With the help of Google Earth, Tessa had been able to find out exactly where Christopher intended to meet her. The mansion sitting in the middle of an immaculate manicured lawn made her wonder about his intentions. She had hoped it was the address for a restaurant or club, but knowing that it was a residential home made her uneasy.
Having not asked Christopher exactly why she was to meet him there, she didn’t know how to prepare for the occasion. If this was a social event, she needed to look the part of the party girl that she had created for herself. But, if this was a private affair, Tessa wasn’t sure exactly what to wear.
Michele had told her a little about Christopher’s personality, but there was still much she wasn’t sure about. Yes, he was kind and considerate. He was a gentleman in practice as much as in his looks and demeanor. But, with how flirty she was at the coffee shop, Tessa wondered if he had any particular design for the evening that would warrant a private setting. Michele said that she was sure Christopher never dated the students at the college, but people can change.
Tessa also wondered if this was Christopher’s house at all. She knew enough that teachers, even those in colleges and universities, hardly ever made enough to get by let alone own a huge house. That made her believe this might have been an invite to a party.
Having analyzed all angles of the coming evening, she decided to wear a mixed ensemble. The skirt reached to just above her knees where fishnet stockings slipped down into her black ankle boots. Her long sleeve v-neck top was a little low, but not too low to be vulgar and showed just the right amount of cleavage that would have been acceptable in the public eye. She curled the ends of her black hair and spread on a deep purple eye shadow to offset her brown eyes. Her mascara was particularly on point and with a finishing touch of eye liner and blush, Tessa deemed herself ready for her date.
When the taxi pulled up to the curb outside the mansion, she was disappointed to find the house quiet and vacant of any partiers. Light shined out from a few windows on all three stories of the house and solar yard lights dotted the cobblestone path that lead to the front porch. Grand columns held up a balcony that stretched across the second floor and reminded Tessa of something out of an antebellum romance novel. The only thing that was missing were the rose vines climbing up the outer edifice.
Tessa took a deep breath as she climbed the stone porch steps to the front door, wishing she had somehow thought to pack an extra change of clothes just in case. The tiny clutch dangling at her side wasn’t going to hold much, but even a jacket to hide her exposed chest would have been better than nothing.
She rang the doorbell but didn’t have to wait long before an older man dressed in a formal tux, completely with long coat tails, stood before her. He took in her appearance with a sweep of his condescending eyes and Tessa wanted nothing more than to run back to her little apartment and make plans to move again.
“I’m here to see Christopher,” she managed to say with an uplifted chin.
The butler or manservant gave her a sneer. “The master of this home is expecting company this evening and I highly doubt it is you. I must ask you to vacate the – “
Tessa looked past the doorman into the foyer and saw Christopher striding down a set of stairs. He had changed clothes since this morning. The pair of faded jeans and white button up shirt with the top few buttons unfastened made him look even younger than she remembered. But, the muscle and grace was all there and it was hard to breathe at the first sight of him. The closer he came, Tessa picked up the aroma of cologne and soap. He must have taken a shower recently too by the way his hair glistened.
He joined the butler, Harvey, at the threshold and gave him a reprimanding look. “This is the company I was expecting. Stand aside.”
Those last words were spoken calmly, but there was a certain firmness about it that made her want to get out of her own way if it were possible. Harvey bowed his head and strode away with what was left of his pride. Christopher invited her in with a kind smile.
The foyer was decadently festooned with all manner of eclectic art and décor. African masks, Asian tapestries, Grecian vases upon pedestals, and a variety of art that spanned the centuries and cultures of the world covered the walls. In her own head, Tessa wanted to exclaim over every piece of historical beauty, but tried to keep her roaming eyes on the reason she was there in the first place.
“Am I the only one coming tonight?” she asked.
“You are,” he replied coolly.
Tessa wasn’t sure what to say. She looked around once, feigning slight disinterest. “This place is pretty lit,” she commented with an approving nod. Over the past few months, she attempted to learn all the lingo of her generation and use it on a daily basis. Some phrases, though, she still didn’t quite understand.
