by Kat Jackson
Order. Purpose. Predictability.
Dr. Renee Lawler organizes her life around those principles, and rarely does she stray from them. After all, they’ve brought her this far in life, where she enjoys her role as English department chair at a small but reputable New England university. She isn’t known for being lenient or a pushover; Renee very much appreciates that her academic reputation instills sparks of fear in students’ hearts.
Whether there’s room in her own heart for anything more than literature and bossing people around—truthfully, Renee hasn’t allowed herself time to discover that possibility. While she doesn’t love being described as “problematically independent,” she takes pride in how much she’s accomplished on her own.
Everything in Renee’s life is perfectly in order until one fall weekend, when her world collides with possibility and the past, setting off a tidal wave of changes even she couldn’t have predicted.
Revisit some of the characters from The Roads Left Behind Us in this new romance by Kat Jackson.
|Publication Date||May 18, 2023|
|Cover Designer||Heather Honeywell|
You must be logged in to post a review.
The unmistakable sound of the main door smashing against the wall behind it halts Renee Lawler’s manicured nails over her keyboard. She feels her brows crease and quickly widens her eyes, as she’s certain the repeated furrowing is the contributing force behind the new, uninvited, and unwelcome wrinkles on her forehead. So invested is she in this careful, practiced routine that she misses the sudden hush falling over the gentle buzz and hum of the English department offices, followed immediately by lumbering yet surprisingly purposeful footsteps drawing nearer to her office door, which is, regrettably, more than ajar.
She jolts to attention, wrinkles momentarily forgotten. “Franklin.”
The Dean of Liberal Arts takes up the entire doorway, leaving little space for light from the hallway to leak in. Renee forces her eyes to stop from rolling—her body’s honed, natural response to even seeing Franklin Malnor’s name, let alone having him appear unannounced in her office. Instead, she pastes a bright smile on her face, hoping its superficiality isn’t too obvious, but also not caring enough to make it seem more genuine.
“You’re over budget. Again.”
Renee sighs heavily, the drama of the action intentional. She stands and presses her navy-blue skirt down to ease potential wrinkles (not much less offensive than the invaders on her forehead), then slowly makes her way around to the front of her desk and perches on the edge, dangling one five-inch canary-yellow high heel while the other digs into the worn wooden floor. She levels her eyes on the space between Franklin’s bushy eyebrows, yet again wondering why his wife doesn’t suggest he tame the overgrown thickets.
“Franklin,” she starts, her tone edged with honey.
“No,” he says immediately, crossing his arms over his broad chest. “It’s the third year in a row. I understand math is not your forte”—Renee cringes at his for-tay pronunciation—“but this is becoming a habit. A fiscally problematic habit.”
Renee ramps up the wattage of her smile. She isn’t worried about the budget—clearly, she never is—but Franklin’s presence in her office is something she does not enjoy under any circumstance. As far as bosses go, he could be far worse, but the personality that oozes from him is not one that Renee appreciates. Franklin is a schmoozer at his best, a sycophant at his worst. She wants to trust him, has tried to for years now, but something inside of her refuses to let it happen.
Truth be told, that little something inside of her has a long history of refusing to let things happen. Even at the evolved age of forty-seven, Renee still isn’t sure if this is a good thing.
Straightening her posture, Renee gazes at Franklin, allowing a mask of sincerity to fix itself on her features. “I’ll figure it out. I always do.”
He grunts. Renee can tell he wants to come further into the office, but thankfully, a carefully constructed invisible fence of her authoritative feminine energy keeps him at bay. “You always say that.”
“And,” Renee says, pushing firmness into her tone, “I always follow through with what I say.”
The split second of hesitation from the dean is enough to secure yet another yearly win for Renee. She mentally pats herself on the back even though she knows she’ll have to at least make it look as though she’s attempted to cut back on some of the department’s spending for next year. Per usual, Franklin will somehow forget this conversation ever occurred and the miniscule over-budget amount (what was it, a cool $5,000 this year?) will slide through, no more questions asked.
Renee wonders, as she does every year, how that works. And just as quickly as the thought appears, it’s mown over by the sheer joy of sticking it to the man. Oh, how she delights in sticking it to the man.
“All right then.” Franklin tugs on the end of his standard black tie, lifting it off his barrel-shaped torso before letting it listlessly flop back down. His eyes flick around the office, never settling back on Renee. She’s fairly certain he’s afraid of her. And she likes it. “I’ll be waiting for your revised budget. It better not include any aesthetic items meant to enhance your drab surroundings.”
The pathetic parting shot doesn’t land, and as Franklin leaves without a goodbye, Renee waves gaily at his retreating form. She waits for the stubborn main door to be flung open and creak out an unsatisfying groan as it lumbers toward closing. The door has never slammed and it never will. Renee’s office door, however, can slam with an intensity that shakes the classrooms on the floor below.
She resists the urge to summon an earthquake, not wanting to upset the tender-hearted scholars on the first floor. Instead, she releases a long-held breath and arches her neck backward, letting her eyes scan the beige ceiling tiles.
“Fucking Franklin,” she mutters to the tiles, blinking long and slow. “Holier than thou piece of steaming raccoon shit covered in maggots and—”
A low whistle interrupts Renee’s colorful rant. “I take it that went well.”
