Chapter OneCorban Solsek's heart dropped and his stomach clenched tight when he saw the B on his sociology proposal. The shock of it made heat pour into his face and then recede in the wake of cold anger. He'd worked hard on this outline for his term project! He'd checked his information and sources, reviewed the methods by which he planned to present his ideas, and proposed a program. He should've received an A! What gives? Opening the folder, he glanced through the perfectly typed pages, looking for corrections, comments, anything that might give an indication of why he hadn't received what he knew he deserved.
Not one red check anywhere. No comment. Nothing.
Stewing, Corban flipped open his notebook, wrote the date, and tried to concentrate on the lecture. Several times Professor Webster looked straight at him as he spoke, singling him out from the other hundred and twenty students inhabiting the tiers of desks. Each time Corban stared back for a few seconds before looking down and scribbling some more notes. He had great respect for Professor Webster, which made the grade even harder to take.
I'll challenge him. I don't have to accept this without a fight. It wasn't a good proposal. It was excellent. He wasn't a mediocre student. He poured his heart and soul into his work, and he intended to make sure he was treated fairly. Hadn't his father instilled that in him?
"You have to fight for yourself, Cory. Don't let anybody kick you around. They kick you, kick 'em back harder. Knock 'em down and make sure they don't get up again. I didn't bring up my son to take any guff from anybody."
His father had worked his way to the top of a trucking company through hard labor and fierce determination. He'd done it all, from truck driver to mechanic to sales to administration to CEO, and finally to part owner of the company. He was proud of his accomplishments while at the same time embarrassed by his lack of formal education. He'd never gotten further than the sophomore year of high school. He'd quit to help support his mother and younger siblings after his father died of a massive heart attack.
The same kind of heart attack that killed him the year after he retired, leaving a wealthy widow and two sons and a daughter with healthy trust funds.
"Focus on where you're going," his father had always said. "Get into a good college. The best, if possible. Stick it out. Don't let anything or anyone get in your way. Get yourself a sheepskin from a big-name college and you're halfway up the ladder before you have your first job."
No way was Corban going to accept this grade. He'd worked too hard. It wasn't fair.
"Did you have something to say, Mr. Solsek?" Professor Webster stood staring at him from his podium.
Corban heard several students laugh softly. There was the rustle of papers and the creak of seats as others turned and looked back at him where he sat in the center middle row.
"Your pencil, Mr. Solsek," the professor said with an arched brow. "This isn't a percussion instrument class."
Corban's face flooded with heat as he realized he'd been tapping his pencil while his mind raced in agitation. "Sorry." He flipped it into the proper position for writing and aimed a quelling glance at two twittering coeds. How did those airheads make it into Berkeley anyway?
"Are we ready to proceed then, Mr. Solsek?" Professor Webster looked back at him with a faint smile.
Embarrassment melted into anger. The jerk's enjoying this. Now Corban had two reasons to feel indignant: the unfair grade and public humiliation. "Yes, sir, any time you are." He forced a dry smile and a pretense of calm disdain.
By the end of the lecture, the muscle in Corban's jaw ached from tension. He felt as though he had a two-ton elephant sitting on his chest. He took his time stuffing his notebook into the backpack already crammed with books and two small binders. Thankfully, the other students cleared out of the lecture hall in quick fashion. Only two or three paused to make any remarks to Professor Webster, who was now erasing the board. Corban kept the report folder in his hand as he walked down the steps toward the podium.
Professor Webster stacked his notes and tucked them into a file folder. "Did you have a question, Mr. Solsek?" he said, putting the folder into his briefcase and snapping it shut. He looked at Corban with those dark, shrewd eyes.
"Yes, sir." He held out his report. "I worked very hard on this."
"There wasn't a single correction."
"No need. What you had there was very well presented."
"Then why a B and not an A?"
Professor Webster rested his hand on the briefcase. "You have the makings of an excellent term paper from that proposal, Mr. Solsek, but you lacked one major ingredient."
How could that be? He and Ruth had both gone over the paper before he turned it in. He had covered everything. "Sir?"
"The human element."
