Chapter 1

 

“I LOOK like a kid playing dress-up in his daddy’s suit.” I spoke the words aloud as I stared at my image in the mirror. I was too skinny, the suit too boxy. I hadn’t planned to don the suits until classes started next week, but today I had to do damage control. The suit was step one. It was overkill, absolutely. A lot of professors didn’t wear suits, and they especially didn’t wear suits on nonschool days when their only responsibility was to set up their offices.

But after the fiasco of an interview with the student magazine, I desperately needed to make up some lost ground.

They told me it was going to be a “meet-the-faculty” article, a chance to introduce the newest professor in the biology department. It turned into an exposé about the geeky child-genius who believed in myths and magic.

Admittedly, I was a bit of a geek.

And sure, I’d earned my PhD by the time I turned twenty.

But I absolutely did not believe in myths and magic.

I glanced at my phone, where the display showcased Cody College’s e-magazine with the banner headline “Chasing Thunderbird: New Professor, Dr. Simon Coleman, Seeks to Prove Existence of Mythical Creature.”

Thunderbirds, I told myself, were not a myth. I ran water over my comb, then tried to flatten the pale blond spikes of my hair in an attempt to look a little older, a little more professional.

Technically thunderbirds were cryptids, which were entirely different than fictitious beasts. Just because scientific evidence did not yet exist to support the existence of the massive birds didn’t mean they weren’t real. There was plenty of anecdotal evidence, some of which came from my own family, to suggest otherwise. It was hard enough to be taken seriously as a scientist when I didn’t look old enough to vote without adding “believes in fairy tales” to the mix. Cryptozoology was a personal interest of mine, but enough people considered it at best a pseudoscience, and at worst drug-induced imaginings, that I’d intended to keep my research and my family history private.

But that poor excuse for a journalist managed to dig up my family’s sadly overpublicized quest. I could state unequivocally that I was never going to be a fan of the reporter—a junior journalism major named David Sherman.

Which all led to me wearing an unflattering suit in a dingy bathroom on the third floor of the science building, trying to find a way to salvage my reputation.

I dropped the comb into the sink, straightening my shoulders. I smoothed my hands down the lapels of the starchy gray fabric. I could do this. Impressing college faculty was something I’d been doing for the last decade.

My closet-sized office was shoved into the farthest corner of the third floor of the Reynolds Sciences building, surrounded by abandoned storage areas, as far from the stairway as possible. Not convenient. Not welcoming. In fact, it was very cupboard-under-the-stairs, a la Harry Potter.

I wonder if that makes Dr. Tierney Uncle Vernon?

My phone pinged, the alarm I’d set to make sure I made it to my meeting with Dr. Tierney, the biology department chair, on time. Wouldn’t want to be late to my ass-chewing.

I escaped the rust- and mildew-decorated bathroom and made my way down the dim hallway. Did I mention the flickering lights that almost illuminated the dingy hallway?

I ignored the elevator, dashing down the stairs to the well-lit second level, where the rest of the faculty offices were located. My shoes squeaked on the polished tile flooring. I glanced down and cringed. Damn it. I’d worn my red Converse high-tops. I’d been so busy fuming about that stupid article, I hadn’t paid any attention to which shoes I put on. Needless to say, red Converse high-tops did not convey the professional, responsible, grown-up image I’d been shooting for.

Hopefully Dr. Tierney wouldn’t notice. During my interview, Dr. Tierney had come off as dour and disapproving, with a piercing, eagle-like stare. He hadn’t seemed very impressed with my, honestly, pretty impressive credentials. In fact, if they hadn’t been desperately in need of a last-minute replacement professor who could start in February for the spring semester, I don’t think they’d have hired me at all.

Strange to think fate—or more accurately a faculty member’s stroke—opened up a position for me in exactly the right place at the right time. Of course, it meant I had to deal with Dr. Tierney’s disapproving scowl on a regular basis.

I sucked in a deep breath, then stepped into the outer office of the chair of the biology department. The beak-nosed secretary, with crow-black hair pulled into an unflattering low ponytail, looked up from her computer monitor. “Yes?”

“I’m here to see Dr. Tierney.” There. That sounded appropriately professorish, right?

