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His class was scheduled to begin in less than ten minutes.
He didn't have time to argue with this bureaucrat.
"What do you mean, I'mnot giving you enough lead time?" Parker said into the phone. "I received this invitation to speak two days ago. How could I have given you more time?"
"I'm sorry, Dr. Ellison. The travel department needs at least a week's notice to purchase airline tickets," the prim-voiced woman on the other end of the line said.
"Fine. I'll make the arrangements myself," Parker answered and dropped the phone into its cradle. He turned on his computer, then studied the pictures of orchids covering the walls of his office as he waited for the machine to boot up. How should he frame the speech? The audience would be members of the museum, so there'd be potential donors in the crowd. He'd have to make sure he brought his most arresting and beautiful photos with him.
When the computer chimed its familiar tune, he typed in the Internet address of a travel service, then glanced at the clock and swore. He didn't have time for this right now. And after his class, he had an appointment with the college president.
Marjorie, the department's administrative assistant, could order the ticket for him. Grabbing his lecture notes, Parker hurried out. Voices and laughter drifted through the door of the science department office as he approached. Marjorie's desk had been pushed into a corner, and a cluster of students stood around it. Parker stared. What was going on? Students rarely ventured into the department office.
"Hey," a husky feminine voice said. "One cookie to a customer. Don't be greedy."
"I'm not greedy," a man replied plaintively. "Just hungry."
"Then you shouldn't have skipped breakfast," the woman said.
"Busted, Tennant," another guy hooted. "Get out of here."
"Is there a problem?" Parker stepped into the room.
The group of young men froze. "No, Professor," one of them mumbled. "We're just going."
The students scattered, leaving Parker alone with the woman behind the desk. He'd never seen her before. She had red hair pulled away from her face in a rather severe style, and wore a shapeless beige blouse. Yet her green eyes sparkled with life. She'd clearly been enjoying the attention.
It was obvious what had drawn the students: a large plate holding a few chocolate chip cookies at the edge of her desk.
"You didn't have to scare them off," she said with a grin. "There's plenty left for you."
"Who are you and where's Marjorie?" he asked with a glance at his watch.
Her smile faded and she held out her hand. "I'm Bree, the new administrative assistant. Marjorie took a job in the nursing school. And you are ?"
"Dr. Parker Ellison." He shook her hand and glanced at the cookies. "Marjorie didn't allow eating in the office."
"Is that right?" the new admin said coolly.
"And you moved the desk. Now you can't see who's in the hall."
The woman's eyes flicked toward the door. "I don't want to be distracted."
"Fine. Listen, I need you to do something for me," he said, checking the time. Five minutes. "I need a plane ticket to New York for this Sunday morning, returning on Monday. Whatever airline flies out of Green Bay. Thanks. I'm late for class."
As he turned to leave, she said, "Wait a minute!"
"Just book the ticket," he said without turning around. "I'll be back in an hour."
He ran down the stairs and out the door into the clear June sunshine, then hurried to the redbrick, ivy-covered building next door. He rushed into the lecture hall just as the bell rang, and nodded to the waiting students.
There were almost a hundred of them, he guessed. Boys slouched in their chairs, trying to act cool. A group high up in the back were staring at a laptopprobably looking at porn, he thought with resignation.
Several girls sat in the front row, watching him expectantly, and he quickly memorized their faces. Experience had taught him that female students up front were likely to spend too much time in his office.
One boy sat by himself off to the side. He wasn't a college kidhe couldn't be older than fourteen or fifteen, Parker guessed. He wore a wrinkled brown polo shirt and baggy jeans, and his shoelaces were untied and muddy. The expression on his face was a mixture of wariness and excitement.
"Welcome to Intro to Biology," Parker said. "I'm Dr. Ellison." He wrote his office hours and room number on the chalkboard. "I like my classes to be informal and interactive. I want you to ask questions, and I'll be asking you questions, too. Let's go over my expectations before we begin."
Most of the students opened their laptops. The kid opened a spiral notebook and picked up a pen.
When the bell rang an hour later, Parker set down the colored chalk and watched the class file out. The young boy gathered his notebook, stuffed it into a dark red backpack, then headed down the stairs. He avoided looking at anyone.
