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One Night with the Professor
Unforgettable Nights (Book 5)
He teaches her history. She schools him in love.
Nothing in Nora Pena’s life has ever come easy. If she can’t bring up her grade in‘Tremaine the Terrible’s difficult history class, she won’t win the grant she needs to finish her degree. But getting close to the intimidating but handsome professor whose passions simmer below a crusty exterior could create as many problems as it solves.
Dr. Mark Tremaine may have a PhD in history but he needs a remedial class in life. Having escaped the demands of ‘publish or perish’ at a prestigious university, he now focuses on teaching the subject he loves at a smaller college. But despite his best efforts, he can’t seem to connect with his students. That is, until he mentors a shy but sassy young woman who makes him rethink his approach to teaching and opens him up to love.
Desperate, Nora Pena stood in trepidation at the closed door of her history professor’s office. This was her last option. She had to ask Tremaine the Terrible for help.
Below the menacing block letters DR. MARK TREMAINE, she read the posted office hours. Through the misted glass she could see a figure at a desk. When she put her ear to the pane, she heard the vigorous dueling of violins in some classical concerto.
Just knock on the door, Nora. He won’t bite you.
She wasn’t so sure about that. But she couldn’t put this off any longer. If she failed this course…
“Come in,” a deep voice boomed.
Nora looked at her fisted hand touching the door pane. She hadn’t even realized she’d rapped on it. Swallowing the ball of fear in her throat, she pushed the door open.
When she entered, Dr. Tremaine turned down the music and stood. Whether that was a courtesy or a way to be more intimidating, Nora couldn’t tell. He definitely seemed taller this close, standing at her level. From three tiers above in the classroom, the professor looked imposing enough, but now he towered over her like a southern California palm tree.
Breathe, Nora. Look him in the eyes.
She’d never noticed before how blue those eyes were. As serene and calm as the Pacific ocean. Ruffling a hand through unruly, golden brown hair, the professor studied her face. And he…smiled.
Nora swallowed. “Good morning, Dr. Tremaine, I’m in your--”
“Ten o’clock Western Civ class. Have a seat, Miss Pena.”
She stepped carefully around a treadmill that took up half the office floor space and eased into the chair in front of his desk. “I…didn’t realize you knew my name.” There were over a hundred students in that class and Nora never spoke unless called on.
“I know who all my students are. Especially those who sit in the first few rows and pay attention.” He closed the door and took his seat behind his desk, eyeing her expectantly.
Nora met his gaze across a desk cluttered with haphazard piles of books and papers and marred by coffee stains. A faint smell of cinnamon rolls hung in the air. “I do pay attention, sir, and I study hard, but I can’t seem to make any grade higher than a C. And now this paper…” She reached into her backpack and took out the neatly typed Causes of the French Revolution with the offensive red ‘D’ scrawled across the top.
“You think you deserve a higher grade?” The professor glanced at the first page without flipping to the second. “I don’t give out ribbons for ‘participation.’”
Nora felt like scrunching into a tiny ball but kept her head and back erect. “I’m not asking you to give me a higher grade. I intend to earn it. And I’m willing to do whatever it takes.”
The professor raised a brow.
Her throat constricted in horror. Dios mio, had she just said what she said? “That is…” Nora searched for a hole in the floor to dive into. “I didn’t mean--”
“I know what you meant.” His dismissive chuckle put her at ease. Momentarily. He picked up the paper and flipped through the other pages, bloodied with red pen markings.
And frowned. “Why is this grade so important to you?”
Ignoring the faint scent of sandalwood soap emanating from his body, Nora took a shaky breath. “I want to become a Physician assistant. But I can’t afford to continue my education without financial help.” Another slow breath. “My academic advisor recommended me for the Slocum Grant. But there’s a lot of competition. And I won’t be eligible unless I have a 3.0 for the year.”
“I see.” Dr. Tremaine studied her face with much more thoroughness than he’d just now given her paper. “Why did you wait so long to come to see me?”
“I…thought I could figure it out myself. And,” she admitted, “I was a little afraid.”
