“Son? I need to tell you something.”
“Integrity is more important than pretty much anything. Even love.”
“Uh… what’s inte...griddy?”
“Integrity, son. It’s the mark of a true man to keep his promises no matter what. Be a man of his word. You learn that and you learn hard work and you’ll do just fine in life. And don’t let girls distract you from that.”
“But girls are gross, Dad.”
“Keep telling yourself that, kiddo. You’ll be alright.”
The first time I met Moiré De Lanthe, I was engaged to be married. Despite the rumors, even men have fairytales. This is my fairytale and it involves (as any good story does) the love of a woman.
It all started quite innocently. I was studying printouts of brainwave readings in the little corner of a sterile-looking room that I was allowed to call “my lab.” I suddenly noticed that I was alone and glanced up at the clock—8:36 p.m. The upshot to working a national holiday was that I had the lab completely to myself. I was surprised that my fiancée, Ella, hadn’t already phoned me twenty times to make sure I’d be home in time to make it to tonight’s fireworks. I was glad for the inattention, however; my eyes burned from staring at a computer screen for six hours and from reading Victorian romance novels for another five. Doctoral work was not supposed to involve this kind of eyestrain, was it?
I pretended to type out some final notes on what I’d found in the day’s research. It was precious little. Studies proceeding on schedule. Resolution still uncertain. Continue study.
Inevitably, however, I received a text from Ella and quickly texted back that I’d be wrapping things up soon. I carried on screening my notes for errors, finding none. Unfortunately, I found no signs of apparent progress either. I was no closer to resolving my issue than I had been when I started the research. Worse, there was a sense of something missing—something not easily nailed down.
And only three months to figure this all out. C’mon, Nick. Think.
The stated goal was to understand why supposedly “perfect love” could go tragically wrong. I wanted to know if there were obvious warning signs on the entrance ramp to the freeway of romance screaming, “Caution: dead end ahead!” The official literature always gave the usual, unsatisfying answers. I just knew there had to be something more, something deeper. My eyes drooped. There was no point in continuing tonight. I stood, stretched and walked over to The Chair for a moment’s rest to freshen me up before tonight’s festivities.
At the outset of my doctoral work, I’d salvaged an old dentist’s chair because of its odd, iconic coolness. It didn’t fit in my apartment, but in a stroke of genius, I realized it would work great in the lab. It became my official test chair. When I found it had… personality… I decided it needed a name. I wasn’t feeling terribly creative that day.
I settled into The Chair and carefully readied myself to lean back. Despite my repairs on The Chair, the old cautions were still there. Slowly, slowly I levered myself backwards until, at last, I was at just the right angle for comfort. Confident that it wasn’t going to eject me (again), I relaxed and peacefully closed my eyes. Five-minute siesta and then I’d head on out to Ella’s place to calm her down and watch the celebrations.
Nobody should ever unexpectedly surprise a grad student grabbing a nap. Before I knew it, I was on the floor in a heap, the knock on the door banging in my head. I was on my feet the next moment, regretting it as my head swam. I peered through my haze to see who else was crazy enough to have not escaped the psychology building before closing time. When my vision cleared, I noticed a slender young woman, a full head shorter than me. She looked like a supermodel ready to step into a board meeting of a Fortune 500 company. I suddenly felt awkwardly bedraggled and more than a little stupid knowing that there was no way she had missed my… accident. So much for some rest.
I turned on my best version of nonchalance as she stepped through the door. I paid no attention to her smooth, auburn hair pinned up just above the nape of her neck. I glanced at her ginger eyes only in furtive motions to eliminate any chance of staring. I utterly ignored the sweeping jawline beneath her perfect cheekbones. I was accustomed to having attractive women around—the campus was chock-full of them. No pretty face had ever distracted me from my love for Ella. I nearly jumped when my heart began to race as she started walking toward me.
Re-test element of surprise on response to stimuli.
“Doctor Cairn?” she asked politely.
“Please, just call me ‘Nick,’” I said calmly. “I’m not done with my dissertation yet.”
She smiled demurely. “Which is what I was hoping to hear. They told me I’d find you here; I’m sorry I had to come so late. And on a holiday no less.”
“It’s no problem. I was just about to wrap up for the night, though. Can I help you with something?”
“I’m your new undergraduate assistant.” She extended her hand.
I blinked and shook her hand. I hadn’t had an undergrad assistant in thirteen months, now. There were reasons for that.
“I… think you’re mistaken”—and I glanced at her ring finger—“Miss….”
“Moiré. De Lanthe, if you need to know for your records, but Moiré’s fine with me.”
“Well, yes, Miss De Lanthe—Moiré, sorry. But if you’re looking for an internship, I think you’ve come to the wrong place.”