"Hey, there," Parker said when the kid walked past his desk. "What's your name?"
"Charlie," the boy said, his blue eyes wary.
"Welcome to class, Charlie." Parker eased one hip onto the desk. "You look a little young for college."
"I took the AP biology test last spring. I got four out of five."
"That's impressive," Parker said.
He shrugged. "I guess."
"So you like biology?" Parker asked.
"It's okay. I wanted to take herpetology, but Intro to Biology was a prerequisite."
"You going to be a herpetologist?"
Charlie shrugged again. "I'm thinking about it."
"What reptiles are you interested in?"
The backpack hit the floor. "Snakes. I have two ball pythons and a red-tail boa. Ball pythons are called that because they curl into a ball when you pick them up. It's a protective thing. They're really royal pythons."
"You go for the constrictors, huh?" Parker said, smiling. He rarely saw such eagerness in his college students. They'd learned to hide their enthusiasm behind a bored facade.
"Yeah, they're the coolest snakes. Some of them can reach fifteen feet long. Maybe more. That's big enough to eat a pig. I want to get an emerald tree boa, but I have to save up more money. They're kind of expensive."
"I'm a botanist myself," Parker said.
Charlie frowned. "Yeah, I know." He sounded as if he felt sorry for him. "But the guy I talked to said you're a good teacher and I should take your class. Even though you study plants."
Parker bit his lip to keep from grinning. "Plants can be exciting, too."
"I suppose," he said doubtfully.
"You sure you want to spend your summer in a classroom?" Parker asked.
Charlie picked up his backpack, staring at his feet. "I want to study snakes."
"You seem like a smart kid. I bet you could do that on your own."
"I have to take your class if I want to take herpetology."
"So your parents decided you should enroll?"
Charlie fiddled with the zipper on his pack. "I'm the one who wanted to."
The poor schlub. "I hope you enjoy it, Charlie. See you on Wednesday."
"Thanks, Professor Ellison."
Parker watched the boy hurry out. Another kid pushed by his parents, undoubtedly to stroke their own egos. They probably wanted to brag to their friends about their son taking college courses.
It was a hot-button issue for Parker, a reaction from his own forced enrollment in college classes when he was Charlie's age. Maybe he was overreacting, he acknowledged. But what the hell were Charlie's parents thinking? A kid that age should be hanging out with his friends during the summer, not sitting in a lecture hall.
Parker walked outside in time to see Charlie swing his leg over the seat of a battered red bicycle and pedal away. Hopefully, he had something fun planned for the afternoon.
Parker put the kid out of his mind as he climbed the stairs to the second floor of the science building. When he approached the department office, he heard voices again, just as he had earlier. Chuck Boehmer, the department head, was talking to their new assistant.
"Hey, Parker," Chuck said with a smile, "have you met Bree?"
"I have," he replied. "She's already done some work for me."
The white-haired department head tapped the desk. "Talk to you later, okay?"
"Sure thing, Dr. Boehmer."
Parker looked from Bree to Chuck. What the hell was going on? He hadn't seen this many people in the office on the same day since he'd started teaching here.
After Boehmer disappeared down the hall, Bree's smile faded. "Yes, Dr. Ellison?" Her faint emphasis on his title made him narrow his eyes.
"Did you get that airline ticket for me?" he asked.
"Sorry." She lifted her chin. "The travel office told me I wasn't authorized to make that reservation. They're the only ones who can arrange travel."
"How the hell did they know you were doing it for me?"
She raised her eyebrows. "I had to ask them how to pay for it, of course."
"You don't have a department credit card?"
"I'm the secretary. Why would they give me a credit card, Doctor?" She emphasized his title again as her eyes drilled into his.
"To take care of department business, maybe?" he said impatiently.
"I'm supposed to make appointments, arrange meetings and type up exams and notes for the professors," she said. "Last time I checked, none of those things required a credit card."
Parker glanced at his watch and swore beneath his breath. His appointment with Jonathon Cross was in five minutes. Pulling out his wallet, he tossed one of his credit cards onto her desk. "Look, I don't have time to do this myself. I should already be in a meeting with the college president. Will you please arrange this trip for me? If it's not too much trouble?"
