night. President Maxwell’s worried about lawsuits, and some people are claiming it’s one of our faculty members doing it. But it’s all really hush-hush, and the students aren’t being told about it because of the trouble it could bring. The ones who know only know because they either heard the rumors, knew one of the victims, or were a victim. We’re up to seventeen victims now.”

“That’s terrible, Sam! Who’s the faculty member?!”

Sam shook her head. “I can’t say. I wasn’t even supposed to say that much. But, President Maxwell did say that if you stopped by again, I was to tell you that he has set aside some time away from this mess tomorrow morning at nine to meet with you. He said he will not miss the appointment, come hell or high water.”

Jade sighed and conceded, saying, “Okay. I guess I can understand now that I know what’s going on. I thought he was just avoiding me.”

Samantha shook her head again. “No, not at all! Devon would never do that. He’s a good guy, and he genuinely cares about the students and staff here. In fact, he wants to warn the students, but the board isn’t letting him. He’s just really been busy trying to get to the bottom of this. He spoke with the faculty member that many think is responsible for it numerous times, but he’s saying that route’s a dead end.” She shrugged. “Some are saying the president’s just covering for this faculty member because they’re close friends. This guy has a reputation for sexual misconduct on some pretty extreme levels too. It’s really such a mess.”

This made Jade think about the many, heated conversations she had seen between President Maxwell and Seanix. She also recalled Seanix mentioning a past that rendered him unworthy of her high opinion of him and which made him the last teacher she should want to work with, given her own past. These thoughts led to the close relationship that he stated he had with Devon. However, she promptly pushed those thoughts away. It all had to be a coincidence.

Jade asked, “Is there no evidence left behind?”

“Yes, DNA evidence was left at recent scenes, but it hasn’t helped. Seems this guy’s DNA isn’t on file anywhere. In fact, classes have been canceled for the rest of the week, and all male staff members have been ordered to submit DNA samples to rule them out as suspects. It was President Maxwell’s idea, as a way to stop the rumors about faculty being involved and a cover-up by him.”

Jade agreed that this was a good idea, commenting, “Well, although no one can be forced to comply with that order, I think it would speak volumes for anyone refusing to do so. Compliance is the best way to show innocence in a case like this. I hope this guy’s caught soon.” Glancing at her watch, she sighed and added, “Well, I’ll get going then. Thanks, Sam.”

Samantha replied, “You’re welcome.” Jade started to walk away, but she turned back around at hearing Samantha, call out, “Oh! Jade!”

“Yeah?”

Samantha grinned. “Professors Mackey and Rheamus invited us out for drinks tonight. Interested?”

She breathed a laugh. “You mean those two morons who were singing karaoke at the bar last week?”

Sam nodded, eagerly asking, “So? You in?”

Jade snickered, “Thanks, but I’ll pass. I actually have plans already.”

She pleaded, “Pleeeeease! Jade, I really wanna go. I haven’t been out on a date in three months, and I haven’t had sex in two! These guys are a sure thing. It’ll be like shootin’ horny fish in a barrel.”

Jade roared with laughter. “I’m gonna ignore that the numbers you just gave don’t mesh… That being said, it’s just a date with two oversexed, geezer teachers who can’t carry a tune to save their lives, Sam.”

“Yeah… two oversexed, geezer teachers of Erotic Studies who’ve been in the top of their field for twenty-five years. So, hop to it and dress sexy!”

Jade laughed so hard she nearly choked. She hated to do this, but she could see that Samantha wanted to go. She sighed with a long groan and relented.

“Fine, but I agree to this under great protest.”

Sam cheered, “Yay! You won’t regret it… and I already told them you’d go.”

“You did what?!”

She waved Jade off. “Oh, don’t be such a prude. You told me about all the professors you dated. They’re picking me up from my apartment at six-thirty, and we’ll all pick you up at seven.” She paused and then grinned. “Unless I get real lucky… Then we won’t be picking you up at all.”

Jade moaned, “Okay. I guess I’ll be ready. But, I won’t like it.”

Sam whispered with a wink, “Oh… if Love Machine Mackey and Wild Ride Rheamus have anything to say about it, you most certainly will.”

Jade laughed again and shook her head. “You really are a little hussy. You know that, don’t you?”

Sam pursed her lips. “Damn well haven’t been for two months now, and it’s damn near killin’ me.”

Jade then turned and left the office, laughing and shaking her head in incredulity over Sam’s free-lovin’ lifestyle. The woman was hopeless, and she had a bit of a reputation. People on campus knew her as “Floozy Newman,” and Sam proudly bragged about that every chance she got.

Jade’s laughter was short-lived though, as the conversation made her think about Seanix. The thought of going out with these other two guys made her feel a little sick to her stomach. If she had her pick, she would much rather spend an evening with Seanix instead. With that thought as Jade walked across campus, she pulled her phone from her pocket and dialed Sean’s phone number to tell him that she had to cancel their plans for that evening. He answered quickly.

“Cheers, Jade. I was just thinking about you. I was wondering if you were able to speak with Devon today and how it went.”

She sighed, “I’m actually leaving the campus right now. He wasn’t able to see me again. Something about the campus assaults, but I can’t say who told me. Anyway, I was calling to say I can’t make it for our unofficial grading session tonight. Samantha Newman wrangled me int’ some damned blind double date tonight.”

He breathed a laugh, asking, “You mean ‘Floozy Newman?’ Yeah, she gets around.”

Jade laughed, “I know. But, unfortunately, she’s roped me into going on this date with her and two male teachers. I tried to get out of it.”

He responded, “Not with Mackey and Rheamus, I hope.”

She stopped walking. “Um… Yeah, why?”

He groaned, “Oh, Jade. You don’t wanna go out with them. They’re just as… friendly?… as she is. A date with those two is pretty much guaranteed to end with sex… wild sex. Just thinking about those two wrinkly old farts should make any woman cringe before she runs away screaming.” They laughed at his words, and then Sean continued, saying direly, “They had better hope Devon doesn’t find out they’re going out with a student.”

She started walking again and responded, “I’d much rather be your unofficial assistant tonight. I really don’t wanna do this… but she’s a friend, so…”

He chuckled and assured her, “Well, maybe you won’t have to. Are you still on campus?”

“Your lips to God’s ears,” she replied. “And yeah. I’m just passing the northeast courtyard headin’ home.”

“Okay. Stay there. I’m heading to campus from the police station to see Devon. I can give you a ride home.”

She stopped walking again, horrified. “Police station?! Are you okay?!”

He answered, “Yes, I’m fine. I had to submit a DNA sample. Devon’s been an absolute wanker over the whole fuckin’ thing. He said, while he couldn’t make everyone do it, he’d find a reason to fire anyone who didn’t.”

She breathed a laugh. “I can’t say I blame him. When do you think you’ll be here?”

“Less than five minutes. I shouldn’t be long with Devon either, but I’ll likely have to wait for him for a wee bit. I can meet you at my parking space in the staff parking lot in about thirty minutes if you stick around.”

She smiled at the thought of getting to see him after all, even if only for a ride home. “That sounds great. I’ll meet you then.”

“Very good.” He paused and then added with obvious concern, “And try not to worry about your blind date. Remember… You don’t have to… Well, you don’t have to participate in anything inappropriate with those two assholes. I’m sure it will turn out fine.”

She thanked him, not really agreeing with his sentiment about things turning out fine, and they said their goodbyes. While she waited, she sat in the courtyard to people watch, recording passersby for her and Tom to laugh at later. It never failed that at least one of the students would show up doing something stupid. Even though the campus was mostly deserted due to classes being canceled, she was not disappointed. She giggled quietly to herself as numerous young men and women unknowingly put on a show for her. She was enjoying herself so much that she nearly lost track of time. It had been twenty-five minutes before she realized Sean would be waiting for her at his car soon. She quickly gathered her things and ran for the faculty parking lot, a good ten-minute walk away.

***

Shortly after speaking with Jade, Sean was in Devon’s office waiting for him. After a short while, Devon walked in and sat at his desk across from Sean. He let out a groan of exhaustion as he lowered himself into his chair.

“Sorry it took me so long. I was dealing with a female Journalism student concerned about the attacks. She cornered me in the faculty men’s room, of all places, and was hell-bent on making me and the university look like we were part of some huge conspiracy… obviously a first-semester Journalism major with something to prove. She had just finished talking to Todd Miller, so you can imagine the questions and accusations she had. Of course, I didn’t give her anything. I did have campus security escort her from the restroom, and she was none too pleased about that or failing to browbeat any answers out of me.” Sean snickered as Devon shook his head in disbelief. “If the damn Board would let me address the issue publicly, we could nip the rumors in the bud and get the word out. We could catch this guy sooner if people knew what to look for, but…” He sighed and continued, “Anyway… Thanks for submitting a sample, Sean. The rumors that the rapist is you have gotten out of hand, and that sorry son of a bitch, Todd, isn’t helping any.”

Sean replied, “Of course. I was happy to do it. Do you really think it’s someone on staff?”

Devon shook his head. “I wish I knew, Brother.” He looked pleadingly at Sean. “I’m sorry I had to ask it of you. I know it’s not you, man.”

He waved it off. “It’s quite alright. I have no one to blame but myself. I just appreciate you having all male staff giving samples, rather than just me. I know I was the board’s main focal point. Maybe with me ruled out, they will let you issue a press release to warn students and tell people what to look for. That could help find this guy faster.”

Sighing, Devon leaned back in his chair. “You’re welcome. I hope you’re right about that too. The board needs to let me do just that. But I couldn’t single you out like that. It’s not like you’re the only staff member with a shady past with women around this loony bin… or with anything else for that matter. Mackey and Rheamus top the list these days, with Floozy Newman comin’ in a close second. I’m just glad they draw the line with students.”

