He saw her there, sitting on a log a little way off the path by the edge of the river. All he could really see was her long, brown hair where it fell over her head as she leaned forwards, her face in her hands. Her shoulders seemed to be rhythmically moving as though she were crying but, if so, they were silent sobs. He could hear nothing. Still, something in the set of her shoulders said she was in some kind of distress.
Perhaps it was the contrast to the wonderful weather. It was mid October. The day was warm, partly sunny as piles of fluffy white clouds played hide and seek with the bright solar light. The leaves had turned, many already on the ground, many more falling in an incredible cascade of color as the slight breeze started them on their autumn journey towards the forest floor.
In the far distance he could sometimes just hear the sound of other students on the huge campus. Many on their way towards the stadium - the game with Illinois started in another hour. Many others were on their separate ways to their own diverse activities for a beautiful fall Saturday. There were also occasional sounds of distant laughter and once he thought he heard the beat of drums as, perhaps, the band warmed up for the game.
All this made the sight of the girl and her obvious distress seem more out of place. Something that didn't belong at all - or at least not to this place or this time. Chris hesitated. After all, even if she was upset about something, she might not want a stranger trying to interfere. She would probably just tell him to get lost. Or maybe even something a little stronger. He started to keep walking down the path.
On the other hand, how could he just ignore someone who was so obviously in misery? His steps slowed and he came to a lagging stop, turning to look again at the seated girl. The thought came suddenly into his head that she might be out here with the intent of killing herself. Unlikely, true, but not impossible. In a school this size there were several suicides a year. He didn't really believe that was a likely possibility but if there were even the remotest chance of preventing one, he had to try.
Chris turned from the forest path and slowly made his way over the ten or so yards towards where the girl was seated, stopping some five feet from her. The girl didn't seem to be aware of his presence at all, still lost in her own world, her shoulders still rhythmically moving. He still couldn't hear any sounds of crying but her breathing definitely indicated that she was.
For perhaps six or seven seconds he stood just watching her and then he finally cleared his throat and said, "I don't mean to intrude but you look like you might be in trouble. Is there anything I can do to help?"
The girl suddenly jumped and jerked her head around at him. She really hadn't been aware of him at all. Then, just as quickly, she turned her head back away from him, but in that second he had seen that she had definitely been crying, her eyes wet, her face a little swollen. Still looking down she gave a quick rub at her eyes and mumbled, "I'm all right." Then she managed to add, "Just a little upset. Thanks for being concerned."
She remained looking downwards and after a few seconds Chris said, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to startle you but you looked like you could maybe use some help."
Still looking away from him she replied, "I'll be all right. I just have some personal problems."
Reluctant to leave her like that, Chris hesitated a little longer, debating if he should just turn and go away and leave her alone. Once again he started to turn back towards the path and then stopped. He turned back towards the girl and said, "Look, I really don't want to intrude but sometimes it helps to talk about things - makes problems seem smaller or more easily handled. Here I am, a perfect stranger. I don't know you, you don't know me, so anything you say doesn't have to go any further. Why don't you try it - it certainly can't hurt, now can it?"
The girl wiped at her eyes once more and then slowly turned to face him. He could see her eyes were a lovely shade of brown, almost golden, although now they were rimmed with red. Her face would be very pretty, even if not classically beautiful, when the puffiness went away.
For probably twenty seconds she just looked at him and Chris managed to remain quiet, just waiting for her to make up her mind. At last she seemed to come to some decision or, maybe more correctly, became resigned. Slowly she said, "I don't really think it will help solve anything if I talk about it but I think you are probably stubborn enough to just stand there until I do. Besides, you're probably right that it won't hurt anything if I do talk about it." Then she forced a kind of smile. "Have a seat," she said, pointing to another log a couple of feet in front of her.
Chris smiled back at her and moved to sit down. "No, I'm sure it won't hurt anything. And who knows, the horse may learn to sing."
She looked totally confused at this comment. "What?"
He gave a slight chuckle. "It's a reference to an old story. I believe from ancient Babylon. It seems there was a thief who was sentenced to be executed in a most painful manner. He told the king that if given one year he could teach the king's horse to sing his favorite song. The king granted him that year stay of execution and every day the thief was seen with the horse, singing and urging the horse to do so too. One day someone stopped and asked why he kept at it and the thief replied, 'It can't hurt. A year is a long time. I may die. The king may die. And who knows, the horse may learn to sing.'"
