Prequel to The Surprise Princess
Carolyn Trent’s logically mapped journey to becoming the perfect professor of English was hijacked the day she became academic advisor to the Ashton University men’s basketball team. The hijacker was C.J. Draper, the team’s infuriating, irreverent and sexy new coach.
C.J. has never let adversity stop him – if he had he’d never have gotten this far. He’s not about to start by letting Professor Trent derail him. If he chose to rattle her ivory tower it was just for the fun of seeing the fiery woman beneath the marble-cool exterior … wasn’t it?
When logic clashes with ambition in the game of love, will anyone win?
He was hard to miss.
Carolyn pushed open the door, and there he sat, his jeans-clad legs stretched out, practically filling the reception area.
During her past five months in Europe, she’d often thought about Ashton University–about paths bordered with daffodils in the spring and chrysanthemums in the fall, sailboats skimming the lake, stately stone buildings, her colleagues, her friends.
Never once did she think about encountering someone like this sitting in the university president’s outer office. The Ashton U. sweatshirt, the jeans faded to a dusty blue, and the white athletic shoes befitted a student. But only the most casual student would wear that outfit to the president’s office. And this, Carolyn Trent told herself, was no student.READ MORE
Mid-thirties, she’d say from the sharp angles and planes of his face. Even in the shadows of the far corner where he sat, his features added up to self-assurance. Surprise mingled in his expression with something she couldn’t identify. But it most definitely wasn’t self-consciousness. If he was at all aware of the incongruity of his attire against this backdrop of burgundy leather furniture and walnut paneling, he gave no sign of it.
He didn’t fit. And that jarred her. Here at Ashton everything was supposed to be the way it always had been–orderly and steady. Here, she’d told herself, she’d shake this discontent that kept scratching at her, unsettling her just when everything was going so well.
“She’ll be back in a minute,” said a distinctive voice, a mixture of gravel and drawl, like a slow rumble of rocks. “The secretary,” the man added with a slow nod to the empty desk. “She said she’d be right back.”
Carolyn felt an unaccustomed flush sweep her face. She’d been staring. And he knew it. “Thank you.”
“Have an appointment?”
She shook her head. If the room had been empty, or if Marsha had been alone out here, Carolyn would have gone straight in to surprise Stewart. But not with an audience. Not that the informality would have bothered this man.
“Shouldn’t be long. He’s not too tied up this afternoon,” he offered optimistically, nodding toward the double doors to the inner office. “That’s what the secretary said.”
Carolyn sank straight-backed into a wing chair. What would it be like to be as unconcerned about the proprieties as he seemed to be? She gave another small shake of her head, this time at herself. Whatever it was like, it wouldn’t be appropriate for an Ashton University professor of English literature.
“Carolyn! Welcome back,” an older female voice exclaimed. Stewart Barron’s secretary was in the doorway with a folder in one hand, mail in the other, and a wide smile.
“Hello, Marsha. It’s good to be home.”
“How was the seminar? How was England? And Paris? Oh, how I envy you.” She sighed, not waiting for answers. “You must have had a wonderful time. All the cafes, the shops…”
Just the word Paris and Carolyn saw Marsha conjuring up romantic fantasies. But it hadn’t been like that. She’d spent half her time at the Louvre and half at the Musee d’Orsay, soaking in line and color after months devoted to the written word.
“The seminar was excellent–very worthwhile. But now I’m eager to find out what I’ll be doing and to get started.”
She was more than a little curious. In retrospect, Stewart’s dodging the topic during the two-and-a-half-hour drive back from the airport late last night struck her as odd.
“Of course you are. I’ll go in and let him know you’re here,” said Marsha, hurriedly setting the mail on her desk.
Carolyn watched the older woman disappear into Stewart’s office with growing uneasiness. She’d known Marsha Hortler for more than seventeen years, ever since Stewart and Elizabeth had assumed guardianship of Carolyn and brought her back to Ashton at the age of eleven. But Marsha almost seemed to be avoiding her.
Or maybe Marsha wanted to avoid the subject of her assignment this semester. She frowned. Missing the first six weeks meant she couldn’t have her usual class load, but why this mystery?
Her gaze slid to the tall stranger, then immediately jerked away. He was studying her openly. Perhaps she deserved that after the way she’d stared. But that didn’t mean she’d just sit there. She turned back to him and smiled, pleasant but distant, the small smile so effective at keeping her male students at arm’s length.