Sean held up two fingers toward Devon, wrinkling his forehead as he inhaled deeply and countered, “Funnily enough, that’s another matter I wish to discuss with you.”

Devon cautiously asked, “The Brothers Slap ‘n Tickle? Floozy Neman? Or dating students?”

Sean laughed, “A wee bit of all, actually. It has come to my attention that Mackey and Rheamus have a date with one of the students tonight.”

Devon sat straight up, concerned and more than just a little angry. “You better be shittin’ me, man.”

“I’m not. They have a date with Floozy Newman and one of my students, Jade Malcolm.”

Devon rubbed his face hard and groaned loudly, “You’ve got to be shittin’ me! I swear, between Newman, them, this rapist, and y…”

“You can stop there, thank you,” Sean quickly interrupted, predicting Devon’s next example.

Devon sighed, holding up his hands in symbolic retreat, “Sorry. You know what I mean. This college is quickly becoming known as ‘New Pork U: With daily intercourses’ and ‘University of Oversexed Debauchery.’ And if it keeps up, it’ll be my ass that gets replaced.”

Sean roared with laughter, slapping his knee before seeing Devon’s displeased expression. He quickly apologized, struggled to compose himself, and shook his head.

“I doubt that, Brother. You’ve been president here for too long and been too successful in your work for that to happen. You’re absolutely brilliant at what you do, and the board members know it. Not to mention the millions of dollars you single-handedly bring in through unique marketing, fundraising, and networking campaigns. Plus, you’ve covered your ass. You tackled this issue head-on. Having all male staff submit DNA samples was a splendid move. You’ll find this guy.”

“I hope you’re right. I haven’t had a free minute to work on much else, but the remaining staff members are scheduled to provide samples by the end of the day tomorrow. So, I should have more free time starting tomorrow.”

Sean stood up to leave and walked toward the door. Before opening the door, he turned and addressed Devon once more.

“Try not to worry. The DNA evidence found at the most recent assaults will help catch this guy. I’m guessing he feels so safe from capture now that that’s why he no longer uses condoms, and that arrogance will be his downfall. My guess is it’s either a student or someone coming on campus who doesn’t belong here. Psychologically speaking, I can’t imagine an instructor would be so reckless as to attack students so near where he works. Either way, he’ll be caught. He’s messing up now, making mistakes. At the very least, odds are he won’t know where the new security cameras are and get caught that way.”

Devon agreed. “True. Thanks for coming in to let me know you submitted a DNA sample… and for letting me know about those two morons going out with a student. I’ll go have a talk with them as soon as we’re done here. Professors Dipshit and Dumbass aren’t gonna start down that road. That date isn’t gonna happen. The fact that she’s in her thirties doesn’t make it okay for teachers to date her… Although, from what Newman told me, it wouldn’t be the first time Ms. Malcolm has dated professors. She appears to be just as friendly as Newman.”

Sean inhaled sharply and looked down, unsure how to respond to that, given his feelings for Jade. Plus, Devon’s remark that questioned Jade’s honor angered Sean, but saying so would show Devon that Sean had fallen for her and therefore had an eye for not just a university student, but one of his own whom he had been seen alone with multiple times in his classroom and the courtyard. In fact, he sensed that Devon partially directed his comments to him specifically, not just ‘The Brothers Slap ‘n Tickle.’ Devon had already seen him visiting with Jade in his classroom multiple times, and the conversation born from each occasion was not one Sean wished to revisit at that time. So, instead of responding, he simply nodded and held his hand up in a gesture of farewell before walking out the door.

Making his way from the office, he knew Devon was right, and he was doing his best to fight his feelings for Jade. But over the past few weeks, they had met quite a few times to grade papers at his house… every day, to be exact. They had also run into each other a few times at his favorite pub and restaurant, Ye Ol’ Britannia, and had drinks together. When they first met, he was immediately fond of her, and as he got to know her, that fondness grew to much more. If the only thing keeping them apart had been his job, he would have left it in a heartbeat. But, that was not the thing that truly kept them apart. It was his past. The thought of her finding out who he really was petrified him.

He rubbed his mouth as he walked to his car, thinking about his situation with Jade. He wanted so badly to tell her how he felt, but he could not risk her finding out his secret. If they were together, she would, and then she would surely leave him. She was too smart to stay with someone who was capable of the things he had done… many of which only one other, a former partner-in-crime and lover, knew about. There was no point in quitting his job for a relationship that was doomed to failure. And he would not blame her for leaving. He dreaded the day that she learned the full story of his past. Rumors were one thing, but they were nowhere near as vile as the truth. People claim that the truth will set you free, but the truth about his past would only set him free from a meaningful relationship with any and all good women, if not land him in prison and jobless. Not even Devon knew the full truth, and they had known each other and been best friends since they both attended the university in their younger years. Devon had witnessed his decline and the cause of it firsthand at the age of nineteen, but he stood by his brother’s side in spite of it all. Devon was a rare and devoted friend and brother, and Sean was terrified of letting his only real friend down again.

Upon reaching the parking lot, he leaned against his car and continued thinking. The more he thought about it, the more frightened he became of losing his battle against his feelings for Jade and of her finding out about his past. However, his worry-laden thoughts were short-lived, as five minutes later, he saw Jade jogging toward him. Somehow, the sight of her reminded him of her previous comments about not judging a man by his past. Was it too much to hope that this woman could be his path to redemption? Could she be the loving support system he needed… the one person who would stand by his side and love him despite his past sins? And would she do so even if she knew the darkest truths that no one else knew?

Both seeing her and remembering her words made him smile as she approached. He shook his head hard and took a deep breath to clear his head of these thoughts, knowing full well that none of it mattered and telling himself that a woman as incredible as Jade had no business being with a man like him.

She breathlessly panted and called out as she neared, “I’m so sorry I’m late, Sean!” She slowed her pace, now only feet from him. “I lost track of time. I hope you weren’t waiting long.”

He shook his head and smiled warmly. “Not long at all.”

Seeing her winded like that, trying to catch her breath, panting as she called out his name, and breathing heavily, put rather impure thoughts into his head and got his motor running more than just a bit. He caught himself looking as her bosom heaved up and down with every breath, and he forced himself to avert his eyes back to hers.

She smiled happily and said, “I appreciate the lift home.”

He nodded and put his hand innocently on her back, leading her around his car to the passenger side, where he opened her door.

“I’m happy to do it. And, by the way, you may consider your date tonight canceled.”

She looked at him with confusion and remarked, “Yeah, I know. I just got a call from Sam telling me. But, how’d you know?” He shrugged innocuously, and she caught on right away. “You did something, didn’t you?”

He sighed apologetically, “Yes, I did. I’m sorry for interfering, Jade, but I just didn’t like the idea of you going out with those horny wankers. Please, accept my apology if I overstepped any boundaries.”

She breathed a thankful laugh and declared, “Overstepped hell! That just earned you a home-cooked dinner during our unofficial grading session.”

Before she realized what she was doing, she forgot herself in her excitement and threw her arms around his neck in a tight hug. He laughed nervously, unsure what to do with his hands… and quickly turning his hips slightly, afraid she would feel how having her arms around him and her body against him charged his battery. He closed his eyes at the smell of her hair and the light scent of her rose perfume. He loved how even her hair was gently touched with the scent. To the dismay of each of them, the hug only lasted a moment, as she quickly realized what she had done and nervously stepped back.

“I’m sorry. That was inappropriate, I know. I hope you don’t think less of me for it.”

Still smiling, he shook his head and stepped slightly behind the open door to keep from revealing just how okay he was with it, in case she should happen to look down. Truth be told, he relished this feeling that she created within his heart and body. He had never felt such a pure and freeing sensation prior to meeting her, but he was consumed by it all the time since the day they met. Even when they were apart, the mere thought of her was enough for it to return.

“It’s quite alright,” he said. “How about we go to my house so I can clean up from the morning I had? If you don’t find anything there to fix for tonight, we can go grocery shopping. I’ll buy whatever you want to fix for that dinner. I rather enjoy the idea of not having to cook my own meal tonight.”

She softly replied, “No good man should have to fix his own dinner… much less eat it alone.”

He breathed a laugh and rubbed his neck nervously, saying, “Well, I’m in luck then, because I won’t be doing either this evening. Shall we?”

She nodded happily and slid into the seat. He closed the door and then walked around the back of the car to the driver’s side so she would not witness him adjusting himself from the effect that seeing her jog up to him and her hug had on him. He then drove them to his house, where he went straight upstairs to his bedroom to clean up… and to take a rather lengthy, very personal shower to alleviate the lingering effects of Jade’s unexpected, yet enjoyable, hug.

***

The next morning, Jade walked into Devon’s office with butterflies in her stomach. She waited for him to be available and then sat down with him to discuss her request. As soon as she brought up the topic of being Sean’s TA, Devon shook his head resolutely.

“Ms. Malcolm, I can certainly understand your wanting to be Professor Flannery’s TA, but I’m afraid it’s out of the question. For reasons I am not at liberty to disclose, Professor Flannery has not had a TA for the past two years, nor will he be accepting any in the future. He’s one of our best instructors, but he just isn’t available for you to work with. Perhaps I could recommend another professor, equally as good, to work with.”

Jade shook her head firmly. She refused to take no for an answer.

“President Maxwell, I am overly qualified to not only be a TA but to also have my choice of professors to work with. Hell, I’m overly qualified to teach any class I wish. I’m not sure what the problem is, but…” Jade decided to be bold and use Tom’s influence. “…I happen to be close friends and housemates with one of the best lawyers in this city, Thomas Neeley, and neither one of us can understand why I’m getting so much stonewalling. If I have to, I will happily have him come in to speak with you about this. I know it doesn’t seem like a very big deal to you, but it is a very big deal to me. I chose carefully, and I dare say Professor Flannery is the best instructor you have here.” She paused and added, “…the best professor I have ever come across, and therefore the best option for me to learn from, ensuring better success for my future endeavors. So, I ask again, will you approve this or not?”

