by Venus Reising
After enduring a soul-crushing loss, Professor Lexy Strayer might be ready to love again. But she’s determined that when she takes that step it won’t be with one of her students. Anna Stevens, back in the classroom after ten years away, is interested, interesting and oh so appealing, but when she makes a tentative advance, Lexy rebuffs her. Not with a student.
Jennifer Gardiner has no such scruples. She teaches in the English Department too—when she’s not cranking out gory murder mysteries or jumping in bed with anything that has breasts and a pulse. Jennifer would be happy to take her friend’s place with Anna, but for the moment she’s too busy with a new adjunct instructor, the sexy and secretive Andrea Cole, a big fan of Jennifer’s writing…and her other talents.
Lexy’s brain knows exactly what she should do, but her hands haven’t gotten the message. Every nude she sculpts at her weekly art class looks like Anna. Maybe Anna would be willing to give her another chance?
Then Jennifer’s exes start to turn up dead in ways that copy her novels. As if things aren’t complicated enough…
Lexy Strayer held the Styrofoam cup under the sputtering nozzle of the instant coffee vending machine while attempting to hold in place thirty fresh-off-the-copier syllabi for her morning composition class between her left elbow and her hip and a recently watered bamboo plant in her left hand. Her key chain was hooked onto her index finger and half a toasted bagel slathered with cream cheese was clamped in her jaw. She could feel some of the papers slipping from the stack, and as she shifted to try to prevent impending disaster, she heard a female voice from behind her.
“Need some help?”
A woman clad in jeans and a hippie-style tunic grabbed hold of the syllabi before they fell to the floor. Lexy attempted to speak with the bagel still lodged between her teeth. Her “thank you” came out more like a “Harrumph.”
“Here you go.” The dark-haired woman held the stack triumphantly out to Lexy, who had since set the coffee, which decidedly looked more like diesel fuel than cappuccino, down on the window ledge and removed her breakfast from her mouth.
Lexy smiled. “Thank you. I guess I’m guilty of over-tasking.”
The woman’s green eyes sparkled under the normally unflattering fluorescent bulbs overhead. “You’re Professor Strayer, right?”
“Guilty as charged.” Lexy wiped the corner of her mouth with her index finger, fearing that she may have unwittingly painted her lips with cream cheese during the fiasco.
“I’m Anna Stevens.” The young woman’s smile was a bit lopsided, Lexy noticed, slightly higher on the left side, cresting at an adorable dimple. Her complexion was lighter than Lexy’s own olive one and the skin around her eyes and mouth was absent the light wrinkles reflected by Lexy’s mirror each morning. “I’m in your Introduction to Literature class this afternoon.”
Lexy chastised herself for allowing her eyes to roam to the young woman’s soft full lips, lingering there for a moment before snapping back to the deep green irises. She felt her face flush. Time for a fast retreat, she thought. “Nice to meet you, Anna,” she said, tucking an errant strand of honey-brown hair back into the loose French braid she wore. “I guess I’ll see you then.” Taking her stack of papers from the woman’s arms, she shuffled off to her office to deposit the bamboo before heading to Franklin Hall.
* * *
Anna watched Professor Strayer’s retreat down the hallway. She couldn’t help but check her out—long legs in tan tailored pants and a fitted white blouse that showed off her sexy physique. “My prof is a hottie,” she whispered to herself as she unfolded her schedule to find the location of her first class. Slinging her backpack over her right shoulder, she headed toward the quad.
* * *
“So, did you meet the newbie yet?” Jennifer sipped her foamy café mocha and looked quizzically at Lexy.
This was Jennifer’s last year on tenure track at Orange County College in Orlando, the largest two-year college in the Southeast. Lexy anticipated that, armed with a continuing contract the next fall, Jennifer would stop agreeing to every project their dean threw her way, begin nailing some paintings to the walls of her office, and trade her usual blazers, pantyhose and heels for jeans and flip-flops. Of course, knowing her friend, Lexy expected that the jeans would be top of the line designer ones and the flip-flops would be by Prada.
