This story involves a romance between a college professor and a student. The age difference is only about four, five years. But if anyone feels icky about that sort of thing, I guess I should mention it now.
Chapter One: Bad News All Around
"Hi, Gareth—" Hayley cut herself off when she saw who else was in the room. Her eyes narrowed at Harper Andersen, who was sitting in front of the piano with one hand resting above the keys. He had evidently stopped playing when she had come in. The expression on his face told her that she wasn't a welcome sight either.
"Hello, Hayley, come on in." Gareth said. He straightened from beside the piano and gestured for her to close the door.
"Why is he here?" Hayley asked, though it came out more accusingly than she had intended.
Instead of answering her question, Gareth started with flattery to ease them into some unwanted news, "You're both excellent pianist in with extraordinary talent."
Hayley's mouth quirked as she tried to hide her glee while Harper shrugged nonchalantly, as if he had heard this praise so many times that it had become tedious.
"As you know, this semester we will focus on duets. I think this is an excellent opportunity to remedy both your shortcomings."
"What shortcomings?" Harper asked with an arrogant raise of the brow.
"Your attitude and disrespect for others. Thank you for demonstrating."
Harper pressed his mouth together unhappily.
"You've got to learn to accompany others. The past two years, I've seen you sway, insist and bully your partners and ensemble members to follow your lead, this year, it's not happening."
"But why do I have to be his partner?" Hayley interrupted.
"Hayley, There's nothing technically wrong with your playing, but there's no emotional connection to the piece. The audience wants to hear how you have interpreted the music. Playing the notes in the right order at the right time isn't good enough at this level. You have to be able to express yourself through the music."
Hayley stared at the piano legs and tried not to let her resentment show.
"I think it'll be a good influence for you to be near someone with those qualities."
Harper strolled over to her side and whispered in her ear while Gareth jotted something down on a pad, "Did you hear? I'm quality, while you're…" Harper's eyes travelled from her head to her toe, making Hayley look away with discomfit. "Quantity."
She whipped her head around, her eyes round with rage and her fingers twitched with the urge to slap him.
Looking pleased with his cheap – and untrue – shot at her, he sat down on a spare seat and said to Gareth, "You can't do this, we have a right to pick our partners."
"Actually," Gareth corrected. "You have a preference, I have the final say."
"But wouldn't it be more conducive for us to work on our weaknesses in a more supportive environment?" Hayley asked with a plastic smile, hoping he was open to reason and logic.
"For the first – and probably last – time," Harper said. "I agree with her."
Hayley gave him a dirty look. Everything he said set her teeth on edge, regardless of the content of the words.
"What?" Harper returned her look. "I'm on your side."
"Well, go back to your side," she said shortly and crossed her arms.
"All right you two, if we may return to the topic at hand," Gareth said. "And Harper, need I remind you that I mark your performances, which includes willingness to participate in class activities."
Before he could say anything else Hayley snapped, "Shut up, will you?"
They glared at each other before turning their attentions back to Gareth.
"Practice this for your next class," Gareth said and practically shoved the piece into their hands. He had underestimated the magnitude of dislike between the two and he would suffer for it.
"Isn't this a bit easy?" Harper said with a frown as he mentally played the piece.
"Harper?" Gareth said wearily.
"Yeah?" he asked.
"Are you capable of leaving this room without another word?" Gareth said as he walked to the other side of his desk and sat down.
"Are you including the ones coming out of my mouth right now?" Harper asked, a lopsided grin forming slyly. It wasn't that Harper was a naturally argumentative person, but rather that he tended to speak his mind without considering how other people might react to his words.
"Oh. My. God. Guess what?" Hayley said as she slumped down next to her friend and roommate in the cafe.
"Bad day?" Meredith asked and tore her gaze away from the guy she had been wordlessly flirting with a few tables over.
"You know Harper?"
"Yeah, we went out in eighth grade."
Hayley wasn't surprised. It seemed like Meredith had gone out with everyone. Surprisingly though, she wasn't generally considered a slut, 'cock tease' was more common. Even then, plenty of guys were waiting for her to cast her eyes his way.
"I found out today that I have to partner with him for piano." She glanced at the guy Meredith had been looking at. Too homely. "The official line is some crap about how I'm a robot and he's an egomaniac, but that's clearly an excuse for his more sinister motive."
"That torturing us separately wasn't nearly as amusing as if we did it to each other."
Meredith laughed at Hayley's description. "Don't you have to perform a duet this year any way?"
"Yeah, but I wasn't planning on doing it with Harper."
"Hi," a voice behind them interrupted. It was Meredith's admirer. He was nervous about asking out such a beautiful girl, but not so much that he couldn't speak.
Meredith took in his carefully brushed brown hair, straight nose and strong cheekbones and decided to give him a chance. After all, there were only so many good-looking guys and she still had two years of her degree to go.
"Hey, I'm Meredith."
"Paul. Uh… do you want to grab lunch sometime?"