She handed him the TA request card, signed by Seanix weeks before. Slowly taking the card from her outstretched hand, Devon’s obvious and odd agitation over the mention of Tom’s name grew as he looked at the card and saw Sean’s signature.

“Did you say, Thomas Neeley?”

“I did.”

“And Mr. Neeley is okay with your choice?”

His line of questioning and reactions to each step of this process continued to strike her as odd, and in fact, she could plainly see that Devon knew Tom. Even so, she continued down her path of using Tom’s influence.

“Tom trusts my judgment and is in full support of my efforts.”

Devon shook his head and looked down at the TA request card. As he looked at the card, his agitation continued to grow, and his face became flushed. Devon was obviously angry at seeing Seanix’s signature on the card. He had to physically compose himself before responding to her.

“Professor Flannery signed this? And you’re positive Mr. Neeley is genuinely okay with it?”

She nodded confidently, stating, “He did, and he is. Sean saw what I can do, is aware of my educational background, and even though he resisted at first, he did finally sign it. And Tom, as I previously stated, supports my decision. In fact, it was his idea that I speak with the powers that be to resolve this matter.”

Once more, Devon had to compose himself before responding.

“I’ll have to get back with you about this, Ms. Malcolm. I need to speak with Professor Flannery and do some checking before I can give you an answer. Until then, I would appreciate you not mentioning this to anyone else.”

Jade found this to be a strange request, but she agreed to it. She also continued to find his responses and his questions very odd. However, she said nothing about either. Instead, she thanked him for his time and stood to leave. Devon walked her to his door, told her he would notify her once he made a decision, and then watched as she walked away. The instant she was out of sight, he angrily spun on his heels, stormed out of the office, and headed straight for Seanix’s office. He found Seanix sitting at his desk working. He slammed the door and turned to Seanix, who had been startled by the slamming door.

“What the fuckin’ hell are you doing, Sean?! Are you trying to give me a damn stroke?!” Throwing the TA request card on Sean’s desk, Devon demanded, “Why the hell did you sign this, you limey bastard?!”

Seanix sighed and picked up the card. He looked at it and leaned back.

He calmly stated, “First of all, limeys were English sailors, not Scottish. So, technically I’m a bampot… maybe a sleekit. It really depends on…” Sean stopped short, as he immediately regretted his comment when it only served to infuriate Devon further, causing him to pant heavily as he tried to get out words that were probably better left unsaid. Deciding that joking was definitely not advisable in this situation, Sean sighed again and explained contritely, “Devon, this woman is hell-bent on being my assistant.”

“Then you tell her no!” he ordered. “You don’t sign the damn card!”

Seanix shook his head. “I didn’t sign it at first. I did tell her no, multiple times. But she is really good at what she does.”

Devon sat down slowly, looking at Sean across the desk with feigned curiosity, and asked, “And what exactly is that? What is she good at, Brother?”

Seanix instantly picked up on Devon’s insinuation that what she did well was something sexual, and this angered him.

“Damn it, Devon, you know me better than that! And I don’t appreciate the implication! She’s a lady, despite what you heard from Floozy Newman, and nothing like that happened between us! Nor will it!”

Devon nodded. “Yes, I do know you, Brother, and that was why I asked. How quickly we forget the past.”

Seanix gritted his teeth, growling through his tightened jaw, “Get out of my office, Devon, before I knock you on your ass.” After a brief pause, Sean pointed at him and added, “And by the way… fuck you, Brother.”

Devon stood up to leave, snatching the card from Sean’s hands. He crossed the room to the door, opened it, and turned back to Seanix, still fuming.

Devon warned, “I hope you know what you’re doing, my friend. I’ve risked my own job for you in the past, and I can’t have another replay of Sarah Miller. And Ruby’ll kick my fuckin’ ass if I lose my damn job over you fuckin’ me like that again!”

Seanix was insulted, but at the same time, he understood Devon’s concern. Ruby was Devon’s wife, and he got along very well with her. She gave him a second chance and supported her husband when Devon risked his job for Sean in the past. Still, he knew that Ruby had to put her husband first, and she would never forgive Sean a second time for his private indiscretions of which Devon now spoke. He sighed and ran his hand through his hair, struggling to rein in his heightened emotions. In truth, this was mild for a fight between them. Since their youth, they had had many fights that left both men battered and bloodied. Despite their size difference, Sean could more than hold his own. Sean knew that, had they not been on campus, Devon would have likely hit him full-bore in an all-out brawl when beginning this conversation… and he would have deserved it.

“Devon, I get where you’re coming from. I do. But I need you to trust me on this. I’m not going down any path that would require you to stick your neck out again. I’m trying to live my life in a way that will let me escape my past. I just need the chance to prove myself. And I told her already that the request would not be approved by you or the board… I just didn’t tell her why.”

Devon countered, “I know you, Sean. I can see how you look at her.”

Sean nodded. “Perhaps so. However, how I may or may not look at her is of no matter, Devon. She’s a good woman, and a good woman has no business being with a bastard like me. She’s also a student. That makes her off-limits. It’s strictly business. You have my word. I won’t ever go back to what I was. That man is dead. He died slowly over these past two years… after Sarah did. I’ll admit, I did not want him to. I wanted to just bide my time until I could get out from under the spotlight that was on me. But things happened that changed all that. I won’t return to the man I once was.”

Devon nodded. He did not know what else to say. After staring at Sean for a moment, he simply turned and left, leaving Seanix to his thoughts. Sean sighed and ran his hands through his hair again, leaning back in his chair and closing his eyes. Seanix was at a crossroads, and he knew the ice he walked on had just gotten thinner. He did not want to risk his job, and he did not want to put Devon in a difficult position again. But he also did not want to turn Jade down. Then, there was also his dangerous, all-consuming need to be at her side. She made him feel like a good man. She made him forget who he was at his core. She filled him with a sense of peace and self-worth that he knew he did not deserve to have. Yet, he made his choice about Jade being his TA, fully knowing the hazards of that choice. Now, all he could do was hope he made the right one.

***

Later that afternoon, Jade sat in the living room of her home talking to Tom about what she did in Devon’s office. Tom had taken a half-day off from work to focus on a big upcoming case that involved several well-known politicians within New York, and he had a few wrinkles to iron out before meeting with the firm’s clients the following day. Having recently been promoted to Partner at his firm, he was determined to show the other two Partners that they chose wisely.

As Jade spoke, he was only half-listening… until she mentioned the names of the university president and her mystery professor. Unbeknownst to Tom, Jade mentioned Devon and Sean’s names on purpose to see if her suspicions that Devon and Tom knew each other held up. Throwing Sean’s name into the mix was purely because of the oddities that seemed to surround Devon’s constant, heated discussions with Sean, Sean’s inability to have a TA, and Devon’s reaction to hearing her claim that Tom was supportive of her being Sean’s TA. She had finally put two and two together after seeing all of these strange details, and she linked them together.

“I just don’t get it, Tom,” she sighed, choosing her next words meticulously. “Why on earth would President Maxwell not allow him to have a TA?” She paused and then added, for the sake of seeing his reaction, “Professor Flannery is the best teacher they have. He has so much to offer the students.”

Tom snapped to attention at the sound of Seanix’s name. His head shot upward, and he looked at Jade with both shock and disbelief. She noticed this, and she saw it as confirmation that the men somehow knew each other. Likewise, Tom’s reaction did not come until hearing Sean’s name. Seeing this, she discerned that the link mostly involved Sean, and whatever linked them together was not at all good. Finally, Tom was keeping all of this secret, which meant it had to do with his work and involved some kind of injunction that prevented him from discussing it, even with her.

Appearing to find renewed interest in Jade’s situation, Tom questioned, “So, you’re wanting to be this guy’s TA, but … what again? You said he’s not allowed to have a TA? They’re not permitting it?”

She confirmed, “That’s right. I mean, they didn’t use the words ‘not allowed,’ but it’s pretty clear. Why would a university do that?”

Tom waved her off and turned his attention back to his work. “I wouldn’t worry about it, J. Sounds to me like the matter’s been decided. I’d let it go and pick a different instructor. I’m sure it’s for the best.”

Jade protested, “I can’t do that, Tom. Had it been handled differently, and had the president of the university been more willing to meet with me, instead of blowing me off for weeks, maybe I could. I doubt it, but maybe. Although, I did take your advice about showing him what I can do, and I swiped some of his papers to grade them for him. I also told President Maxwell that you were supportive of my choice and that you told me to talk to him to find out why I was getting stonewalled.”

Tom’s head popped back up, and he shot her a look of panic, quickly objecting, “I never said to do that! And I never knew who you chose!” Then, he sighed at seeing the amused smirk on her face and asked, “Why does this mean so much to you? Why not just choose another instructor? It’s a big university. Throw a rock, and it’ll bounce off at least three other great teachers that you can work with.”

She answered, “Because I really like Professor Flannery. He’s an amazing teacher and a great man.”

She saw an expression of masked concern in her old friend’s eyes, mixed with a look like he had just sucked on a lemon. Even so, he did not say anything to directly confirm her suspicions or to let her know the reason behind the look.

“J, listen to me… There has to be a reason that this guy isn’t allowed to have a TA. I want you to let this go and either choose a different teacher or not work as a TA at all. The school made it clear that he wasn’t allowed to participate in the program, so you can bet he did something pretty bad to make that happen. Either way, it seems to me the matter is closed.”

