Chapter 3: A New Beginning

Melissa slipped into the departmental office, her feet feeling sticky and sweaty in the pumps she had hastily shoved on. She looked around and saw the visitors’ chairs were empty. Then Professor Gavin’s office door opened and the departmental admin stepped out. When he saw Melissa, he nodded back to the office and whispered, “They just went in.” He held the door open and motioned to her, “Go ahead.”

Melissa stepped in quietly, gave Professor Gavin a small half wave, and walked around the far side of the conference table to one of the empty chairs. She almost tripped when she looked across at the VIP. He was gorgeous.

Angrily, she seized hold of her reaction and shoved it back down. She reminded herself that she had just sworn off men, particularly tall, dark, attractive males that just screamed “bad boy” like this man did.

Melissa realized that she was also amazed. The visitor couldn’t have been much over 30 years old, but he sat at Gavin’s battered conference table with the easy grace of money and power that Melissa had come to recognize in Gavin’s VIP visitors, most of whom who were gray-haired CEOs of big companies or foundations.

His eyes flicked over to meet hers, connecting with a quick, penetrating stare. Something in the complete self-assuredness of his gaze told her that he hadn’t simply inherited money. There was a flash of a carnivore not very deeply hidden behind his politely arranged features.

He looked back to Dr. Gavin for an introduction. The older woman cleared her throat and gestured at Melissa, “Erik Greenwood, I’d like you to meet Melissa Conlin. She’s one of our bright, young Ph.D. candidates. She’ll be showing you around once we’re done here.”

Erik rose smoothly to his feet and held out his hand. Melissa reached across the table to shake hands. She was startled to find her heart pounding.

She felt hyper aware and completely scattered at the same time. She noted a jumble of small details. A slim black leather portfolio lay on the table in front of Erik. The leather had the same sheen as she had seen in kidskin gloves she could never afford. His suit was a beautifully tailored gray chalk-stripe. He wore it with casual ease, as though it could have been a well-worn denim shirt. The tropical weight wool draped across his shoulders and chest, following the form of what looked to be a well-muscled torso. He didn’t have the bulk of a bodybuilder, but she was certain he kept himself in good shape.

As they shook, his hand felt warm and dry in hers. She smiled politely, trying to mask how flustered she felt. Inside, however, a pounding “fight or flight” reflex fought hard against her sense of self-control.

He smiled back briefly and let go of her hand. Turning back to Professor Gavin, he sat down again. Melissa continued to stand awkwardly. Professor Gavin gave her a questioning look, which broke through her stasis. Snapping into the present, Melissa quickly moved to sit down.

Erik and the department chair continued with the preliminary small talk that Melissa’s arrival had interrupted. While they chatted, Melissa silently cursed herself, “You fool. You stupid fool! He’s a big muckity-muck. I’m a first-year grad student. I can’t go all teenage blithering idiot on him. He’d just laugh at me.” The image of being ridiculed helped dash cold water on her racing hormones. She could feel her panicked tension slowly easing and was grateful for the returning sense of sanity.

She wondered wryly, “What the hell drugs did somebody slip me last night? First, going off with that asshole Tony. Then dredging up all that stuff about Jill this morning. Deciding to date women? Now getting all wet over this guy. What the hell is going on?” Melissa realized with acute embarrassment that she actually was wet. She angrily told herself, “Oh crap girl, get a fucking grip!”

Erik was answering a question from Professor Gavin, so Melissa decided to tune in.

“I’m a turn-around specialist. Owners bring me into companies that have gotten in trouble. By the time I arrive, the situation’s generally pretty grim. It’s usually a “do this or die” moment, so it’s actually a lot easier to make the big changes that everyone’s ignored for way too long.

“I run things for awhile. Fix what’s wrong. Most of the time, there’s something of value that I can salvage. At the end of the day, I get paid with a piece of the action, which has worked out reasonably well for me.”

Professor Gavin leaned forward with a smile, “Bob tells me that you’ve done quite well indeed.”

He shrugged, “Bob exaggerates a bit. But yes, I do have some… excess resources.” He smiled a little ruefully, “Worse than that, I’m a little bored.”

