Title: Ex Equals
Author: L. A. Witt
Publisher: Amber Quill Press
Only two minutes since the last time I’d checked my watch. Three since the time before that. Chuckling to myself, I rubbed my tired eyes. What was the worst that would happen if I showed up late? My students would write me up?
Ah, but consequences or not, eight years in the military had left me with a nearly neurotic need to be on time or early to everything. Last night, I’d barely slept, and when I did, I kept dreaming of being late to every one of my classes.
So far, in between sucking down as much coffee as I could get my hands on, I’d made it to every one of them exactly ten minutes early. It wasn’t like I had far to go; three of my classes were in one room, two were in the next room over, and they were about a two hundred foot walk from my office.
It was, however, my first day on the job. No sense slacking from the get-go.
Another glance at the watch.
By now, the previous class would be out of the room, mine would be trickling in, and I wouldn’t look like a complete dork if I showed up. I stood, picked up my briefcase from beside my desk, and left. I stopped to lock the door, and couldn’t help pausing to grin at the sign on the window.
Chris Reuben—Math Dept.
There was just something cool about having my name on a door. Maybe not to anyone else, but after almost a decade as a uniformed drone and a few years of grinding through my degrees, there was a certain novelty about it. Rolling my eyes at my own thoughts, I pocketed my keys and strolled toward the classroom.
I’d been a nervous wreck before my first two classes, but now I was calm and cool. My other four classes had gone smoothly, so I was confident about this one. Algebra 101. Easy subject, easy curriculum. Plus it was a night class; several of my colleagues around the community college had told me the evening crowd was a hell of a lot easier to deal with. Instead of fresh out of high school kids, it was adults who had to cram a class into their work schedule and family life. They tended to take things more seriously.
I pushed open the classroom door and offered a quick glance and smile at the eight or nine students who’d already arrived. As I arranged copies of the syllabus and all the other crap I needed to hand out on the table at the front of the room, more students arrived.
One woman who was probably in her mid-forties came up to me with a late enrollment form. I jotted her name down, took the carbon copy of the form, and slid it into my notebook under the roll sheet.
I scanned the room, counting heads. Twenty-one. A quick look at my roll sheet showed twenty-eight, plus there’d probably be more showing up with late enrollments. Not my largest class, but quite a crowd.
I looked up at the clock at the back of the room.
Five minutes till go-time.
The door opened again, and I glanced up as three more students filed in. Two of them were Navy, probably from the base down the road. They must have come straight from work, because they were still in uniform, and… Oh. My. God.
The Navy had recently changed their everyday uniforms, shifting the utilities—which were a lot like prison blues—to blue camouflage. I wasn’t sure how effective blue camouflage really was unless they wanted a man overboard to be harder to find, but from an ogling standpoint? Oh yes, they did just fine. Cammies always looked good, and the deep blue had a tendency to bring out eyes in a way that would probably have this math teacher tripping over his words for the entire quarter.
Good thing I wasn’t enlisted anymore. Being in the closet had been bad enough when we were all dressed like prison inmates. This? This would have been torture.
The boys in blue took seats in the back row. Backpacks rustled, papers shuffled, pens rattled. More students arrived. Seats were filling quickly, so I did one last check to make sure I had everything I needed in the order I needed it.
I resisted the urge to drum my fingers. With the late enrollments, I had a class of thirty-two now, but only twenty-six in front of me. Much as I didn’t like starting late, I figured I could give the stragglers until ten after, just in case anyone had difficulty finding the room. The campus layout wasn’t terribly intuitive, so students could be forgiven for being a few minutes late.
The door opened again, and when I looked up, my heart stopped.
So much for calm, cool, or collected.
There was no mistaking his identity. Even if I could have convinced myself to hide behind a veil of denial for a moment or two, the uniform—oh, Navy, why couldn’t you have stuck with prison blues?—had his name right there on his chest.
My former shipmate. My ex-boyfriend.
My eyes flicked from his name to his face, and the lopsided grin told me the recognition was mutual. And, according to his glittering blue eyes, not unexpected.
I gritted my teeth. Tell me this is a joke.
“Chris,” he said. “How’s it going?”