This brought a more natural smile from the girl. "I guess you're right. I don't suppose it can make things any worse."
Chris smiled at her. "That's right. I'm Chris, by the way."
Before he could say anything else she interrupted him. "You said we'd be strangers."
"OK, but even strangers can have first names."
Again another smile. "I guess so. I'm Amber."
"Well, Amber, my pretty stranger, would you like to tell me what has you so unhappy on such a beautiful day? Or not, as you please."
He saw her make a slight face at his comment. "I'm certainly not pretty right now - or probably at any time."
With a feeling strong enough to surprise himself, Chris broke in, "Yes you are. And I'm sure most of the time you are positively lovely."
She mumbled something to herself. Chris could not tell for sure but he thought what she said was, "Bullshit."
He quickly went on, "I can see that your world has some problems right now. Why don't you tell me a little about them? And maybe a little about yourself."
"OK, I guess I can." She stopped for a few seconds, obviously in thought. "I wonder just where to begin."
"At the beginning is always a good place, "Chris replied."
She smiled again, a real one this time. "That might take a long time. Let me see. OK, I was born at a very early age."
Chris laughed. "Well, maybe not quite that early a beginning. Just tell me a little about yourself and how you came to be sitting out here all alone."
"OK, seriously. This is my first term here, but I'm a junior. I had two years at a community college back home. I guess I need to go even a little further back than that. I was raised by my mother. My father died before I was old enough to remember him. We lived on a farm when I was born, or so I've been told, but after my dad died, mom couldn't keep it up by herself. I think she sold it before I was two."
"After all the debts were paid there wasn't much left and my mom didn't have any special skills. No one in either her or dad's family had ever gone to college or even learned any trade besides farming. Mom got jobs and did OK. She was a hard worker and tried to do as good a job as she could at anything she did. We never had a lot of money but we weren't dirt poor or anything. We got by. It wasn't easy but we came up with enough money to pay for my two years at a community college. Both she and I were determined that I would never end up in the fix she had that had trapped her."
"I knew we could never come up with enough money to pay for a Bachelor's degree but I was determined to get a degree in Geological Engineering." She gave a little laugh. "Instead of digging rocks out of a farm field, I thought maybe I could get paid for finding the right rocks to dig out. Most of the other girls in my junior and senior high schools thought they might get out of where they were by either marrying someone rich or becoming a top country singer. You know, Coal Miner's Daughter sort of thing. Well, I had always had an interest in science and liked what I knew of geology. I never wanted to work as a mining engineer, but maybe work at finding good sites for mines or wells or something."
"Anyway, between working and studying I knocked myself out for those first two years of school and managed to graduate with a 4.0. It took a lot of work but it also got me a scholarship here that pays all my tuition and enough to cover most of the dorm costs."
She went quiet once again, looking down towards her feet. Chris sat quietly, just waiting. At last she looked up and shook her head back and forth. "Sorry. I was just thinking about what might have been. Well, when I came here things went pretty well for the first couple of weeks. Then I got a call. My mom was in the hospital. I went home and found she had some kind of infection and nothing seemed to be helping it. She was very sick and I told her I would drop out of school and come back to take care of her. She nearly exploded, or as close to that as she could in the condition she was in. She told me in no uncertain terms that no matter what happened to her I was to stay in school. She wanted more than anything for me to get that degree and break free. In the end she made me swear I would continue and I was not even to come home if she died in the hospital. I came back to school and only missed two days."
She went silent once again and Chris waited. Once more she shook her head and continued. "Well, she did die in the hospital. They never discovered exactly what the infection was but when she knew she wasn't going to get any better she gave written instructions - a living will, if you want - that if she died she was to be cremated and I was not to be notified until afterwards. That is exactly what happened. When I got the news I could feel her looking at me and telling me to go on. Let go of the past and not to swerve from my chosen path, no matter what."
"I somehow managed to keep on track. I think it was knowing how much it meant to her but I stayed with my studies and was doing pretty well. Then two weeks ago - you know, when that flu bug was going around campus - I came down with it. I came down with it pretty badly and missed a week of class."
"But that wasn't the worst of it. We had midterms scheduled this past week and I had two on Monday. Neither of those professors would accept any excuse or delay and I had to take both tests without being able to study at all and still not quite recovered. Well, the long and the short of it is that I flunked both exams. My scholarship depends on maintaining a 3.5 GPA and mathematically there is almost no way I now can. That means I won't have money for tuition or room and board next semester. Even if I could find the money and if I have to retake those classes it will set me back a full year."