During Jennifer’s first few years at OCC, she and Lexy had shared an office and had become close, especially after realizing that they were the only lesbians in the English Department. Unfortunately, the subject was broached when Jennifer made a shameless and fruitless pass at Lexy while they were preparing the set for a student theater production of Our Town.
“What newbie?” Lexy asked as she jealously watched her friend sip her high-calorie drink. Jennifer’s curvaceous figure could never appear fat, and no matter what the woman ate, her weight never seemed to fluctuate. Lexy sipped her own black coffee, frowning.
“The new four-monther. Cole.”
Temporary full-time positions were referred to as four-month contracts since faculty who held such positions were not guaranteed employment after the semester was over. If she had been in town, Lexy would have met the new faculty member at the Academic Assembly held each August prior to the start of classes, but she had extended her visit with her mother in Maine instead.
Her mother’s second husband, Carl, had passed away six months earlier, and she hadn’t been adjusting well. She and Carl owned a hobby shop, to which he contributed his own hand-made dollhouse furniture. When Lexy had visited in August, her mother had shown her some of his handiwork, a miniature kitchen table and chairs that looked just like the one they were sitting at as they drank their tea that morning. Looking at the tiny replica in her mother’s palm made Lexy feel unsettled, as though she had fallen through some sort of metaphorical rabbit hole or something.
“I don’t know how I’ll get on without him,” her mother had said, studying the delicate chenille-striped seat cushions.
“I know.” Lexy had patted her hand and was surprised by how soft and thin her skin felt and the way her flesh moved across the bones and tendons like liquid waves. “You will get through it, Mom, just like I did.”
Lexy had lost her partner, Jules, to breast cancer four years earlier. She wasn’t honestly sure that she had, in fact, gotten through it, nor was she sure what that phrase even meant.
Jennifer turned searching eyes on Lexy. “Well?” she asked, growing impatient with her friend’s disinterest in the conversation.
“No, I haven’t met the newbie yet. What’s he like?”
“She,” Jennifer corrected. “Andrea Cole.” The way Jennifer’s eyebrows raised as she pronounced the woman’s name made it obvious that she found the new four-monther attractive. “I think she’s one of us,” Jennifer whispered while seductively licking off her upper lip the milky froth from her last sip of coffee.
“You’re shameless, you know that? Besides, what are the chances that of seven full-time English instructors, three are gay?”
“Slim. But I’m telling you, she gave me the once-over.”
“You’re imagining things.”
“Scout’s honor.” Jennifer lifted two fingers up to her forehead in some sort of melodramatic salute.
“Give it up. You were never even a Brownie.”
“So? It’s a common expression. Anyway, that’s beside the point. When Keith introduced us, I’m telling you the woman held my hand too long for a normal shake and her eyes raked over me. I thought I was going to melt into a puddle at the feet of her tall, dark and handsome self.”
Lexy had watched Jennifer jump into bed with anything that had breasts and a pulse since Samantha left her two years ago for her male yoga instructor. Jennifer claimed that meaningless sex was therapeutic, but Lexy thought otherwise, which is one of the reasons why she had promptly cooled her friend’s advances when they were directed at her just after the breakup.
“You know, it’s probably not a good idea to get involved with a colleague. Remember the Jacquie fiasco?” Jennifer had slept with the straight but curious adjunct in the art department after the college’s winter holiday party last year. Which led to Marc, Jacquie’s angry fiancé, demonstrating just how efficiently a properly swung golf club can demolish the windows of a BMW.
“A girl can dream, can’t she?” Jennifer gave Lexy a long look. “So…how’s the dating scene, Lexy Loner?”
“Nonexistent as usual.” Lexy paused, remembering that morning’s vending machine meeting with Anna, and added with a groan, “Actually, I caught myself checking out a student today. How pathetic am I?”
“Oh my! How old?”
“Does it matter? She’s a student!”
