Chapter One


MACON PINNEY didn’t eavesdrop on purpose. His office door was open only because he had office hours, and if he didn’t keep his door open, the chair sent him passive-aggressive e-mails about not “contributing to the welcoming atmosphere of helpfulness” in the department. According to the chair, students were intimidated by closed office doors. Macon didn’t give a rat’s ass whether students were intimidated or not, but he did care about not getting cornered in the faculty lounge and lectured about “developing an attitude of receptiveness” again when he was trying to heat up lunch. So he dutifully kept his door open during his office hours and shut it the rest of the time. Sound carried in the suite of faculty offices, and his colleagues tended to be chatty.

On this particular day, Macon could hear his neighbor on the right deep in conversation with another of their colleagues. Dr. Derek Chandler was the resident Shakespearean scholar, although he occasionally branched out to teach classes on other authors, ranging from the medieval to Tudor eras. Once, Macon had wasted his entire block of office time listening to Derek recite Donne in his deep, soothing voice for a podcast lecture for an online class. Macon knew they were around the same age, but Derek was still boyish-looking despite being at least six feet tall and deliciously broad shouldered. He had sandy brown hair and vividly green eyes that were always alight with good humor.

Not that Macon had noticed. Much. There wasn’t any point in doing more than looking anyway because Derek had a partner, Mark. Only maybe he didn’t anymore, because what Macon could hear made it sound like they’d broken up.

“I managed to snag reservations at Windsor’s,” said Justine Rouse, one of the multiculturalists. “You know how hard that is. We’re making a weekend of it, actually. I’ve got tickets to see the North Carolina Symphony in Raleigh. They’re doing a special holiday concert of all classical love songs. Helen is going to love it.”

“That sounds great. Someone deserves to enjoy Valentine’s Day.” Derek’s voice held an odd flat note that Macon had never heard before. “It’s weird not having to make any plans for once. Last year Mark got called in for an emergency, so we didn’t get to celebrate then either. I won’t have to worry about it anymore.”

Macon sat up straight and listened intently. Normally he didn’t care about the conversations that floated down the hall to him, viewing them as distractions, but this one was different.

“I’m sorry,” Justine said. “You guys were together awhile, weren’t you?”

“Three years,” Derek replied. “We’d only been living together for about a year. I guess I should have known this would happen. I’ve always suspected Mark’s work was more important to him than I was.”

“At least it didn’t get nasty. That always makes it worse.”

“Yeah.” Derek paused, then sighed. “I can’t even put all the blame on him. When he told me he was heading to Brazil to study tropical diseases for a year, my first thought was ‘great, now I can move my desk next to the window so I can look out over the garden while I work.’”

Macon had to repress a snort, not wanting to reveal he was listening.

“Sounds like the fire had pretty much burned out. Maybe that’ll make it easier to move on and find someone else,” Justine said, an optimistic note in her voice.

Derek chuckled. “Spoken like a true romantic. You and Helen are lucky, you know? But it’s not like this is the first time this has happened to me. The sparks always fizzle out before too long. I can’t seem to inspire lasting passion in anyone. Although to be fair, no one’s ever inspired it in me either. I’m a romantic who fails at romance. How pathetic is that?”

Macon frowned, indignant on Derek’s behalf. Anyone who recited Donne and Shakespeare with the depth of emotion Derek did was not lacking in passion. He simply hadn’t found the right person to bring it out in him yet. Macon didn’t delude himself into thinking he was that person. He had a mirror, for one thing. For another, he doubted someone as personable and outgoing as Derek would find a hermit like Macon in any way interesting.

But he didn’t like hearing Derek talk about himself that way, and the more he thought about it, the more he wanted to do something. Unfortunately he couldn’t go over to Derek’s office and announce he thought Derek was being an idiot. They didn’t have that kind of relationship, and Macon wasn’t that kind of person.

“It’s none of my business anyway,” he muttered. Socializing with colleagues at work led to invitations to socialize outside of work, and Macon was the one who spent all of five minutes at the annual department holiday party. He stayed just long enough to drop off a vegetable plate he’d picked up at the grocery store and to make sure the chair saw him before getting the hell out.

