Tweed-clad professor Morgan Chatam has been the subject of countless student crushes at Buffalo Creek Bible College. But grad student Simone Guilland knows that a relationship with Morgan is out of the question. Even if he weren't her advisor, the secrets from her past prevent them from having a future. In all his years at BCBC, Morgan has never once felt drawn to one of his studentsuntil Simone. He knows he should keep his distance. Simone deserves someone younger, someone who can give her things he cannot. And yet, he can't shake the feeling that his chance at happily-ever-after may just lie in her hands.
Chatam House: Where three matchmaking aunts bring faith and love to life
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"Oh, Professor Chatam, I was sooo hoping to get an appointment as your teaching aide."
Morgan smiled warily at the young woman batting her eyelashes at him and gave his pat answer. "I only hire male teaching aides. It's school policy. Male professors hire male aides. Female professors hire female aides. It's entirely fair because we maintain gender parity among our professors."
The pretty, if somewhat showy, brunette folded her arms and stuck out her bottom lip. "Awww. Isn't there something I can do for you? You wouldn't have to pay me."
Morgan stiffened his smile. "I can't think of a thing. But thanks for asking."
Gideon Modesta, the chair of the School of Theology at Buffalo Creek Bible College, came to the rescue, clapping a hand on Morgan's shoulder. "Great party, Morgan. As usual."
Nodding to the young lady, Morgan closed the lid on the grill that he tended on the patio of Chatam House, the antebellum mansion owned by his aunties, triplets in their seventies, and turned to face his good friend.
"Thanks, Gideon. I'm glad you're enjoying yourself."
"But of course. Your graduate student mixers always start off the new semester happily."
The disappointed female student finally turned and melted into the throng of young people and faculty chatting beside the pool. Gideon chuckled.
"Poor child has no idea that rule about teaching aides was instituted for your benefit. Must be tiresome being the campus heartthrob year after year."
"Oh, stop," Morgan chided as Gideon mopped his beaded brow with the towel draped about his neck. It might be the second day of September, but the daytime temperature, true to central Texas, hovered at ninety-four degrees. "I'm forty-five years old. For most of our students, that makes me positively ancient."
"In other words, only half of the female population at BCBC is now in love with you at any given time," Gideon said drily. "What a terrible comedown for you. How do you bear up?"
Morgan replied in kind. "I indulge my worst habits, of course. I climb on the fastest motor with two wheels I can find and hit an oval track. You'd be amazed how speed can blow the cobwebs out of your mind and narrow your priorities."
Gideon grimaced. "What you need is a wife. Not only would she put a stop to that reckless streak of yours, she'd lay out your priorities for you. Mercedes says it's time to serve those burgers, by the way."
Morgan laughed. Everyone knew that Gideon's wife, Mercedes, gave her husband little rest and also that they adored each other. He looked to his fellow cook, Chester Worth, the majordomo at Chatam House. Chester checked his watch, nodded.
"As usual," Morgan said, lifting the lid on his grill to poke at the beef patties with a spatula, "Mercedes is right." Waving the spatula over his head, Morgan shouted, "Chow's on!"
As students, department heads and spouses began lining up, he slid a thick, char-grilled patty ofjuicy beef onto the bun and plate that appeared in Gideon's hands, then handed a spatula to one of his department professors so the serving could go twice as quickly. Hilda, the cook and housekeeper at Chatam House and Chester's wife, joined her husband in dispensing burgers from his grill. When all of those in line had been served, Morgan transferred the remaining hamburger patties to a warming shelf before calling for quiet. "Let's give thanks."
In moments, all had grown still and bowed their heads. Morgan spoke a short prayer, thanking God for those present, the fellowship and the food. He asked God for a special blessing for his generous aunts, then requested that God guide students and educators alike, performing His will in each of their lives, to His glory and honor, before closing in the name of Christ Jesus. After a chorus of amens, he checked the buffet table and saw that the iced tea jug was running low. Good. It would give him a moment of peace and quiet away from the bustle of the party.
Cordés Haward, the diminutive provost of BCBC, stopped him at the door, laden plate in one hand and glass of lemonade in the other. "It's good of your aunts to open their house to us for this fete," the small middle-aged man said, the black eyes bequeathed him by his Puerto Rican mother sparkling. He saluted the distant figure of Morgan's aunt Hypatia, as spry as ever in her mid-seventies, with his lemonade.
Morgan chuckled. "You know how they feel about the college."
"Indeed, I do. What blessings they have been to us."
