ONE AMONG MEN
A hard, metal clank sounded from the high-rise stairwell. Samantha stilled her paintbrush at the mural on the cinderblock wall, heart thrumming in her chest. Being winter break, the Calvert Hall dormitory was supposed to be empty. She glanced toward the flyer on the end table reminding residents about the serial rapist who plagued the campus since last fall. A chill raced down her spine.
She listened for another sound.
Nothing. Almost too much nothing.
Taking in a breath, she stepped back and scanned her new home—a testament to the fact that four dorm rooms could be combined and made into an apartment. Two on one side of the hall became bedrooms. The other two joined to make a kitchen, dining and living room in one space. Large, industrial blinds shaded the cinderblock-encased windows, and Facilities-issued furniture sat on the gray tile floor. Hard and sterile, making every click in the cavernous building echo like ghosts of Christmas past—bad Christmases.
An edge cut through her nerves. She’d already questioned coming back to Maryland State University for grad school, after having been extracted from the prodigal life that had flourished there. Could this living arrangement really have been God’s answer to covering her mounting tuition expenses?
The haunting keyboard strokes of Jason Mraz’s song, “Plane,” coming from the old CD player Sam’s mother had given her the year before she died filled her with even more angst. Deep breaths. A maelstrom—that’s what she headed for. The only woman living in a building with five hundred, hard-partying, college guys. And an all-male resident-assistant staff, who had more experience than she did, questioning her every move.
She glanced to the ceiling. “What are you doing with me, Lord?”
Janet had told Sam she lived from a spirit of fear. She needed to give her burdens to Christ. Janet never elaborated on how to actually do that, so after taking one last listen for the noise and hearing nothing remotely human, Sam ramped up the volume on her boom box to drown out her overactive imagination. The clank was probably just the blustering, January wind at the metal side door, anyway. Besides, her apartment was locked tight. Both locks. She was safe.
She pulled off her button-front shirt, leaving only her navy tank. Lucinda, her new boss, told her the building’s heat had one setting—unbearably hot. No kidding. Sweat already gathered at her neck.
Sam wiped her paint-strewn fingers on her favorite, well-worn jeans, noting how the tempera from her sunrise-over-mesas mural mingled with the oil-paint stains from a previous masterpiece. The corners of her mouth tugged into a smile. This was the only time her attention-deficit disorder made sense. She’d get lost in her painting. No need to think about strokes, colors or techniques, only the way the images enveloped her. She could feel the bitter cold of the desert night melting from the blazing sun that peeked above the horizon.
But fear skittered through her like a scorpion on the desert floor. Fear of disdain for the faith that ran counter to the university’s protocol. Fear of temptation into a past she’d rather forget. And now, fear of a supposedly empty building echoing nothingness.
Give it to God.
She squirted white tempera into a puddle of blue, hoping to meld into the colors and soar through the azure sky she painted. Her muscles released. She loved to create. Pride swelled in her chest as she backed toward the living-room entrance to get a larger view of the cinderblock canvas.
Mraz’s melancholic tune absorbed her in its full-fledged decibels, singing of lost loves, loneliness, and plummeting planes. Sam could relate. Backing some more, she crashed into a large, masculine form.
Strong hands gripped her. She cried out as she struggled to get free—no luck. Her screams were overtaken by the loud music in the empty dorm. She was on her own. Sam speared her elbow into the intruder. The blow was blocked. She pivoted and thrust her palm toward his nose. He caught it. Brown eyes intense. Gaze piercing. She’d crush his toe with her heel. But his foot slid back, and pinned hers with a heavy boot.
Could he read her mind?
His lips moved, but Sam couldn’t understand his taunts over the blaring melody.
Her attacker stretched his arm around her. She tried to wrestle free. But his arm did not encircle her or thrust her close. Still holding her hand in his strong, calloused grip, he reached for the CD player.
The music stopped. Silence claimed the room.
He blew out an exasperated sigh. “Please. I’m not gonna hurt you.” His eyes pleaded, like the sound of his voice.
Yeah right. “Then let go of me.” Sam managed strength from her vocal chords as her panicked breaths came heavy and hard.
His attention moved from her tethered limb to her face. “Only if you promise not to shove the cartilage from my nose into my brain.” Was that a smirk playing on his lips?
Sam’s brow tensed. Of course she would. “Promise.”
Didn’t mean she’d keep it.
Her gaze slid down from the young man’s face as he lowered her hand and released it. A toolbox sat at his feet. “I’m here from Facilities to fix the outlets in the bedrooms.”
She looked him over, still trembling. Blond hair strayed from his ponytail. “How’d you get in?”
“Facilities masters.” The ring of keys jangled as he held them up. “I knocked, but no one answered. Don usually doesn’t mind when I let myself in.” He swiveled his head around. “Where is Don, anyway?”