He grinned, a genuinely amused, lopsided grin that showed a slash of white teeth. Shifting in her chair, she automatically pulled the hem of her cognac wool skirt over her knees. The grin deepened in apparent appreciation of the shape that showed between her just-lowered skirt and matching pumps.
What was the matter with her? What did a little staring from a stranger matter?
A stranger. Of course. Marsha would never discuss faculty matters in front of a stranger. That must be the explanation for her manner. But then why had Stewart acted so oddly last night?
“He’ll see you now, Carolyn. Come in,” Marsha said, emerging from the double doors to Stewart’s office.
“Carolyn! Come in. Come in, my dear!” With his pinstripe suit fitted precisely to his tall, rangy form and distinguished by white wings at the temples of his dark hair, Stewart Barron presented the perfect picture of a university president.
“Hello, Stewart.” She returned his hug with vigor, but watched him closely as he resumed his seat behind the mahogany desk. “How are you feeling today?”
“Me?” He waved aside the irrelevancy. “The question is, how are you? You’re the one who’s returned from adventuring, seeing the wide world. And–” his voice deepened to an ominous note “–the one who wasn’t supposed to report to work for another five days. Haven’t you heard of jet lag? You should be collapsed in bed somewhere.”
“I’m not the type for the vapors,” she answered with mock indignation. “There’s no cause for me to take to my bed.”
At least he didn’t look as lost or alone as he had last spring. Carolyn sat back in her chair. He’d insisted she go to the seminar; still, she’d worried about leaving him alone less than a year after Elizabeth’s death.
Well, not alone, precisely. Everyone at Ashton cared about him. And Elizabeth’s cousin Helene, who’d helped nurse her over the final months, stayed on to help with his social obligations. But Helene was so different from Stewart, and Carolyn worried he’d miss talking to someone who could share his concerns about Ashton.
“I wasn’t referring to having the vapors, and you’ll note I didn’t say whose bed.”
“Stewart.” She clicked her tongue in feigned disapproval. “Someday you’re going to say something like that in front of the wrong person, and they’re going to think you’re trying to encourage me into a hedonistic life.”
“I am.” He slid his dark-framed glasses back onto his nose. “Maybe that would balance the twenty-eight years of seriousness you’ve lived so far. Dedicated teachers don’t always have to be serious, Carolyn. I wish I could convince you of that. Your parents knew it.” He looked over the top of his glasses at her.
He always did that when he wanted to make a particular point, Carolyn thought–as if he believed he could see her reaction more clearly without the magnification of the lenses. Strangely enough, she believed he could.
She stood up and moved to the full-length window that looked out on the Meadow, an open grassy area framed by maples gathering color for a final, vibrant burst of Wisconsin autumn. Students strolled along paths that connected the Administration Building, the classroom buildings and the chapel. One young couple was stretched out on the grass, the girl’s head resting on the boy’s chest, and both stared up at puffs of white drifting across the blue.
The scene had formed part of her life for so many years, but today she seemed out of sync. She felt like someone trying to jump on a merry-go-round already in motion.
Maybe it came from missing the start of the school year.
No. She shouldn’t try to excuse it that way. In England she’d tried to put it down to longing for Ashton–plain old homesickness. But the feeling had poked at her even before the trip. Part of grieving for Elizabeth, she’d thought at first. Now she wasn’t so sure.
Whatever the cause, working hard would leave less time to fret about it. Barely conscious of her own sigh, Carolyn turned back and put the question directly, “What do you have planned for me, Stewart?”
“Since you’re so eager, the first thing is Homecoming this weekend.”
He ignored her half groan as she sank back into the chair. The informal tea Thursday afternoon, the parade and rally Friday, the Saturday football game, the evening’s dinner-dance, and Sunday’s farewell brunch made Homecoming a command performance for faculty members.
“You enjoy it. Admit it–even the football game,” he said.
Sheepishly she acknowledged a fondness for the hoopla. She was concerned that people would look askance at a professor who liked fight songs, cheers, tackles and touchdowns. “But I’ve already missed so much of this semester. I want to get started.”
Stewart removed his glasses to rub the bridge of his nose before replacing them. “You know it’s difficult with the semester already so advanced…”
She crossed her knees and waited for him to go on. He didn’t. “We discussed that before I went,” she reminded him. “We agreed the seminar would be worthwhile because of the opportunity.”
“Of course,” he acknowledged. “And since you’re one of the few from this country ever invited, I know several publications eager to have articles from you. That’s good exposure.”