She became quiet again and after a minute or so Chris said, "I'm sorry to hear about your mom, I know that can be rough. Both my parents were killed in a car accident when I was seventeen. But you said there was ALMOST no chance of keeping your grades up enough. Does that mean maybe you can still do it?"
She gave a sardonic smile. "Mathematically, yes. In fact, I probably could spend most of my time studying, work like hell at it, and hold on. That is, if I could manage to study that much. Let me tell you a little about my dorm." She named the dorm and Chris immediately recognized it as the "party dorm" on campus. No serious student chose that one and the school often assigned the unfilled spaces to new transfer students.
Amber saw the look on his face and gave another sardonic smile. "I see you recognize the reputation. And I have two roommates who lead the charge."
"Couldn't you study in the library or someplace?" Chris asked.
"Maybe some of the time although I don't do well studying in places like that. I need to spread out my books all around me, as well as have my computer nearby. I have a desktop, not a laptop, so I can't take it around with me. Besides, the library closes at night and I'll probably need to get by on four or five hours of sleep the rest of the semester to have enough study time. I mean I really would need to ace every test and assignment until then to be able to pull this off. Not to mention I work fifteen hours a week. Otherwise I don't eat."
"What about a student loan or something? Have you checked on that?"
"Yes. Unfortunately all the funds are gone until next year. Oh, Chris, I'm not giving up. I'll still try, but I just don't see any way that's likely to work."
The two remained sitting, silent for several minutes. In the distance Chris could hear the sounds from the stadium as the game got underway. The sun had dropped down into the trees and when he glanced at his watch Chris saw that it was nearly four-thirty.
Finally he straightened up and looked over at Amber. She was sitting hunched over and staring down at the ground. He slowly reached forward and touched her chin, lifting it up with his hand until he was looking directly into her eyes. "Suppose for now we stop worrying about things and see if something comes to us. I suggest I take you to dinner. I have often found that when I feel overwhelmed, the world looks much better from around a steak."
This brought a smile to her face. "I don't want to waste any more of your time. I do feel a little better having talked about it. Besides, I don't think I've had a steak in six months. I'm lucky to afford beans and rice."
Chris looked directly into her eyes. "I don't consider the time a waste. And I didn't ask you to buy a steak. I'm asking you to dinner. I would really like it if you would come."
Amber returned his look for thirty long seconds. Examining his face she finally decided he really meant what he said. He wasn't just being nice. He really did want to take her to dinner. With everything else that had been going on she had had no real social life since she had arrived at school. She had been asked out several times but she was always so busy with work or study that she had never accepted. Now she realized she would get no study done tonight no matter what and she wasn't scheduled to work until tomorrow morning. Besides she hadn't had a real meal in a long time. At last she smiled at him, "If you really want to and aren't doing this just because you feel sorry for me, I accept. Thank you."
He smiled back and stood, reaching for her hand as she rose also. Taking her hand he led her back to the path and side by side they started down the trail to the edge of the woods. When they reached the road Amber said, "I should go back to the dorm and change." She looked down and added, "This isn't very formal wear."
Chris laughed and looked first at her and then down at himself. Both were wearing jeans and shirts and each had a light jacket. "As formal as what I'm wearing. Come on, this is a campus. No one will expect us to be dressed up."
She gave in and he led them towards the town adjoining the college campus. They walked for three or four blocks and then Chris turned her onto a side street and led her to the door of a small restaurant called Don Woods. "Ever eaten here?" he asked.
"No. I don't think I've even heard of it."
"I don't eat here all the time or anything, but I've always found that they have pretty good food."
They entered and were shown to a small table. When Amber started to take off her jacket, Chris reached to hold it and help her. Then he held her chair as she was seated. Amber was only a little surprised at this. In the small town where she had grown up, such actions were not too unusual. However, several of the other diners, somewhat older than the typical college students, noticed and looked slightly surprised. Chris didn't notice anything unusual at all.
They were handed menus and as they opened them to look, Chris said, "I was serious about the steak. Order anything that looks good to you. I'm going to have the tenderloin."
He sounded sincere and the prices were not really outrageous or anything, Amber decided. It did look good. "I think I'll have the same," she told him.
