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Sherry Campbell pirouetted in front of her sleepy roommate, seeking an opinion on her new appearance. She'd undergone a total makeover since returning home from a summer spent trekking on the historic Santa Fe Trail. The pioneer-wagon-train reenactment had left her tanned and trima plus, but not her main objective. She'd battled heat, flood and tornadoes to prove a point to male colleagues at her Columbia, Missouri, college. Namely, that modern women were as tough and capable as their pioneer sisters. With help from a few well-chosen friends, she'd fulfilled that mission.
For all the good it had done. Women still had to validate their worth on her campus. Which was why she'd metamorphosed into this strangerto convince a board of stuffy regents and an administrative interview team that she was capable of replacing the current dean of Human Services. The dean was in charge of Women's Studies, student counseling and the Hub, the women's crisis center that was Sherry's pet project. All the deans at Wellmont College were men. Always had been and, according to some, always would be.
She had a chance to change that.
Allowing herself a small determined smile, Sherry smoothed the navy pin-striped power suit over her flat stomach. "I look so so buttoned down, Yvette, they'll have to sit up and take notice. This is the image they court. I'm not giving them one reason to pass me over for some Ivy Leaguer."
Yvette Miller, the person who'd engineered Sherry's recent transformation, yawned. "I don't pretend to understand what's going on inside your head. You look nothing like your old self."
She and Yvette rarely saw eye to eye anymore, Sherry realized. "I thought I explained that my goal is to blend in with the good old boys," she said, tugging at her short, short hair. Gone were her shoulder-length brunette locks, replaced by a sleek, gold-tipped cap barely two inches long, except for a slight dip over her forehead, where Yvette's beautician friend had left a bit of a wave.
Sherry fingered the discreet gold stud embedded in one earlobe. Already she missed the art-deco earrings that were practically her trademark around campus. Those, and her favorite Mickey Mouse watch. "These suit sleeves would have hidden Mickey. I feel positively naked without him."
"Mickey is funky. That Ironman Timex is what a man would wear."
"You're right." Sherry sighed. "I really hope I'm not a token woman being trotted out to show the community that our administration's open-minded. Rumor has it that of the three final candidates, only one's a woman. Moi! And there's a man of color. All very politically correct," she said.
"Still no poop on number three?"
"Nothing, other than that candidate three is also a man. Surprise, surprise."
"Have you asked Nolan? Maybe your business is like mine. In the clothing industry men always have a better pipeline to the top than women do."
"My brother is so mired in his and Emily's wedding plans his pipeline isn't even attached."
"How can you not applaud his wholehearted commitment to Emily and her two kids?" Yvette asked dreamily. "I'd like for some good-looking guy to pay off my debts and whisk me away on a white charger."
"Nolan doesn't have a white charger. He drives a compact. When did you hop on the marital bandwagon? I distinctly remember you saying, 'Another good woman bites the dust,' when you heard their joyous news."
"Well, it's just so romantic. He asked me to find Emily a designer wedding gown regardless of price, because she got shortchanged in her first marriage to that shyster land developer. Nolan wants Emily's wedding at Thanksgiving to be perfect. All women dream of having a perfect wedding. A perfect marriage."
"Mm." Sherry didn't say the obviousthat a perfect wedding wasn't any guarantee of a perfect marriage. Not only that, she didn't want to admit that she still wasn't sure how she felt about her only sibling marrying her best friend. She wanted to be happy for them, she really did. But what would happen when their bubble popped? And it would. Didn't she work every day with the grim statistics? One in three marriages broke up.
"In college, Sherry, who wore out the bride magazines every month planning our storybook weddings?"
"Back then we were naive enough to think marriage was the beall and endall in a woman's life, Yvette. The reality is that few marriages have storybook endings."
"Wait and see. I'll find Mr. Right. You don't even appreciate handsome men anymore. It'd do you good to go with us girls and sigh over some good-looking guys."
"I see what happens to cast-off wives who are totally dependent on your hunks. Marriage isn't the answer, Yvette. Women are still led down a primrose path. You ought to see how many needy women we turn away from our displaced-house-wives program for lack of funding. As dean, I'd have more control over the budget. So, yes, men, or should I say a man in my life, are at the bottom of my priority list."
"Maybe you need to find a new job. Our friends think you've dealt with battered women too long. You've gotten cynical. Rumors are, you hate men. Since your summer trip, even people I know who work with you at the college joke about you being the female Davy Crockett." Yvette moved to inspect her long curly hair in Sherry's mirror. "Trying to prove you're better than a man is not healthy."
