He knew right away that she must be shy. Those stuttering steps and submissive dodging of other people in the hallway led Mason to believe the girl who sat two seats away from him in American History class was probably not as bold as the other girls he’d met so far. Maybe that meant she wasn’t as stuck on herself either, which would most likely work in his favor. He might even be the first one to strike up a conversation, which wasn’t like him at all.
Choosing the community college was the only financially feasible way he could go to school, at least until earning a good g.p.a. might gain a scholarship admission into a more reputable university later. Mason liked it here. The classes were small, and it was just close enough to home for comfort. Submerging himself in a 200-student lecture hall was no way to meet women either, so he thought the odds better at a small school.
Especially when he saw Emma.
The girl had fair skin and short, dishwater-blonde hair that stuck up with static electricity when she came to class wearing a hooded jacket on a cold day. Her Bonne Bell makeup made her strawberry-stained lips look as though she just stepped out of sixth-grade homeroom. That innocent face and gaze that wouldn’t quite meet his made him suspect a sheltered upbringing. He’d have to tread lightly with this one.
His mother would use the word bashful to describe this type of girl. Her reticence only further aroused his curiosity. Had she ever dated anyone before? Would her dad have let her go out, or did she have to stay home when everyone else was having fun?
Mason imagined meeting her parents and wondered whether they’d be over-protective. He thought maybe they were religious since Emma seemed so reserved, so unwilling to speak to someone of the opposite sex. He’d have to wait for the right moment to approach her. In the meantime, he created an imaginative background for his mysterious classmate.
They probably had a large farm with verdant pastures and livestock. In his mind’s eye, he saw her working in a vegetable garden, feeding chickens and grooming horses. Did she have siblings who shared the workload, or was it all left up to her? Mason imagined Emma picking and eating the strawberries that had so stained her mouth, and he fluctuated between that mental image having a calming effect and arousing him.
Maybe he was all wrong. She could have a boyfriend, perhaps even be married. He hadn’t looked at her left hand after all. Geez, what if she had kids? Surely she was no older than him. No way someone so tiny and seemingly awake and attentive could have a baby at home.
Mason didn’t realize he’d screwed his face up into an introspective jumble during his woolgathering. He didn’t know that Emma, as well as the rest of the class, had noticed his quizzical expression either. A palpable silence in the surrounding space pressed in on him. Everyone was looking at Mason now, including the professor, but he didn’t hear her question.
So she asked it again, “What year was the Missouri Compromise, Mason?” A low rumble of laughter spread across the room. Mason was roused from his daydream by the multitude of eyes upon him. He shook his head in confusion and broke his reverie, Mason’s eyes widened to see Emma looking back at him, and his lips spread out into a tentative mile.
The class broke into laughter at his amorous grin, which shattered Mason’s state of still wonder. Yet gazing at Emma, his complexion grew ever redder, and she whispered the answer to him. “It’s 1820,” Emma said in a barely audible tone. His face was a muddled blank, so she repeated, “The Missouri Compromise took place in 1820. Answer the instructor and maybe they’ll all stop staring.”
Her tender expression began to dissipate as Emma’s eyes timidly returned to the top of her desk. Mason continued looking directly at her and softly replied, “Thanks.”