“Yes, I’ll need to write several. And the organizers asked me to contribute an essay for a collection they’re publishing, but now–”
Now she wanted to teach. She missed it. The prestige of the seminar, the essay, the articles–all those were things any professor should value. They helped advance her standing in the academic world. How many people had told her how proud her parents would have been? Those words were always a reassurance: she was on the right track. These people, who’d been her parents’ colleagues and now were hers, certainly valued her accomplishments. Lately, though, she’d found the accomplishments less satisfying than she’d expected.
“I’ll write in my spare time. Until I get my own classes next semester, I thought I’d guest-lecture for the English literature courses.” She leaned forward. “And if the graduate students–”
“That would be difficult, Carolyn. All the syllabuses are set, and you know how some of the professors get if anything interferes. Maybe next semester–”
“Next semester? I don’t want to wait–” Catching herself, she sat back with a conscious effort to stifle her disappointment. She couldn’t expect to be respected as a professional if she acted like a child. Knowing someone as long as she’d known Stewart, though, sometimes she expressed herself too emotionally. “What would I do the rest of this semester?”
As the words left her mouth, she wished she could snatch them back. She’d stepped into a trap. She wasn’t sure what kind, but his bland expression didn’t fool her. If he were a chess player, she’d say he’d just lined up the checkmate he’d been plotting.
“This is an unusual situation. Your department head wasn’t sure how to handle it, so he’s let me make arrangements. We can’t let you sit around, can we? It might be bad for morale.”
She sat up straighter. This was getting worse and worse.
Now he was cajoling. “What do you have in mind, Stewart?”
“There’s a group of students I want you to work with, Carolyn. A special group.”
Oh, Lord, please, not house-mother, she pleaded to herself.
“About ten or eleven,” Steward continued. “It won’t be as impressive on your resume as the seminar, but you don’t need any help there. And it would be interdepartmental–not only English.”
Carolyn relaxed. Ten or eleven. That might not be so bad. And working across departmental lines might be interesting. Perhaps a short break to try something a little different wouldn’t hurt. It might provide an antidote for this restlessness.
Stewart Barron’s glasses dropped down his nose just enough for him to peer at her. “I’ve assigned you as academic adviser to the men’s basketball team.”
Her first inclination to chuckle faded at the look on his face. He was serious. “The basketball team!”
“It’s something Coach Draper and I have decided–”
“The basketball team!” Something a little different, yes. But this was outlandish. “I’m a professor. I teach. English. Literature. I don’t want to assist some ridiculous game!”
“You like the football games.”
“That’s because the board isn’t trying to ‘upgrade’ football. So far the Ashton football players are still students–”
“These basketball players are students–”
The single word stopped her.
“They’re students,” he repeated, “at Ashton University. As such, they deserve the best education we can deliver. I know your opinion of the board’s decision to return to top-division competition in basketball.”
She winced inwardly. The two of them had started arguing the issue as soon as the board had proposed that Ashton move to Division I basketball, with its scholarships, bigger budget and top-level schedule. In Carolyn’s memory they’d never disagreed before on what course Ashton should follow.
“But the administration and the faculty,” he said with emphasis, “have an obligation to honor that decision and to nurture these students.”
“They’re here because they can bounce a round ball. Why should we pretend otherwise?”
“Whatever the reason, they are here. That’s the point. You wouldn’t deny these young men an education because they play basketball, would you?”
That wasn’t fair. He knew she couldn’t resist such an appeal to one of her most basic values.
“What do you expect me to do, Stewart?” She aimed for a dignified tone, but wasn’t sure she achieved it.
“I want you to teach them the best way you know how.”
She gave him a skeptical look, despite the flow of warmth at his confidence.
“You won’t be in a classroom situation. You’ll be overseeing the players’ overall class load, helping them find specific help if they need it, guiding them on study habits, advising them on next semester’s schedule. It will mean dealing with a very wide range of backgrounds, abilities and interests. Coach Draper recommends–”
“Wait a minute. Who’s Draper? Didn’t the board hire someone else last year? I met him. Didn’t I?”
Stewart sighed heavily. “Coach Roberts quit last April, just before you left for England. Don’t you remember?”
She was no absentminded professor, but she did save her memory for things that counted. Basketball coaches didn’t fall into that category.
“His alma mater hired him,” Stewart reminded her. “I can’t blame him. It’s one of the top programs in the country, but it left us in rather a difficult position.”