"Equal, not better. Terms like 'female Davy Crockett' are meant to put women down. That stuff goes on all the time on campus. Speaking of which, I should leave now. I'd like to get to the boardroom early so I can assess the other two candidates."
She stepped into navy pumps. "So far, Yvette, you and my department secretary are the only ones who know I've tossed my hat in the ring. By tonight candidates' names and faces will be splashed all over the local news."
"If I wanted the job, I'd shout it from the rooftops."
"I never thought I'd make final cut. When I learned I had, the family was caught up hiding Emily and her kids from her rotten in-laws. Now they're deep in wedding plans." She shrugged to show it didn't matter. Yet on a purely emotional level it did.
Yvette followed Sherry to the door. "Well, I'm on the road for the next week."
"By the time you get back, maybe they'll be calling me Dean Campbell." Sherry's high spirits lasted until she hit campus and couldn't find a parking place. She'd forgotten this was the last day of registration and the day the faculty returned full force. According to the reader board, it was also new-student orientation. "Rats." Rather than showing up early as planned, she was lucky to dash through the double doors that led to the boardroom on the dot of nine. Almost the last to arrive for the coffee hour.
Talk stopped while all eyes skimmed the latecomer. Sherry's stomach balled as she weathered microscopic inspection by administrators, board members and their perfectly groomed wives. All appeared baffled.
Dr. Harlan Westerbrook, the courtly white-haired college president, left a huddle of men and moseyed toward Sherry. Moseying was his way. A common joke around campus was that he'd be late for his own funeral. Sherry waited to be properly greeted in accordance with the pecking order.
"Sherilyn?" One bushy eyebrow met the president's cottony shock of hair. "I'm so used to seeing you dashing about campus, hair flying like a hippie, that I must confess I didn't recognize you."
Smugly satisfied, Sherry wanted to laugh, but said, instead, "Isn't adaptability one of the criteria for this job? As a teacher and counselor at the Hub, I have to blend in with the women we serve. Trust plays a major role in keeping disad-vantaged students attending classes. Don't you agree, Doctor?"
"Um, yes Well, come and meet the other finalists." Taking Sherry's elbow, the president steered her toward a short man with olive skin and thinning black hair. "This is Dr. Eli Aguilar. He's currently department chairman for minority programs at a prestigious California college." Westerbrook named the institution and let it impress before he introduced Sherry. "Dr. Sherilyn Campbell, Eli. Department chairperson of Women's Studies. This little lady has kept our departing dean on his toes." Westerbrook patted Sherry's hand. "Reginald insists she's not responsible for his seeking early retirement, though."
The two men laughed heartily. Sherry didn't smile. This was typical behavior, intended to keep women outside the select circles. She offered her hand first. "I won't apologize for going to the mat with the dean to retain services vital to troubled women. I'd be interested in hearing your views on whole-life training for displaced housewives, Dr. Aguilar. It ranks high with me. Counseling in areas like nutrition and grooming may be costly, but academic studies alone don't provide an automatic key to success in today's workplace."
Aguilar adjusted his tie a few times before Westerbrook rescued him. "Now Sherilyn," the president chided, "it's our job to put you three candidates on the spotnot for you to interrogate one another. Speaking of candidates, here comes Dr. Lock."
As their chief gazed over her shoulder, Sherry turned expectantly, one hand extended, a cool smile on her lips. Her outstretched fingers went limp and her smile died as she cannoned headlong into the startling punch of candidate number three's azure blue eyes.
Westerbrook's voice continued to drone in the background, but for the life of her, Sherry couldn't grasp a word he said. Oh, but she had to pay attention. Lock. Dr. Garrett Lock, Assistant Dean of Collaborative programs somewhere. His background, sociology. Tongue frozen to the roof of her mouth, Sherry latched on to the newcomer's name and imprinted it in her mind. Texas. Westerbrook said Lock had driven to Columbia from Texas. Of course. As he collected her slack hand, he acknowledged her with a honeyed drawl that glued Sherry's toes to the soles of her sensible new pumps.
"Dr. Campbell." Bending slightly, he clasped her hand warmly and kicked up the wattage of his smile. "Any relation to Nolan Campbell? If I recall, his field is history."
Sherry registered the heat sliding up her arm and little else. Except that Lock's rakish grin exploded like a sunbeam in this dreary walnut-paneled room. He had the most gorgeous sun-streaked blond hair, a good inch longer than her new do. Evenly tanned skin. And teeth so white Sherry thought they must surely be capped.