The redhead froze for a moment, then smiled at him. He felt a flicker of unease. "I'll be happy to do that for you, Dr. Ellison. Will you be traveling alone?"
"Yes, I just need one ticket. Thank you."
It was easier to hack his way through a jungle than maneuver through the college bureaucracy, he thought as he walked out of the office. Things were a lot less complicated in the rain forest.
He dumped the papers from his class onto his desk, groaned when he glanced at the clock, then hurried over to the administration building.
"No, thanks," Parker said, shaking his head, trying to hide his irritation. "I'm honored you thought of me, Jonathon, but I'm too busy right now to serve on a committee of that scope."
"That's why the committee is starting work this summer," Jonathon Cross explained smoothly. "Everyone's teaching load is lighter."
"I have major fund-raising planned for my next expedition," Parker said. "Between that and the papers I'm writing, I can't take on a committee."
"I'm afraid I'm going to have to insist, Parker," Cross said, brushing a hand over his silver hair and straightening his expensive suit jacket. "We need a scholar with your credentials. To give the project high visibility."
"You mean you need a celebrity," Parker said, his irritation growing.
Cross shrugged. "Of course we do. John Henry McInnes was a celebrity himself. Even if the man was " Cross pressed his lips together. "It doesn't matter what he was. McInnes is dead. But the college needs more press coverage. Celebrating the twentieth anniversary of McInnes's Pulitzer Prize for fiction will shine the spotlight on Collier College. And you have the connections to make that happen."
"There are plenty of other professors at Collier who are media savvy," Parker argued. "Let one of them handle it."
"None of them have your standing, shall we say, in the popular press." Cross sat up straight in his Aeron chair. "To be blunt, Ellison, you're the only one who can get us the kind of publicity Collier needs. You'll have to talk to the family about his papers, and they're more likely to listen to you."
"What about Ted? He's got a book out now, and he's a hotshot in the history department. Let him schmooze with McInnes's family."
The president clenched his jaw before swinging his chair around to stare at the Henri Cross painting on the wall. If it wasn't an original, it was a damn good imitation. By hanging the Cross, was Jonathon suggesting the artist was a relative?
"Ted wouldn't handle the family as well as you would," Cross finally said. "And he hasn't cultivated the media, either. He doesn't have your connections."
"I'm not interested in playing games with the press," Parker said, gathering himself to leave. "Sorry, Jonathon."
The president spun around to face him again. "It wasn't a request, Ellison." He stood and paced across the Oriental carpet. "This celebration will bring in more donations to assist our scholarship programs for needy students."
Jonathon Cross worrying about needy students would be a first. "I thought this was about publicizing our Pulitzer Prize-winning professor," Parker said smoothly. "Not fund-raising."
"Don't be naive," the man replied impatiently, repositioning the blotter on his otherwise empty desktop. The rich mahogany seemed to glow in the sunlight. "Everything is about fund-raising. This is just another way to draw attention to Collier."
"I think I bring plenty of attention to Collier already." Parker got way too much attention, but it couldn't be helped. "Find someone else."
"Sorry, Ellison. I've let you skate by a lot of assignments in the past, but I need you on this one."
Hell. He could tell from the steely look in the school official's eyes that there was no getting out of it. "Fine. Make sure they put the first meeting into the computer scheduling system so it shows up on my calendar." He stood. "Always a pleasure to meet with you, Jonathon." His voice was a little sharper than necessary.
"Likewise, Ellison." Cross smiled. "I'm looking forward to getting those papers from the McInnes family."
What the hell is this?
Bree heard Ellison down the hall, and she fought back a smile. He must have found the receipt for the plane tickets she'd placed on his desk.
Moments later he rounded the corner and stormed into the office. "What did you do?" he demanded.
"I got you the tickets you ordered," she said, raising her eyebrows. "Did I get the dates wrong?"
"You got the dates right," he said grimly. "It's the times I have a problem with."
"You never mentioned specific times."
He stared at her. "What was your name again?"
"Bree. Bree McInnes."
He did a double take. "McInnes? Are you related to Never mind. You have me leaving Green Bay at 6:00 a.m. Sunday morning, Ms. McInnes. And I don't arrive in New York until 2:00 p.m. On the return flight, I'm leaving at 6:05 a.m."
"Is there a problem with that?"