Professor Gavin cocked her head in a question, so he continued, “My last engagement’s mostly done. I don’t have anything immediately on my plate right now. It’s the first time in a couple of years that I’ve been able to come up for air. So I’m looking around for something different, a distraction.”

Professor Gavin asked with mock offense, “So Archeology is a distraction?”

Erik laughed, “It has been for me. When I’m on assignment, I often read books or journal articles on Archeology to relax at night. It pulls me out of the minutia and lets me get some perspective.”

He paused for a moment, searching for the right words. “I’ve started to realize how much the field of Archeology has changed over the last decade or so. It seems as though the changes in funding sources have had a significant impact on the sort of work that gets done.”

Professor Gavin nodded, encouraging him to continue.

“As I understand it, most of your funding these days comes from large construction projects, because they’re legally required to do archeological survey work. Understandably, there’s substantial pressure to move quickly on those jobs. And most of the sites aren’t actually all that interesting. Meanwhile, it looks like the majority of the government funding has dried up. And the government grants that do get awarded don’t seem to be particularly… well, ambitious. It’s as though all the tolerance for risk has disappeared.”

She shook her head sadly in agreement, “Welcome to my world Mr. Greenwood. Over the past twenty years, Archeology has gotten far more bureaucratic and boring.” She turned to Melissa with a smile and joked, “Cover your ears, dear. These sad truths aren’t meant for bright young grad students.”

Turning back to Erik, she continued, “You’re surprisingly perceptive for an outsider, Mr. Greenwood.”

“Please call me Erik. Perceptive? Perhaps, but I’m sure everything I just said has been painfully obvious to you for awhile.”

She nodded, “Yes indeed, but how does this insight of yours bring you to us, Erik.”

Melissa had watched Gavin in many of these fundraising moments before and knew that she was pressing for a donation. Looking over at Erik, it was clear he knew what she was asking as well.

“Well, I’d like to change this dynamic in my own small way. I’m interested in funding a multi-year dig, and all the associated follow-up back here.”

Professor Gavin nodded thoughtfully, “You realize that can be expensive. A project like that can cost one or two million dollars…”

“I’m prepared to be at least that generous.” Professor Gavin sat up straighter as he continued, “What’s more important to me is the type of project. Simply put, I want to roll the dice.” He paused for a moment and looked directly at her, “I want your faculty to propose their fantasy projects – the sort of high-risk, high-payoff, but low-probability stuff – the types of projects that don’t get funded anymore. I’m looking for a project that could change how we think about ourselves and how we got here.”

He smiled at the uncertain look on her face. “Don’t worry, I know there’s actually very little chance for any one project to succeed in that goal. But I want to give somebody a shot at it.”

She leaned back. “Wow, that’s a fascinating opportunity. That’ll generate some excitement around here. How exactly did you see this structured?”

“Mostly as a straightforward grant proposal process. I’ll give you a very short RFP asking for proposals, along with some guidelines on total cost and duration. Say 45 days for responses. I’ll want your help in the evaluation process, but otherwise, I’ll keep the proposals strictly confidential. I’ll make the final decision, 30 days after getting the proposals.”

Professor Gavin thought for a moment. “I see… but summer break has just started. The faculty and grad students will be heading off for summer digs, vacations, other work… could you make the RFP period 60 days?”

“OK, but I want everything wrapped up before the fall semester begins.” She nodded in agreement.

Then he continued, “Once I make the final selection, I’ll transfer the full amount of funding to the university. But I’ll want quarterly reports, and there’ll be annual reviews. If I think the project is completely off track, or if everyone thinks it’s not worth continuing, I’ll pull the plug and the remaining funds will transfer to the university’s unrestricted giving account.”

She hesitated again, not certain how to respond. At last she said, “I see you’ve given this some thought. I’ll need to get the university’s legal office to review the funding and oversight mechanism.”

He opened the black portfolio in front of him and pulled out a card. “Here’s my card. I’ve written my lawyer’s name and contact info on the back. Your legal people can work out the specific language with him.”

