Kissing the Teacher (Valentine's Inc. Book 3)

1

Snow had stopped being picturesque about three winters ago. Now, it was just damn annoying. Hagen St. Croix craned his neck to see if the parking lot of his building had been cleared yet, sighing with relief when he spotted the snowplow. He checked his watch, saw he was still on time, and parked on the side of the road until the plow was done. Perfect timing.

He gazed at the pristine snow that covered the grass next to him. How much had fallen last night? He estimated about ten inches, but then again, estimating had never been his forte. He could check in his yard, where he'd put up a yardstick that measured the snowfall, back when he’d moved into his home and still thought snowstorms were romantic. How blissfully naïve he had been, coming from sunny California.

Still, as much of a nuisance as the snow was, he did like experiencing four distinct seasons. And in this part of New England, about an hour’s drive from Boston in Massachusetts, the fall was spectacular. He'd never imagined himself to be the kind of man who enjoyed leaf peeping, but he'd spent hours in the car driving through New Hampshire and Vermont, stopping every five minutes to take another picture. Maybe, despite what he tried to keep telling himself, he was getting old, or at least of a certain age.

The snowplow was done, and Hagen raised his hand to thank the maintenance worker, getting a friendly nod in return. Two more cars had pulled up behind him, so he quickly found his designated parking spot. His wheels only spun once, which he considered a success. He still wasn't as adept at driving in the snow as his coworkers who had grown up here. He did pride himself on following their advice to buy an all-wheel drive. His Subaru might not be the prettiest or sexiest car, though it was only a year old, but it sure as hell did a phenomenal job in the snow.

Before he got out of his car, he checked to make sure he wasn't stepping into a pile of snow by accident. Wouldn't be the first time. The first winter here, he’d ended up with soaking wet—and as a result, deadly cold—feet on more than one occasion. However, he had followed another one of his coworkers’ tips and bought himself a pair of sturdy boots, a big departure from his expensive loafers. Those things were useless here, and Hagen had to admit that he'd grown fond of the more rugged look he'd adapted.

Tight-fitting jeans, the aforementioned boots, a little scruff some days rather than his usual clean-shaven look, and hell, he'd even bought a plaid shirt or two. When in Rome and all that, but it seemed to work for him. Besides, he was single, so it wasn't like anyone cared what he looked like, least of all his students. They might care, but they wouldn’t say anything—not that he was interested in their opinion in the first place.

Juggling his car keys and his coffee was routine by now, and he managed it easily, slinging the leather strap of his messenger bag over his shoulder. He stomped the remnants of the snow off his boots as soon as he entered his building, adding to the mush pile that had already formed on the large mat.

He still had half an hour before his first class, so all was good. Hagen hated being late and didn't tolerate it from his students either. And the weather wasn't an excuse, least of all a snowstorm that had been predicted three days in advance.

"Good morning," he greeted his fellow faculty member, Lynn.

"Morning, Hagen," she said. "Glad to see you made it through the snow okay."

Hagen bit back his annoyance. Lynn had a frustrating habit of mothering him, something he was allergic to. Despite dropping several hints that at forty-three he really was a capable adult, thank you very much, she kept approaching him with a mix of somewhat sweet, if unnecessary, concern and pure meddling.

"I'm used to driving in the snow by now," he said, hoping that another hint might help her get the message, though deep down he knew it was useless.

She wasn't intentionally annoying. She was simply wired like a mom, or even a grandmother, considering she was fifteen years his senior. She was one hell of a professor, though, with a deep passion for her subject—modern American history—so Hagen had decided he could tolerate her if only for that reason. People who took their job seriously deserved his respect.

He booted up his computer, then sipped his coffee as he familiarized himself again with today's college notes. Right, Hitler's disastrous Russia campaign, that was on the schedule for today.

He loved teaching at this small, exclusive liberal arts college. In California, teaching had felt like mass production, his auditoriums filled to the max. Here, he taught in actual classrooms, with thirty students at the most, if that. It made for a much more intimate environment, and he appreciated the personal connection with the students. Hell, he even knew their names for the most part, which was a miracle in itself seeing as how he wasn't all that good with names to begin with.

And most of his students here were motivated, even eager to learn. That, too, was a welcome change from the general sense of apathy he'd encountered while teaching at the large university in California. He loved history, loved it with a passion, and even though it might be boring to some people—no, he wasn't going there, not again—he felt it was crucial.

You couldn't understand the present without learning about the past, let alone prevent making the same mistakes all over again. The past mattered, and not just because it was endlessly fascinating, but also because it had so many lessons and implications for today. The sad truth was that few people saw it that way, and at times, Hagen felt he was fighting a losing battle, trying to get a new generation of students interested and passionate about history.