“He’s expecting you, Dr. Coleman.” She returned her gaze to the monitor.

I guessed that meant I was supposed to just walk in?

I tugged the hem of my jacket and reached for the handle. You got this, I told myself, swinging the door open. Tierney wasn’t alone in the office. I didn’t have time to worry that Tierney was including someone else in the ass-chewing I expected to get. I was too busy tripping over my inappropriate Converse shoes at the sheer magnificence of the guy slouching in front of Tierney. He was beautiful in the way the mountains were beautiful—a little dark, a little mysterious, a little dangerous. He was clearly Native American, with his rich dark skin, high sharp cheekbones, and sloping nose. His hair was black, but not the kind of black I was used to seeing. The harsh lights of Dr. Tierney’s office weren’t reflected in the elbow-length mass. Instead, it was like the blackness absorbed the light, kind of like a bad black dye job, flat and unnatural. Somehow I didn’t think he was the type to dye his hair. Why I was so certain of that, I had no idea. Maybe it was the completely generic jeans and a black T-shirt he wore. Boring. Practical. Neither of which screamed of a high likelihood for hair dye.

I must have stared too long, because both Dr. Tierney and the other guy watched me expectantly and, I realized, a little resentfully.

I cleared my throat and straightened my suit jacket. Both actions completely useless if my goal was to meet Dr. Tierney as an equal, professor-to-professor. Unfortunately, his unimpressed look made it quite clear we were not equals, and the fidgeting only made it more obvious.

“Mr. Coleman.” Tierney nodded to the chair next to the gorgeous man across from him. “Have a seat.”

“Dr. Coleman,” I corrected automatically. He might think me some kind of juvenile upstart, but I’d worked my ass off for my PhD. I wouldn’t let him belittle my credentials, especially not in front of a stranger. “But please, call me Simon,” I conceded.

A salt-and-pepper brow winged up, even as Tierney gave the minutest nod in acknowledgment.

That moment of bravado over, I settled into the second guest chair, then immediately wanted to scoot myself away from the man next to me. Power, an almost physical force, surged around him. Nothing wimpy like static that would raise a small sprinkling of goose bumps on my arm. No, this was overwhelming, like standing next to a man-sized speaker at a death metal concert. It felt like something writhed under my skin. Not painful, but a little uncomfortable in its unexpectedness.

“This is Ford Whitney, one of our graduate students.”

It took me a moment to clear the fuzz in my brain and realize Tierney was introducing me to the guy next to me. Ford. The name fit him. Strong. Straightforward. Sexy.

I needed to stop that kind of thinking right now. The strikes were already piling up against me. Lustful thoughts about one of the grad students was a big no-no.

“Nice to meet you.” I reached out to shake his hand.

He watched me with hooded dark eyes, hesitating before reaching out with his own hand. Those eyes widened a second later when our palms met and that same force I’d felt coming off him buzzed between us. His fingers tightened convulsively for a second; then the energy, or static electricity or whatever it was, dissipated. One second it was tingling through me, the next it was just gone.

I almost regretted the loss. What had felt odd and wrong before had become pleasant, almost energizing.

Ford pulled his hand away, and I folded mine in my lap, hopefully hiding the residual trembling.

Tierney, apparently oblivious to whatever had happened between Ford and me, leaned forward, bracing his arms on his desk. “I assume you’ve seen the article?”

That was right. That damned article. I focused on the situation at hand. Recovering my slightly battered—if currently ridiculed—reputation as a professional scientist was the priority. “Yes, sir. I can assure you—”

He didn’t let me finish. “What I don’t understand is, given the very tenuous position you are in, why you would risk everything for a bit of sensationalism. During our interviews you assured me that your family’s… disgrace… would not impact your position here. This department, this university, cannot afford an assistant professor who makes himself, and therefore this department and this university, a laughingstock.”

I took advantage of his pause for breath. “I’m as surprised by this article as you are. At no point during the e-zine’s interview did he ask about my family’s interest in thunderbirds. And I certainly didn’t mention it.”

Ford stirred next to me but said nothing, so I assumed he’d read the article too. I still didn’t understand his presence here. He was a student, not a professor, so it seemed unlikely he was typically called in for these kinds of meetings.