But he couldn’t get the conversation out of his mind, even after Justine left and Derek went to teach his next class. Maybe Derek’s situation hit a little close to home. Macon had never inspired passion in anyone either, and he was fine with that. He’d accepted the fact that he was too much of a loner to be lovable, but Derek had no business giving up on a happily ever after.

Which was how he found himself typing up a note from Cupid. It was quite possibly the most ridiculous thing he’d ever done, and when he finished, he almost closed the program without saving the document. He couldn’t possibly give Derek the note, even anonymously. Grown men didn’t write notes from Cupid, even if they were fiction writers. It was foolish and childish, and Derek would probably laugh, but not in a good way. Macon hovered the cursor over the print button, but he couldn’t bring himself to print it out. He didn’t delete it, however. Instead, he saved it in his designated ideas folder in his cloud storage. He hoarded all the creative pieces he wrote, just in case he could use one of them as inspiration for a story one day.

He wrote off the letter as a passing whim until the next day, when he returned from his intro to fiction writing class and saw Justine headed for Derek’s office. He nodded politely in response to Justine’s “Hey, Macon” while he unlocked his door, and he retreated into his office before he could be drawn into conversation.

He had stories to critique, so he should have shut his office door like he usually did when he wanted peace and quiet, but he left it open just enough that he could hear any nearby conversations. Not that he wanted to eavesdrop on Derek again, but maybe Mark had a change of heart or Derek already met someone even better. He wanted to hear something that made the silly little note he’d written unnecessary.

“I got your text,” Justine said. “What in the hell happened? I don’t think you’ve ever sent me a frown emoji before.”

“Oh, you’ll love this,” Derek replied, his tone wry. “I finally got an e-mail from Mark, after two weeks of nothing. I thought, ‘Wow, maybe he misses me after all!’ I admit, it was a little bit of a boost to my ego… or it was until I opened the e-mail.”

“Uh-oh….” Justine sounded wary. “What did he say? Has he already hooked up with someone else?”

“Nothing like that.” Derek sighed heavily. “Here I was, thinking maybe he was going to say he’d been thinking about me or that he was having second thoughts about the tropical medicine thing. Not that it would change anything, but at least I’d feel like I wasn’t quite as much of a loser.”

A moment of silence followed; then Justine spoke again. “Well, are you going to tell me? Come on, Derek, it couldn’t be anything that bad.”

“Oh no? Listen to this. ‘Hey, Derek, how’s things? Just wanted to send a quick note to say hi and ask if you had seen my khaki cargo pants. You know, the ones where the legs zip off into shorts? I was sure I’d packed them, but here I am, stuck in the middle of the jungle, and they’re not in my luggage. Oh, well, if you find them, let me know and I’ll tell you where to send them. Hope you’re enjoying the weather there. It’s really hot here! Best, Mark.’”

“Oh. My. God. That’s it? Really?”

“Really,” Derek said dryly.

That fucker.

Macon stewed over Mark’s callousness, unable to believe he felt so little remorse over leaving Derek. Did the idiot have no idea what kind of man he had been with? Could someone fail to see Derek’s desirable qualities so spectacularly? Derek would have had to pry Macon off with a crowbar if he was Macon’s partner.

He opened up the note from Cupid and read it again. He still thought it was foolish and juvenile, but the e-mail from Mark seemed to have dealt Derek’s ego a blow, so maybe this note would help counteract that one. He printed it out and second- and third-guessed himself right up until he stuck the pin through the neatly folded printout to affix it to the corkboard on Derek’s door after almost everyone else in the suite had left for the day.

Macon lingered for a moment. He could snatch it down and no one would ever know what he’d done, but he didn’t. Finally he went back into his office, reminding himself Derek couldn’t possibly trace the note to him. There were plenty of other people on the hall, and Macon would be the last person anyone suspected.

He paused outside Derek’s door one last time as he shrugged into his heavy coat and wound a thick scarf around his neck. “One of us should have a happy Valentine’s Day,” he murmured, and then he turned and walked away, leaving all second-guessing behind.