He smiled at her. "And of course salad and baked potato. I like mine with Thousand Island dressing and just butter."
Amber was feeling better and couldn't help teasing. "Thousand Island on a baked potato. I always have French myself."
Chris laughed. "Personal choice but I expect you have butter on the salad, don't you? And what do you drink with that?"
Amber laughed back. "What else would you put on a salad? I usually drink iced tea."
When the waiter came, and before Amber could say anything, Chris said, "The lady will have the tenderloin." He looked at Amber. "Medium rare?" She nodded. "Baked potato with butter and tossed salad with French dressing. Iced tea to drink." Amber smiled at him and nodded again. "I'll have the same except Thousand Island on the salad."
"Very good," the waiter replied. I'll get the drinks and salad right away."
When he had left, Amber looked at Chris. "Very good. Are you trying to impress me with all the politeness." Her tone made it clear she was only teasing slightly and was not in the least offended. Actually, Amber thought to herself, a lot of the women she knew would have been greatly offended, acting as though Chris had implied they were incapable of taking care of themselves. She didn't look at it like that at all.
"Not really," Chris replied. "It's just the way I was raised." Then he gave her a look and teased right back. "After all, I'm impressive enough just being myself." She gave a little laugh but thought to herself that yes, he had impressed her.
Their food came and as Amber took the first bite of the steak, finding it tender and wonderfully tasty, she thought that perhaps Chris had been right. By the end of the meal she was certain and told him so. The world did look better from around a steak.
They had talked a little during the meal but more about generalities than personal information. Still, both were finding themselves very comfortable with the other. Amber had relaxed a great deal and Chris could see a difference in how she held herself. He decided he had been right and she could be truly lovely. Her face was not the hard chiseled sculpture of a beautiful model nor quite that of the fresh faced girl-next-door. Still it was definitely a pretty face. Her hair was a lovely shade of deep brown with some red highlights and her eyes ... Chris had never seen eyes quite that shade. They were almost a golden brown with flecks of green, rather than the reverse. She was slim but not skinny. She would never be a playmate of the month but Chris had never liked overly large breasts on a woman anyway. Hers were not tiny by any means, but also looked to be rather firm. He couldn't tell for sure but didn't think she was wearing a bra and yet there was no sag visible. And her ass and legs looked to be world class.
Actually these observations were merely in the background. Chris had no intention of making a pass at her. She had needed a friend and he was happy to be able to fulfill that role, at least for a little while. He wished there was something he could do to help her out besides just buying her dinner. An idea - or more accurately, the hint of a possible idea - began to percolate below the conscious level in his mind.
In the other direction Amber saw Chris as a generally attractive man. Probably about three or four inches taller than her own five seven. If asked she would have noticed that he had blue eyes and light brown, or maybe dark blonde, hair but probably couldn't have said much else. Her mind was still filled with the seemingly overwhelming problems of her own. The world did look somewhat better but she still didn't see any way out of her current circumstances. The thought did float through her mind that if it weren't for all her problems she would like to see more of him. However, since she believed it unlikely that she would even be back next semester, she felt there was little future in that direction and let the thoughts drop.
They had little hot fudge sundaes for dessert and when they finished Chris paid and helped her on with her jacket again. They left the restaurant and Amber said, "Thank you for the meal, Chris. I'm afraid I had better get back to the dorm. I have to be at work at five thirty tomorrow morning."
"Oh, where do you work?"
"At that little coffee shop on the corner of Grand River and Short."
"I think I know the one. OK, I'll walk you back over to your dorm."
They started back and soon crossed the main street onto the campus. When they arrived outside her dorm, Chris could hear what sounded to be a loud party already in progress. Well, he had heard someone say they had beaten Illinois, but somehow he expected the party would have been just as loud if they had lost. He made a slight face imagining how hard it would be to study - or to sleep - with that going on.
In the lobby they stopped and Amber said, "Thank you again Chris, for the meal and for listening."
He looked at her for a couple of seconds and then said, "You are most welcome. Look, Amber, I know I said strangers with first names, but I would like to change that a little. I want to see you again. I may even think of some way to help out with your problems."
Amber looked almost like she was spooked. The phrase "like a deer in the headlights" came into his mind. For a few seconds she didn't respond. Then she said, "I like you Chris. I'm just not sure about anything right now. I need to think about things."