“I trust the department’s expectations are clear in this matter?”

Oh yeah. Crystal clear. I nodded.

“Ford has been assigned as your teaching assistant for the semester. He’ll have weekly office hours and assist with the introductory ecology courses on your schedule. He can also lead advanced discussions and field exercises in the graduate ornithology courses.”

Not only was Ford a TA, which automatically meant hands-off, but he was my TA? That made my reactions to him even more inappropriate. At least it answered the question as to why he was here today. Not that it made me appreciate him being witness to the dressing-down Tierney had given me.

“I look forward to working with him.” Because what else was I supposed to say?

“Ford is an experienced surveyor. Be sure to take him with you whenever you go out in the field. The land around here can be treacherous, especially this time of year.”

I opened my mouth to object; I was an experienced surveyor too. I could handle myself in any terrain. I’d spent one summer working in the rainforests of Brazil, and another in the Carpathian Mountains. I could handle Wyoming. “Every time,” Tierney stressed before I could form the words. “I know you have plans to work with the Bureau of Land Management on their Raptor Migration Mapping project. Ford’s been assigned to that project too, so it should be convenient. As long as you are connected to Cody College, you will be required to take Ford or another authorized guide with you.”

That wasn’t good. Not good at all. Oh, if I was only going to be mapping the migration patterns of raptors, it would be fine. Having company, especially knowledgeable and, I could admit, attractive company would be a bonus. But I had ulterior motives for working on the BLM project.

Three months ago a large unidentified bird was spotted outside Cody. A bird, if reports could be believed, that exceeded the Andean condor in size. The descriptions didn’t match any known species of bird. The descriptions did match, however, a bird I’d read about for years in my great-great-grandfather’s notes.

A thunderbird had been sighted in Wyoming, and I was going to prove it.

A hunky TA-slash-babysitter would only get in the way.

 

 

TEN INTERMINABLE minutes later, I headed back to my third-floor office with Ford Whitney at my side. Though Tierney phrased it as a suggestion, he basically ordered Ford and me to spend some time “getting to know each other.” He’d also volunteered Ford’s services to help me get my office in order.

As we started the ascent to the third floor, Ford spoke directly to me for the first time. “So, thunderbirds?” My insides twisted in a not unpleasant way at the rough sound of the words. Figured his voice would match his dark, dangerous, and, all right, sexy appearance.

“Yes. It’s sort of a family interest.” Then, to distract him from that line of questioning, I dove into the basics of University Social Interaction 101—Conversation Starters for Even the Most Awkward and Introverted Academic. “You’re a grad student? What’s your area?”

He flicked a stream of dark hair back over his shoulder, a movement I’d once thought was one of those tricks only women were any good at. There was nothing feminine about it when Ford did it. And I really had to steer clear of that kind of thinking.

“Modern raptor migration.”

One of my fellowships dealt with something similar. “That’s great. How far along are you?”

“I’m starting my last year. Two semesters left.”

I nodded. “I take it you’re writing your master’s thesis, then?”

He tucked his hands into his pockets, the movement emphasizing the breadth of his shoulders. He was built like Michael Phelps, all long limbs and loose joints. He was a good six inches taller than my own five ten, and I wondered if he, like the amazing Phelps, was a swimmer. That would be one way to account for those miles of shoulders.

And once again, my mind was going in the absolute wrong direction. Focusing on academia had never been a problem for me. It shouldn’t be a problem for me now. Especially since I had to find a way to avoid my beautiful new babysitter if I ever intended to get anywhere with my search for the thunderbird that was sighted. “What’s your thesis?”

We’d reached the third-floor hallway with its flickering lights. Shadows coalesced in corners where the dim fluorescence didn’t reach. Those same shadows seemed to reach out to Ford, shrouding his features. At least until the lights flickered again, brightened, and chased the shadows away.

“Differential Migration of Five Species of Raptors in Northwestern Wyoming.”

Interest piqued, I pushed open my office door and gestured for Ford to take a seat. A seat which was, I realized, buried in books. “Just a sec.” I rushed ahead of him and grabbed the stack of antique encyclopedias that were piled on the chair. I turned in place, looking for a good place to deposit them. Giving up on an appropriate location, I squatted and settled them on the floor next to the beat-up bookshelf that barely fit in the narrow closet of an office I’d been given.

