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"Cassie, I need to enlist you for special services."
Cassie Walker had been called at home and asked to come immediately into the office of the dean of North-bridge College. It was eight o'clock on a Sunday evening and there had been urgency in the summons, two things that had aroused her curiosity.
"Okay," she said tentatively, sitting somewhat stiffly in one of the two visitors' chairs in front of the dean's desk.
"I want you to know that I'm speaking on behalf of myself and Mayor McCullum, because this is a matter of interest to him and all of Northbridge."
"Ah," Cassie said, wondering what the dean could be possibly getting at. "Are you familiar with Alyssa Johansen?" he asked then. Northbridge College was a private school in the small Montana town of the same name. The total enrollment was a mere 237 students. Cassie had been an academic adviser and the coordinator of residential advisers for the dormitories since her graduation from the college with a master's degree four years earlier. She wasn't friendly with each and every student, but small colleges were like small towns — she was familiar with most of the names and faces.
"Alyssa Johansen," she repeated. "She's a freshman. Not from Northbridge." Which was why the eighteen-year-old stuck out in Cassie's mind. The school didn't get many out-of-state students. "I've spoken to her a couple of times since the semester started. But I wouldn't say I actually know her yet. It's only been three weeks, though I know she hasn't been in any trouble at her dorm."
Cassie couldn't imagine what about the pretty, vivacious, black-haired girl required the dean — on his own behalf and that of the mayor — to call her in on a Sunday evening.
"Alyssa Johansen isn't really Alyssa Johansen," Dean Reynolds revealed as if it were a state secret.
"Who is she?" Cassie asked.
"She's Alyssa Cantrell."
"Alyssa Cantrell," Cassie parroted. "As in Joshua Cantrell?"
That wouldn't have been her first guess had it not been for the dean's emphasis on the name. "Yes," the dean confirmed.
No one who picked up a magazine or a newspaper or stood at a grocery store checkout where tabloids regularly splashed pictures and headlines could have avoided knowing who Joshua Cantrell was. He was the Donald Trump of tennis shoes: the Tennis Shoe Tycoon, as he was referred to.
"Alyssa is here as Alyssa Johansen to keep her identity secret so she can have some privacy and a normal college experience," the dean explained. "There are only a handful of us who know who she really is. She's Joshua Cantrell's younger sister. His much younger sister. He raised her. And the press hound them mercilessly."
The dean paused a moment for effect, then said, "There have been distractions arranged to keep reporters and photographers from realizing where Alyssa actually is — it's very important to her and to her brother that her real identity and her presence here be kept strictly confidential. But, as you know, Parents' Week begins tomorrow. Many out-of-town family members are actually arriving today or tonight."
"Right," Cassie said, fully aware of that fact.
"We had planned for Kirk Samson to do what I'm about to ask of you.After all, he's head of fund-raising. But Kirk was cutting a branch off a tree in his yard late this afternoon when the ladder he was on tipped over. He fell to the ground and hurt his back. He had to be taken to the emergency room and be X-rayed, and his wife called us only an hour ago to say that he's on pain medication and muscle relaxants and will be laid up at least the whole week."
"I'm sorry to hear that," Cassie said.
"So we need you to fill in in a hurry," the dean announced.
"To fill in on what? I don't know anything about fund-raising," she pointed out.
"As I said, it's important for Alyssa to have as normal a college experience as possible," Dean Reynolds said without addressing Cassie's question or comment.
"Having her guardian — in lieu of her parents — attend Parents' Week is part of that. Plus, her brother plays an active role in her life and wants to be here with her and for her. He's taken steps to keep the press from following him for the time being, but I need you to show him around. To be his private escort."
The request sounded slightly seedy to Cassie and the dean must have realized it after the fact because he amended it. "What we need is for you to be the school's delegate. We can't have anyone high-profile do it — like the chair of the board of regents or the president or the chancellor or even me. It might cast Cantrell into the spotlight and negate whatever it is he's doing to throw people off his trail. But we want someone with him as much as possible to be his private guide to the school and the town. To make him feel welcome. At home. Comfortable. To make him feel like one of the North-bridge family."
"You know I just closed on my house," Cassie reminded. "My things are all in boxes. I need to buy furniture. To get settled in. I was planning on using every minute I could spare to do that."