“As always.” Renee rolls her neck to the side and looks at her second-favorite hire of all time, Dr. Courtney Wincheck-Rodriguez, who is hovering in the doorway.
“So now isn’t the best time to ask for some favors?”
Even Renee’s sideways vision can’t smear the wickedness of Courtney’s grin. “I believe you already know the answer to that.” She runs her fingers through her hair as she resumes normal posture. “But ask anyway. You know I love to screw with that sad excuse for a man.”
“Actually,” Courtney says as she walks into the office and drops into one of the chairs across from Renee’s imposing black walnut desk, “I’m more interested in knowing why you chose raccoon shit.”
“Easy. It’s rated one of the top smelliest animal shits.”
Renee shrugs. “The Internet.” She flicks her wrist in Courtney’s direction. “Limited time here, Courtney. What do you want?”
Courtney tilts her head, adopting an expression that’s meant to look innocent and wholesomely needy. It nearly hits the mark but Renee knows it’s a facade. “Please?”
“No,” Renee repeats. “While I’m thrilled that you cut to the chase, as you often do, you know there’s not a chance in hell that I can even consider granting that request.”
Courtney crosses her arms and fixes Renee with her characteristic penetrative stare. “You got Kate a TA.”
Another flick of the wrist. Renee idly wonders if others consider that her characteristic move. She very much wants a signature move, she realizes. “You and Kate have completely different course loads. Would you like me to expound upon all the intricacies of how she is, quite simply, more deserving of a TA?”
“I’m pretty sure you misspoke and want to use a word other than ‘deserving.’”
With a huff, Renee slides off her desk and returns to her chair. Far from drab, it’s a luxurious, ergonomic rolling cloud. Fine, perhaps it isn’t in the “beautiful” category of office furniture, but it is the most comfortable seat Renee has ever sat upon. Fuck Franklin. Who is he to snub her office? His entire wardrobe is the epitome of drab and—
Renee looks at Courtney. “What?”
“I’m waiting for a better word than ‘deserving.’”
“You may continue waiting.”
Courtney laughs. “Seriously, Renee. No chance?”
“Seriously? Doubtful.” Renee taps her password into her sleeping computer. “I would have to cut something, or someone. And you know how much I loathe cutting.”
“Yes, I do, but you’ve seen my schedule for next year.” Courtney leans forward, resting her elbows on her thighs. “Hell, you made my schedule. Can I handle it? Obviously. Would it be supremely helpful to have a bright, young scholar under my experienced wing to guide through the intricacies of academia whilst simultaneously taking just a tiny bit of grading obligation off my plate?” She nods, her sharp gaze never wavering. “Yes. Yes, Renee, it would.”
“And my priority is keeping my professors happy.” Renee steeples her fingers. “I’m five thousand over budget.”
Courtney taps her pointer finger against her chin. “Weren’t you seven thousand over last year?”
“That’s entirely possible, but—”
“And didn’t it slide through anyway?”
Renee clenches her jaw. She wonders if that action contributes to around-the-mouth wrinkles. “I regret telling you things.”
“Oh please,” Courtney says as she stands to her imposing 6’3” height. “I’m your favorite confidant. You’d be lost without me and we both know it.” As though a thought has suddenly occurred to her, she raises her hand before Renee can counter. “And don’t even say what I think you’re going to say, because I’ve been here longer, ergo I have seniority plus the prolonged experience with handling all of”—she gestures toward Renee—“this. In conclusion, I’m your favorite and I’m more deserving.”
Renee lifts one shoulder, a coy move that doesn’t often grace her frame. “Second favorite.”
Courtney shakes her head as she leaves the office, a mumbled “Ridiculous” floating back to Renee, who merely smiles.
It’s not that Courtney is wrong; she was Renee’s first official hire after her appointment to department chair following a mess of inner-departmental shenanigans that no one speaks of. Renee was only thirty-seven when she suddenly rose to the top rank in the English department and she wasted no time in weeding out the last remnants of the previous chair’s misguided hiring practices. Courtney showed up at the exact right moment and Renee jumped on the opportunity to bring her bright, sarcastic, loyal light into the department.
And truly, she was Renee’s favorite for many years.
Until, of course, Kate Jory’s résumé appeared in her inbox and Renee nearly wept with joy. Bringing Kate into the department and learning that she was even better in person than on paper is by far Renee’s greatest accomplishment as of yet. Too, she thoroughly enjoys encouraging Kate and Courtney to battle it out for top position, especially since Kate could care less and that drives Courtney crazy, leaving the war lopsided and hapless, but quite impassioned on one side. As the duel waxes and wanes, Kate merely shakes her head and rolls her eyes, though Renee imagines Kate secretly enjoys having a dig to jab at Courtney when needed.
Renee sits back in her chair and crosses her legs, allowing herself a quiet moment of pride. She has worked hard over the last ten years, and she’s confident she has the best department in the entire university. Though it is small, it is mighty. Competition and over-confidence run rampant throughout the university’s departments, but Renee never worries. Her professors are a reflection of her: determined, hard-working, passionate, and just a touch arrogant in all the right ways.
Yes, she thinks as she brings up the budget and prepares herself for the onslaught of numbers and formulas, everything is exactly as it should be.
There are no reviews yet.