"I'll be sure to tell them you said so." With that, Morgan pushed open the multipaned glass door and passed into the cheery sunroom. A long, narrow space filled with greenery and colorful tropical-print cushions that softened the sturdy bamboo furniture, the bright area could be warmed by a large rock fireplace at one end, so it was used year-round as a breakfast room.
As Morgan moved toward the butler's pantry that separated the sunroom from the kitchen, he saw a young woman sitting quietly at a glass-topped table, nursing a disposable cup of lemonade. Slight and pale, with short, spiky reddish-brown hair, she had the biggest, most soulful gray eyes that Morgan had ever seen. Set beneath horizontal brows in an oval face with a delicate, pointed chin, a small, plump mouth and a short, straight nose, they were the color of an overcast sky. Something more than her obvious beauty made Morgan look twicean aloneness, a solitude set her apart from the others in a way that the walls of the sunroom could not. Arrested by the sight, he found himself at a standstill. He could not, in fact, seem to go forward again without engaging her somehow.
"Heat too much for you?" he asked conversationally.
She tilted her head in noncommittal reply, the slender column of her neck seeming too delicate to support the weight of her pretty head, and ran a fingertip around the rim of her drink. She was young, obviously a student, but she didn't dress like the other girls in grungy, low-slung jeans and layered tanks or bathing suits and sarongs. He took in the neat white capris and simple shapeless pale green collared blouse that she wore buttoned to the throat, the long sleeves rolled to her elbows, tail untucked. Though of good quality, her clothing seemed too large for her. Even her white leather sandals swallowed her dainty feet. Mystery wrapped around her like a shroud, but it was her cool self-possession in the face of his obvious perusal that truly intrigued him. He tried another conversational gambit.
She shook her head, keeping her glance on the table in front of her.
"If you need a suit, I'm sure we have extras. I could ask."
Meeting his gaze calmly, she said, "No, thank you. I'm fine." Her voice had a husky quality to it, almost a rusty sound, as if she didn't use it very often.
He tried to place her among the underclassmen who had passed through his lecture hall and couldn't. Stepping forward, he put out his hand, aware suddenly of its size. At an even six feet in height and a firm if lanky one hundred and eighty pounds, he wasn't exactly a giant, but next to her he felt like one.
"I'm Professor Morgan Chatam."
She smiled wryly, as if secretly amused. "Yes, I know."
He dropped his hand. "How is it that I don't know you, then?"
"I recognize you from your online lectures."
"I see. So, you're a remote student."
He backed up to lean against the tall table behind him. "Well, are you going to tell me your name?"
That luminous gray gaze met his. "Simone Guilland."
Simone Guilland. She gave the name a French pronunciation, Gi-yan. Of course, Simone Guilland of Baton Rouge. The name brought two facts to mind. One, she was a member of his advisory group. The second troubled him: her entrée into the graduate program was conditional upon her completion of his History of the Bible undergraduate course, a course in which Simone Guilland had enrolled remotely and then dropped after the deadline. Normally, as department head, Morgan had to approve for reenrollment any student who had dropped a class under such circumstances, but in this case, he hadn't even been given the option.
"I have you now," he told her lightly. "You dropped the course in the middle of a project, as I recall."
"Yes. I was sorry about that."
"You left your teammates in a bad spot," he pointed out.
"It couldn't be helped," she told him, her flat inflection implying that he shouldn't expect any explanation, but then he hadn't gotten an explanation from the provost, just the last-minute instruction that she had been provisionally admitted to the graduate program and enrolled in his History of the Bible section for this fall semester. Whatever had happened, her admission had been approved by the highest echelon at the university. He couldn't help being curious, however, and as her adviser, he was entitled to some answers.
"I believe you're from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Is that correct?"
"I moved here from Baton Rouge."
"Funny, you don't sound much like Baton Rouge."
"And have you spent a lot of time in Baton Rouge, Professor Chatam?" she challenged.
She had him there. "One visit only."
Her small smile of victory proclaimed that Simone Guil-land was not as fragile as she appeared.
"You must go again sometime. The Guilland family is old and storied in the area. I'm sure you would find your visit interesting."
"Perhaps I will." Why the next words fell out of his mouth, he would never know, but he heard himself say, quite suggestively, "Perhaps you would induce your family to give me a personal tour?"
She froze, simply stopped, as if everything about herher heart, her pulse, her breath, her thoughtssimply switched off. Then, abruptly, she switched on again. She turned her head and stared through the glass wall at the busy patio and pool beyond, saying calmly, "I haven't spoken to any member of my family in years. We fell apart. Our connections just disappeared."