“Why? Anyone with sense should be honored to come to Ashton. This is an excellent university.”
Admiration and exasperation mingled in his face. “Your loyalty is wonderful, Carolyn, but sometimes I fear we shut you in this ivory tower when you were much too young. Maybe we were wrong to bring you here–”
“Nonsense.” He’d fretted about that more and more in the past few years–and so unnecessarily. She’d become what she was meant to be. If her parents had been alive, she wouldn’t have spent six years on her grandparents’ farm before Stewart and Elizabeth brought her back; she would have spent all her formative years at Ashton. It was what her parents would have wanted. Carolyn spread the fingers of her right hand on the leather arm of her chair and gripped it. “This is where I belong. You and Elizabeth saw that, and I will always be grateful to you.”
Stewart gave another deep sigh, then returned to the subject. “However fine an academic institution this is, Ashton isn’t an athletic powerhouse. I know you don’t think that’s important, but I, for one, enjoy sports.”
He sounded so defiant that she had to smile.
“I liked playing them and I like watching them. Oh, I know some programs get out of hand–very much out of hand. But there are schools that maintain high academic standards and field competitive teams. I want Ashton to be one. I want our students to have opportunities for all the good things a university can offer, and sports is one of them.”
She’d liked sports, too, especially her years in competitive swimming. But following her parents’ footsteps had required eliminating distractions, and sports was one. “With so fervent a champion, I think any coach would jump at the opportunity to come here,” Carolyn said dryly.
“I’m afraid I don’t offset the drawbacks. In the basketball conference we’ve joined, we’re the smallest school among state schools that have five times as many students. That makes recruiting difficult. Our academic standards make it even more difficult–”
“There! You just admitted it: high academic standards are a drawback when you field a Division I basketball team.”
Stewart frowned at her, but doggedly continued, “We don’t pay the salary a coach can command elsewhere. With the gym needing repairs, we don’t even have enough in the budget for a real assistant coach until next season–only Dolph Reems when he’s not running the athletic department and a couple of student team managers. We were extremely fortunate to get C.J. Draper.”
“Why?” She laced the bald question with her doubt that getting any coach warranted the label fortunate.
“He was a standout in college and led his team to the national tournament Final Four two years in a row. Then he had four good years as a professional. Experts were touting him as the next big star–until he hurt his knee. He came back when nobody thought he could, but he never played quite as well. He hung on for a couple of years, going from team to team. Then he played a year in an Italian league. A couple of years ago he signed on as assistant coach with one of his old pro teams.”
“So when he could no longer do, he decided to teach. Is that it?” She knew Stewart had recognized the bite in her words. She’d gone too far.
With his crossed forearms resting on the desk, Stewart leaned forward. “Professor Trent, C.J. Draper is Ashton University’s basketball coach. As such, he’s a member of this university and will be accorded the same respect every other member receives.”
Carolyn said nothing.
“I believe C.J. Draper is a good coach, a good teacher,” Stewart continued. “And the fact that he’s requested an academic adviser for his players shows me that he has their educational good at heart. That should be encouraged. Don’t you agree?”
“By all means, Stewart.”
He nodded, apparently satisfied with her neutral tone. Carolyn knew Stewart was too accomplished an administrator to expect more than acquiescence at this point.
He pushed the intercom button. “Marsha, please send Coach Draper in.”
Carolyn couldn’t sit still. She went to the window again. The sky-gazing couple was gone. The broken clouds seemed to have dropped closer to the chapel’s bell tower. Walkers pulled sweaters and jackets more tightly around them and hurried their steps. A shiver ran up her spine as she heard the double doors from the outer office open and shut.
“Afternoon, Stewart. How are you?”
She grimaced out the window at the newcomer’s casualness. She should have guessed his words would be delivered in that gravelly drawl.
Perhaps she had guessed. Somehow it fit that the man who’d made her feel so uncomfortable outside was both the prominent figure in the new basketball program she’d fought and the instigator of this job she didn’t want.
“Very well, thank you. How are you, C.J.?”
“Fine. Just fine.”
She heard the words of greeting, but held her position. As long as she could, she’d delay facing this.
“C.J., I’d like you to meet Professor Carolyn Trent. Carolyn, this is Coach C.J. Draper.”
She turned, prepared for a cool exchange across the expanse of the office. But she should have known Coach Draper wouldn’t wait for such formalities. With hand extended, he stood in front of her, new Ashton sweatshirt, worn jeans, white athletic shoes, lopsided grin and all.