Chris seemed to accept this. Then he reached into his pocket and pulled out a slip of paper and a pen. He quickly wrote something on it and handed it to her. "All right, think about it. But take my name and phone number just in case. You don't even have to look at it if you decide that way. I really would like to see you again."
He folded the paper and placed it in Amber's hand. She closed her hand automatically and at last said, "OK. I'll try to think about it. Thank you again, Chris." Then she turned and entered the stairwell.
When the alarm went off at four-thirty, Amber reached and shut it off even as her mind slowly came awake enough to realize what she was doing. She didn't feel that she had had much rest. The problems still flooded her mind. But she rose from the bed. She did have to be at work in an hour and if she wanted to eat anything first she had to be there in a half hour. One of the perks of working there was she could get her meals for half price. As she headed towards the bathroom she could almost feel the other concerns flooding back into her mind. She gave a small smile and thought to herself that the steak had probably worn off and the look of the world was no longer as good.
She got to the coffee shop in time to eat a little before her shift started. Usually Sunday mornings weren't too busy until going on eight or eight-thirty but today business seemed to pick up even before seven. By eight thirty she was kept busy almost constantly. As she returned from entering an order, she was told there was a new customer in Booth 5. She looked over and could see a man's legs but the rest of him was hidden by the back of the seat. She delivered one order and then moved to the booth, automatically saying, "Good morning. May I help you?"
She gave a little gasp and nearly jumped as Chris looked up at her, smiling, and said, "I certainly hope so. I'll have the Number 7 with orange juice."
For a few more seconds she stood frozen. "What are you doing here?" she asked.
"Ordering breakfast, I thought. And also asking if you've had a chance to think about things." He added, "I don't think one time counts as stalking, do you?"
She smiled and shook her head. "No, it doesn't. My mind is still a mess, Chris. Give me a little time, please."
"Of course. As much as you need." Then as she turned to put in his order he said, "Don't get your hopes up just yet, but I may have an idea that just might help you a little."
She started to say something but just then another customer called her. She just gave him a slight nod and then disappeared.
She soon brought his meal but didn't have time to talk. When he had finished she brought the check. She handed it to him along with another piece of paper and said, "I've thought."
He handed her a credit card and as she left to run it, he unfolded the second sheet of paper. On it he saw written: Amber Starbuck and her phone number. Smiling to himself he refolded the paper and put it into his shirt pocket. When she returned with the sheet for his signature he asked, "What time do you get off today?"
"Two-thirty, but I may stay and get something to eat."
He replied simply, "Don't. I'll see you then."
Just after two-thirty Amber picked up her jacket and started towards the door. When she stepped onto the sidewalk, Chris suddenly appeared beside her. He gave a slight bow and said, "My Lady," and offered his arm.
Amber laughed but put her arm on his. Somehow she felt a little better already.
Chris led the way over to where his car was parked on the street, opening the door and holding it for her. Amber climbed in and Chris went around to his own side. As he got in he saw that Amber had fastened her seat belt and then let her head drop back against the seat and had closed her eyes. "Rough morning?" he asked.
She opened her eyes. "Kind of. Pretty busy."
"Then I bet you haven't had any lunch, have you?"
She shook her head. "No, you said not to."
"Well, I certainly don't intend to let you starve. We'll go get something." With that he fastened his seat belt and started off.
Amber had no idea where he was planning on taking her and didn't really care. She was just tired. Tired and no matter how she tried to forget it, tensed up over the mess her life had become. She lay back with her eyes closed and Chris let her rest, not talking.
He did speak once when they first drove off. "You like chicken?" Amber had nodded without opening her eyes. "Good." was his only comment.
In about five minutes Amber felt the car slow and stop. When Chris turned off the engine she opened her eyes and was surprised to see they were in the driveway of a small suburban house. She looked around and finally asked, "Where are we?"
"Chez Chris," he answered. I have a chicken dish in the oven and possibly something to show you."
Surprised, Amber let Chris help her out of the car and lead her up to the front door. He unlocked it and held it open for her. She entered and he closed the door behind them. Amber looked around. There was a living room to her left and a small formal dining room to the right. Straight in front of them the hallway led into a dinette. As they moved into it she saw a kitchen to the right and a door to what looked to be a utility room on the left.