His crusty tone did little to ease her discomfort. “Well, you are a little intimidating in class. And the online student reviews called you--” Stop talking, Nora. Undoubtedly he knew what his students called him.
“‘Tremaine the Terrible.’” His smile suggested he was actually proud of the epithet. “I’m not here to make friends with my students, Miss Pena. My job is to teach them to think.” The professor folded his arms over his flat chest without wrinkling an inch of his oxford shirt. “If I’m so intimidating, why did you sign up for my class?”
Nora scanned the overhead bookshelves that went all the way to the ceiling, sagging with heavy volumes stacked upright and horizontally. “It’s a required course. I’m in my last semester.” Worried about the massive reading she’d heard it entailed, Nora had put off this class as long as she could. And this spring Dr. Tremaine was the only professor teaching it.
His electric blue eyes flickered in what could have been anger. Or disappointment. Or a haunting sadness. For a second, Nora put herself in the professor’s shoes. How must it feel to teach a class most students only took because they had to?
“College is not like high school.” Dr. Tremaine peered over the desk at her. “I don’t give a damn about who killed whom at what battle and what date. I don’t want you to parrot back the textbook word for word. I want you to use this thing up here.” He tapped the side of his head.
The hairs on the back of her neck bristled. “Are you saying I’m just phoning it in? Or that I’m stupid?”
He took long minutes—or maybe it was only seconds--opening the wrist buttons on his shirt and slowly folding the cuffs over his forearms. “I’m saying,” he said deliberately, “that I can’t know whatever brilliant thoughts might be in your mind unless you place them effectively on the page. I want you to analyze the why of history. Everything has a cause and effect. If we can’t build on our successes and learn from our mistakes, what’s the point?”
Was that a rhetorical question or was she supposed to produce an answer? Nora made herself smaller in her chair. “I’m afraid I’m not following, sir.”
Dr. Tremaine stood, paced to the small window and back, and then stopped in front of her chair. Six feet plus of intelligent face, broad chest, and snug black jeans loomed over her. He leaned back and gripped the desk behind him. “What’s your background, Miss Pena?”
She narrowed her eyes. “I was born in East L.A. My parents run a mom and pop grocery store. I have an older sister—who’s a lawyer,” she couldn’t help bragging. “And two younger brothers.”
“Were your parents born here as well?”
“No, they both arrived as children. My family came here from El Salvador.”
“Why what?” She hoped he wouldn’t think she was being a smartass but she had no idea where he was going with this.
“Why did they move to the United States? Did they have family here? A job offer? Did they face difficult economic or political conditions in their native country?”
“That.” Her abuela often talked about the old country with fond memories, but Nora knew they’d been so poor they could barely feed their children. And often feared for their lives. “They were looking for a better life here.”
His Pacific blue eyes fixed on hers without wavering. “Had they not made the decision they did, do you think your life would have been different?”
“Of course.” She’d probably be working for pennies and living on beans. Instead of being interrogated by a teacher who made her throat tighten and her palms sweat. Why had she listened to her sister’s advice? The man was an egotist who enjoyed making his students uncomfortable and she’d volunteered for an extra helping of humiliation.
Dr. Tremaine paced to the opposite corner of the postage stamp office to a credenza overflowing with books. He turned and faced her. “Because of your grandparents’ actions, you, Nora Pena, have more opportunities. You can get an education. Work any job you can qualify yourself for. Or marry and raise children, even be a stay at home mom.”
Nora blinked. It was as if he’d been present at the dinner table last night, listening to Mama tell her for the hundredth time that she didn’t have to work two jobs and struggle so hard at school, that she could just marry Freddy and raise a family. “I’m grateful and proud to be an American,” she said stiffly. “But what does my personal history have to do with the French Revolution?”
The professor laughed out loud. A soft rumble that relaxed the hard planes of his face into an appealing smile. “Cause and effect, Miss Pena. Cause and effect. History is just the story of civilization. Everything that happens causes a new result, and each result then becomes the cause of the next.”
Nora felt dumber than when she’d come in.