She gingerly took the card from him. Melissa saw the front was engraved with three lines of simple text: his name, phone number, and e-mail address.

Professor Gavin studied the card for a moment, and then she continued in a deliberately positive tone. “You have indeed presented us with an amazing opportunity. I am very grateful for your confidence in our faculty and students.”

She smiled and shifted to a more confidential tone, “This is going to cause a real stir amongst the faculty. Chances like this just don’t come along very much anymore. I truly am very grateful. You’ll have to excuse my being a bit bowled over.”

He smiled and spread open his hands, “I’m sorry. Bad habits from the business world. In my ‘day job,’ I tend to be a somewhat direct and move pretty fast. It carries over. But as for your faculty, I really do hope they see this as a great opportunity. I very much want to encourage them to be willing to reach well beyond the comfort zone of a regular grant proposal.

“When the lawyers draft up the agreement, you’ll see that there’ll be some language reserving my right to fund more than one project. I don’t intend to swamp you, but you have some really good talent in this department. I’m hoping that more than one proposal is worthy of going forward.”

“Wow.” She paused for a moment of consideration, tapping her finger absentmindedly on a manila folder in front of her. “This could be a real breath of fresh air… a hurricane, more likely.”

Pushing the manila folder over to Melissa, Professor Gavin continued, “I understand that you have a couple of hours available now to meet some of our faculty members individually. I put together an itinerary for you. Melissa will take you around.”

Professor Gavin apologized, “I’m sorry, I would have taken you around myself, but I’m committed to a Dean’s meeting in a few minutes.”

“Not a problem,” he assured her. Smiling at Melissa, he chuckled and said, “I’m sure I’m in good hands.”

“Damn,” Melissa thought, “all he’s got to do is look at me, and I clench up.”

Melissa gathered up the folder as they all stood up. While Gavin and Greenwood shook hands, she opened the folder and quickly scanned the names and times. Professor Gavin walked them to the outer door. Once in the hallway, Erik turned to Melissa and asked, “So, where to?”

Melissa replied, “First we’ll go upstairs to Professor Docherty.” Walking together down the hallway, Melissa tried hard to tamp down a feeling of electricity she felt running between her and Erik. She looked over at him, but he didn’t seem to be doing anything in particular to cause such a feeling.

He noticed her gaze and lifted an eyebrow in query. Reaching quickly for a reasonable explanation, she said, “That was a pretty amazing meeting. I think you really surprised Professor Gavin.”

He nodded in agreement. “Well, I had an unfair advantage.“

Melissa gave him a questioning look in turn, so he explained further, “I knew what I wanted. I had a pretty fair idea of what she wanted. In business… hell in any negotiation, that kind of knowledge gives you a great deal of leverage.”

He seemed to realize that his words might have sounded harsh, so he added, “Of course, my goal wasn’t to take advantage of you guys. Truth is, I hate wasting time on lots of back and forth negotiations. Plus we didn’t really have a long meeting slot.”

He laughed quietly and continued, “Course, all that said, the truth is more likely that striking fast is just a bad habit of mine. Makes people uncomfortable sometimes… most times.” He smiled at her, shrugging, “But I do try to keep it in check. Truly I do.”

He laughed again, and she joined in this time, surprised at his easy candor. As they turned to go up the stairs, they fell into companionable silence. She thought back to how she felt sitting in Gavin’s office, listening to Erik and Gavin talking. Melissa was used to the department chair being completely in control of meetings. Today was different. Even though Erik had been polite, and at times deferential, he had clearly been in charge the whole time. Melissa realized that she couldn’t recall a moment where there had been any wrestling for control. Erik simply had it.

Unbidden, an image floated through her mind of Erik pushing her up against a wall. As the scene played out, she was helpless while he kissed her. Suddenly he was inside of her and she was moaning in pleasure. “Whoa,” she told herself, pushing the rapidly unfolding fantasy away. “Get it under control. He’s a major league donor, not my little wet dream. Gavin will kill me if I screw this up.”