Jade could tell that Tom was not telling everything he knew. She could read him like a book and could always see when he was keeping something to himself.

Still, she refused to accept this, vowing, “No. I won’t give up. I know he’s a good man and a good teacher, and I don’t care about anything else. Plus, I consider him a friend, and I enjoy our visits. I want to be his TA. Besides, you know me, Tom. You know that the fastest way to get me to fight for something is by telling me I can’t have it. This has become a quest.”

Tom started to say something, but he was interrupted by his phone ringing. Looking at it to see who was calling, he sighed and stood up as he answered it. He walked away and went to his bedroom for privacy, but Jade could still hear him.

“Hey, Neil. Yeah, I know. I just heard.” There was a long pause before he exclaimed, “No! I never said that! I had no idea who it was!” Another long pause. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me! They can’t do that! Neil, that’s a bunch of crap! They signed the damn order and agreed to abide by it! We have to…!” Tom paused again for a bit before continuing with an aggravated groan. “Yeah. I understand. It pisses me off, but I understand. In the meantime, I wanna look into it to see if there’s something we can do about it.” He paused once more. “Okay. I’ll see you tomorrow. Thanks for the heads up.” She heard him quietly, yet vehemently, curse before returning to the room and retaking his seat. “Sorry about that. Where were we?”

Jade responded, “We were talking about my TA issue. But never mind that. Who was that? It sounded important.”

“That was nothing. Just a snag at work with a former case we handled a couple years ago. The opposing side is trying to go against an order they agreed to.” Jade noticed that time frame of two years ago popping up once again, and she felt as though the call, and the former case, somehow involved Sean and the university. She said nothing though and allowed Tom to continue. “Seems some of the work our attorney did was undone today. We’ll be looking into it though to see what we can do. It’s no big deal. Tell me more about this professor. Is he where you’ve been going every day? And if so, what does the university think about that?”

Sensing that Tom was fishing for something, she worried about it leading to trouble for Sean. So, she dismissed his question and changed the subject, which he immediately picked up on.

“I think I’ll get ready to go to my study session now. I have to be there in an hour, and I don’t wanna be late. Don’t wait up for me. I’ll likely be home late, as usual, and I’ll be taking the car.”

He nodded uncertainly as she stood and headed for the stairs, but he did not respond. He knew her every bit as well as she knew him, and he could read her like a book as well. He was concerned about the current situation with her, the university, this instructor, and her ‘study sessions.’ The call had in fact been about Sean, and it seemed to him that she already suspected that. Something in his heart told him that she had been spending time with Seanix this whole time and keeping it a secret, likely because the university did not permit teachers to fraternize with students… especially not this particular teacher. The secrecy then led him to believe the two were intimate, and that thought made him absolutely crazy. He wondered if Seanix knew that he was playing with fire by socializing with Jade. The university could not risk another scandal like the previous one that he, Sean, Devon, and the university were keeping secret. If Sean was fraternizing with Jade, that would open the university up for serious trouble, and he decided to make sure Sean understood the score. He would personally see to it that Seanix knew who Jade was living with and the price of continuing to associate with her outside of the classroom… especially if they were sleeping together.

***

The next day, Jade arrived at class early, as usual. This time, Tom was with her. He had told her that he wanted to see where she went for class every Tuesday and Thursday morning. Although she saw this as yet another indication that something was up, she still was unsure what that ‘something’ was. For Tom, it was partially his way of looking out for her by getting more involved with her life. He hoped it would lead to a more serious relationship with her, but that was not his only reason for walking her in. Neither was it his biggest reason. He wanted Sean to see him with her, now that he finally knew that Sean was this mysterious professor.

Jade could plainly see that Sean, Devon, and Tom were keeping a secret. She was not stupid. She could tell that Devon did not like hearing Tom’s name and that he was surprised to hear that Tom would be okay with her acting as Sean’s TA. Likewise, she would have been blind not to see how, after previously supporting her efforts, Tom immediately shifted gears and insisted that she just give up the fight. Then, Tom mysteriously wanted to see where she went every Tuesday and Thursday morning… not any other day or time, just Tuesday and Thursday morning. Yes, he had mentioned wanting to see where she went for classes, but he had not done so until then, while also choosing those days and Sean’s class for his visit. She had let the matter drop, but she knew something was off. She was eager to see what would happen when Tom and Sean stood face-to-face.

Tom and Jade walked into the classroom to find Seanix sitting at his desk working. The professor looked up as they walked in and smiled. She observed that Sean’s smile disappear briefly as he and Tom locked eyes, but it quickly returned. Her suspicions were now confirmed more fully. She did not know that Tom knew Sean from Sean’s past sins that nearly landed him in prison, and to Sean’s relief, Tom was not at liberty to tell her. She only theorized that whatever their history was together, it was not a happy one. Then, with Tom’s phone call the evening before and the commonality of ‘two years,’ their link likely involved a legal battle. As far as she knew, it involved his divorce and a student… most likely an affair, but that seemed a bit insignificant. She was unsure how that could lead to all the secrecy and drama that she was witnessing between these men and the university as a whole.

“Who is this?” Sean asked politely.

Jade introduced them, still suspicious of the looks on both men’s faces when they first locked eyes, and said, “This is my friend Tom. He wanted to see me in on his way to work. He said he wanted to see where I go every day.”

Seanix nodded, still smiling, but to Jade’s dismay, she saw a touch of fear in his eyes behind the smile… Another piece to the puzzle, perhaps?

“Well, I’m so very glad he did. Tom, I’ve heard a lot about you.”

Tom looked at Jade, hoping the fact that she talked about him meant that she was as interested in him as he was in her. It also gave him hope that Jade and Sean were not actually sleeping together as he had originally suspected. After all, why would she talk about him to her lover? Mentioning another man to a male lover is not exactly appropriate pillow talk.

“Really?” he asked, smiling at her with hope in his eyes. He then turned to Sean, smiling with hidden intent that Seanix quickly caught onto. “Well, I’ve heard a bit about you too.” Tom paused briefly, making sure Sean caught his message, before adding lightheartedly, “It seems yours is her favorite class. I just had to come with her to meet you in person. I’m very interested in what she does… one might even say that I’m overprotective of her.”

Seanix did catch onto Tom’s veiled threat, and he casually commented, “This lady here is a determined one. She had the president of the university fit to be tied yesterday. Not sure what she said to him, but it worked.”

Surprised and hopeful, Jade asked, “Does this mean I’m your new TA?”

Seanix nodded and clicked his tongue, answering, “Indeed you are. And I got an earful after you left for signing the card. It wasn’t quite the ass-kicking I expected, but it was close.”

Jade was so excited that she threw her arms around Tom and exclaimed, “It worked! I can’t believe it! Your suggestions really helped!” She stepped back and added, “Thank you for your input, Tom. I really didn’t think it would work.”

Tom grinned. “Any time, J. You know I’d do anything for you.” He turned and looked hard at Sean. “And I do mean anything.”

Sean looked at Tom curiously and inquired, “You helped her become my TA?”

Tom looked back at Sean emotionlessly and paused before saying, “When my J came to me for advice on how to help her get this unnamed professor to accept her as his TA, I just couldn’t refuse her.”

Jade noted the surprise in Sean’s voice, and she also noticed the off-handed and subtle way Tom answered… as though saying he did not realize Sean, specifically, was the professor in question. The underlying tension between them, their voice tones, and the unspoken messages in their words were so obvious a blind man could have seen them clearly. She pondered whether or not she should be offended that these men believed she did not see any of it.

Tom turned and kissed her forehead, looking at his watch. “I’d better be going. Should I pick you up later?”

“Nope,” she beamed. “I’ll be working my new job as an official Teacher’s Assistant.”

Tom laughed, “Okay. I’ll see you when I get home.” He looked up at Sean and then back to Jade. “Just please be careful. Call me for a ride if you can’t catch a cab.”

Looking at him hard, Tom shook Seanix’s hand, offered up fake pleasantries as they said farewell, and left. Jade excitedly pushed her concerns regarding the two men away, put her bag by her seat, and turned back to Seanix. He was looking at her with one eyebrow raised.

“What?” she asked.

He sat on the edge of his desk, inquiring skeptically, “So that was Tom? Your friend?”

“Yeah, why? Why do you italicize the word ‘friend’ like that?”

He shook his head and replied, “I don’t know how to tell you this, but he didn’t have the look of a man who knows he’s only a friend.”

Jade dismissed the idea, assuring Sean, “Oh, he knows. We talk about it pretty often.”

Seanix shrugged. “Okay. But tread carefully. He has the look of a man with high hopes and his heart on the line. However often you discuss it, I don’t think he believes it… not fully at least.”

Jade looked at the empty doorway, wondering briefly if she might not be taking Tom’s feelings for her seriously enough. She wondered if Seanix was right, but only for a moment.

She happily turned back to Seanix and asked, “So, when do we have our first official work session?”

He answered, “How about during lunch… out in the courtyard? Should be a nice day for it, and since we no longer have to sneak around….”

“Sounds great,” she said, smiling. “I can’t wait.”

With that, she took her seat as the other students started filing in, and class began.

Calling All Oblivions

Weeks passed. Jade and Seanix spent every lunchtime together working, and they met again in the evenings, working and eating supper together, in spite of Tom’s expressed disapproval and concern. Knowing he was keeping secrets, Jade simply told him that if he could not give her a good reason to stop spending time with Sean, she was going to keep doing so. As far as she was concerned, she was “a grown-ass woman who could make her own damned choices,” and Sean could make his own choices as well. When Tom continued to protest, Jade told him to go soak his head. Still, he refused to give up. Desperate to keep her away from Sean, and seeing that all other efforts had failed, he tried to call her brothers to have them talk some sense into her. However, as with Jade, he could not answer their questions about his reasons. He explained that he could not reveal his reasons, only to have them tell him that they would never tell Jade what to do without a damned good reason. After she spoke to her brothers and heard about Tom’s attempt to go through them, she threatened to kick Tom’s ass just like she would do with them anytime they tried to tell her what to do. She ended by saying that she already had a father, and she didn’t even listen to him telling her what to do.

