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“Well, Tad,” I say, struggling to keep a straight face. “I’m totally flattered. But, you know, I’ve only had this job a little less than a year, so I think it’d be really hard for me to get that much time off.”

“But you could probably get a week off,” Tad says. “Maybe you could join us for a week?”

The thought of spending my one week off this summer on a dirty, sweaty, tick-infested hiking trail, not bathing, and eating nuts and berries with a bunch of math professors almost causes me to weep. With laughter.

But I keep it together by biting down, hard, on the insides of my cheeks.

“I don’t think so,” I say. The words come out sounding odd, on account of how hard I’m biting myself. “Tad… I don’t think this is going to work out.”

Tad looks relieved. But also as if he’s struggling to hide it.

“Heather,” he says cautiously. “Are you… are you breaking up with me?”

“Yeah,” I say. “I’m sorry, Tad. I like you, and everything, but I think we might be better off keeping our relationship as purely student-teacher. If Dr. Veatch’s death has taught me anything, it’s that life is fleeting, and we’re better off not wasting time on relationships that are pretty obviously not destined to be.”

Tad looks so relieved, I’m worried he might pass out. I brace myself, in case I have to catch him.

“Well,” he says, still struggling to look sad. “If you really think that’s better… ”

“I do,” I say. “But I still want to be friends. Okay?”

“Oh, of course,” Tad says.

Tad seems more relieved than ever.

Although his relief seems to turn to alarm when, a second later, Muffy Fowler sidles up to me and, looking up at Tad from beneath her eyelashes, asks, “Hi, Heather. Aren’t you going to introduce me to your friend?”

“Why, of course,” I say. “Muffy, this is Tad Tocco, my math professor. Tad, this is Muffy Fowler. She’s the new PR liaison with the president’s office. She’s also,” I add, for absolutely no reason other than, well, why not? “an avid outdoors woman.”

“I am?” Muffy asks, then squeaks when I kick her on the ankle. “Ouch, I mean, oh yeah. I am.”

“Uh,” Tad says, stretching his right hand toward Muffy. “Hi.”

“Hi,” Muffy says, with a twinkle. I’m totally not making that up, either. Muffy actually manages to twinkle. “I wish my math professors had looked like you when I’d been in school. I might have paid more attention to my fractions.”

“Uh,” Tad says, looking abashed. “What kind of outdoors activities do you enjoy?”

“All of them,” Muffy says, without skipping a beat. “Why? What are your favorites, Tad?”

Noticing that Cooper is still full-on staring at me—and also giving me come-over-here hand motions—I say, “Could you guys excuse me for a minute? I’ll be right back.”

“Take your time,” Muffy purrs, reaching to adjust Tad’s natural hemp fiber tie, which has gone a little askew. Tad, naturally, looks alarmed.

But also a little excited. It’s pretty obvious he can’t keep his gaze from dipping below the kick pleat of Muffy’s pencil skirt.

Geez. Men.

“What,” I say, when I reach Cooper, who had started heading toward me the minute he saw me disengage from Tad and Muffy.

“What was that all about?” he wants to know, jerking his head in Tad’s direction.

“None of your business,” I say. “What do you want?”

“Did he ask you to move in with him?” Cooper asks. “Or not?”

“I told you,” I say. “None of your business.” I can’t help noticing that, over in one corner, Gavin and Jamie are making out. God. Get a room, already.

“It sort ofis my business, as I believe I’ve pointed out before. But I’ll let it go for now. I did a little digging on your guy Reverend Mark when I got home,” Cooper says. “Nice speech in there, by the way.”

“Thank you for clapping like that,” I say, meaning it. “Really. I mean, Owen was a bit of a stick in the mud, but nobody deserves to go that way.”

“Well, Halstead had reason to be scared,” Cooper goes on. “Maybe even reason enough to kill. He was fired from his last job for ‘undisclosed reasons,’ and the same thing with the job before that. You know what ‘undisclosed reasons’ means.”

“Sure,” I say bitterly. “It means that once again, the HR Department at prestigious New York College didn’t check a potential employee’s references before hiring him. So what do we do?”

Cooper looks over my shoulder. “I don’t know, but we better think fast, because he’s heading this way. I think he wants to talk to you.”

“Oh, I know he wants to talk to me,” I say. “I PNG’d him this afternoon. He’s probably stinking mad about it.”

“Heather,” Cooper says, taking my arm and dragging me toward him, so that suddenly his mouth is next to my ear, his breath warm against my cheek… causing an instant reaction down my spinal column, which seems to have turned to Jell-O. “Whatever you do… do not leave this room with him. Do you understand? Stay where I can see you.”

All I have to do is turn my head, just a tiny bit, and those lips that are next to my ear will be on my mouth.

I’m just saying. That’s all I’d have to do.

I don’t, of course.

But I could.

“Okay,” I say weakly.

And then he lets go of me.


Cashmere and suede from Milan and Paris

Coaxing me, why don’t you wear us

It’s not the cost, or that I’m mean

It’s just you don’t come in size 14

“Big-Boned Girl’s Lament”

Written by Heather Wells

Miraculously, I don’t fall to the floor. I don’t know how. But somehow, my knees support me, and I remain upright.

What is it about Cooper Cartwright that his merest touch is capable of turning my spine to Jell-O, and makes my knees weak? It’s just so… wrong. I mean, that he should be capable of doing that, whereas my own boyfriend—er, now ex-boyfriend—just… couldn’t.