They reached the top of the staircase. She felt his appraising gaze on her. She was a little startled, wondering if he could have somehow sensed her thoughts. He smiled approvingly at her. She nodded back, feeling vaguely unsettled, wondering what exactly she had done to gain his approval. She also realized that she was more than a little worried about the powerful thrill his look of approval had given her.


*   *   *


An hour later, on their way to meeting the third professor on her list, Melissa knew she was in real trouble. She was falling hard for this guy, and as best as she could tell, it was all one-way puppy love. He seemed polite and focused on the interviews, not paying attention to her lingering stares.

She had realized that other people were, unfortunately, not so oblivious to her heightened state. They had just finished with Dr. Thompson, who she had always found a little creepy. He was a brilliant guy, and Gavin had recruited him away from another big-name university, but many of the female grad students didn’t like being around him. Sitting in his office with Erik, Melissa had felt the professor’s eyes on her bare legs in a way that made her wish she had put on pantyhose.

Fortunately, Erik had spent a lot of the time wandering around the professor’s office, looking at pictures and artifacts that Thompson had collected from years in the field. The two of them had a lively discussion. Professor Thompson had started off a bit remote and condescending, clearly not happy to be spending time entertaining an amateur. It didn’t take long, however, before Erik’s piercing curiosity, knowledge, and enthusiasm had lit a fire in Thompson. Melissa had never seen the professor become so engaged and animated.

During most of the visit, Professor Thompson seemed to have forgotten that Melissa was there. She had been free to watch Erik. After valiantly trying to avoid it, she had finally relented to letting fantasies of being naked with Erik play through her mind. When she stood up to leave with Erik, she was worried that she might have a damp spot on the back of her skirt.

What she hadn’t expected was Thompson’s sudden, sharp appraising look, as though he had ferreted out that she had been spending the whole time fantasying about Erik. She involuntarily ducked her head in embarrassment as they left.

As they walked to the next appointment, Erik seemed lost in thought. Melissa was also feeling distracted, trying to push down the rising sense of shame she felt at being caught. She told herself that there was no way Thompson, or anyone else, could see into her and know what her fantasies had been. Despite her fierce denials, a part of Melissa still felt like the little girl who had been publicly found out and chastised by the parish priest.

Melissa was snapped out of her preoccupation when she realized that Erik had turned right down a small corridor, rather than walking along with her down the main hallway. He still seemed lost in thought, so she turned and hurried to catch up him.

She had just reached him when he turned to walk into a darkened, small seminar room. It was empty. He held the door for her as she followed him in, somewhat puzzled.

Closing the door behind them, he said, “I noticed this little room on the way to see Bill Docherty.” He walked over to glance at a white board and then leaned back against a table. Looking at Melissa, he motioned her to join him. She walked over, a bit uncertain. The lights were off in the seminar room, and the blinds were closed. With the door closed, the room was dim. She thought that Erik looked like a very comfortable predator in that darkened space. He reminded her of a cat watching a mouse.

Some part of her was a little worried. A larger part was thrilled.

Erik smiled. A gentleness in his features put her more at ease. He began, “So, you’re a first-year graduate student?”

Unsure what to say, she simply nodded.

“Straight out of undergraduate?”

“No, I worked for a couple of years first, to save up for grad school.”

“Good. You seem more mature than someone who just went straight through. Working full-time gives going back to school a different flavor.”

He hadn’t really asked a question, so she just gave him a quick smile, rather than saying anything. At this point, she wasn’t sure she trusted herself not to say something foolish.

He returned her smile, then said, “The thing is, there seems to be this really wonderful chemistry going on between us.” Melissa gave him a puzzled look, unsure how to interpret his words. If he meant how attracted she was to him, as far as she could tell, it was only one way.

He saw her uncertainty. “Perhaps I'm better at hiding my feelings than you are, but Dr. Gavin, a couple of the grad students we passed in the hall, and especially that asshole Thompson – they all noticed something. And they know you a lot better, so it’s easier for them to see what you’re feeling.”

Suddenly, Melissa started to feel a little panicky and trapped. Erik set his portfolio down and reached out to take her hands in his. In a soft voice, he sought to reassure her, “Hey, I’m really attracted to you. There’s a sort of amazing chemistry thing that’s been happening here, and I’d really like to explore it further. But right now, I’m worried that what’s happening… that my being here is going to cause problems for you. And I don’t want to do that.”