Unfortunately, a permanent gag order on the case prevented Tom from telling her what he knew about Sean. So, she remained resolute in her TA duties and the time that it required for her to spend with Sean. On weekends, the two had picnics or spent more time at his house, under the guise of needing to work. Despite Tom’s repeated protests and attempts to dissuade Jade from spending time with Seanix, she insisted once more that she was a big girl and did not need him to pester her about it. She neither understood nor cared why Tom disliked Seanix so much; all she knew for certain was that he would not give her any straight answers on the matter.

By Jade’s third week as Sean’s TA, they had grown accustomed to running into each other at Ye Ol’ Britannia. It was a British pub and restaurant near Sean’s home. Jade had discovered that he went there after work when not at home, so she decided to frequent it herself, in her attempts to win him over and become his TA… not to mention that it gave her an excuse to spend time with him. However, Tom was not the only person who had a problem with Seanix and Jade spending time together. Devon too had trouble hiding his own displeasure over it.

Now that she was officially his TA, she finally admitted that the first time she was at the pub, it was in hopes of running into him. She had overheard him talking to Devon about the place, and he had mentioned it to her a few times as well in casual conversation. With him being Scottish, she figured it made sense that he would find such a place to hang out if he was missing his homeland. She admitted that she had arranged their “chance” meetings as part of her plan for becoming his TA, but she left out the part about being attracted to him. He found this deception to be both hilarious and flattering, but they agreed to keep it between the two of them… And he admitted that after running into her there the first time, he found himself hoping to do so again each time he went there.

At the end of Jade’s third week as Sean’s TA, Jade was sitting at the pub with Sean talking, laughing, and eating when Sean’s expression suddenly changed to one of panic. His eyes widened, and he groaned, rubbing his face with both hands.

“Oh, Shite.”

Following his gaze, she turned toward the front door, and she saw that Devon had just entered the pub.

She said, “I take it we shouldn’t ask him to join us?”

“Hell no. He’ll only get the wrong idea as it is. I’ll be lucky if I get out of this without getting my ass kicked… and still having a job if he gets the wrong idea. We’re best pals… brothers, really… but if he feels he has a responsibility to do something, he will. We both would, so I can’t blame him.”

She worriedly asked, “Oh, should I leave before he sees us? I don’t wanna get you in trouble.”

He groaned again and leaned back in his seat, murmuring, “Too late. Here he comes.”

As Devon approached, Jade could see him eyeing the two of them. Ever the gentleman, he smiled politely at Jade.

“Ms. Malcolm, how nice to see you… and how unexpected. Am I interrupting something?”

As he asked that, he shot Sean a look, and Sean rolled his eyes, shifting in his seat.

Jade responded in kind, “President Maxwell, it’s lovely to see you as well.”

Hating small talk, Sean interjected, getting directly to what he knew was Devon’s point. “No, you’re not interrupting anything. Jade here recently stumbled upon my favorite haunt. She found that it is a great place to sit and relax when on one’s own time.”

Jade lowered her head, covering her mouth discretely to stifle a snicker and hide a smile over Sean’s choice of words.

Forcing a smile, and obviously catching onto Sean’s choice of words as well, Devon casually said, “How nice. Sean, could I speak with you for a moment please?”

Irritated, Sean sighed and said, “Jade, I’ll be right back.” He stood and followed Devon to the bar, leaning against it and saying, “If you’re going to yell at me, don’t bother. There’s nothing going on here. We aren’t even here together.”

Devon raised his eyebrows, sarcastically confirming, “Oh, okay then. So, I in fact did not just see you at a table eating, drinking, and laughing with one of your students like you were on a first date.”

Sean scoffed, shifting his weight and looking around crossly, “Don’t be a fuckin’ smartass, Devon.”

“Then tell me, Sean… What the hell are you doing? … Other than giving your brother a damn heart attack… again!”

Sean shrugged and spoke methodically, “I’m having supper… with another adult… whom I happen to consider a friend… after running into her here.”

He left out the part about Jade’s admission that their “chance” meetings at the pub were not so chance after all. He also left out how badly he wanted to pick her up, set her on one of the tables or the bar, and ravish her. But he did smile as he thought about both.

“A student.”

“A thirty-five-year-old friend who happens to also be a student, yes.” Devon just stared at him, so Sean exhaled loudly. “Devon, nothing is going on. We both just happen to frequent this pub. I’m on my own time, and no lines are being crossed. I swear it. We aren’t here ‘together’ in any way.”

“It sure as hell doesn’t look that way.”

Sean looked at him hard and declared firmly, “I really don’t care. I’m on my own fucking time, and I’ll damn well do whatever I bloody want with whomever I bloody want. As long as I’m not behaving unethically, it’s no one else’s bloody business what I do or with whom… not even yours.”

Devon looked hurt. “That’s a hell of a thing to say to me of all people, Sean. After all I’ve done for you? It is my damn business, not only because of how I risked everything for you once already but also because I’m your best fuckin’ friend. And you should care about how it looks. And you damn well know I’ve seen you two alone, in your classroom and the courtyard on campus. Don’t think others haven’t seen it too. Board members saw it while visiting campus, and they chewed my ass out each damn time! You can’t afford any more rumors or anyone thinkin’ anything is goin’ on with you and a student again.”

Sean rubbed his face, exasperated. He knew Devon was only looking out for him.

“Devon, man, of course I care. But, it’s not like she’s one of the kids in my classes. She’s a full-grown adult of thirty-four, and we’re not crossing any lines. She’s my student and TA while I’m on the clock, but we have become friends when I’m on my own time. She’s not one of those hormonal kids who are hot for their teacher. There’s nothing inappropriate going on.”

Devon pointed at him for emphasis as he laid it on the line, “Technically, as your boss, I can’t tell you how to conduct your personal life as long as it doesn’t cross ethical boundaries or otherwise put the university in a compromising position…”

Sean interrupted with a loud, annoyed sigh, “Oh, please! Stop sounding so fuckin’ political, Devon.”

Devon continued as though he did not hear Sean speak, “…but, as your friend and brother, I have to say something. Her fuckin’ housemate and close friend is the same man who damn near saw to it that you lost your job and were put in prison for a very long time. And he nearly won! As far as we know, this could all be a setup! He could be using Jade to set you up ‘n catch you with your fuckin’ pants down with a student! You’re playin’ with fire, Brother, and given past events, you’re gonna get burned.”

“You don’t know that,” Sean said. “Look, I know you’re just looking out for me, but there’s no reason to worry. And as far as Tom’s concerned, fuck him. He’s her friend, not her bloody father. He can’t fuckin’ touch me because I’m not doing anything wrong. Even if I did cross any boundaries with her, those boundaries are set in place by the university and are not illegal. Still, that’s not what’s happening here.”

“Man, he’s already pissed that the court order was overturned based on your good behavior these past two years. Now that she’s your TA, she could immediately report any indiscretions on your part, Sean! And I see how you look at her, man. You’re lookin’ at her like a man in love, and I ain’t never seen that look in your eyes before. That means trouble. Tell me I’m wrong. Tell me you don’t have feelings for this woman… for this university student, Sean, ‘n I’ll drop the whole damn thing.”

Sean sighed again. He could not honestly tell Devon that, and he could see that Devon knew it.

Finally, Sean said, “We’re just friends, Devon. I’m being careful, and I don’t fraternize with my students… Well… Except for my innocent friendship with Jade. As a rule, I never accept invitations to socialize with any of my students, and if I run into any of them, I turn down offers for drinks or to join them.”

“Except when it comes to Jade,” Devon countered matter-of-factly.

Sean thought for a moment, nearly admitting to Devon that he found it difficult to stay away from Jade. He wanted to tell his brother how deeply in love he was with this amazing woman, but he knew that doing so would alienate his ability to properly maintain a student/teacher relationship with her. Besides that, he could see that Devon already knew. So, instead, he shook his head.

He flatly rebuffed, “Not true. The only times we’re together are for work or when we happen to run into each other. But, yes, I do enjoy time with her during those times… professionally, when working on school-related matters… or as friends, on my own time.”

Devon shook his head, obviously worried about his friend and not buying Sean’s explanations.

“We’re goin’ around in circles here. Tell me… Are you seeing Jade?”

Sean turned and looked across the bar. He pointed at her as she read her book and quipped, “Aye. She’s right there.” Devon glared at him, and Sean scoffed. “Of course not! Damn it, Devon! I’ll never go back to the man I was!” He paused and then added sadly, “Besides, she has no business being with a man like me. I can’t risk crossing that line… and not only because of the conflict of interest.”

Nodding slowly, Devon responded, “I hope not. You’ve come too damn far to lose it all now over a bit of skirt. You’re better than that. And I care about you, man. “

Sean nodded back. “I know. You’re the only one who ever has.”

Devon grinned. “Floozy Newman and a few other faculty members sure do like ya. ‘N it ain’t just the women either. You can have your pick. Must be th’ accent, ‘cause that face’d put the queen off ‘er tea.”

Sean threw his head back and roared with laughter. “Be that as it may, I’m not interested.” He looked over at Jade, and Devon saw the look in his eyes. Even so, he said nothing about it. “I was wrong about one thing though, Devon. You used to be the only one who genuinely cares about me and believes in me. I’m blessed to have found another friend who does as well.” He looked at Devon pleadingly. “I hope you’ll take her age and maturity level into account and that you won’t try to take that from me just because she happens to be a student at the university. How we met can’t be helped… and should be of little consequence.”