Christopher looked upwards to the crystal chandelier. “Thank you. I make sure Harvey changes all the dead light bulbs as soon as I notice them. I can’t stand a dimly light room.”
Tessa laughed, knowing that the professor had no idea what she had just said. “I meant that your home looks nice.”
He recovered well and smiled. “Thank you. The dining room is this way. Nancy will have dinner ready soon.”
Tessa waited until his back was turned to grimace. She had already eaten a bowl of Ramen before coming and wasn’t the least bit hungry. At home, her parents kept her on a strict schedule of dinner being served at five o’clock and no later. And if she didn’t eat at five, then she didn’t eat at all.
The dining room was just down the hall and through a pair of oak doors. The walls were adorned in much the same way as the foyer, giving her eyes something new to feast on. The art seemed to be more medieval themed than the rest, focusing on the European region of the world. In the center was a long mahogany table with sixteen upholsters chairs pushed underneath. At one end of the table were two place settings, leaving the rest of the tabletop bare except for a few candlesticks and a runner woven with beautiful baroque designs.
Christopher led her to one of the place settings and pulled out the chair for her. She shouldn’t have been surprised by his gallantry, but she sat down and let him push the chair in after her. The place settings were complete with wine glasses, water glasses, teacup and saucer, plate, bowl, bread plate, and a slew of utensils on either side of her placemat.
It might have been intimidating to anyone else in her class, but not to her. Tessa had never attended formal parties like this, but she understood how to dine as if she owned three yachts and frequented golf clubs for brunch. Being a bookworm, she knew many things. So, she would have to play dumb.
“I really didn’t know what to expect,” she said as she let her clutch down on the floor at her feet and Christopher took the spot at the head of the table next to her.
“I suppose that’s my fault. I didn’t explain my intentions.”
“I would have dressed better if I knew this wasn’t a party.”
Christopher gave her another grand smile. “I suppose Harvey suspected you were a lady of the streets when he answered the door.”
“A what?” Tessa knew exactly what he was talking about.
Christopher looked as if he were struggling with the word, like he didn’t want to offend her. “Like a whore.”
Tessa didn’t react to the offensive word. “How do you know he wasn’t right assuming that?”
A smile crawled across his perfect lips. “I know you’re not.”
She shifted uncomfortably. Besides her little case of tongue-tied when they first met, her performance had been perfect. What was he seeing? “What could you possibly know about me?” she asked, taking this opportunity to flirt rather than display her nervousness.
Christopher leaned back in his chair and rested his elbows on the arms of the chair, folding his hands in his lap as if he were carrying on a philosophical conversation. “I can infer quite a bit about you.”
Tessa propped her own elbows on the table, forsaking the manners that had been ingrained in her since childhood and arched her back against the table to display her slim profile. With luck, her skirt would slip down just enough to show the edge of her thong for him. But, his eyes stayed fixed on hers.
“Like what?” she asked playfully, letting the edges of her mouth tilt up in a Cheshire grin.
“You can drop the act for one thing,” he replied. “You’re a poor actress and this is not a stage. No one is here to watch your performance.”
Tessa didn’t mean for her sharp intake of breath to be so audible. But, it was and like a mask being dropped from her face, the grin was gone and she sat back in her seat.
Suddenly, she felt naked in front of him and she wanted to be wearing a pair of comfortable jeans and a hoodie to cover every part of her body.
She had a choice to make. Either storm out, enraged that he would make such accusations at her, or drop it completely like he said and be herself for just one evening. It would have been refreshing to have an intellectual talk with someone who cared about more than shoes and cocktails.
“How did you know?” she asked, her voice soft and meek.
“I knew from the first moment I saw you,” he said. “I can read people surprisingly well based on the tiniest detail that most don’t even notice.” He gestured to her. “For instance, the way you looked back at your coworker when I walked in, as if looking for permission or help. You’re not a dominant person. And the way you stumbled over your words when talking to me that first time, it shows you weren’t comfortable with interaction. I saw you take deep breaths before trying to seduce me with your words. That told me you weren’t confident in what you were saying. Yet, through it all, you said those things and carried through with your solicitations.”