Lexy laughed, throwing a balled-up napkin at her friend. “Stop it!”
“Well, let’s plan to go out Friday night then. We’ll see if we can’t find you a legal prospect.”
“I don’t know,” Lexy said noncommittally. Just thinking about the meat-market feel of the local lesbian bars filled her with revulsion.
“It’s time you got back in the game, Lex. Jules has been gone for four years.”
The mere mention of her name caused a painful lump to form in Lexy’s throat. It wasn’t just Jennifer who had started to needle her about diving back into the dating pool. Even her own mother, the same woman who, after learning that she was a lesbian, served her an annotated Bible and pamphlets on conversion therapy for breakfast, had begun encouraging her to go out to meet women. Apparently, Lexy’d exceeded the permissible mourning time and had tipped the scales into Grey Gardens territory. But four years wasn’t enough. No number of years would ever be enough.
Jennifer began collecting her belongings. “I’m off to frighten another class of freshmen who think they’re writing the next Harry Potter or Hunger Games series. I’ll call you later.”
* * *
Anna answered her cell on the second ring. “Hello?”
“Hey, sweetie.” She could hear Ian smiling through the phone.
She and Ian had been best friends since they’d become next-door neighbors in Tallahassee when she was five. They’d bonded over G.I. Joe and couch cushion forts, and they even had their own secret handshake. In high school, they found something else they had in common: They were both gay.
“I know you’re busy with school and all, but Cayden insisted on calling his mommy to tell her that he won a potato sack race at preschool today.”
When Ian and his partner Christian were considering having a child together, it seemed only natural that he would ask her. And it was equally natural that she would say yes.
“Well, I would expect no less with his amazing genes.”
Ian laughed. “Hold on. I’ll put him on.”
“We won! We won!” Cayden shouted into the mouthpiece.
“That’s so wonderful!” Anna said, yanking the phone away from her ear to protect her hearing. “You’re amazing, Cayden!”
“And I got a ribbon!”
“Wow!” It sounded as though Cayden was jumping up and down; the thought made Anna smile uncontrollably. Then, per his usual, he dropped the phone. A muffled sound followed.
“Sorry about that,” Ian said. “Anyway, I know you’ve got classes so I’ll let you go, but we love you, sweet cheeks. Best of luck on your new venture.”
“I love you guys too, E. Thanks for thinking of me.”
* * *
Anna chose a seat in the back of the classroom. She was tempted to check her phone’s voice mail but thought better of it when she saw Professor Strayer look up sharply from her briefcase when a cell phone elsewhere in the room emitted a muffled Kelly Clarkson ringtone.
“Be forewarned,” the professor said. “If that happens again, I will answer it.”
Anna’s morning class, US Government, hadn’t been too bad. The professor, who introduced himself as John, was younger and more hip than she had expected him to be. It didn’t take Anna long to realize why he had a lot of chili peppers on the Professor Rater website. The class was full of women ogling his jeans-clad ass as he wrote his name and office hours on the board. In fact, she seemed to be the only female in the room not doing so. That would not be the case, she thought, if Professor Strayer had a lot of notes to write on the board. That she wouldn’t mind at all.
Anna was nervous about returning to school after a hiatus of ten years. Her mother, a single parent, had suffered a debilitating stroke shortly after Anna’s eighteenth birthday. She surrendered her scholarship to Vassar in order to take care of her. Despite the months of physical therapy, her mother never regained the lost mobility and function. The difficulty of maneuvering in and out of locations ill-equipped for wheelchairs and the potential clients who shied away from her garbled speech effectively ended her career as a realtor. Anna, who was already working in a frame shop, picked up a second job as a bartender to cover the household bills and help pay the portion of the mortgage that disability didn’t. She had struggled to take classes at Tallahassee Community College for two semesters but dropped out thereafter.
At twenty-eight, Anna was older than the majority of her classmates, but so far she didn’t feel too out of place. She had even made a couple acquaintances that could potentially become friendships. Glancing around this classroom now, however, she found no familiar faces, aside from that of the instructor, of course, who seemed less frazzled and more at ease at the front of the classroom than she had earlier at the vending machines.
