A few of the students started clapping. A couple more thanked her. She nodded, accepting their appreciation and muttered. “No problem.”
Keeping her back straight, she strode toward the open door, sanctuary. She preferred to be on the anonymous side of the Plexiglas. Closing the door behind her, she released a huge sigh. Thank the Goddess that was over.
Lauren popped to her feet and wrapped her in a hug. “Thank you so much, I could never have gotten them to leave.”
His warm golden brown eyes twinkled as he spoke. “You were glorious.”
Glorious? No one had ever called her glorious. A bubble of warmth expanded in her chest. If all it took to be glorious was to kick two mean girls out of the lab, she might do it more often. Problem was if she did, she’d end up losing her job because one of their daddies would accuse of her harassment, terroristic threatening, or similar nonsense.
A huge smile blossomed across Mitch’s face, animating his features. Goodness, he was even handsome when he forgot about trying to make himself invisible. A decent haircut, new frames, and more self-confidence and he’d be the one the mean girls came back to try to wrap around their manicured fingers. The thought dimmed the warmth spreading through her. None of them were worthy of Mitch.
A familiar scent rode the air. It didn’t blend in the smell of dust, monitor wipes, or the hot CPUs. Her nostrils strained to draw the aroma in. Sandalwood, she was almost sure of it. Sandalwood incense was a favorite for meditation, but there would be no incense in the lab. It could be sandalwood oil, which sometimes showed up men’s cologne and love potions.
Lauren’s tight embrace finally relaxed as she dropped her arms. Stella shrugged her shoulders. “All in a day’s work, I guess.” Saluting the two of them, she clicked her heels together and walked back to her desk.
Their laughter followed her. Lauren’s sounded nervous and forced, while Mitch’s was mellow, low and full. Just hearing his laughter made her feel good. The idea of him having a crush on her wasn’t as preposterous as it once seemed. Her fingers went up to fuss with her hair, smoothing over the long length to see if any strands were out of place.
The only male in the work area was Mitch, and he could be wearing cologne. The distance between their computers measured a meter, which made it easy to pass folders without having to get up. In a matter of seconds, Mitch returned to typing fast, his head moving slightly between the paper and his computer screen.
Work awaited her if she wanted to earn any extra money. As it was, everything she earned disappeared into the giant gaping mouth of the college. Nothing was cheap on campus from snacks to copies. The on-campus stores hiked up the prices of everything. Those with cars made runs to discount stores. Still others depended on a weekly check from their parents. Her mouth twisted to one side at the thought of parents. Dear old dad appeared to be in a hurry to recreate a new family with his young wife. Hard to believe when he emphatically told her having her ruined his life. Without her existence, he’d had left her mother years ago.
The baby tidbit came via Leah who still lived in their hometown. Leah saw Stella’s father more than she did. He’d recognized Leah and made a point of saying “hello.” He had to know her friend would convey the info to her. Maybe that’s what he wanted. Look, Stella, I’m happy now with my new wife and son. A muttered curse slipped out.
Mitch stopped typing and regarded her with a furrowed brow. ‘Hey, are you okay?”
Embarrassed that she’d drawn his attention, she grabbed for a convenient excuse. “I broke a nail”
Her eyes flicked down to her ragged, short nails that she’d regularly gnawed to the quick.
Mitch didn’t call her on it. He lifted an eyebrow and returned to typing. He knew she lied, but he was too polite to pry.
A dozen keystrokes later, her maudlin thoughts caught up with her. Her mother never sent her money to tide her over. Even Cece’s parents sent her an occasional care package filled with snacks, toiletries, office supplies, and a check. The best she got was an occasional pamphlet about the torments of hell if she should die today without repenting of her evil ways. No one could ever accuse her mother for being overly affectionate or loving, and the occasions of a little bit of pride she shown when Stella won a merit award disappeared about the time the divorce happened. Her mother’s crutch during the entire ordeal was a small church she started attending.
After the divorce, Stella stayed away from the house as much as possible due the ghosts that hung out there. Not spirits that were unwilling to move on, but rather memories of happier times. If she stayed at home more, she could have provided some time of emotional support for her mother, instead of leaving her vulnerable to the dubious care of The Last Days and Holy Resurrection Tabernacle pastor.
Stella had never stepped inside the shabby white building despite her mother’s repeated attempts to get her to attend. At first, she might have gone, to keep peace in the house, but the mean-spirited messages placed on the marquee outside kept her feet planted firmly on the other of the doors. Everything from Repent Now or Burn Forever and Enjoy your sin today, pay for it eternally.
The smell of sandalwood grew stronger as Mitch’s shadow fell over her. He bent slightly to rest one hand near her keyboard. “Hey, what’s going on with you?”
Publication is getting closer. Affirmation should be out in May.