Sam ignored his reference to the resident director who’d quit mid-year at the last minute. She needed hard-core proof this guy was legit. “Where’s your ID?”
He dropped his attention to the graphic t-shirt, under his open khaki coat and shook his head. “I don’t have it. Don knows who I am.”
Should she believe him? Her muscles remained at the ready. “Don doesn’t work here anymore.”
He stepped forward. “He quit?”
Sam thrust a fierce finger in his direction as she inched toward the phone on the kitchen counter. “I’m calling Facilities. Don’t. You. Move.” She tapped a staccato beat with the digit at each word, picked up the receiver and pressed the on button. Then … “What’s the number?”
What else could go wrong?
“Ma’am, I’d rather you act in a completely safe manner.” His voice traveled from conciliatory to condescending. “I’ll step out the door, and you can call the number in your Resident Life Directory over there.”
She flipped her head around to see where he was pointing. “Where?”
“Right on that shelf.” He waved his finger, like an impatient schoolmarm.
She rummaged through the stack of standard-issue phone books, manuals and directories, shaking her head. If only the ADD didn’t make it so hard for her to think under stress. Her mind whirred and everything took on a blur.
The stranger inched closer, gesturing to see if it was okay. Sam kept her distance, though the threat seemed to dissipate. He grasped the large red and white book with the Maryland State University logo emblazoned across it, flipped through the pages and pointed to a number as he pushed the directory toward her. “This one here.”
“Thank you.” She managed an apologetic smile. After all, the minute before, she’d tried to throttle him.
He mirrored her expression. “I’ll be right out here.”
Sam punched in the number to Facilities, asked if any work was ordered, and what the man looked like who was sent to do the job. The voice on the phone described him. “Young guy, about six foot, wavy blonde hair pulled into a stubby ponytail, and jeans with a few extra holes in them.” His gruff voice chuckled at the last description.
She sighed. Not a rapist. But something about him didn’t compute. How did he know exactly how to subdue her self-defense? Shaking off the thought, she strode to the door to let the guy in.
Chris stood in the second-floor hallway tapping his toe. What an idiot, not bringing his ID. The woman was totally freaked. Especially after he grabbed her to keep her from tripping over his toolbox.
The door swung open.
“Thank you for being so understanding.” She led him back into the living room.
“Thanks for not maiming or killing me.” He chuckled nervously, knowing full well that was her intent. Where’d she learn those moves, anyway?
She pivoted toward him. “I thought you were working in the bedrooms.”
He stopped close. “I am, but I need to check the outlets in all the rooms.” What was that scent that dogged him? Like a toasted almond ice-cream bar. His stomach growled. Now, he wished he’d had that snack before he came.
She picked up her paints and climbed on a step stool, brushing new colors onto the wall, peeking now and then with a wary eye.
He nodded toward the mural. “Plus, I wanted to get another look at your painting. Are you an art student?”
“No, just got inspired.” A hint of pride shone from her eyes, before she shot him another watchful glare.
He shook his head and whispered, “Wow.” Chris scanned the massive play of colors in the sunrise that peeked over desert mesas. He took off his coat, knelt by the outlet and pulled a receptacle tester from his toolbox.
Maybe conversation would smooth her jagged edges. “So, are you married to the new resident director or just a girlfriend?” He inserted the tester into the outlet. Weak connection.
“Neither.” She blended the blue of the sky with the orange light of the sunrise.
He pulled out his screwdriver and took off the outlet cover. “Sister?”
“Nope. I am the new RD.”
He stood. Was she kidding? “This is an all-male building.”
“Yes.” She strung out the word as if it was an obvious statement.
“Well, and you’re a female.” He decided to play into her obvious game.
“I know that.”
“They hired you to run and live in an all-male building?” He didn’t care how progressive the university thought they should be, one woman plus five-hundred college guys just didn’t add up. Did they know what goes through a guy’s mind when he sees a female in a clingy tank top, and those fitted jeans? Living alone among them? What would her staff of RAs—especially Preacher—say about it? “Not right.”
The lady RD slapped her paintbrush onto her plastic plate. “First of all, I didn’t ask for this building. I wanted the all-female dorm opening. No males applied for the position and being mid-year they didn’t have time for another search, so they put me here.” She thrust the paintbrush in his direction, blue paint splattering from the tip. “But if you don’t think I can handle it just because I’m a woman”—her shoulders bunched—“you’re … well … you’re wrong.”
So much for smoothing jagged edges. “No. I didn’t say you couldn’t handle it. I just don’t think it’s right.” Not wanting to expose Miss Innocent to the herd mentality of the college, male mind, he chose not to elaborate. He could only imagine the kinds of things that would be said about a woman living here.