Devon could see the sincerity in his eyes. Even though he still worried about the obvious fact that Sean had feelings for Jade, who was still a student despite all else, Sean had a point. He considered Sean’s argument for a moment and then put his hand on Sean’s shoulder.

“Just be careful, and make sure you don’t get too involved with her. Don’t cross the line, man. And, if ya wanna talk about things… ya know… about Jade… I’m here for ya. Just remember… Tom Neeley is watchin’ ya. He wants to take you down. Don’t give him what he needs and help him do that.”

“I promise. I’ll be careful. Thanks, Brother. And… I just might take you up on that offer to talk at some point.”

The men clapped each other on the shoulder, and Sean thanked him again. The two then parted ways, and Sean returned to Jade, easing her concerns that being with her had gotten him into trouble. In the days to come, Sean would confide in Devon, telling him about his feelings for Jade and seeking the solace of his brother for strength to resist giving into those feelings.

***

During their visits, Seanix and Jade talked about everything… everything but his past. Jade could see he was not ready for that, so she did not ask. She knew he would talk about it when the time was right. Instead, they worked, talked, joked, and laughed every chance they found. Sometimes, he would put on some music, and they would dance. At first, the music was classical, mostly Tchaikovsky, with a few British composers thrown in that Jade had not heard of, such as Gustav Holst and John Blackwood McEwen. After a few days, she had him listening to her music as well: sixties through the eighties, Country, and a variety of Christian music that included rap, “Heavenly Metal,” Rock, and pretty much every other genre under the sun. Sean even introduced her to British Rock, including his favorite, Polar Primates. They also had moments where they were playful, scuffling around like a couple of kids, and many of those ended with them staring into one another’s eyes, her wishing he would kiss her, him fighting the urge to do so. Such moments always concluded with them laughing off the situation and poking fun at themselves, joking that someone who didn’t know better might think they were a couple.

On one occasion, Jade jested, “It’s all fun ‘n games until someone ends up pregnant.”

This caused Seanix to spit his wine out laughing.

Tom was growing increasingly anxious about Jade’s friendship with her professor, but by that point, he said little about it, knowing she would not listen anyway. Instead, he listened as she spoke about Seanix and supported her in her newly-found friendship as best he could. She could see that Tom was jealous and disliked Seanix, but she dismissed it and pretended not to notice. There were many unspoken thoughts and emotions between her and Tom now, and they both could see that her friendship with Sean was coming between them.

Tom could tell that Jade was in love and that it was not with him. Still, he held out hope that she would turn to him in time. He hoped that she would fall in love with him, but he feared he was losing his chance to be with her because of this evil bastard who he knew would only hurt her. Even so, he knew Jade well enough to know that she was not one to be denied whatever it was that she wanted at any given moment. She was one who knew what she wanted and worked hard to get it. She was one who felt things so strongly, so deeply, and so fully that she constantly sought a path that would lead to adventure… all while also being very grounded and down-to-earth. He loved that about her. And he hoped that one day, that determination… that ability to feel so strongly and to know what she wanted from life… that strength of heart, would lead her to his arms. Until then, he would just have to be the friend she needed… and wait. From what he knew about Sean, it would not take long for him to do something to push her away. It just damn well better not hurt her in the process, or Tom would not rest until he brought the man down completely.

***

Two days later, Jade went for a walk before her regular lunchtime meeting with Seanix. The university was surrounded by wooded areas, and she enjoyed walking amongst the trees. Occasionally, she would climb into the canopy and sit for long periods of time. It made her feel like she was back home, if only briefly. With time to kill, she spent more than an hour in the woods. As she finished her meditative time alone and was exiting the line of trees, Todd approached her. He stood right in front of her, causing her to stop.

He said smugly, “It seems you and Professor Prick have a special relationship. Everyone’s talking about how you two meet before and after class to ‘talk.’ I just thought you might wanna know what you’re getting yourself into.”

Jade retorted, “I have neither the time nor the desire to hear anything you have to say about him… or about anything else for that matter. And for your information, the only relationship we have is a professional one… maybe a friendship when away from the university. Not that it’s any of your damn business. So move out of my way.”

Todd ignored her and said, “Do you even know who he really is? Haven’t you heard about him?”

Jade groaned, “Oh, please. I haven’t listened to rumors since junior high, and I don’t intend to start doing so now. Yes, I’ve heard the rumors of how he boinked his female students in exchange for better grades and how his wife left him claiming abuse. I don’t care about any of that. I only care about the fact that he is a great teacher and, just for your information, that he has shown himself to now be a good man. Now, get out of my way.” Jade pushed her way past him but found herself being jerked back as he grabbed her arm, trying to talk to her again. She interrupted him and said, “You have exactly two seconds to remove your hand from my arm before I give you a good ol’ fashioned country attitude adjustment that you won’t be likely to forget.”

Todd laughed hard and asked, “You and who else?”

That was all she needed. She then proceeded to make good on her promise… showing him that she did not need anyone else for it.

***

A short time later, Jade found Seanix sitting in the courtyard. He looked concerned and sighed deeply with relief upon seeing her approaching.

“Oh, thank God,” he said, placing a hand over his heart. “I heard an ambulance, and when you were late, I was worried the man assaulting our female students had struck again. I was afraid it might have been you this time.”

Jade waved it off, commenting, “Oh that? That was nothing. The ambulance was here for Todd.”

“What happened?!” he exclaimed.

“I happened,” she stated like it was no big deal.

Seanix looked confused so she told him what happened.

He burst out laughing and said, “You kicked his ass?!”

He then thought to himself, God, I love this woman!

“Try not to look so surprised,” she laughed. “I told you I could take care of myself. I didn’t like what he was saying about you, and when he grabbed me…”

Sean immediately stopped laughing and angrily shouted, “He put his hands on you?!”

She waved him off again and answered, “Yes, but… Well, let’s just say it was a bad idea for him to do that, and leave it at that.”

Seanix nearly choked with laughter once more. Then, as though he realized some negative implications about what she had said, he stopped laughing, and a serious look came over his face.

“So, you heard the rumors about me then. Why didn’t you say something?”

Jade shrugged. “No reason to. I trust you, and that’s not something I say often. Even if the rumors were true, you have shown yourself to be a good man. I only judge people by what they show me… by who they are now. Not by rumors or by who they used to be.”

Seanix stared at her in disbelief. She was the first person to truly believe in him other than Devon, and she barely knew him.

He whispered, “Thank you. That means a lot to me.”

Jade nodded and smiled. “No need to thank me. I think you’re a lot like me in many ways, and I enjoy our time together. You’re a good man. I know it… Even more, you’re a good friend.”

He smiled and thanked her again. Then, they got to work. After his lunch break was over, he invited her to his house later that evening for supper and more work. She happily agreed, and they parted ways, having crossed yet another threshold in their friendship.

***

After Jade’s classes for that day ended, she started walking home. She planned on fixing supper for Tom and then heading over to Seanix’s house for more work. She hoped to get Tom’s supper ready fast enough that she could then get to Seanix’s house early enough to fix Seanix supper too before they started working. She smiled to herself as she thought about fixing Seanix’s supper. She had done so numerous times now, and he genuinely seemed to enjoy having someone around to cook for him. He would simply stand in the kitchen doorway and watch her cook as they visited. She loved the way it felt to share that with him, and she wanted to make sure that she arrived at his house early enough to allow for it. So, she had a lot to do, with little time to do it.

She had her earbuds in, listening to her favorite music to help make the walk seem faster. Smiling to herself, she started the random rotation of songs with some of the classical music that Sean had placed on her phone during one of their visits. She had also set one of Tchaikovsky’s upbeat tunes as his ringtone. Because of the music playing in her ears, she did not hear that someone was walking up behind her. Her focus was on Seanix and the music, so she also failed to sense the person, as her country upbringing normally allowed her to do. It was only when a man grabbed her from behind and put a knife to her throat that she knew something was wrong. She found herself being hauled into the woods, yanking her earbuds out and making her phone fall to the ground.

After dragging her into the woods, her attacker, who wore a ski mask, spun her around to face him, placing the knife at her throat once more. He slammed her back up against a tree and pinned her arm behind her as he leaned in tightly against her.

He threatened, “Don’t scream, or I’ll cut your fucking throat! Now, take off your clothes!”

She defiantly spat, “No!”

He angrily threw her to the ground, with the knife pressed to her throat again and her arm still pinned behind her. He laid on top of her in such a way that his body held down her other arm. He started roughly kissing her neck, using his free hand to unbutton his jeans. She could not free either arm to fight back, and she could feel that the arm pinned beneath her was injured at the shoulder. The knife pressed into her skin beneath her chin. With both arms disabled and unable to move her upper body without getting her throat cut, she thrust her knee upward as hard as she could between his legs, causing him to scream out in pain and roll off of her. She quickly flipped over, but her arm that had been pinned was hurt too badly for her to fight properly. She scrambled to her feet and took off running, screaming for help. He chased her, and grabbed her again, taking her down to the ground once more. He tried to lift her skirt, but she fought as best as she could, punching with her good arm and kicking, even head butting him in the nose, making his job a difficult one as he cried out, battered and bloodied. She got away again, and he caught her once more. As far as she was concerned, any victory he gained would come at a steep price, and she was making good on that plan, as he too was clearly injured from the brawl. As he lay on top of her once more and the struggle continued to escalate, she bit down hard on his shoulder that was in her face, causing him to shriek loudly in pain again. The two continued to fight, and he fitfully tried to stab her in the throat with the knife. Seeing it coming through reading his body language beforehand, she managed to quickly move just enough for him to miss, despite his weight holding her down.