"I beg your pardon?"
"The human element, Mr. Solsek."
"I heard you, sir. I just don't understand what you mean. The entire paper is focused on the human element."
"Is that so?"
Corban stifled his anger at Webster's sardonic tone. He forced himself to speak more calmly. "How would you suggest I make it more apparent, sir?" He wanted an A in this course; he wasn't going to accept less. Sociology was his major. He had maintained a 4.0 for three years. He wasn't going to break that perfect record now.
"A case study would help."
Corban flushed with anger. Obviously the professor hadn't read his paper carefully enough. "I incorporated case studies. Here. On page 5. And more here. Page 8." He had backed up everything he had proposed with case studies. What was Professor Webster talking about?
"Collected from various volumes. Yes, I know. I read your documentation, Mr. Solsek. What you lack is any personal contact with those who might be most affected by your proposed programs."
"You mean you want me to poll people on the street?" He couldn't keep the edge of disdain from creeping into his voice. How long would it take to develop a proper questionnaire? How many hundreds of people would he have to find to answer it? Wasn't that thesis work? He wasn't in graduate school. Not yet.
"No, Mr. Solsek. I'd like to see you develop your own case study. One would do."
"Just one, sir? But that-"
"One, Mr. Solsek. You won't have time for more. Add the human element and you'll earn the A you covet. I'm sure of it."
Corban wasn't quite sure what the professor was driving at, but he could sense an undercurrent of disapproval. Was it a personality clash? Did his ideas offend? How could that be? If the programs he proposed were ever put into practice, they'd solve a lot of current problems in government systems.
"Do you have anyone in your own family who might fit the lifestyle scenario you've presented, Mr. Solsek?"
"No, sir." His entire family lived in Connecticut and upstate New York, too far away to do the number of interviews he'd need for a paper. Besides that, his family had money. His father had broken the chain of middle-class mediocrity. Corban's paper zeroed in on those who were economically challenged. Nobody in his family depended on social security to survive. He thought of his mother living in Switzerland part of the year with her new investment-broker husband.
"Well, that presents a problem, doesn't it, Mr. Solsek?" Professor Webster lifted his briefcase from the table. "However, I'm quite sure you'll work it out."
"Quit grousing, Cory," Ruth said that afternoon in their shared apartment a few blocks off University Avenue. "It's simple. If you want an A, do what Professor Webster wants you to do. It's not like he's asking you to do something terrible." Raking her fingers through her straight, short black hair, she opened a cabinet in the kitchenette. "Are we out of coffee filters again?"
"No, there are plenty. Look in the cabinet to the left of the sink."
"I didn't put them there," she said, closing the cabinet where she'd been searching.
"I did. Made better sense. The coffeepot is right underneath where the outlet is. I moved the mugs too. They're on the shelf above the coffee and filters."
Ruth sighed. "If I'd realized how difficult you are, I would've had second thoughts about moving in with you." She took the can of coffee and pack of filters down from the cabinet.
"One case study." Cory tapped his pencil. "That's all I need."
He frowned. "Why a woman?"
"Because women are more ready to talk, that's why." She made a face. "And don't ever tell my advocacy friends I said that."
"A woman, then. Fine. What woman?"
"Someone with whom you can develop some rapport," Ruth said, adding a fifth heaping scoop of French roast to the basket.
"I don't need to get that personal."
"Sure you do. How do you suppose you'll get answers to the kind of questions you want if you don't make friends with your subject?"
"I haven't got time to develop a friendship, Ruth."
"It doesn't have to be lifelong, you know. Just long enough to finish your paper."
"I've got a few months. That's it. All I need is someone who meets my criteria and who'll be willing to cooperate."
"Oh, I'm sure that'll impress Professor Webster."
"So, what do you suggest?"
"Simple. Offer an incentive."
"Money, you mean?"
"No, not money. Don't be so dense, Cory."
It annoyed him when she spoke to him in that condescending way. He tapped his pencil again, saying nothing more. She glanced back at him and frowned slightly. "Don't look so ticked, Cory. All you have to do is offer services in exchange for information."