Then, his mind shot to Drake and his “biz-ness.” Foreboding trapped him like a vat of hardening plaster. Would she be one of those overzealous women out to prove herself, only to get mixed up in that? That was the last thing he needed. He had only a few months left to make things happen. He’d never get his life back if she slowed things down. “Actually, I’m not sure I do think a woman can handle a building full of college guys.”
She looked away for a moment and drew in a breath. Uncertainty seemed to pass through her eyes before she lifted her chin, and turned her glower on him. “Why? You don’t think I can understand the male plight?”
He knelt at an outlet and tightened some loose connections. “It’s just that …” He struggled for the right words. Some things she wouldn’t understand. Others she shouldn’t know. “… men and women are different.”
Her sardonic gaze met his. “Oh yeah? Tell me, philosopher, how, other than the obvious anatomical anomalies, are men and women different?”
He looked at the multitude of colors in the painting. Was she serious? “Well, first of all, a man wouldn’t paint a sunrise on his living-room wall.”
She waved her paintbrush in the air. “He might if he was an art student.” Did she even notice the blue flecks landing in her hair? They gave her a sort of colorful quality.
“Maybe. But we’ve already established that you’re not an art student.” He tossed his screwdriver into his toolbox with a clank. “What are you studying, anyway?”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Oh nothing.” Chris envisioned the grim faces of all the counselors his mother had taken him to because she said he’d become rebellious. If his father had gotten the help he needed, the rest of the family wouldn’t have had to go.
“Second of all, men don’t listen to whole CDs of Mraz.” At least not the guys I hang out with. “He’s just for chicks.”
“You don’t like Jason Mraz?”
He lifted a shoulder. “Couple of tunes, but I download the few I like.”
She closed her eyes in a heavy blink. “And?”
His mind ran through all the reasons a single female shouldn’t live in an all-male dorm—especially this one—but he couldn’t voice them to this woman. All that came out were clichés. “Men don’t ‘go shopping’ with friends. They go to the store to get what they need and they’re done. Surgical strike.” Oh boy, that was brilliant. “Guys drink to get drunk, not to share their feelings more openly with friends.” Another lame statement—he’d seen plenty of girls get wasted here, but he wasn’t comfortable explaining that these guys would only view her as a piece of meat. He shook his head. He wouldn’t want any of his sisters roaming these halls, late at night. He would never have let them.
“You know …” She stared at him with a salty expression. “I’ve had a lot of guy friends, and we ‘shared’”—she gestured the quotes—“a lot of things … including our …”—she peeked around as if saying a dirty word— “our feelings.”
“Let me ask you something.” He clapped his toolbox shut and stepped closer. “Out of your four closest guy friends, how many did you want to date?”
The young woman shifted her attention to her mural. She had a streak of yellow paint running along her chin. Chris suppressed the urge to take the towel from her shoulder and wipe it off.
“And out of the remainder,”—he eased nearer—“how many wanted to date you?”
She pivoted toward him, the blue paintbrush perilously close to his face. “I had one guy friend who I didn’t want to date, and he didn’t want to date me—Hah!” Her shoulders jerked and the towel fell to the ground.
“You wanna bet?”
Her eyes grew soft and searching. “You think that’s all there is between men and women?”
“I don’t know.” Chris bent to pick up the towel, but the woman swiveled just as he straightened, and he collided with her paint-filled, plastic plate, knocking her off balance. She toppled backward off the step stool. Chris instinctively placed his left hand at the small of her back, using his right hand at her hip to steady her. He drank in the scent of toasted almond spiced with tempera paint. Lunch couldn’t come too soon.
The lady RD caught her breath and looked into his eyes. Her blue irises didn’t waver. He got lost in them as he lifted the towel to wipe the paint off her chin. His hand stopped midway, gesturing to the yellow line. “You’ve got paint on your face.”
She slid it from his grasp and wiped her cheek.
“No. Right there.” He pointed to her chin.
She traced her straight, brown hair behind her ear and wiped a little lower, peering at him as if to ask if she got it.
He shook his head and drew his index finger along the line of her jaw. Her skin was soft and smooth.
She flinched, then wiped off the paint. “Thank you.”
Chris stood for a moment as she brushed a rich, clay color into one of the mesas.
He stepped back and turned to his work, strangely unsettled. “I just think it’ll be harder for a woman to be seen as a serious authority figure in a building full of over-ripe testosterone.”
The lady RD kept her attention to the wall and harrumphed.
“I guess I better shut my trap and get back to work. Just have to check the switches in the bedrooms.” He left the room.
Twenty minutes later, Chris packed up his tools and left the apartment without looking into the living room. The lady RD filled his mind. Something rattled him, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. She was not his concern. He had very important reasons for being at Resident Life, and this woman would not get in his way.