He barked orders at her to stop fighting before he slit her throat to make her stop, growling at her that he did not care if she was alive, dead, or dying while enjoying his triumph over her. Then suddenly, to her surprise and his, he flew off of her, screaming. She looked up to see Seanix slam her attacker against a tree and punch him across the face hard enough to send the man flying to the ground. The two men fought, and the attacker found himself knocked around, rammed into trees, and thrown to the ground repeatedly by this professor more than twice his age and less than half his build, which was the build of a weight-lifter. Sean was a man possessed, and he was taking no prisoners. After once again being battered and knocked to the ground by a series of punches to the abdomen and face, the man spat bloody leaves and teeth from his mouth, stumbled around trying to get to his feet, and took off running, with Seanix in hot pursuit for a few yards before turning back to check on Jade. Seeing that she was injured, he ran to her and helped her sit up, panting from the fight and fear for Jade’s condition.

“Are you okay?!” he exclaimed, frantically looking her over for injuries before pulling her skirt back down, discretely covering her black lace underwear and upper legs. “Are you hurt?! Did that bastard lay a fucking hand on you?!”

Jade threw her uninjured arm around his neck and burst into tears, crying, “I’m okay! Thank you! How did you find me?! How did you even know?!”

He embraced her, fighting back his own tears.

“Oh, God, Jade. I saw you starting to walk, and all I could think about were the other students who had been attacked. I had to follow you and offer you a ride, but by the time I got to my car, I couldn’t see you anymore. I drove around and saw your phone on the ground. I knew something had happened, so I immediately called the police. I couldn’t wait for them though. I had to find you and make sure you were okay.”

She whispered, “That guy was huge. He could’ve killed you.”

Still holding her tightly, he softly cried, “Trust me… He’s the one who should worry if I ever get a second round with him.”

It was then that Jade heard people coming. She looked over Seanix’s shoulder to see police officers and EMTs running toward them. Seanix gently helped Jade sit on a nearby log as the group approached. He sat next to her and put his arm around her as she tearfully leaned into him and put her head on his shoulder. One officer, Lieutenant Eaton, took charge and instructed the other officers to process the scene while he spoke to Jade and Sean. After giving a full description of the man’s build, demeanor, and voice, she answered the questions from Lt. Eaton and the EMTs as best she could, but she just wanted to leave. Upon asking how she and Seanix knew one another, and receiving an answer of them being professor and student, Eaton looked at them suspiciously… noting how lovingly they sat together, with his arm around her and her head leaning against him as she gripped him tightly with her uninjured arm. Finally, the EMTs stated that they would be taking her to the hospital by ambulance since she was injured.

“No,” she said, shaking her head. “It’s just dislocated. I can fix that. I just wanna get out of here, that’s all. I wanna go.”

Seanix protested, “Jade, you’re hurt. You should be seen by a doctor. I can drive you to the hospital myself if you don’t want an ambulance.”

“No!” she yelled, before lowering her voice to a tone that was still firm but soft. “I’m fine. I just want to leave.”

With that, the EMTs could see that she had made up her mind. They asked her to sign a waiver refusing medical aid and ambulance service, which she gladly did. They then told Seanix to keep an eye on her and take her to the nearest hospital should she change her mind or if her injuries worsened. After an EMT handed Seanix a piece of paper that listed possible signs of serious injury and proper care after trauma, he explained everything on the page to Sean. Sean agreed to follow the instructions and thanked the EMT before he tenderly helped Jade to her feet, watching the police and EMTs walk away. He started to lead her to his car, but she asked him to give her a minute. He then watched in astonished, yet pained, admiration as she walked over to a tree and lined herself up before ramming her shoulder full force into the tree. Sean heard an audible snap from her shoulder popping back into place, and she cried out. He hurried to her side and anxiously took hold of her once more. Worried about her, but knowing her well enough to know that she would not be receptive to letting him drive her to the hospital, he led her to his car, which was still parked at the side of the road where he left it. He assisted her with getting into the passenger side, as she cradled her injured arm in her hand. He carefully reached for and extended her seatbelt to secure her, pausing briefly as their eyes met and their lips came within inches of each other. It was impossible to ignore the fire that burned within him, and it took all of his strength not to kiss her. Forcing himself to fight his desires once more, he clicked her seatbelt and closed her door. She watched him jog around to the driver’s side, and she felt lucky that he had thought to follow her. As good as she was at fighting, she never considered what would happen if she was injured and unable to fight.

She watched as he made his way around the car, bending over and picking up her phone from the ground where it had fallen during the attack, with the earbuds still attached. She could see how distraught he was over what happened to her, and it pained her to see him so upset. She looked up at him as he sat down and buckled his own seatbelt before placing her phone on her lap. Tears streamed down her face, and he gently reached over and put his hand on her cheek, softly cradling her face in his hand. She closed her eyes at feeling his touch, and they both felt how close they were to entering dangerous territory.

“I can’t stand the thought of what nearly happened… what would have happened if I hadn’t followed you, Jade… This was my worst fear, and I feel like I let you down.” He choked on his tears. “I should have gotten here sooner.”

Jade shook her head and leaned it into his hand, whispering, “No, you saved me. You got here just in time.”

He protested with pain-filled eyes, “But you’re hurt. And that fucking bastard… had your skirt pulled up and…” He shook his head. “I can’t even say it, Jade.”

She smiled, opening her eyes and gazing at him thankfully. “I would’ve been hurt much worse if you hadn’t shown up when you did. Thank you.”

He nodded, but he still felt like he should have done more. He leaned over, kissed her forehead, and then leaned his forehead against hers. He wanted more than anything to take her into his arms and protect her… to love her in a way that he had no right to wish for.

“I’ll take you home. I’ll make sure Tom knows what the EMTs said, and I’ll make sure you’re okay before I leave. You’re in no condition to work tonight.”

He turned away and started the car. As he headed down the street to the main road and prepared to turn onto it, she hesitantly asked him not to take her home.

She said, “I really don’t want Tom to see me like this. Is there somewhere else you could take me instead? Even a hotel would be preferable.”

He thought for a moment and asked, “Do you have any friends you’d like me to take you to?”

She shook her head. “No. Just people I met through Tom. They’d call him, and he wouldn’t hesitate to show up. Those are the only friends I have around here besides you… and Samantha Newman. But I really don’t want to deal with her right now. She would only tell me that I need a good… as you would say… shag to get me back on my feet. And she’d pressure me to make it happen.”

With an understanding nod, Seanix hesitantly, and hopefully, offered, “Would you like to come to my house instead? I couldn’t just leave you at a hotel like this… Not after what you went through. We’ll get some ice on your shoulder, and I’ll pour you some wine to help you unwind. I’ll tend to your every need while you rest.”

“That sounds perfect,” she replied, softly. “But…” She paused, and then added, “Do you have an extra room where I could stay tonight? I’m sorry for being a burden, and I’m sorry to ask for something so inappropriate. I just really don’t want Tom to see me like this. I can’t go home tonight… most likely tomorrow night either.”

Seanix nodded. “Of course… And you’re no burden at all. I want to help. I can put you in the downstairs guest room with your own private bath. I can even run you a nice hot bath with aroma, rose-scented candles and rose-scented bubbles to help you relax. You’re welcome to stay with me for as long as you’d like. We just can’t let anyone else know, especially Devon, or he’ll shite kittens. And I could lose my job to boot.”

Jade agreed, “Yes, it would be bad for us both if anyone knew where I was staying. I just need some time to recover from this, and Tom, as well-meaning as he is, would just make me feel worse by trying to find this guy and put him in jail.”

“You don’t want that?” he asked with a tone of surprise and confusion.

Jade answered, “Of course I do. But not the way he would do it. He’d be on me non-stop trying to get information from me that he could use. He’s very protective of me, but he would be so worried about me that he would unintentionally nag me to death.”

Seanix replied, “I understand. It’s easy to see that he loves you a lot. What will you tell him?”

She shrugged. “Just that I was attacked, but that I’m fine. I’ll tell him that I need some time to recover at a friend’s house. I won’t tell him who. He won’t press the issue if I assure him that the police are on it and that I’m fine. He’s good at giving me space when I need it. He’ll assume I’m with one of my female friends that I have here in town. Although, he’ll also look up the police report and find out I was found with you… Not looking forward to that discussion… or lecture.”

Seanix quietly said, “He sounds like he’s a good guy. He sounds like he’s a good man for you.”

He could not look at her as he said that. He hated saying it so much that the words nearly stuck in his throat. Still, he meant it.

Jade responded, “He’s a very good man… but not ‘for’ me. I don’t feel that way about him, and I never will.” Seanix looked over at her, feeling a bit of relief from her words, and saw her looking right at him as she added, “He’s not the one for me.”

Seanix smiled and nodded, suggesting, “Let’s get you tended to, and then I’ll fix supper for us both. It’ll be nice not eating alone.”

She slowly nodded and smiled back. She wondered if this was going where she thought it was… where she hoped it was. Yet, she hoped it wasn’t. She hated the thought of being the cause of him losing his job, but for the first time ever, she felt like she was falling in love. And it terrified her, while also filling her with a happiness that she had never felt before.

***

After taking reports from both Sean and Jade, Lt. Eaton notified local hospitals that they were looking for a rape suspect with a muscular build who might seek treatment for injuries related to a fight. They had found two bloody teeth at the scene. Since neither Sean nor Jade was missing any teeth, they concluded that Sean had knocked out at least two of the man’s teeth during the fight. The injuries listed when alerting the hospitals included injured genitals, fractures, broken bones, a broken nose, excessive bleeding, and missing teeth. Lt. Eaton left out a few details as a way to determine if a given hospital patient was the man who attacked Jade, thereby weeding out suspects. If a hospital called about a patient seeking treatment for fight-related injuries but did not report the bite mark, for example, it might not be the right man.

