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'Charlotte, what are you doing here?' Professor Harold Mead's panicked expression didn't quite fit his soothing fatherly tone. Then again, a lot of things about her boss didn't quite fit. Like his version of Ancient Egyptian history as opposed to everyone else's, for example. Or his idea of a regular working week, which was somewhere in the vicinity of seventy hours as opposed to, say, the fifty everyone else put in.
Granted, it was seven-thirty on a Monday morning and she didn't usually start work quite this early, but still she did have every right to be here. 'Charlotte?' he repeated.
'Working?' she offered helpfully. 'At least, that's the plan. Is there something wrong with the plan?'
'No, but we were hardly expecting you in today. We thought you might take a few days to come to terms with your loss, what with your godmother's funeral yesterday.' Which he'd attended. Which had been nice of him, seeing as he hadn't known Aurora well at all.
'It was a good funeral,' she said softly. 'A celebration of a life well lived. That's what I think. That's what I know. And thank you for attending.'
'You're welcome,' said the Mead. 'And if you do need to take a few days' leave.'
'No,' said Charlotte hastily. 'Please. No leave. I'm fine.' She tried on a smile, and saw from the deepening concern in the Mead's eyes that he'd seen it for the falsehood it was. 'Really. I'm ready to work. I think I have a lead on what the pottery fragments coming out of the Loess site might be.'
'It can wait,' said the Mead. 'Or you could pass that work on to someone else. Dr Carlysle, perhaps? Seeing as he's on site? Dr Steadfellow values him quite highly.'
'I'm sure he does.' Steadfellow's reports had been full of the man. 'But I'd rather not.' The Loess site had been one of her finds. Hers and Aurora's. She'd given Steadfellow that siteco-ordinates, preliminary work, everythingon condition that she took part in the analysis. Alas, the good Dr Steadfellow seemed to be in danger of forgetting their arrangement now that the highly valued Dr Carlysle had joined the team. 'Harold, I know Dr Steadfellow and Dr Carlysle feel they can take it from here. I know they're eminently qualified to do so but that's not the point. I feel like I'm being sidelined and that wasn't the arrangement.'
'Charlotte, be reasonable,' said the Mead soothingly. 'Everyone knows you pulled together the funding for the Loess dig. No one doubts your claim to significant project input, but is this really a good time to be challenging your colleagues? Might they not simply be trying to help you through a difficult personal patch?'
Charlotte heard the words. She wanted to believe in them. Wanted to trust that Steadfellow would honour his word and acknowledge her contribution to the discovery, but in all honesty she just didn't know if he would. Her judgement was shot, these days. Too many sleepless nights. Too much weaving in and out of imaginary realities because it had hurt too much to stay in this one. 'I'll talk to Steadfellow. And Carlysle,' she said quietly. 'We'll sort something out.'
'Excellent.' The Mead beamed. 'I knew you'd be generous about this. You already have more publications than most archaeologists three times your age. A tenured position is just around the corner for you.'
'Even if I'm seen as a pushover?' she asked quietly and Harold had the grace to flush.
'Charlotte,' he said. 'I know your godmother was of great assistance to you when it came to contacts in the archaeology world. I know your family name engenders a great deal of goodwill. God knows, I've never seen an archaeologist pull funding from the private sector the way you do. But your godmother's gone now, and a lot of people will be looking to see if your legendary contacts went with her.' He took a breath and fixed her with what he probably thought was a kindly gaze. 'Charlotte, you're a wonderful asset to this department, but if you'll take an old man's adviceand I do hope you willlosing ground on the Loess dig is the least of your problems. You need to think about taking to the field for a while and renewing your contacts in person. You need to think about getting back out on site and heading up your own digs. That's what I'd be doing if I were you and I really wanted to get back in the game. Your position then would be unassailable. If that's what you want.'
If that's what you want.
Truth wasCharlotte didn't know what she wanted any more, when it came to her work. And the Mead knew it.
'Charlotte, I know you're not given to discussing your private life with your work colleagues,' the Mead began awkwardly. 'But I heard what happened to your fiancé in PNG. Bad business, that. Terrible.'
'You, ah heard about that?' Charlotte's heart thumped hard against her chest, and if her smile was a little strained it was only because the situation warranted it. Thaddeus Jeremiah Gilbert Tyler was supposed to have lived only in her mind and Aurora's. No one else's. 'How?'