“Then you’re not the one writing a dissertation entitled, ‘Human interrelations in romantic settings and neurophysical responses to prescribed stimuli’?” She held her gaze on me, neutral and steady. This woman obviously had at least some idea of what she was getting herself into.
I nodded. “Yes, that would be me. But are you certain I’m the one you want to be talking to?”
She gave me a thin, almost mocking grin and I made a mental note of my reaction. Heart rate increased in response to newcomer’s smile.
“I asked specifically to work with you.”
That got my eyebrows up. “You realize that the pay is just this side of nothing, right?”
“You also realize the hours are often long and that some of what we’re doing needs to be done very clinically in order to avoid charges of sexual assault, yes?”
She nodded again.
“Were you informed that you’re expected to study a large body of literature, listen to hours of romantic music and watch several days’ worth of romantic films as part of core research?”
She indicated she was aware.
“You are also aware that you’ll be on the front lines of some of the most bitter tales of failed relationships you’re ever likely to hear?”
“And you know that you’re not going to get any of the credit for this beyond, possibly, a small line item on a résumé and whatever experience you can garner, correct?”
She nodded again, more eagerly than I’d expect.
“You… really seem excited about this.”
Her smile widened. “Yes, I am. You’re the only one in your field doing anything like this at this school. In this state, actually. I was hoping to find a project that would stand out from the pack. Yours was by far the most interesting of the list.”
“Flattered, really,” I said dryly. I knew what the other projects on the list were.
She laughed lightly. I ignored my elevated pulse count. I wasn’t about to let myself end up as my own test subject. It was definitely time to get back to Ella. She’d be sure to cool me down.
“But like I said,” I said, managing a welcoming smile, “I’m wrapping up for the night. I’ve got the usual holiday plans. I’m sorry I can’t stay and chat more.”
“When do I start?” She moved closer and every hair on my neck stood up.
“A-are you taking any classes this summer?”
She nodded. “Psych two-forty, P.E. two-ten and P.A.S one-twelve.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“P.A.S.—Plant and Animal Sciences—one-twelve. It’s a floral design class,” she said.
“I see.” She was learning floral design. If I did hire this Moiré woman, I’d have to be sure not to discuss my impending wedding around her. Who knew what mayhem might ensue if she and Ella got together?
“Well, with Psych two-forty, you’ll be busy Monday through Friday for at least a couple hours a day. PE is never taxing. I’m… not sure how much time you’ll spend with your flowers, but if you’re going to work under me, I expect at least a twenty-hour week. I typically do six hours a day on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, with an hour or two on Tuesday or Thursday.”
The clock read 8:40. Ella would be fuming at my tardiness. Just to get rid of the underclasswoman I said, “Show up here Friday if you really want this. Think you can handle that?”
She nodded once and shook my hand again. “It’ll be a privilege to work with you. I’ll see Friday afternoon at three-o-clock, right after one-twelve.”
“Right after one-twelve,” I agreed. With a last, very professional smile she was out the door. Without thinking, I peeked around the doorjamb and watched her until she disappeared around the corner. I could still smell her perfume.
“Brother,” I huffed, collapsing into a chair behind me and rubbing at my face. “What just happened there?”
First, the very fact that I had found her so very attractive had been more than a little disturbing. I’d always maintained a professional, clinical detachment around women in my lab. I extended that detachment to women in general as soon as I’d gotten engaged. Dad would be proud of me; he’d always taught me that commitment (especially to a spouse) was a true mark of character. I would ignore my unexpected physiological response to this random girl; it was just a fluke.
Second, a research assistant didn’t fit into the budget (even if I’d told her not to expect much). The psychology department had been making vague “promises” about shelling out more funds for about eight months now. Their definition of “promise” was obviously not the one in my dictionary.
Money aside, I neither wanted nor needed help. I rather enjoyed conducting my work alone without the bother of coordinating with an assistant. My first assistant was useful, but he quit when he left school to work in his father’s business. The next assistant…. I’ll be nice by saying nothing.
Pulling my mind back to the present, I yawned and blinked my way through the nightly wrap-up process, counting and re-counting my reasons why it would be a bad idea to have a new research assistant. After three failures to convince myself to turn her down I settled on the argument that I just didn’t need her even if she thought she needed me. Other doctoral students would give her a better experience and more than just petty change for her troubles. She could take her silky hair, her gripping eyes, her perfect teeth, her… wait… was I being distracted by a memory of a girl I’d barely met? Okay. That was it, period. Whenever Miss De… Lynn? DeLund? I was more fatigued than I’d realized. De… Lanthe—that was it. When she returned, I’d explain that she had caught me off guard and that I hadn’t been thinking straight. I’d apologize for the confusion, suggest other grad students she could work for and send her off with a professional handshake. Moiré De Lanthe wouldn’t even be a memory by the same time next week.
For some reason, I didn’t want to believe that.