But here, he had at least a few students in each class who drank in his every word, taking notes until their hands cramped—Hagen had forbidden them from taking notes on their laptops, annoyed as he got by all the clicking, let alone the fact it provided way too much distraction. He'd caught more than a few students watching porn during his classes, and that was just plain unacceptable. Not that he had anything against porn—on the contrary, as it seemed to be his main source of sexual stimulation at the moment—but there was a proper time and place for everything. And watching porn while he was teaching about the crucial importance of D-day was plain offensive.

As usual, he was in his classroom ten minutes before class started, and he was happy to see three students were already waiting for him. "Good morning, guys," he said.

"Morning, Professor St. Croix," came the answer.

As he started up the laptop in his room and connected the projector, his students came shuffling in one by one. Most carried coffee, and he couldn't fault them for that, as he was on his second cup as well. It was one of the few luxuries he'd allowed himself in his office here, a Nespresso machine. The quality was nowhere near that of the over-the-top expensive Italian coffee machine he had in his home, but it was a damn sight better than the horrible brown liquid the college tried to pass off as coffee.

He was about to close the door when he spotted him hurrying down the hallway. Baxter Lafelle was, of course, last again. Even though it was now a minute past the starting time, Hagen held the door open for him. "Photo-finish, Mr. Lafelle," he said, his voice stern.

"Sorry, Professor," Baxter mumbled, avoiding Hagen’s eyes as usual.

He looked like crap, his dark hair a god-awful mess, and his face pale with bags under his eyes. Hagen mentally shook his head as he closed the door and took position in front of the class. The kid had probably stayed up late again, playing video games or something.

Although, kid was not exactly the right term for Baxter, seeing as how he was the oldest student in the class by far. He had just turned twenty-seven, Hagen had determined, looking him up in the system the first time he spotted Baxter. He'd asked Lynn about it, and she had said he was a second-chance student, returning to college to get his degree after working for a couple of years. Maybe he’d discovered that without a college degree, you couldn't get a decent job, Hagen had thought, then had felt guilty about being that snobbish and elitist.

So far, Baxter had proven to be a mediocre student, generally unengaged and silent, always sitting in the back of the room. Hagen had called on him a few times, and much to his surprise, when asked a question, Baxter usually did know the answer. He simply never volunteered, and his work consisted of solid B-minus efforts so far with the occasional C-plus thrown in.

"Okay, guys, I hope you’ve all read the syllabus in preparation for the next two weeks, as we talk about Hitler's failed military campaign against Russia. Now, who can tell me why Hitler should've known better than to attack Russia and violate the treaty he'd made with Stalin only shortly before?"

Before long, he and his students were engaged in a lively discussion about the arrogance of fighting a war on two different battle fronts and how Hitler should've learned from Napoleon's equally disastrous experience.

"It's kind of like asking someone who grew up in sunny California to survive the winter here without any preparation," Hagen said. A few students snickered already, probably guessing where he was going with this. "My first winter here was dramatic, let me put it that way. I crashed my car twice, got stuck in a snow bank, had to be dug out of the snow more times than I could count, and all I remember about that first winter was that it was never-ending and bitter cold. I was absolutely miserable."

His students were laughing now, but it was good-naturedly, and Hagen laughed with them, making fun of his own shortcomings.

"I was woefully unprepared to face a Massachusetts winter," Hagen said, growing more serious now. "I thought that just because I had bought warm clothes, I would be fine. Hitler thought much the same thing, combined with overestimating how quickly he would be able to overrun the Russian army and underestimating the severity of the winter conditions there."

He looked around the room, checking to make sure they got his analogy. Most students were nodding, a few taking notes. Then his eyes fell on Baxter, all the way in the back of the room. He was staring at his desk, it seemed, his head supported by his left hand. Hagen cocked his head, his eyes narrowing. Baxter sat awfully quietly, not responding in any way. Hagen took a few steps closer, walking between the students’ desks. Was he…?

He cocked his head further, bent over a little to get the right angle. Dammit all to hell, the kid was asleep. The room grew quiet now, the other students homing in on what Hagen had spotted as well. Hagen walked even closer, Baxter still not stirring.

A deep, cold frustration grabbed Hagen's heart. How dare he fall asleep during class? What was wrong with this kid that he squandered the unique opportunity and privilege to attend this college in order to do what, play games all night? Hang out and get drunk with his friends? What the hell was he doing rather than making sure he prioritized his education?

And most of all, how dare he fall asleep in Hagen’s class. Was he really that boring? The word alone pierced him like an icicle, and he pushed back the wave of pain it always brought. Now was not the time.

He was standing next to Baxter now, the guy still blissfully unaware, his eyes closed and his breathing deep and even. He wasn't just dozing off. He was legit asleep.

Hagen leaned over his desk and brought his mouth close to Baxter’s ear. "Am I boring you, Mr. Lafelle?"