I stood up and turned, coming chest-to-chest with Ford. He’d been standing much closer to me than I’d expected. I took an instinctive step back, and my heel hit the stack of encyclopedias. Which, of course, sent me tripping back, arms windmilling wildly in an effort to not fall on my ass. Or into the bookshelf. Or, well, at all.

Ford’s strong hands clamped on to my upper arms, pulled me to his broad, coffee-scented chest, and kept me from crashing. It was the near miss that caused my spinning head and tripping heart, not the grip of those hands or the press of his chest. Sure.

“You smell like coffee.” I inhaled, ignoring the inappropriate intimacy and the embarrassment part of me knew I should have felt. Man, he really did smell like coffee. And that, coupled with the green tea scent of whatever he used to wash his hair, was the sexiest thing.

The weird force or pressure surrounding Ford I’d imagined earlier seemed to surge around him again. Fingers kneading my biceps, he sucked in a deep breath, and the phantom energy field, or whatever it was, receded. My imagination was getting away from me, that was for sure. While I’d been accused a time or two in the past of having a vivid imagination—usually by people who disapproved of my forays into cryptozoology—I’d never had the thought about myself before.

Ford pushed me away, though he waited to make sure I was steady on my feet before he released his hold on my arms. “I’m a barista at Buddy’s.”

It took a full thirty seconds for my unusually jumbled brain to make the connection between his comment and my previous statement. Right. Coffee smell. Barista. Logical connection.

“Speaking of,” he said when a chime sounded from his pocket. He pulled out his phone and checked the display. “I have to head out or I’m going to be late for work. Is it okay if we go through the schedule and your expectations for me as your teaching assistant on Monday?”

I scrubbed my hands along the thighs of my suit pants, grimacing at the rough texture. “Oh yeah, that’d be fine.” I took the single step forward necessary to bring me to my desk and sifted through a stack of notebooks and folders until I found my new planner. No matter how convenient a digital planner was, and no matter how many devices I could sync it to, I did best with paper-and-pencil calendars.

I scanned the list of appointments. “My first class isn’t until Tuesday, and I have two meetings in the afternoon on Monday, but nothing until then. Can you come by about nine or ten?”

“Nine works.” Ford nodded, tapping something into his phone. Our appointment, presumably. Then he hissed between his teeth and glared at his screen.

“Problem?”

“Battery died.” He shoved the phone back into his pocket.

I grinned. “One of the reasons I haven’t made the complete transition away from paper yet.” I indicated my planner. “My planner keeps me organized, but still need my phone for the alarms and reminders.”

He rubbed his right thumb across the tips of his other fingers like he was soothing a small sting or shock. He noticed me watching him and jammed his hands into his pockets. “Yeah, well, I’d better go. I’ll see you on Monday, then, Dr. Coleman.”

“Simon,” I corrected, then bit my cheek. Ford and I weren’t supposed to be buddies; he was student, a subordinate. “No need to be formal before classes have even started.” It was lame, but hopefully he’d let it go. Maybe I’d luck out and he wouldn’t wonder about the dichotomy of my telling him this after I emphasized the Doctor with Tierney less than half an hour ago.

He shrugged—whether in agreement or simple acknowledgment, I didn’t know. On his way out, he paused in the doorway. “A little advice? Ditch the suit if you want to be taken seriously. That look,” he said, gesturing to the scratchy gray fabric I wore, “will only convince students that you’re trying too hard.”

When I was alone in my office, I glanced down at my clothes. Yep. The damned suit was going to the farthest reaches of my closet, only to be dragged out for important meetings with rich alumni. The shoes could stay, though. Maybe.

The lights in my office flickered, and I rolled my eyes. If I didn’t know better, I’d think I wasn’t welcome at Cody College. Not that it mattered. I’d put up with rusty bathroom fixtures and flickering lights if it got me one step closer to proving thunderbirds were more than mythology. I’d put up with a lot if it would help restore my family’s reputation, and we were running out of time. Grandpa was running out of time.