Within one hour, an emergency room contacted Lt. Eaton to report that a twenty-year-old man was currently in one of their rooms seeking treatment for severe, fight-related injuries. He was missing multiple teeth, was covered from head to toe with abrasions and bruising, had badly bruised genitals and inner thighs, and suffered from broken ribs and skull fractures. Additionally, he had a deep bite mark on one shoulder and a dislocated nose. He claimed to have fallen down a set of stairs, but the doctor felt that not all of his injuries meshed with that explanation. Unless the stairs had hands that could leave fist-shaped bruises, could cause bruises on his genitals and inner thighs, and could create a bite mark that punctured the skin, the patient was lying.

Eaton showed up with a few other officers, and after speaking with the man, they agreed with the doctor’s assessment that he was lying about the cause of his injuries. They radioed into their precinct and obtained a warrant to collect a DNA sample. The sample was quickly matched to the campus rapist, and he was placed under arrest. That was when the already disturbing situation became bizarre.

The man turned out to be a student at the university, John Flanson, who was in nearly all of Sean’s classes. An investigation into the young man’s past revealed nothing… Not only did John have no prior run-ins with the law, but it seemed the man did not even exist. There were no school records, no fingerprint records, no medical records, no residential addresses or phone numbers, no sign that he had existed prior to being at the college. Clearly, the man’s identity was fake. Not even his DNA was on file anywhere.

Tom would hear about the arrest later that same day. After Tom found out about the arrest, the man’s unusual name, and the fact that the man was in Sean’s classes, he immediately took over the case. Tom found it suspicious that the young man was in so many of Sean’s classes, that his last name was so similar to Sean’s, and that he was living under a fake identity. He worked very hard to connect the attacker to Sean, believing that somehow Sean was involved with this man’s crimes. Convinced of his theory, Tom aggressively interrogated the man, explaining that he would personally be prosecuting the case, and adding that the latest victim was someone he cared about. At hearing this, the man pled guilty to avoid a long trial and a harsher sentence that was promised to him by Tom. Unfortunately for Tom, the man remained adamant that Sean had nothing to do with the assaults, and the previous victims all described John as the only attacker. All of this occurred within the first three days after the attack on Jade.

Tom was angered that he would not get a crack at this guy in court and that he could not get the man to implicate Sean in the crimes. Jade scolded Tom for his vendetta against Sean and told him that he was being paranoid and petty simply because he had some sort of a grudge against Sean. She was not entirely wrong. To Tom, prosecuting John, even without Sean, would not only be punishment for his deeds against Jade, but it would also be going after Sean in a twisted way that only Tom understood. Denied his chance to take out his frustrations on this man, Tom was left to stew.

John Flanson would be found in his cell one week later, hanging by the neck from a rope, with no one having any idea where the rope came from. He had been dead for over an hour. The death was ruled a suicide, and the man’s true identity was never discovered.

***

After the attack, Jade and Seanix reached his house, and he carefully helped her inside. He led her to his couch, retrieved an ice pack for her shoulder, poured them some wine, and went to the kitchen to fix supper after making sure she was comfortable. While stirring spaghetti sauce with a wooden spoon, he was deep in thought and smiling to himself over the feeling of having her not only in his home but also planning to stay there overnight. His secret thoughts were just getting to the good part, his surreptitious desires for the possible activities they could enjoy during her stay, when he heard her enter the room. As though fearful that she had overheard his impure thoughts, he looked up guiltily to see her standing meekly in the doorway, holding the ice on her shoulder with one hand, and holding her glass of wine with the other. She stood there, staring at the floor. The sight of her standing in a doorway within his home felt right, and for a moment, he forgot that there were boundaries that should not be crossed… Or perhaps, he had not necessarily forgotten… Perhaps, he simply no longer cared.

He asked, softly, “Did you need something?” Then, placing the spoon down on the stove and setting a lid on the pan, he turned toward her to show that she had his complete, undivided attention. She shook her head slowly but did not answer. He joined her at the doorway and gently lifted her face so she would look at him. “Are you sure?” She nodded but still did not answer. “You should go back to the couch and rest. You’ve been through a lot.”

She whispered, “I don’t want to be alone.”

She was startled by her own words. Never before had she felt like that. Quite the opposite. She had spent her entire life avoiding close relationships with others, especially with men.

He wanted to say, You needn’t be alone, ever again. But instead, he nodded and said, “I understand. I’ll tell you what… How about you go pick some music and put it on the stereo. I’ll be right out with supper.”

She looked at him and softly asked, “Why are you doing all this for me? Why did you damn near kill that man who attacked me? And why have you risked your career by spending so much time with me… by fraternizing with one of your students, and now by having her here, in your home… overnight?”

Seanix did not know what to say. He thought to himself, because I love you. But he simply could not say it. Instead, he found himself nervously taking her glass and setting it on the counter beside them. He leaned in, albeit hesitantly and shakily, and gently brushed her trembling lips with his own that trembled just as desperately. He shivered with fear and expected her to push him away. He knew, by all rights, she should push him away. But instead of pushing him away, he was pleasantly surprised when she slowly dropped the ice pack to the floor and cradled his face in her hands, accepting his kiss… accepting him. He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close. His mind raced with thoughts that frantically asked him what the hell he was doing. He was risking everything by getting involved with one of his students, but he did not care. He needed her, and for the first time in his life, he felt like a real man… a good man. When she was near him, he felt like he could do anything and face any battle. Career be damned… Everything and everyone but them and this moment be damned.

Completely consumed by a desperate passion and a fire that burned within him and which he could no longer deny, he lifted her up in his arms and set her on a small table next to them. He ran his hands up her outer thighs, lifting her skirt as he nestled himself into her. She wrapped her legs around him as their kisses became more passionate. Then… it all came to a screeching halt as he remembered his past and all the pain he caused… all the pain he would undoubtedly cause her if he allowed himself to continue down this path.

Fear and regret swept through his entire being like a sudden dark tidal wave threatening to consume and suffocate him. He quickly stumbled backward and turned away, choking back tears. Squeezing his eyes shut tightly and pressing his fist against his lips to stifle his sobs that threatened to burst from within him, he faced the far wall, walking over to it and leaning his forehead against it. To his surprise, he felt her put her arms around him from behind. Unable to refuse her compassionate touch, in fact needing it, he took one of her hands in his and pressed it to his lips. She felt his tears on her fingers, and she laid her head on his back, not saying a word… just being there for him. Somehow, having her near him like that made him feel like his past did not matter… But he also felt that that was only because she did not know the real him.

“I’m sorry,” he choked, losing his battle with the torrent of tears that finally broke like a dam releasing a flood. “I can’t. You don’t know what I am.”

She gently turned him to face her and whispered, “Yes, I do.” Filled with anguish, he pulled her to him again and buried his face in her neck as she continued. “I may not fully know what you were, but I do know what you are now. I can see that you’re a strong man who has a past that he doesn’t like to think about, much less discuss, and that’s okay.”

He lifted his head and looked at her pleadingly as tears streamed down his face. She tenderly wiped the tears away, ignoring her own that flowed from seeing him so distraught.

Shakily, he whispered, “I have never truly loved anyone before. My past was nothing more than lies and pain. I married my ex-wife not for love, but for control. I was a monster. She was right to leave me, but…”

Jade placed her finger softly on his lips and gently soothed, “It’s okay. I don’t care. If you ever tell me, fine. If not, that’s fine too. Just tell me how you feel now, not back then.”

He nodded, speaking slowly and softly. “I’m a man who wants only to please you… to protect you. I am madly in love with you, and I know now that I have been from the start. I’m not a good man, but I want to be. For you. I would do anything for you, even lay down my own life or suffer any torment for you. I don’t deserve you. I’ll only hurt you, and that’s why I can’t allow myself to be with you… not because of my job. I don’t care about that. I’d leave it in an instant to be with you, but I can’t. I have to suffer, knowing that I can’t have you, and be alone to keep from hurting you. I know Tom has told you so. I know he’s told you what I am.”

She smiled and corrected, “You may not have been a good man before we met… You may even feel like you are still that man… But you’re not. You are a good man now. That’s all that matters, no matter what Tom has or has not said to me. I can tell you two have a history with each other, but that’s all I know for sure. I also know that you left a painful past behind you, and you deserve a chance to prove yourself. Not because you claim to have changed, but because anyone who truly is repentant does.” She paused and kissed him adding, “I love you too. I’ve never truly loved anyone either, but I fell for you the first day we met. I could see your heart reflected in those beautiful eyes, and you have had my heart from the beginning. Please, don’t deny yourself the love that I have to offer you. Don’t deny me the love that you have to offer me or the chance to be here with and for you. The university and the problems we face because of our love can be dealt with… as long as we face them together. I love you, and I need you.”

Unable to fight the longing that boiled within his blood any longer, he gave in to his desires, kissing her passionately, yet gently, and they both forgot all about supper. He quickly turned the stove off and led her upstairs, where they tearfully made love until the morning sun shone through the window. For each of them, this was their first love, and they were each willing to risk whatever they had to for it. As he held her in his arms at long last and made love to her, he knew it was at the expense of his career that he had spent decades building. Yet, he could not care less about that. This was true love, and it was worth any price. He did not even bother to get ready for work when morning came. He simply held her close and knew that his life would never be the same. She too knew that for herself. All they cared about was right there, and nothing else mattered. Sean called in sick that day, spending the entire day home… with Jade.

Coming Soon: Jade and Seanix continue along their journey, planning a future together… while blissfully unaware of just how little time they, or anyone else, had before the world as they knew it would end.

Recommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in Adventure, Drama, Fiction, Horror, Mystery/Thriller, Romance

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