Seeing that he wasn’t entirely making sense to Melissa, he tried to explain again, “If there’s something special here, I’d rather find that out, away from all your professors and the other students you work with. I don’t know; it just doesn’t seem fair to expose you to possible gossip. Does that make sense?”

Melissa’s heart accelerated as she realized that he was telling her that he liked her. The pause as he waited for her response lengthened. She found herself responding, “Uh, yeah. It makes sense.”

Inside, she told herself, “Oh that was fucking brilliant. Sounded like you’re all of fifteen years old there.” Erik saw she was flustered. He gently let go of her hands and picked up his portfolio. Opening it, he pulled out another of his cards and turned it over. She saw that this one was blank on the back. He wrote a phone number on the back.

He handed her the card. “That’s my cell phone number.” She took it, looking at the card without really focusing on it. After waiting a bit, he asked, “Do you have a cell phone number or a way I can reach you?”

“Ah sure, yeah, I mean that would be great,” she stammered. Then she gave him her phone number and also added her e-mail address, remembering that the front of his card had his e-mail as well.

He wrote down her information while she looked at his card again. She smiled, realizing that he hadn’t already prepared this card with his cell phone number. After he had given Gavin his card with his lawyer’s name and number already written on the back, she had wondered just how prepared and sure of himself he was. She told herself, “The guy’s not some all knowing, all controlling asshole. He’s just a guy… well, a really cute, rich, sexy guy.”

Looking down at her, Erik said, “What do we do now?”

Melissa didn’t immediately respond. Instead, she distracted herself with the realization that even wearing her heels and with him leaning back against a table, he was still a little taller than she was.

Without thinking consciously about it, she stepped in closer to him. He grinned a little lopsidedly and said, “Okay, I guess we could try to relieve some of that tension.”

Standing up, he took the manila folder from her and put it down behind him. Then he took her hands and circled them around her back, so her hands were touching the small of her back. He bent down to give her a chaste kiss on her lips. That kiss, no matter how light, seared straight through her, landing directly on her pelvis, where her sex began throbbing.

As he pulled his head back, she lifted her own head up to meet his lips for a longer kiss, but he didn’t kiss her again right away. First, he drew her arms further up behind her, until her arms crisscrossed behind her back, with her hands meeting at the opposite elbow. She gasped quietly at having her arms held behind her. She stood steadfast, not wanting him to think her a coward, but she worried that her gasp had sounded more like a moan of pleasure than a protest.

He smiled at her reaction, clearly pleased. Then he backed her up against the whiteboard until the eraser tray pressed her hips into him. She closed her eyes. Another small, involuntary groan escaped from her parted lips. This time, there was no denying that it signaled her arousal. He chuckled quietly as he pressed himself between her legs. She gasped again. He rained light little kisses over her face and neck.

Before she even realized it was happening, she orgasmed in quick, shuddering bursts.

When she was finished he stepped partway back, looking down at her blissful, post-coital expression. He whispered, mostly to himself, “Oh you are definitely so much more than I had imagined.”

Then he laughed self-deprecatingly and told her, “I’m afraid that I didn’t really help matters.” Taking in the languid way she still leaned against the wall, he continued, “It doesn’t look like you’re going to be in any shape to meet our next professor… and I’m already late.”

He picked her manila folder and his portfolio. “I’ll go on by myself. If anyone asks, I’ll say you weren’t feeling well. That will give you some time to… ah, recover.”

Walking to the door, he called over his shoulder, “I’ll give you a call later today.” Then he was gone.

Finally rousing herself from her stupor, she asked out loud, “What the fuck was that?”

The room replied with continued silence; only the air conditioning whispered.

Shrugging, she answered herself, “Who the fuck cares? It was wonderful.”

“So what do I do now? Go home and wait by the phone till he calls?”

The empty room still didn’t reply, so she answered herself, “Yep, sounds like a plan.”

She walked out into the hallway, much happier than she had imagined being today.