I bit back my irritation, and forced myself to be completely, if grudgingly, professional. “Good. And you?” I extended my hand.
He shook it, sending lightning up my arm and into my spine. Fuck, why do you still have to be so damned hot?
“Doing great,” he said. “So you’re teaching now?”
No, I’m the fire marshal, and I’ve decided this room exceeds its max capacity by one. Get out.
I cleared my throat. “Yeah, yeah. This is my first year.” Before he could say anything, I pulled back my sleeve to look at the time. “And it’s after seven, so I need to get things started.”
“Sure. Right. I’ll, um…” He gestured toward the back of the room. “Take a seat.” As he walked away, I forced myself not to watch him. I was not going to notice how good his broad shoulders looked in that damned uniform, and I certainly wasn’t going to think about how those boots might sound when they thumped onto the floor beside my bed. A bed. Someone else’s bed. After what we’d been through, his boots wouldn’t be landing beside my bed any time soon. I wouldn’t touch the son of a bitch with someone else’s dick.
Even still, damn him for still being gorgeous.
Fuck, I do not need this.
I took a deep breath and faced my class and ex-boyfriend. I’d survived four classes without my composure faltering even for a second, but now, before this one had even started, I was a wreck. I was all sweaty palms and jitters just like the first time I stood in front of a class while I was student teaching.
And just like that time, I had to bite the bullet and get through it, no matter what.
I took another deep breath, promised myself I could and would do this, and started the class.
“As I’m sure you probably all gathered by now,” I said. “I’m Chris Reuben, and this is Algebra 101. If you’re in the wrong class, or you don’t have TiVo to record the next few months worth of Grey’s Anatomy, there’s the door.” I gestured toward it, and the class responded with a reassuring ripple of laughter.
I handed out the syllabus, all the while pretending not to be aware that I was giving Justin my e-mail address, office phone number, and office location. Of course he could get that information fairly easily from the college website, but it still didn’t sit well with me.
While the copies of the syllabus were passed around, I stood at the podium again and continued the introduction to the class.
“Obviously we have some military among us,” I said, glancing at the two guys in uniform who weren’t Justin. “I’m former enlisted myself, so I know how the duty schedules and everything can be a hassle. If you have duty days that will interfere with attendance, you’re welcome to e-mail me that information ahead of time so we can arrange makeup quizzes, tests, and whatnot.”
One of the two in the back raised his hand.
I nodded. “Yes?”
“We’re going to be on work-ups for two weeks during the quarter,” he said. “Will we be able to make that up?”
“Absolutely,” I said. “I’m strict about attendance, but I’m flexible when it comes to military commitments, illnesses, and things of that nature. Just give me a heads-up whenever you’re able, and I’ll help you out as best I can.” I picked up my notes. “So, with all that out of the way, why don’t we get into the fun stuff that you’re all here for? Does everyone have a textbook?”
A murmur of affirmatives went through the room.
“If not, see if you can share one with someone sitting near you,” I said. “And everyone please turn to page twenty-two.”
For the sake of not overwhelming my students on the first day of class, I’d kept my lectures relatively short. When I wrapped up this lecture at half past eight, a full thirty minutes before class was scheduled to end, no one in the room was more relieved than me.
I closed my book and set my notes on top. “And that’s enough for one night. There’s no assignment this evening, but starting Wednesday night there will be assignments following every class. If you miss a class, assignments are listed on the syllabus. I’ll see everyone on Wednesday.”
My colleagues were right about one thing: students didn’t stick around after night classes. No one paused beside desks to socialize. No one pulled me aside to ask a question or see if they could swing by my office before they left. No one said anything except “good night, see you on Wednesday.” As soon as I gave the word that they were dismissed, people were gone.
I wasn’t far behind. I shoved everything unceremoniously into my briefcase, snapped it shut, and retreated to the safety of my office. The door with my name on it was suddenly much too conspicuous, and as I shut it behind me, I caught myself wishing I could have had one of the offices tucked back in a corner. Maybe a shared one without any lettering on the door. But no, the offices were arranged to keep the various departments together, and the math department had prime real estate, front and center on the third floor. If Justin came looking for me, he couldn’t miss me.
And he had my office number on the syllabus anyway.