Tessa listened, fascinated by his use of language and psychological analysis. He was right. She never realized she did those things. Who else could see through her guise? How long would it be before she slipped up just once and ruined it all? She wouldn’t go down as the girl who pretended to be someone she wasn’t. Instead, she wanted to be the girl who remade herself and took control of her own identity.
“Then why did you ask me here? If you knew I wasn’t a whore, then there’s no point in me being here at all, is there?” Tessa could be just as blunt as Christopher.
He tilted his head in a way that she didn’t see many people do. It was almost animal-like. The way a dog might tilt its head when it heard something strange or intriguing. “I would hope that no respectable man invited you anywhere with that purpose in mind.”
Even though she was an imposter, a fraud, a phony, Christopher seemed to care for her somehow. She lowered her eyes to the empty soup bowl. “I’m still a virgin.”
It was an odd thing to admit, especially given what everyone knew about her. Every man who wanted to take advantage of her was drunk and she was able to put him off easily enough. She had her ways of slipping out of those situations before it got too serious. From what she observed, it was almost shameful to still be a virgin at her age while other girls were hooking up with strange men every night.
“That’s a relief.” Christopher sounded like he meant it. “I asked you here because I wanted to get to know you better and find out why you’re behaving this way.”
“I thought you were an professor of anthropology, not psychology.”
“And where did you hear that from?”
Tessa looked up, glad they were almost out of the dangerous conversation. “Michele, my coworker, she took your class a few years back. She said you taught anthropology. That’s the study of people groups and cultures, not the mind.”
Christopher reached out and twirled the wine glass stem between his fingers. “I’m knowledgeable about many things, not just anthropology.”
“But apparently you’re clueless about why a girl would behave the way I do, otherwise you wouldn’t have asked me here.”
Tessa felt slightly offended to know that he didn’t have any intention of taking her virginity or coercing her to do something for him. If there were a man out there who she wouldn’t mind crawling into bed with, it was Christopher.
“Precisely,” he replied. “But this is more than that. We have a lot in common, if you can believe that.”
He smiled and let out a long breath, his eyes never leaving her for a moment. “You should. We both hide our true selves from the rest of the world. If you let your walls down and let me see who you really are, I might return the favor.”
Tessa weighed the consequences quickly. If she did reveal herself, perhaps he would go telling the rest of the teachers at the college about her. Though that might not have been a bad thing, it might affect her image indirectly somehow. To let one person know, meant risking her exposure to the rest of the world. This was supposed to be a new start, a way for her to remake herself. But Christopher wanted to ruin that.
“Why would you want to do that?”
“For the same reasons you do. I’m tired of hiding and want a confidant.”
“Is that what your manservant is for?” she asked, trying not to sound sassy about it.
Christopher chuckled. “Harvey is a fine employee, but I wouldn’t share my secrets with him.”
“But you want to share those secrets with me?”
“If you’re willing.”
A long pause of silence filled the air and for a moment, she could hear the cook bustling about the adjoining kitchen. The dining hall needed soft piano music or something to fill the void. Tessa didn’t know what to think. Christopher didn’t want a girlfriend and he didn’t want a girl he could call up in the middle of the night for explicit favors. He wanted a friend, someone he could talk to. Perhaps in the long run, that was the safest. He was, after all, a professor at the same college and even though he didn’t look it, he must have been at least five to eight years older than her. Who knew what kind of laws that broke.
Then, Tessa wondered why this man, a professor and obvious gentleman, wanted to share any secrets with her at all. She couldn’t imagine that he had any. Though, there were many things she wondered about. Why was he interested in her? How could he afford this big house and butler? Did he have family? How did he learn to read people so well?
Only Michele knew about this meeting and she could make up whatever excuse she wanted to explain what happened tonight. Tessa would probably say that it was a party he invited her to, or they were supposed to meet but he stood her up somehow. She would tell Michele anything than what actually happened.
Tessa leveled a gaze on Christopher, taking in his handsome looks and arresting eyes. “I think we can arrange something.”