Professor Strayer smoothed a few fallen hairs back and picked up a stack of papers at the front of the room. She walked carefully through the room, as if worried about potential collisions with the corners of the trapezoid-shaped tables, and handed each student a stapled packet. When she arrived at Anna’s seat, she smiled and gave a slight nod of acknowledgment.
Inwardly, Anna was beaming. She liked the fact that she had been singled out—that she had shared a moment with Professor Strayer that no one else was privy to.
* * *
Lexy hated the first day of classes. The students were always uncharacteristically quiet, all of them facing front with their notebooks open and their highlighter pens at the ready like little soldiers. Even after a decade of teaching, she still felt the chaotic butterflies in the pit of her stomach on the first day.
She introduced herself, cataloguing her degrees, teaching experience and contact information, and then segued into the obligatory recitation of classroom policies. After eight years at OCC, this part of her opening day spiel had become second nature to her, and she found her attention drifting as she discussed attendance.
“Class meets Mondays and Wednesdays. Please try to arrive promptly at one. I allow three absences, but after the third one, ten percent will be deducted from your attendance grade. You have three freebies. Use them wisely…”
She continued by rote, her eyes scanning the room until stopped by attentive deep green ones, and then drifting downward to linger again on those soft, full lips. Lips which were currently chewing on the end of a mechanical pencil.
Lexy felt heat prickle her skin. What the hell is wrong with me? I’m probably old enough to be her mother. For Christ’s sake, get a grip! She had always conducted herself professionally while at school, especially in the classroom. Some of her colleagues were known to invite their students to their homes for dinner parties or “hang out” with them in the college cafeteria. But not Lexy. She worked hard to maintain her professional distance. She had certainly never felt an attraction toward a student before. And she didn’t now, she told herself. It must be some weird hormonal blip in her system. Come to think of it, she had been renting a lot of romantic comedies and craving chocolate lately. She shook her head. Time to get to work.
Lexy started all of her classes with the same icebreaker activity, which she conducted in the process of taking roll. She had her students write down three statements about themselves, two of them true and one a lie. Every student would read his or her statements and the rest of the class would try to determine which one was false. This Introduction to Literature class was relatively small, so she expected to be able to dismiss the students early. That was good since she hadn’t had a chance to eat lunch yet and her stomach was rumbling.
“Jenna Adams?” she asked, reading from the roster.
A young bottle-blonde in the front row giggled as she read her statements. “I have two brothers. I’m sixteen. I just moved to Florida two months ago.”
Lexy liked this activity because she could easily determine who the class clowns would be.
“Sixteen?” piped up a boy with a mohawk that was streaked fire truck red. “Watch out for her, guys. Statutory rape!”
And there’s the first one, Lexy thought.
Lexy saw Anna roll her eyes at Red Mohawk’s comment. She was about to offer a firm response when a pretty Hispanic student wearing a tight shirt that showed her midriff raised her expensively manicured hand and joined the discussion: “First of all, that’s totally offensive. And secondly, she can’t be sixteen and be enrolled in college.”
Jenna Adams smiled triumphantly. “I am sixteen! I’m dual enrollment.”
Lexy had a poor opinion of dual enrollment students, although she would never confess that to her colleagues. Many DE students were too immature to acclimate to college life. She could tell that Jenna, with her binder filled with pictures of someone Lexy assumed to be her boyfriend and glittery stickers of puppies and flowers, was probably one of those students.
Jenna’s lie, as it turned out, was that she had three brothers rather than two. How imaginative! Clearly, grading this particular DE student’s assignments was going to be exhilarating.
The activity continued in much the same manner, punctuated by occasional interjections by Red Mohawk and another potential class clown: a student, possibly in his early thirties, with a buzz cut. Finally she reached the only familiar name on the roster. She smiled despite herself. “Anna Stevens?”