I dropped into my chair and rested my elbows on the desk blotter. Groaning aloud, I rubbed my forehead with my thumb and middle finger.
Justin. In my class. After all this time.
The memories didn’t have to come flooding back. They’d been there all along, every last one of them, floating at the edges of my consciousness like flotsam and jetsam just waiting to tangle with a rudder and throw me off course. After three years, I should have been over it. Up until tonight, I’d thought I was over it. But then he was there, and I was off guard, and the feelings were still there, and it hurt so goddamned bad to be in the same room with him.
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. I was over it. This was just unexpected, that was all. Justin had caught me off guard. The ship had hit a wave, knocked me off balance, and it was up to me to right myself. I had to find my sea legs again, as it were.
I needed to find them quickly, too. With Justin as my student, I didn’t have a choice but to be over it, stand on my own two feet, and teach my class like I’d never had sweaty, passionate sex with the blond guy in the back row. Like I’d never fallen in love with him, and never wound up hurting like hell when it was over.
Twelve weeks. Two classes per week. One class down, twenty-three to go. Five of those were exam days that only required me to sit back and make sure no one cheated, so only eighteen classes where I had to actually form coherent sentences. I could do this.
A knock at the door almost drove another groan out of me. I didn’t have to ask who it was.
“It’s open,” I said.
As the doorknob turned and the hinges gave the faintest squeak, I looked up. Just as I expected, Justin stepped in.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hi.” I leaned back in my chair and folded my hands on my lap. “What do you need?”
He pulled a sheet of paper from his backpack, then slung the pack onto his shoulder again before handing me the page. “I just thought I’d bring my duty schedule by. You mentioned…in class…you know…”
“Yeah, I know what I said.” I held out my hand and took the paper from him. “You could have e-mailed it.”
“Well, opsec and all of that.”
I eyed him. “Since when is a duty schedule a matter of operational security?”
“Okay, maybe not. But, anyway.” He nodded toward the paper in my hand. “There it is.”
I set it on my desk without looking at it. “Anything else?”
“No, I think that’s it.” He fidgeted, but didn’t fidget himself closer to the damned door. Something furrowed his brow, perhaps some segue into a conversation I had neither the time nor the inclination to endure.
I beat him to the punch, and icily said, “I don’t suppose your ship is pulling out any time soon.”
He smirked. “Now you know that’s opsec.”
I rolled my eyes. “I didn’t ask when, to where, or for how long. I’m assuming you can tell me if the boat’s in the shipyard or doing work-ups at least.”
He shrugged. “Actually, I’m on shore duty. I’m with one of the support detachments on-base.”
“Must be nice,” I said through my teeth.
“Eh, losing sea pay sucks.” He grinned. “But it is kind of nice not to have to go to sea any time soon.”
“I’m sure.” I sat up and folded my hands on top of his duty schedule. Before I could gently and maybe a little coldly drop a hint that he was more than welcome to leave, he spoke again.
“You know, I was surprised to see your name on the class schedule,” he said. “I didn’t think you’d be in the area. Figured you’d go back to the east coast after you got out.”
“Didn’t have any reason to go back.” I shrugged. “This is where the ship dumped me, so this is where I stayed.”
“How do you like it?”
I pursed my lips. “Justin…”
He put up a hand. “Hey, I was just curious how you’re doing.”
Exhaling, I rubbed my forehead. “Listen, I need to finish some things before I get out of here, and I’m exhausted. I’m just…” Not in the mood to even look at you unless you’re going to fucking kiss me. Wait, what? Damn, it no… I muffled a cough. “I really need to get a few things done.”
“Right. Sorry.” He started to go. “I’ll see you in class on Wednesday.”
I barely kept myself from cringing. Every Monday and Wednesday night? For the next twelve weeks? Shit.
He reached for the door, but I stopped him.
He looked back at me, eyebrows up.
“One question before you go.”
He shrugged and took his hand off the doorknob. “Sure, go ahead.”
I moistened my lips. “What are you doing? Here, I mean? In my class?”
A lifetime ago, I’d loved that grin, but this time it just made me want to throw a textbook at him. Especially when he added a breath of quiet laughter and said, “Learning algebra.”
And with that, he was gone.
And I was alone.