They entered the kitchen and Chris looked at a timer on the oven. "Things should be ready in about fifteen minutes. Let me get you something to drink. I have milk, coke - diet only, I'm afraid - iced tea, hot tea or instant coffee. Oh, and skim milk."
"If you have it, I would like an iced tea."
"Coming right up." He retrieved a pitcher from the refrigerator and a glass from a cabinet. He poured her a glass and a second one for himself.
They moved to the dinette and sat down at the small, round table. For the next ten minutes Chris asked about how Amber liked working where she did.
"It's OK, I guess. The pay isn't too bad and I can get meals at half price."
"But I bet you'd rather not have to work at all, wouldn't you?"
"That would make study a little easier. But, then, I have this habit of eating and I need to pay for it somehow."
Both turned when a timer went off in the kitchen. "Excuse me a second," Chris said and went back into the kitchen. Amber remained where she was and could hear Chris doing things in the kitchen. In about five minutes he returned and said, "We can eat in the dining room."
Amber stood and they both carried their glasses into the dining room where Amber saw that Chris had two places already set, one at the end of the table and one to its right, and on hot pads in the center of the table was some kind of chicken and rice dish along with a bowl of mixed vegetables and a plate of dark bread. The smell of the food was wonderful and Amber realized she was quite hungry. He led her to the place on the side and held the chair as she sat.
Chris took her plate and served her before doing the same for himself and taking his own place. Amber tasted the chicken dish and found she was even hungrier than she had thought. In fact, she felt starved, but, then, she realized except for the previous night, she hadn't eaten very well at all this week on top of being sick for the week or so before.
After both had tasted their food Amber said, "Chris, this is wonderful and I certainly am grateful. But I can't help wondering just what this is all about."
Chris lowered his fork and looked directly at her. "What it's about is that I want us to get to know each other a little better. You told me a bit about yourself yesterday. Let me tell you a little about myself today."
She smiled at him. "I can go along with that, as long as we have decided not to remain first name only strangers."
He smiled back and, over the meal, filled in a lot of things about himself. "I'm a junior also - Civil Engineering. In fact, I'm a little surprised I haven't seen you around the Engineering Building."
"I have only been going here for two months, after all. Besides, there's no reason you'd notice me."
"Oh, there definitely is. I'm always looking for pretty girls." She started to say something but Chris cut her off. "Yes, that definitely includes you."
"I told you my parents were killed when I was seventeen. This was our house - I inherited it. As you can probably tell we weren't rich either. Not poor, just typical American middle class. Along with the house there was a small insurance policy that provided enough for school and to pay upkeep and taxes on the house. With summer work I manage OK."
They talked more, each discovering a little more about the other. By the time they finished the meal Amber had relaxed a little more, some of the tenseness leaving her. They carried the dishes back out to the kitchen and put away the leftover food.
Amber suddenly noticed the clock on the stove. "It's nearly six! I hadn't realized it was so late. I really need to get back and try to get some studying done." She made a face. "Not that it will be easy. I'm sure my roommate will want to play loud music and constantly try to get me to quit work and do something else." She shook her head back and forth. "I doubt if she'll last past this semester, either."
Chris turned and leaned back with his hands on the kitchen counter. "Before I take you back, I'd like you to see the rest of the house." A surprised look came over her face but before she could say anything Chris added, "I have a reason."
"All right, as long as it doesn't take too long."
"Just long enough, I hope." With this cryptic comment he smiled and led her over to the stairwell. They climbed to the second floor, a Cape Cod, actually, with the characteristic short outside walls.
"Up here we have three bedrooms. I live here by myself and use the big one in the front. It was my parents before..." He stopped for a second and then shook his head and continued. "It and the larger one in the back have their own bath. The smaller one I just use as a study."
"It's very nice," Amber commented, "but why are you showing me this?"
He seemed to hesitate a little. Finally he slowly began, "It's just that you said you couldn't study with all that goes on in your dorm and that you needed a place where you could spread out and work without interruption. I was just thinking..." Again he trailed off. He cleared his throat and suddenly rushed on with, "Look, if you'd like you could use the second bedroom here to study. Just move your stuff over here and use it whenever you need to work."
Amber looked totally surprised. Slowly she said, "You mean you're offering me a place to work whenever I want?" He nodded. "What's the catch? What do you want in return?"
She could see his face turn somewhat red. "Nothing. No catch. I just saw a way I could maybe help you out a little."
"Really? Nothing else?"
"No, nothing else. My word on it."