“Your grandparents faced economic and political hardships. Cause. Which led them to seek a better life in another country. Effect.” Dr. Tremaine’s cheeks flushed with enthusiasm. “Just apply the same principles to western civilization in the 1700s. What economic, religious, and social conditions led to the French Revolution?”
“I don’t know!” Nora’s heart pounded in her throat. She was never going to get this. “I can’t fail this course.” She stood and strode to the window beyond his desk, scrubbing her cheeks. She would not let him see her cry.
She felt a presence behind her.
A warm hand touched her arm. “Relax,” he said gently. “I’m trying to help you.”
Turning to face him, Nora looked up into kind, serious eyes. She let out a slow breath, composed herself, and walked back to her chair.
“Forget all the names and dates you memorized,” the professor said when they were both seated again. “Think of cause and effect. What was the class system like in the years leading up to the French Revolution?”
“Take your time.”
Nora forced herself to shut out all the extraneous facts of the pages she’d studied to focus on the meat of his question. “There was a new middle class—the bourgeoisie—merchants and professionals, that hadn’t existed under feudalism.”
“And did those people have it pretty good?”
“They did, actually.” Nora threw up her hands. “I don’t get it. Things were getting better for all the classes, even the peasants. So why wouldn’t they just be happy with what they had? Why did they want to stir up change?”
“Why do you?”
“Why do you choose to go to a four-year college and do additional training to become a Physician assistant?”
Was everybody in the world going to spit on her dreams?Exasperated, Nora jumped to her feet, prepared to storm out of the professor’s office. And then, slowly, she got it. He wasn’t discouraging her. He was baiting her, challenging her to defend her goals.
“Because I can.” She sat back down, a smile fighting its way to the tense corners of her mouth. “Because I have the opportunity.” In the poor Salvadoran village where her parents were born such a goal would be unthinkable, certainly unattainable. “When people have nothing, they have no dreams. But when they have something, they hunger to have more.” Her voice rose animatedly. “In eighteenth century France, the people had finally gotten out from under the yoke of feudalism. Now that they had a higher standard of living, they wanted more. Freedom. Maybe even power. They--” She clamped her mouth shut and stole a shy glance at him. “Am I getting any of this right?”
Dr. Tremaine grinned. “I couldn’t have said it better myself.” He held up her red-inked paper and tore it into shreds. “I’ll give you a week to rewrite this. Read beyond the words in the textbook for the meaning. And don’t be afraid to add your own ideas if something applies that isn’t in the book. We all have our own ways of viewing the world and each of us can add a different perspective.”
He wanted her to use her own thoughts? She stood. “What if you don’t agree with my perspective?” What if the D paper he’d torn up was replaced by a devastating F?
“Then we’ll dialogue about it. I welcome the challenge of a different opinion. But as long as you provide a rationale for your viewpoint, I won’t grade you down for it.”
Nora inhaled a big breath. It wouldn’t be easy to completely rewrite a twenty page paper, but she’d asked him for the opportunity to earn a better grade. “Thank you, sir. I…I’m glad I came in today. ”
She zipped up her backpack and slung it gingerly over her shoulder to avoid slamming it into the crowded bookcase beside her. But moving forward, the bag’s uneven weight caused her to stumble and, at the edge of the treadmill, almost trip.
The professor caught her arm and steadied her.
Once again, her breath caught at his firm, warm touch. Electricity radiated through her body.
“Sorry about the crowded conditions in here,” he said awkwardly. “I spend a lot of time in this office, sometimes more than I do at home.”
She wondered how his wife felt about that. Nora glanced at the hand that had brushed her arm and saw no wedding ring on his slim-knuckled fourth finger.
He pointed to the office hours on the door. “Come back to see me if you need more help. That’s what I’m here for.”
“I appreciate that.” She stepped through the doorway, then turned back. “And for what it’s worth, now that I’ve actually talked to you, I don’t think you’re terrible at all.”
He shot her a mock-horrified look. “Don’t share that thought with the other students. I have a reputation to live up to.”
She grinned. “I promise to keep your secret.”
As she walked away, Nora felt the huge stone lodged in her chest since the beginning of the semester loosening. Suddenly the dreams she’d almost given up on seemed possible again.