'One of the palliative care nurses up at the hospital is married to Thomas over in Statistics. He's been keeping us abreast of various things.'
'Oh.' Charlotte offered up another sickly smile, dimly registering the collision of planet fiction with planet reality but having no idea how to wrest them back apart. Why couldn't she have simply broken her fictitious engagement to her fictitious fiancé in a sane and sensible manner, rather than killing him off? That way the formerly useful Gil could have gone paddling up the Sepik for ever, and she and Harold would not be having this conversation.
'At least with your godmother you were prepared for her death. But with your fiancé, and without the body Anyway, enough of that. Charlotte, I reiterateif you need to take some extended leave, please do.'
'Ithank you.' Charlotte's voice shook alarmingly. The Mead took a giant step back, as if downright horrified at the prospect of Charlotte in tears. He wasn't the only one to be horrified by such a notion. Stop it, Charlotte. Shoulders back. Don't you dare break down. A Greenstone never breaks down. Chin up, Charlie, and smile. The last was pure Aurora.
Slowly, very slowly, Charlotte collected her composure and offered up what she hoped would pass for a smile. 'Thank you, Harold. I appreciate your concern and your advice, I really do. But right now, I'd really rather work.'
If Charlotte thought her early morning conversation with the Mead had been bad, morning tea in the staffroom was worse. Kind words cut deep when they weren't deserved, and there were a lot of kind words for Charlotte this morning on account of her loss. Losses.
She cut out fast, back to her little corner office, taking her cup of tea with her. Once there she slumped into her chair and stared at her computer screen without really seeing it. Surely things would be better tomorrow? Surely this overwhelming sense of loss on the one hand and guilt on the other would fade? All she had to do was ride out these next few days. Maybe she could resurrect Gil and then dump him? Or have him dump her. Mutually agree to part ways.
'How're you holding up?' said a voice from the doorway. Millie, seeking entry, offering solace. Millie, who deserved better than lies from her.
'So-so.' Charlotte offered up a weak smile. 'Sympathy on account of Aurora's death I can handle. I'm not so sure I can handle any sympathy on account of Gil.'
'It's not so much sympathy as rampant curiosity,' said Millie as she came in and perched her skinny rear on the edge of the table. 'We've been friends and co-workers for, what, almost two years now? Why didn't you tell me you were engaged? And why aren't you wearing his ring?'
'It was a fairly loose arrangement,' said Charlotte awkwardly. 'Really loose.'
'How long since you'd seen him?' asked Millie.
'A while. Gil was very independent. Adventurous.' For a moment, Charlotte let herself dream. 'Gil was a law unto himself. Passionate and focused. Energetic. Patient.'
'I'm beginning to see the appeal,' said Millie. 'Unless you actually happened to want him around.'
Charlotte snapped out of her Gilfest with a wry smile. 'Well, there was that.'
'Do I sense a shred of relief that you're no longer tied to such an independent adventurer?'
'You might,' murmured Charlotte. This was what she wanted, wasn't it? Millie and everyone else to think that she'd recover quickly from her fiancé's demise? Why on earth, then, should she feel so disloyal to Gil?
'Do you have a picture of him?' asked Millie.
'A photo. Of your fiancé.'
'Somewhere I do.' The lies, they just kept coming. 'Honestly, Millie. I'm okay. I may have embellished Gil's importance for Aurora's benefit. Just a little.'
'You should dig out a picture,' said Millie gently. 'Put it up. Swear at it if it makes you feel better. Even if he wasn't the marrying kind, even if your engagement was a colossal mistake, you should celebrate the time you spent with him. It's okay to feel conflicted about his death, Charlotte. It's okay to get angry with him for putting himself in a position to get eaten. It's all part of the grieving process and it's perfectly normal.'
'It's really not,' said Charlotte faintly. Nothing about these last two months had been normal. 'Everything's gone a little bit crazy. Starting with me.'
'That's because prolonged bedside vigils will do that to a person. Which is why you shouldn't be here,' said Millie earnestly. 'Seriously, Charlotte. Why don't you take a few days' leave? Head for the coast. Rent a lighthouse. Refresh your spirit. Allow yourself to grieve.'
Charlotte shook her head, hot tears not far from falling. 'I can't.'
'Because I need to keep busy.' She gave Millie the truth of it, and felt marginally better for doing so. 'I need to be around other people, people I know, even if they do think I'm a spoiled archaeology heiress with fading networking skills and no brains.'
