Masked by Design - Chapter One
The last time Erik De Anton stepped into a university lecture hall he was different. Gorgeous, cocky, and smart he was poised to explode upon the architectural world with every opportunity being served to him on a platinum platter encrusted with diamonds.
Now, two decades later, Erik took in the empty hall lined with seats waiting to be filled. Only because Professor Warren was old friend, or at least a man who knew too much, did Erik agree to give this lecture. The damn man had to go and have some minor surgery, and then call in a favor long overdue.
How long did one have to redeem a promise? Erik shrugged at his mental question and with silent steps went to the podium at the front.
His so-called friend thought he could have a normal life. Had the man changed like him, or come out unscathed?
Erik shook his head and on reflex alone touched the mask that covered half his face. As soon as his fingertips made contact with the hated article he flinched and turned his back to the empty auditorium, balling his hand in a fist.
Perhaps some metamorphoses were more drastic than others.
All he had to do was get the lecture done and he could cross another responsibility off his list. He inhaled and turned back to the podium. Rather than markers to make notations on a white board and a slide projector, he was faced with a gaggle of cords.
He shuddered and pulled his laptop out of his bag, turning the device around and attempting to assess if any of the given options matched his connection.
At seeing nothing he fought the urge to throw the blasted machine across the room. Professor Warren assured him the set up was simple, just plug his computer in to access his lecture and turn off the lights. Erik was counting on the fact the room would be darkened enough for the students to focus on something other than his face, or lack thereof.
For what seemed like an eternity, he fumbled to hook up the stupid contraptions. His hands shook, and he broke out into a sweat. Every minute that passed was one minute closer to the students filing in with their stares and whispers, precisely the reason he rarely went out anymore.
He found one square flat-ended cord and one square flat hole on his computer and right when he was about to shove the two together, the door at far end of the room opened.
A groan escaped his throat. There always had to be the one overachiever who showed up way too early. He should have remembered to lock the door.
Refusing to get into any small talk or be bothered, he returned his attention to his computer.
At least he attempted to focus.
Instead, he jolted at the door slamming shut and looked up, preparing to take action if need be.
The intruder pounced down the stairs and emerged from the shadows, taking the form of a woman.
In a bold move she took a seat in the front row, only a few feet away from him, and began rifling through her bag.
Her proximity allowed him to get a good look at her. A pair of form-fitting black jeans and matching top skimmed her curves perfectly, and once she flipped her long dark chocolate hair back he noted her pretty little features.
Rather than return to his task at hand, he watched as this person, this person, who by the way was a good twenty minutes early, continued to go through her belongings, first taking out her own laptop, then brushing out that hair that was more black than brown under further investigation, and then applying a little bit of lip gloss by using her phone as a mirror.
When at last her whole hullabaloo was over, she sat back and crossed those shapely little legs and gave him sweet smile.
He supposed he should have made an announcement that he didn’t need or want a teacher’s pet and she could stop the grin.
Why he even gave this person more than a passing thought was beyond him anyway. Long after class ended he would be nothing more than the monster who once taught a graduate class.
He forced himself to return to the computer one of these whatnots had to fit into the doohickey. Yes, he should know more about computer technology, but he still preferred to do things the old fashioned way. Assistants were for everything else.
“I was thrilled when Professor Warren said you would be giving our class tonight.” Her song of a voice interrupted him.
He ground his teeth together and gave her a passing glance, choosing not to actually reciprocate the conversation.
As if she didn’t even notice the slight, she continued. “I am a huge fan of your work.”
All right, it was time to show this little thing how this class was going to operate. There would be no small talk, there would be no chatter, and there would be no niceties. “I’m not giving a test.”
“Too bad.” She sat up in her seat as if accepting a challenge.
One of the cords fell out of his hand and he faced her, attempting not to notice for a second time how lovely she was. At least until she opened her mouth. “Too bad?” Why did he speak?
“If you were giving a test, I’d ace it.” She punctuated her statement with a head tilt.
Seriously? This little one was going to go up against him? “You think so? What exactly do you know about me?” In order to keep himself in check and not lash out further, he clutched the edge of the podium.
Without a flinch, she kept her eyes on his face and stood up. “Erik De Anton, master architect of both residential and commercial buildings.” She shrugged. “Impressive.”
He opened his mouth, but had no words when she stalked toward him. Maybe he just needed to wait for her to mention or ask about the mask, then he could strike.
“Came on the scene about ten years ago, tastes skew to vintage and gothic design as well as restoration. It has become quite a prize among the rich and infamous to get a custom De Anton House.” She made her way to the podium and stood no more than a few inches from him.
He noticed her aqua eyes, light with specks of green, like an overly priced piece of quartz he once installed in an exclusive house of one of these rich and infamous she described. At the time he almost didn’t let his account have the stone as it was too perfect, too unique. Only because they had already paid for it did he succumb and give it up.
“You are known to be a recluse and a nightmare to work with, but in the cliché twist, you’re also known for your charity work, especially with the local children’s hospital.” In an act of defiance, she crossed her arms.
Still waiting for the mask mention, he cleared his throat. “Is there anything else?”
“Well, unknown to only a few, you’re also terrible with technology.” She came around the podium and without asking, reached for the computer.
The fact her body slid up against his, and she didn’t wince or even react to being up close and personal to the monster, caused him to give up the device without an argument.
In mere moments, she had the wires connected. The screen behind them came to life and did its job of projecting what was on his laptop.
She gave him a side-eyed glance with a bit of grin.
While he wanted to tear the wires apart, or tell her to go to her seat, he sighed. “Thank you, Miss—” The know-it-all never gave him her name, evidently not much one for social graces.
“Davis. Kristine Davis.” She filled in the blank. “With a K.”
He swallowed. “Thank you Miss Kristine Davis with a K.” Fine, he may have liked the way her name rolled off his tongue.
“No need to thank me, you owe me one now, Erik De Anton, with a K.” A bit of a strut in her step, she returned to her seat.
It wasn’t until more students filed in that he realized he hadn’t stopped staring at Kristine with a K, who didn’t ask about the mask. All that ran through his mind was he’d traded one debt for another, and he wondered what she wanted as repayment.
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