“Pleased to meet you, Professor Trent.” His grin cut grooves in his cheek, deeper by his mouth, then shallowing as they rippled higher.
She had no choice; dignity demanded she meet his handshake firmly. A kind of disquiet pushed her heartbeat faster for an instant as her hand disappeared in his large grasp. His palm, slightly roughened with calluses, encompassed her cold fingers like a scratchy woolen blanket. He returned her grip solidly.
He was even taller than he’d appeared at first, at least a foot over her five foot six, and lean to the point of lankiness. But his shoulders were broad enough to block her view of the room, and his handshake promised strength. The sun through the window picked out streaks of gold and bronze and even a strand or two of gray in the straight sandy brown mop of hair that fell across his forehead, ending just above his eyes–the brightest, bluest eyes she’d ever seen.
Their corners crinkled. “And here I thought you might be a student out there in the waiting room,” he said.
Almost gratefully she felt anger sweep away the disquiet. He’d thought she was a student? Him, with his sweatshirt and sneakers? At least she wore a suit, an outfit appropriate to the office of the president of Ashton University.
“I don’t know, Stewart.” C.J. addressed the university president, but his grinning gaze was focused on Carolyn. “She looks awfully young. You think she’ll be able to handle my guys?”
C.J. had known who she was right away. He’d had an appointment with Stewart Barron to talk about an academic adviser, and she’d been called in to the president’s office before him. It didn’t take much skill to come up with the right solution to that equation.
Besides, he’d remembered her from his first visit to the school. Dolph Reems, the athletic director, had been showing him around the compact campus, and C.J. had spotted her.
He had stopped Dolph right in the middle of explaining his dream plans for a new arena. Dolph didn’t seem to mind. In fact, he’d been nearly as loquacious extolling the attributes of Professor Carolyn Trent as he had of his mirage arena.
C.J. half suspected the older man knew he’d been talking a pipe dream–this school wasn’t likely to ever reach the big time. Settled into the fertile hills of southern Wisconsin, it was about a two-hour drive from Milwaukee and not much more from Chicago–if you measured in miles per hour. Otherwise, it was a world apart. Still, it just might turn out to be his ticket to the big time.
Odd that he’d picked her out right away like that. Not really his type at all. “Women gotta be feisty, flashy and fiery. What’s the fun if there isn’t some sizzle?” That was what Rake used to say when they roomed together. C.J. hadn’t followed the pattern as closely, or as often, as Rake, but looking back he could see he’d tended toward women who moved on a lot. Or was he the one always moving on?
Well, one way or another, it didn’t last.
But this Carolyn Trent was a different kind entirely. Cool and smooth, like marble. Standing at the window in Stewart Barron’s office staring out like that, she looked like a statue he’d seen in Italy.
The image pleased him. As he crossed the room to meet her, he admired the unruffled sweep of her straight shoulder-length hair, as if newly sculpted from some warm golden-brown stone by a meticulous craftsman. Her face was gently rounded with a bone structure Michelangelo might have created. Not beautiful, maybe, by some standards. Her nose was a little too long, her mouth a little too wide. But she was elegant.
That realization made it easier to understand why his eye had been drawn to her all those months ago. Her kind of elegance wasn’t a common commodity in his world. No wonder he’d noted it.
On the other hand, close up she seemed about as warm as one of those marble statues. He watched her stiffen when she turned to him, and sensed the reserve that settled over her. She had the kind of nose designed for looking down–long, straight and narrow. He was just glad nature fixed it so she’d have to look up before looking down on him.
He didn’t usually let a haughty attitude get to him; why it did with her, he didn’t know. Maybe he’d forgotten how it felt because he’d gotten past all that after five months at Ashton. Maybe he was just tired.
When he held his hand out to her, he wondered if he only imagined a moment of uncertainty beneath that surface, just as he’d thought he’d seen out in the waiting room. Both times it disappeared so quickly that he couldn’t be sure. Just as before, a disapproving coolness dimmed the glimmer of light in her eyes. Then she placed her hand in his, and her eyes–the same distinctive color as her hair–flared with temper for an instant at his comment. He revised his image.
Marble had no spark like that… and it certainly didn’t stir him the way she did.COLLAPSE
“Refreshingly different … Strong characterizations and perceptive insights leave a lasting impression.”
— Romantic Times
“Warm and interesting characters, a charming romance”
— 5-star review