'Says who?' said Millie sharply. 'Did the Mead say that to you?' And without waiting for Charlotte's reply, 'Moron.'
'He didn't say that.' Charlotte felt obliged to defend him. 'He was really very kind. He just '
'Implied it,' said Millie darkly. 'I know how he works.'
'Maybe he didn't imply it,' said Charlotte. 'Maybe I did. Maybe it's just a big day for self doubt.' And loneliness. It was a hell of a day for that. 'Thing is, I need to feel as if I'm part of a community today, and this community is the only one I've got. Does that sound needy?'
'No.' Millie's smile came free and gentle and washed over Charlotte like a balm. 'It sounds like your community needs to lift its game.'
For all her inquisitiveness, Millie Peters had a good heart and for the rest of the day she did everything in her power to ensure that Charlotte had company. Half the archaeology department went to the cinema with them that evening. The following evening Millie and her latest beau, Derek, invited Charlotte to dine with them at a local pub.
Derek was an archaeology student with a builder's licence in his back pocket, a double degree in geology and ancient history, and a blissfully practical outlook for someone bent on becoming a field archaeologist.
They found a small round table over by the window, not too sticky, not too wobbly, and settled in for the duration. Derek bought the first round of drinks and the barman went back to filling his fridges, and the pool players went back to smacking their balls around as lazy jazz played softly through oversized speakers. Not bad. Infinitely better than being at home.
'The crispy pork sounds good,' said Derek, and Millie glared meaningfully at him.
'The crispy pork does not sound good,' countered Millie. 'Have the beef. Or the duck. No mistaking duck for anything but duck.' Millie's face disappeared behind her menu. 'Remember what I told you about the long pig incident,' she muttered to Derek as quietly as she could, which wasn't nearly quietly enough.
Derek slid Charlotte a lightning glance and promptly disappeared behind his menu too. 'Where's the duck?' he said.
'Halfway down the specials list,' murmured Millie. 'Have it braised.'
'Why not barbecued?' Derek whispered back. 'You're just assuming he was barbecued. They could have braised him. They could have boiled him.'
'You're right,' muttered Millie. 'Order the vegetable combo.'
At which point Charlotte reached across the table and pulled Millie's menu down past eye level. 'Psst.'
'What?' Millie eyed her warily.
'Millie, let the poor man eat pork. I don't care if he wants it crucified, I promise I won't see it as a metaphor for him eating Gil.'
Derek's menu dipped slowly. Derek's eyes appeared, followed by a nose, very nice cheekbones, and a wide wry smile.
'I knew she was saner than you,' Derek told Millie and barely winced when Millie's menu clipped his shoulder. They were very broad shoulders. Millie might just have to keep this one.
'So what was he like?' asked Derek. 'Your fiancé.'
'He's hard to define, but if I had to sum him up I'd probably go with useful,' said Charlotte. Nothing but the truth.
'Useful as in "Honey, could you fix the hot water system?"' asked Millie.
'I'm sure he could have fixed the hot water system,' said Charlotte. 'Had it needed fixing.'
'Can't everyone?' countered Derek.
'Sadly, no,' said Charlotte.
'I dare say Gil was modest too,' said Millie, glancing pointedly at Derek.
'What?' said Derek. 'I can be modest.'
'Of course you can,' murmured Charlotte, eyeing Derek's frayed shirt collar and shaggy hair speculatively. 'Gil was a snappy dresser too, in a rustic, ready for anything kind of way.'
'Window dressing,' said Derek. 'It's the body beneath the clothes that counts and don't either of you try and tell me different.'
'Wouldn't dream of it,' said Charlotte. 'But just for your information, that was superb too.'
'Well, it would be,' said Millie. 'What with all that paddling up the river. I bet the man had fabulous upper-body definition.'
'I was a lumberjack once,' said Derek.
'Of course you were,' murmured Millie consolingly.
A youthful waitress stepped up to their table, smile at the ready as she asked them if they were ready to order.
'I'll have the pork,' said Derek. 'But could I have it beaten first?'
'Chef runs it through a tenderiser,' said the waitress. 'You knowone of those old-fashioned washing-machine wringer things with the spikes?'
'Perfect,' said Derek.
'Unlike some things around here,' murmured Millie.
'No man is perfect,' said Derek. 'Especially in the eyes of women. A determined woman can turn even a man's good qualities into major flaws of character given time and motive, and half the time the motive is optional. It's just something you do.'