She looked him over and let him sweat a little before answering. "Sure, Paul, why not?" This year she planned to date men who were nice and kind, instead of sexy and aloof. Paul was an excellent candidate. She took out a pen and wrote her phone number and name on the back of his hand, substituting a heart for the i in Meredith.
"He looks nice," Hayley said flatly as Paul walked away.
"Which means… what are you doing with him?" Hayley asked with a thoughtful expression. "You're after the free lunch, aren't you?"
Meredith shot her a severe look and said piously, "Of course not. How could you think of sweet, innocent, little me?"
"Sweet, innocent, little?" Hayley repeated, unconvinced. She and Meredith had been assigned to the same dorm room in first year, so Hayley felt qualified to judge her. Meredith was sexy, cunning and neither the way she held herself nor her slender, willowy frame suited the word 'little'.
"I could be if I wanted to," Meredith said.
"I really doubt that," Hayley said, giving Meredith a once over. She was just too beautiful to be plain. Even if her hair lost some of its shine, it would still be blonde and long and straight. If she removed her heavy eye makeup, her wide hazel eyes could possible look innocent. And if she smiled a little more broadly, her full lips might be described as sweet rather than alluring. But she'd have to wear a winter coat to cover up her curves.
"Finished checking me out?" she teased Hayley.
"Still 10 out of 10."
"Good," she said, then looked at her watch, "No, bad. I should probably head to class. I heard Arden Shaw's s a complete bastard to latecomers."
At the mention of Arden, Hayley broke into a huge smile and said dreamily, "But he's so good looking! You're so lucky!"
"But where's the fun in looking if you can't touch?" She gave Haley a knowing smile.
They picked up their bags and headed for the building marked 'Yaegger' in bold metallic letters. It was the first day of school and they had to constantly skirt around lost first years with their head burrowed in a map.
Hayley continued with a sigh, "He's so talented as well."
"I don't know… His compositions are OK… but they're nothing special. Everyone's obviously blinded by his looks to see that."
Hayley bit her tongue and decided not to point out that a lot of people said the same thing about her.
They rounded a corner and Meredith walked towards the first room. She turned the handle and waved to Hayley.
The room was small, with a piano in the corner and three long tables forming a U shape with a whiteboard behind the lecturer's table. Five people were already in the room chatting amongst themselves. The Valeman School of Music is not a large department in the university and after two years of compulsory courses, most third years were friendly to each other.
She sat down next to Sarah, who had been in her Harmony II class last year. They were talking about their summer jobs when the door opened again.
It wasn't immediately obvious to Meredith when Arden entered the room. But that was soon rectified when Sarah elbowed Meredith sharply. Dressed in jeans and a black t-shirt, he had the nonchalance of a man born into his looks. None of them had ever had Arden for a professor before and they stared without reserve as he strode to the teacher's desk and took a folder out of his backpack.
Meredith stared along with everyone else; Hayley hadn't exaggerated his good looks one bit. His hair was slightly too long and a few bangs kept falling into his eyes as he brought out items in his bag. Her eyes rested on his hands and those elegantly long fingers. It would look good playing on the ivory keys, Meredith knew. She licked her lips unconsciously as she imagined those fingers skimming along somewhere more sensitive and reactive. Her lips stretched upwards with bemusement as she realised that she was lusting after this man. That's just not fair, she thought as he finished unpacking. The one man I'm interested in is the one I can't have.
Arden set his bag on the floor, raised his eyes and took a silent headcount. "Good, we're all here." His gaze paused momentarily on Meredith, who seemed to be giving him a seductive smile. He kept his disapproval off of his face.
"Has everyone done the two pages I asked for? I'll collect them now and hand it back during your individual classes." He asked and walked across his desk to the inside of the U to collect them. Only one person failed to move. Arden felt a surge of irritation that she had proved his initial misgivings correct.
"I didn't know we had to do it," Meredith said with an apologetic smile.
Her lashes were curled and blackened and the sweep of green on her eyelids brought out the colour of her eyes dramatically. She was gorgeous, Arden recognised objectively. But he wasn't lured. Her face didn't play a part in this class, only her mind did. He knew that she could not have missed the bright red paper indicating the preparatory work that had to be done. The two pages of composition he asked for would serve as an indicator of the student's strengths and weaknesses. It was her loss that she didn't bother.
"Stay behind after class," he told her, letting her bear the full force of his displeasure. As her expression of sweetened charm was replaced by a simmering fury, he said, "You've had all summer to do it, are you expecting my sympathy?"
She bit her lower lips and stared back at him defiantly. When he continued to glower at her as he waited her answer, she swallowed her anger and gave her head a minute shake. Arden felt a thrill of satisfaction at this minor victory. Yet as he moved around the room, he could see the other girls giving her pitying looks, and wondered why they were not relishing her misfortune instead.
He would keep an eye on her, he decided, and hoped she would keep her eyes off him.