"I am sorry," Morgan murmured, assuming that she was one of the foster children he'd seen come through BCBC over his lengthy tenure there. Removed from their families for any number of reasons, they were often among the hardest working and the most motivated and successful students. They frequently required counseling and extra help, however.
"Tell me, Ms. Guilland, what are your goals, your plans?"
She lifted her chin. "I'm not entirely sure. I'd like to work with the homeless in some capacity, so I'm taking an advanced degree in social services."
She slid from her chair and went to lean against the cold rock fireplace. He was surprised to find her taller than he'd expected, maybe five and a half feet. She made a pretty picture standing there against the rustic backdrop of pale, rough stone.
"You have a lovely home," she said, smiling slightly as if to disguise the fact that she'd changed the subject.
Morgan chuckled, letting her get away with it. "I don't live here. My aunts own the house, which was built in 1860. They're triplets, by the way. My aunts, that is."
"Triplets." She shook her head. "I don't think I knew that."
She wouldn't, of course, not being a local. Nodding, he smiled. "Hypatia, Magnolia and Odelia. They've lived here their whole lives and are universally adored, especially by the family."
For the first time, Simone Guilland truly smiled, showing him a set of white, even teeth and pert apple cheeks. For just an instant, those cheeks struck a chord in him, a memory of a memory, something he couldn't place. Then she whispered, "That's lovely," and he felt a flush of something.
"They're lovely," he told her, feeling as thrilled as he did at the end of a race. "Kind, dear Christian ladies. They've made Chatam House a haven. I can't tell you how many they've taken in." He cleared his throat and rushed on. "Just recently they gave a home to the family of some longtime friends and household staff."
Naturally that would interest her, given her concern for the homeless. He mentally congratulated himself. He pointed through the glass to Hilda and Chester.
"The Worths have been with my aunts for, oh, twenty years or more. Hilda is the most amazing cook. Anyway, when Chester's brother died recently, my aunts moved his widowed daughter and her children into the house. She married my cousin Phillip." He chuckled again, thinking how often that sort of thing seemed to happen at Chatam House. "They started a business together, and" He broke off, realizing that Simone had straightened away from the fireplace, a pained look on her face. "Is something wrong?"
"Died?" She put a hand to her temple. "Y-you're saying that, um Chester's brother "
"Are you all right?" Morgan asked, edging forward.
She shook her head as if to clear it. "Sorry. II seem to have bees in my head. Guess I should've eaten. Um, did did I hear that correctly? He died?"
"Yes. Chester's brother, Marshall, died," Morgan muttered, moving closer.
She swallowed audibly. "And, ah, you said something about his daughter being a widow?"
"With three kids," Morgan confirmed offhandedly, watching Simone as she swayed. "But not anymore. She married my cousin Phillip last month."
Simone smiled slightly and nodded. "I see. Sorry. It's confusing." Then her eyes simply rolled back in her head, and she melted like hot wax left too near a flame.
Morgan leaped forward, catching her in his arms before the back of her head could connect with the edge of the stone hearth. It was like catching smoke. She felt weightless, boneless.
Scooping her up, he rushed outside with her, shouting, "Need help here!"
People swarmed them. Going down on one knee, he dropped her on a quickly vacated chaise lounge. His aunts appeared at his elbows, and Chester handed him a towel that had been dipped in the pool.
"What happened?" Uncle Kent, his aunt Odelia's rotund husband, asked as Morgan wiped Simone's face with the wet towel.
"We were just talking and she fainted."
A retired pharmacist, Kent knew a bit about medical matters, so when he told someone to get her a soft drink, something with sugar in it, Morgan simply added, "And put some food on a plate. She said she hadn't eaten."
Already rousing, she moaned. Morgan wiped the wet towel over her face again, taking away the makeup that had concealed the freckles across the bridge of her nose and the dark circles beneath those gorgeous eyes. Suddenly, Morgan wanted to shove away everyone else and hold her close. He told himself that she was just a kid, no more than twenty-one, probably, and a student, strictly off-limits for a professor. That was a line he had never crossed, one he had never even been tempted to cross, despite ample opportunity over the years. Until now. But why?
She had already proved herself untrustworthy, having dropped a class after the deadline and leaving her project teammates in the lurch. She had likely been a foster child and could well be anorexic, given her frailty and lack of eating. Moreover, she seemed to be a loner and something of a mystery, probably one of those kids with a tough past that she hadn't quite left behind. He should have wanted to wash his hands of her, right then and there, but as her adviser and host he was responsible for her to a point, and until he was satisfied that she was well, he couldn't relinquish supervision of her. More to the point, he didn't want to.
It was that simple and, alas, that complicated.