He gave a hard laugh. "Sure. What kind of services could I offer?"
She rolled her eyes. "I hate it when you're in one of these moods. You can't be such a perfectionist in this world. Good grief, Cory. Just use your imagination. You've got one, haven't you?"
Her tone grated. He leaned back in his chair, shoving his proposal away from him on the table, wishing he had taken a different avenue with his project. The prospect of having to talk with people made him nervous, although he wasn't about to admit that to Ruth. She had a double major in marketing and telecommunications. She could talk to anybody, anytime, on any subject. Of course, it also helped to have a photographic memory.
"Quit stewing about it." Ruth shook her head as she poured herself a cup of black coffee. "Just go down to the supermarket and help some little old lady carry her groceries home."
"With my luck, she'll think I'm some mugger after her purse." He took up his pencil and started tapping it. "Better if I go through some community organization."
"There. You came up with a solution." She leaned down to kiss him on the lips, then took his pencil away and tucked it behind her ear as she straightened. "I knew you'd figure it out."
"What about dinner?" he said as she moved away from him. "It's your night to cook."
"Oh, Cory. I can't. I'm sorry, but you know how long it takes me to put a meal together. If I'm going to do it, I have to do it right, and I've got two hundred pages of reading and some materials to review before a test tomorrow."
No less than what he had to do most nights.
She paused in the doorway. Leaning against the jamb, she gave him a winsome smile, her dark hair framing her perfect, oval face. She had such beautiful dark eyes and the kind of smile toothpaste advertisers liked on billboards. Her skin was flawless, like an English lady's. Not to mention the rest of her from the neck down. Ruth Coldwell came in a very nice package, and underneath it all, she was smart. Not to mention ambitious.
One date was all it had taken for Cory to know she was a match for him. Even more so after the second date and a passionate night in his apartment. She made his head spin and sent his hormones into overdrive. A month after their first date, he was having trouble concentrating on his work and wondering what he was going to do about it. Then providence had smiled on him. Ruth had spilled out her money worries to him over coffee. In tears, she said she didn't know where she was going to get enough money to finish the semester. He suggested she move in with him.
"Really?" Her beautiful brown eyes had glistened with tears. "You're serious?" She'd made him feel like a knight in shining armor saving a lady in distress. Money was no problem for him.
"I don't know, Cory ..."
"Why not?" Once he made up his mind, it was a matter of finding the best way to achieve his goal.
"Because we haven't known one another very long," she had said, troubled.
"What don't you know about me that you need to know?"
"Oh, Cory. I feel as though I've known you all my life, but it's a big step."
"I don't see that it would change much. We spend every spare minute together as it is. We're sleeping together. Save time if we lived together."
"It's sort of serious. Like getting married. And I'm not ready for that, Cory. I don't even want to think about marriage at this stage in my life. I have too many things I need to do first."
The word marriage had sent a chill through him. He wasn't ready for that kind of commitment either. "No strings," he had said and meant it. "We'll share expenses and chores right down the middle. How's that?" He grimaced now as he remembered saying it. But then, he'd said a lot of things to convince her. "It'd cut expenses for both of us." Although money was no problem for him, he had been worried about hurting her pride.
She'd moved in the next afternoon.
They'd been living together for six months, and sometimes he found himself wondering ...
Ruth came back into the kitchen and leaned down to kiss him again. "You have that look again. I know it's my turn to cook. I can't help the way things fall sometimes, Cory. School comes first. Didn't we agree on that?" She raked her fingers lightly through the hair at the back of his neck. Her touch still made his blood warm. "Why don't you order some Chinese food?"
Last time she'd called in an order, it had cost him thirty bucks. It wasn't the money that bothered him. It was the principle. "I think I'll go out and have some pizza."
Straightening, she grimaced. "Whatever you want," she said with a shrug.
He knew she didn't like pizza. Whenever he ordered it, she ate it grudgingly, pressing a paper towel over her slice to soak up the grease. "I need my pencil," he said as she headed toward the doorway again.
"What a grouch." She took it from behind her ear and tossed it
onto the table.