"I know you're busy," Dean Reynolds allowed. "But whether your boxes get unpacked this week or next won't really make much difference, will it? It's important that Cantrell get the personal touch so he feels favorably toward the school and the town."
"I don't know," Cassie hedged, not thrilled at all with what was being asked of her. For more reasons than simply because she had boxes to unpack.
"We need you," the Dean insisted. "You're folksy. A homegrown daisy. No flash. No flutter. One of us, through and through — exactly who should represent us."
Cassie didn't know what flutter was, but when it came to flash, she knew she didn't have any of that. Oh boy, did she know it! Not having any of it had cost her a lot.
But that plain, folksy, lack of flash that she personified made her feel all the more unqualified to contend with someone like Joshua Cantrell, let alone impress him the way she was afraid the dean was hoping she would.
"I think you should ask someone else," she said then.
"I'm reasonably sure I'd disappoint...well, everyone." Just the way she'd disappointed another important person in her life. "I think you need someone flashier than I am."
But the dean wasn't budging. "We just want someone nice and knowledgeable. A welcoming type of person."
But it would still mean being in the company of a man who was a celebrity of sorts. A very attractive, wealthy, well-traveled man. Someone Cassie knew she would be uncomfortable and extremely self-conscious around. Someone who would only serve to remind her just how flashless, flutterless and folksy she was...
The dean must have realized that she was leaning toward standing her ground and refusing because before she could, he said, "Seriously, Cassie, we're in a bind. I'm confident you're the right person for the job. You're the freshman adviser to Joshua Cantrell's sister, so it won't seem odd that you're who we've assigned to him. You're unobtrusive —"
Ah, another quality to add to the list — flashless, flutterless, folksy and unobtrusive. Quite a claim to fame she had going for her...
" — and I'm asking you as a favor to me, please do this," the dean concluded.
The dean had moved heaven and earth to get her grants and scholarships to pay her way through her bachelor's and her master's degrees because he'd known her family's financial position didn't allow for advanced education. So when Dean Reynolds presented what he was asking as a favor to him, she had to grant it. Which he probably knew and had been saving for a last resort.
"I suppose I can show him around," Cassie conceded reluctantly.
"Good enough," the dean said victoriously. "Now, could you get right to it? Joshua Cantrell is with his sister in the faculty lounge and I want to introduce you. I also need you to show him to the old chancellor's cottage. We've had it cleaned and repaired and updated so he can stay there."
"You want me to meet him this minute?" Cassie said, the alarm she felt echoing in her voice.
As a rule, she would not have gone out looking the way she did. But she'd only closed on her house on Thursday and she and her family had spent this weekend moving her in. When the dean had called and asked that she come to his office right away, she'd tried to explain that she was hardly presentable. But the dean had said he understood that she'd been moving and that it didn't matter how she looked. So she'd taken him at his word and had come just the way she was. But now she took stock.
Jeans with a rip in the knee. Yellow crew-necked T-shirt tucked into them. Tennis shoes that were not Joshua Cantrell's brand. Her thick, chin-length brown hair pulled straight back into a ponytail. No makeup.
She was definitely not dressed to meet anyone for the first time, let alone a hotshot like Joshua Cantrell.
But it seemed as if she had no choice. Especially when the dean said, "I don't just want you to meet him this minute, I need you to. Cantrell and his sister are alone in the faculty lounge and I've left them waiting too long already. I have to get to the mayor's house for a dinner he's having with some mucky-muck from Billings."
As if that barely uttered word were enough, the dean came around the desk and urged Cassie to her feet, sweeping her out of the office. The next thing she knew, she and the dean were headed up the stairs to the second floor where the other administration offices were.
"We just want Cantrell to like it here. To like the college. To like all of us in Northbridge," the dean was saying on the way. "Let the town's charm infect him. That's all the mayor and I are asking."
Cassie managed only a nervous nod as they arrived at the door to the faculty lounge.
She caught sight of herself in the glass upper half of the door and flinched a little.
She'd been hoping Joshua Cantrell might take one look at her and think country girl, but now she was convinced he would think country bumpkin instead. And it didn't help boost her confidence any.
Maybe Dean Reynolds sensed her dismay because with one hand on the doorknob he whispered, "Don't worry, you'll be great."
Cassie couldn't even muster a smile at that. She had experience to tell her that she wouldn't be great at all.
But it didn't matter.
Because just then, the dean knocked once and opened the door.
And there was no turning back.