She tried to respond to his question about Nolan, but the most awful noise wheezed from her throat as if nothing could get past the balloon expanding in her chest. Hypoglycemia. It sometimes hit when she skipped breakfast. She needed food, fast.
"Sherilyn is Nolan's sister," Westerbrook answered for her. "Fine man, Nolan. Dedicated professor. I didn't realize you knew a member of our staff."
Garrett extracted his hand from the woman's clammy palm. Something looked familiar about those great cat eyes of hers. Definitely not your normal shade of brown. More like aged amber. He stepped back for a second assessment. Garrett was gifted with a keen memory. He'd hardly forget a woman with such classic bone structureespecially one with hair shorter than his son Keith's latest hatchet job, which came courtesy of Car-la's new husband. The banker was how Garrett thought of Keith's stepfather. That or the jerk. Although he shouldn't place total blame for being uprooted from a job he loved on the man his ex-wife had married. Carla was the one who'd suddenly demanded maternal rights, and as a result Garrett's life had been turned inside out. He might not want this job, but if he didn't get it well, with him in Huntsville and Carla in St. Louis, Keith would spend half his growing-up years on a plane. An eight-year-old didn't deserve to be zapped around like a yo-yo.
It took Garrett a moment to realize that his sudden fierce frown must be the reason everyone was staring at him so oddly. "Forgive me." He flashed a wide smile. "I was trying to decide if Dr. Campbell resembles her brother. Don't tell him I said so, but when they handed out looks he must've thought they said books, and passed because his shelves were full." His joke sparked rollicking laughter from the men. Women gazed at him adoringly.
Sherry did neither. In fact, she'd begun to see that being this close to candidate number three played havoc with her equilibrium and made absolute mush of her brain. "Excuse me," she said abruptly. "The coffee calls. I believe I'll get a cup and then mingle. Dr. Lock Dr. Aguilar, we'll meet again, I'm sure."
Phew! A flood of relief eased the spasm in her chest as Sherry escaped Lock's presence. What was there about him that so unnerved her? Even now she felt his laser gaze tracking her progress across the room, and her feet tangled. Stop it! She consciously erased the frown from between her brows. Filling a cup to the brim with coffee, she gravitated toward the cluster of women Lock had just left. Regents' wives chorused hello, then returned to the topic they'd been discussing.
"Doesn't that handsome Dr. Lock just shiver your timbers?" The speaker was a plump impeccably dressed matrona power on campus in her own right. Sherry knew of several instances in which this lady had influenced staff hiring.
The matron's bony companion fit the expression that a woman could never be too thin or too rich. She cast her voice in a regal whisper to entice listeners. "Sheldon told mein confidence, mind you," she murmured, referring to her husband, the current board president, "that Dr. Lock is divorced." She said the word one breathless syllable at a time. "Can you imagine any woman foolish enough to let him leave her?"
Sherry sympathized with Lock as every last woman stared at him. In spite of her own efforts not to turn, her gaze automatically strayed toward him. She recalled her earlier chat with Yvette on the subject of admiring handsome men. Her response now seemed hypocritical in view of the way she was gawking at Lock.
Sherry spun back. Normally she wasn't the least bit impressed by broad shoulders. In Lock's case, though, she was forced to admit that he wore his dark green suit to perfection. Not a single crease where other men's suits were wrinkled. Obviously tailored to fit. His usual attire? Or an indication of how badly he wanted the job. Without appearing obvious, Sherry gave closer scrutiny to the loose way Lock stood, hands on hips, every so often pausing to gesture with a well-manicured hand. Well-manicured but not soft, she noted, remembering how it had felt during the brief meeting of their palms.
He broke off in midsentence, glanced around and caught Sherry giving him the once-over.
Annoyed at the heat suffusing her neck, Sherry deliberately steadied her coffee cup, took a sip, and transferred her inspection to Aguilar. His suit fit well enough. But of her two opponents, she judged Lock the man to beat in this race.
"Sherilyn, dear." A thin voice broke into Sherry's assessment of her competitors. "I understand you piloted a Conestoga across the prairie this summer. Frankly, I never understood why anyone would wish to reenact the old days. Notice I didn't call them the good old days. I belong to the historical society for philanthropic reasons. You must come and address our group, dear heart. Lyle Roberts, from the History department is our professional adviser. He said you even had a run-in with an escaped convict and that you beaned the man. If it'd been me, I would have fainted dead away. You must have nerves of steel. Weren't you frightened at all?"