She still seemed hesitant. "It looks like a great place to work. It's not much farther than the dorm to Engineering, right?"
He nodded. "I always walk." When she still didn't say anything he added, "You could even eat some of your meals here. Or all of them if you want." She still didn't say anything. "Oh, hell, you can even use the bedroom if you want to sleep over any time."
Amber looked around. "You're asking me to move in with you?"
"No, I didn't mean it like that." He had turned even more red. "Yes, I do mean I'm saying you could move here if you want but not in with me. Amber, I like you. You've had some bad luck and I thought maybe I can help out."
Amber stared at him. "No strings? You're not expecting something in return?"
"No strings, no quid pro quo. Just a place to study and free room and board if you want." She still didn't say anything. "I'll give you my word. I'm not expecting anything in return. I won't make a pass at you." Then he had to quietly add, "Not even if I really want to."
This last finally brought a smile to Amber's face. "Suppose I really want to make a pass at you?"
He could see the suppressed laughter on her face and his own relaxed slightly. "In that case I'll do whatever I can to help you get what you want."
Both broke out laughing. At last Amber said, "Thank you, Chris. Thank you for caring. This is all so sudden I don't know exactly what to say. We've known each other for only a little over a day. I will admit working here might make it a lot more likely for me to salvage my grades this semester. I want to say I'll take you up on it. It's just that things are moving so fast."
"I guess as a geologist you are used to things moving slower. One might even say glacial, might one?"
She smiled at his quip. "One might. All right, Chris. Suppose I move my computer and books over here and we can try it out for a while." He started to say something and she added, "Just to study. At least to start with."
Chris let out his breath. "OK. Why don't we go over and bring things back now. You said you'd have trouble working over there tonight."
Amber was feeling like things were going awfully fast but she did have a lot of trouble working in her room - especially on weekend nights, including Sundays. "All right, if you are serious about your offer."
"I am. Let's go."
They went back out to the car and in less than forty-five minutes were back with two boxes of books, her computer, and another box of pencils, pens, paper and other desk supplies.
They installed everything, Chris hooking her computer to his network while Amber arranged her books and other materials. There was a desk in the room - Chris's old desk in fact. When they had everything set, Amber sat down to begin work. Chris left the room, closing the door behind him, and went to his own studies.
Some time about eight he knocked on the door. Amber called to him and he opened it and came in. "I'm stopping for some supper. You need to eat too. Care to share a frozen pizza?"
She put down her pencil and looked at him. "Chris, I can't keep eating your food."
"Look, it doesn't really cost much more to feed both of us and in general I like to cook. I would be perfectly happy if you ate all of your meals with me. Gives me someone to talk with and definitely something much better to look at than I have now. Seriously, if you want to eat meals here, I'll take care of the food and you can help with the prep and cleanup. But only if you don't need the time for your study. Fair enough?"
"Not really, but it seems too good to pass up. Chris, you are being awfully good to me."
"You just needed a little help."
"But you're giving me a lot of help. Thank you again. Will you call me when the pizza is ready?"
"Certainly. Now get back to work so you can get those grades up." He moved to the door smiling at her.
She smiled back. "Slave driver," she called as he left the room.
Over the next week Amber spent more and more of her time at the house. She had quickly found that her work went far better in this environment and she made progress much faster than she expected. Chris had given her a key so she could come and go whenever she wanted. It still meant a walk back to her dorm when she quit for the night, but the way was well lighted and patrolled so she didn't worry too much. Besides she had the small can of Mace.
Thursday night she was studying for a quiz she had the next day in one of the two problem classes. She felt she knew the material but wanted to be sure and ace the quiz, both to show her professor she was really trying and to mathematically increase her chances of keeping her high GPA. The class was at ten Friday morning and when she finally decided she had studied enough she looked at her watch and discovered it was nearly three. She thought about the fifteen minute walk to the dorm and looked over at the bed. The bed won and she pulled off her blouse and jeans and just slipped under the covers. She was asleep in less than thirty seconds.
Fortunately she had remembered to set the alarm on her watch and she woke up at eight. She took a quick shower in the bath attached to the bedroom and dressed again in the clothes she had worn the night before.
She headed downstairs with the idea of maybe grabbing something to quickly eat on her way to class. On her way downstairs she heard Chris call out. "Come here a second. I've got some orange juice and a granola bar. That won't take you too long."