Drew McKinley twisted the gold wedding band around and around his finger then made a tight fist. He wandered over to his office window and stared at the scurry of activity on the Riley University quad. The scene brought a spark of eagerness that almost overshadowed the sadness clinging to him. Yet the low gray clouds and drizzle wrapped him in a drowsy blanket, and he closed his eyes.
“It’s a new school year, Lord. I need patience, strength, and understanding.” He stopped, not knowing what else to pray for.
When he opened his eyes, they rested on the large, white gazebo in the middle of the green expansive quad. His heart thumped at the memory of kissing his wife, Kendra, in front of over two thousand cheering college students when he was introduced as their new dean last September. Had it only been a year? It felt like a lifetime. At times, a horrible dream. Would he ever wake up?
A car horn jolted Drew, and he gazed at the disorganized procession of cars, pickups, motorcycles, and bicycles parading onto the suburban Omaha, Nebraska campus. Within minutes, hundreds of students, ranging from eighteen-year-old, wide-eyed freshmen to forty-something seminarians, fanned out among the stately red brick Colonial Revival buildings. Inside Williams Administration Hall, the robust aroma of hazelnut coffee from RU Grounded, the coffee shop on the first level, wafted into Drew’s second floor office. Youthful male and female voices echoed up and down the hallways.
Sharon Abbott, the assistant dean, hummed “This is the Day the Lord Hath Made” in the outer office. Drew peered out and saw her polishing the top of the desk intended for the new communications specialist. At age fifty-five, Sharon had as much energy as the students. Today, Drew needed that energy.
“Allison starts work today, remember?” Sharon asked as he emerged from his office. “I hoped you’d get to meet her first, but you were tied up with freshmen orientation. Did you read through her resume?” Still holding the can of polish and dust cloth, she scrutinized him with a protectiveness that reminded him of his mother. Despite her five-foot-two buxom stature, she had proven to be a formidable presence with the students—and him.
Drew nodded and shrugged on his charcoal gray suit jacket then tightened his red and white striped tie. When Kendra had given him the tie that first Christmas they were married, he had joked that it looked like a candy cane. It was his favorite.
Startled by the booming voice behind him, he spun around to the cheery face of campus pastor Mitch Lindstrom.
“Just about.” Drew misbuttoned his jacket and with an impatient sigh re-buttoned it. The tie didn’t feel right, either, so he started over. He would never get used to tying it himself.
“Are you OK?” Mitch’s smile dimmed and his eyes behind the glasses registered concern, which irritated Drew.
“I’m fine.” He hesitated then returned to his office and picked up the new Bible from the corner of his cluttered mahogany desk. Andrew Everett McKinley was embossed in gold script at the bottom of the black leather cover. It was Kendra’s last Christmas gift to him. “What’s the student senate’s theme verse this year?” He opened the Bible, but didn’t have a clue where to look.
Mitch’s forehead furrowed. “You’re the one who chose it: Psalm 16:11.”
Drew paged through the crisp pages, found the passage, and accepting a yellow Post-It note from Sharon, marked the page and closed the Bible. Mitch led the way out of the office suite.
The two men sauntered down the cavernous corridor of the three-story edifice and down the mahogany curved staircase.
He sensed Mitch’s scrutiny, so he squared his shoulders and tried to look motivated.
Mitch broke the silence. “It’s going to be a great year.”
The inane comment from the articulate pastor pulled a chuckle from Drew. “Can’t you think of anything better to say?”
“Yes. You’ve been distracted the last couple of weeks, and I’m worried about you.”
“I can take care of myself,” he muttered, glancing at his Rolex watch: seven-forty-five.
“I know you can, but are you?” Mitch asked.
Drew patted his friend on the shoulder as they stepped outside. The sun burst through the clouds bathing the campus in golden morning light. People streamed up the sidewalks toward Riley Community Church greeting the two men with enthusiasm. Drew took a deep cleansing breath of the rain freshened air and his sadness waned.
Continuing an eighty-nine-year tradition, Riley University’s two thousand undergraduate students and five hundred graduate students gathered at eight o’clock Monday through Friday morning for the required half hour chapel service. The first service of the year was always a major event. Even the faculty and staff were “invited” to attend. Dr. Jacob Sullivan, president for twenty years, would open chapel with prayer, a traditional hymn, and motivational words inspiring enough to spur even the laziest student to pursue excellence—for at least the first week.
Allison Bennett wasn’t one of the lazy students. As she had for five years, she sat near the front in the left section, and listened to Dr. Sullivan. A teenage couple lost in their budding romance cuddled and cooed beside her in the pew. She cleared her throat to get their attention and cast them a stern look. Embarrassed, they focused on the president.
During the hymn, Allison sized up the day ahead. Two classes, lunch, work, night class, home to study, call her mother, and hopefully get to bed before midnight. She said a silent prayer once again thanking God for the scholarship and part-time job that enabled her to enroll in Riley’s graduate school.
“R-U ready? R-U willing? R-U able?” Drew McKinley bellowed. He punched the air with his fist and propelled his tall, lean body up the side stairs onto the podium. The students responded with cheers, followed by rapt attention.
“I’ve got twenty minutes of announcements so there will be no sermon today.” Drew threw a comical glare at Pastor Lindstrom seated in the dark blue upholstered deacon’s chair behind him. More cheers. Drew didn’t stand behind the ornate mahogany pulpit, but strolled back and forth across the edge of the podium. His rich baritone resonated throughout the majestic sanctuary. He made five minutes’ worth of obligatory announcements punctuated by banter about freshmen jitters and the senior countdown to graduation.
Allison observed the exuberance on the students’ faces, but couldn’t share it. She had much more important things to focus on than collegiate rah-rah, such as her new job. She still questioned the purple linen blouse that her roommate Renee talked her into buying, yet the “Buy One, Get One Half Price” deal had made it worth the investment. It was dressier than the clothes she usually wore to class, but Renee insisted Allison dress for the business world.
“And don’t wear your hair in that juvenile ponytail,” Renee had whined, tugging on it as Allison walked out the door of their apartment that morning.
Allison felt comfortable in the new black slacks, though, and she had taken time to re-iron the perfectly aligned creases down the legs. She hoped everything wouldn’t be too wrinkled by the time she got to work at one o’clock.
“The senate selected an exceptional theme this year. It’s Journey Down the Path of Life based on Psalm 16:11. ‘You have made known to me the path of life. You will fill me with joy in Your presence, with eternal pleasures at Your right hand,’” Drew read with fervor.
Allison perked up at Drew’s words, surprised to see him reading from the Bible. She didn’t recall him ever using it in chapel last year.
“Consider today the first mile of your journey. Many more miles lie ahead, some with curves, speed bumps, and detours, but I guarantee the destination will be worth it when you follow His road map.” He held up the Bible, a broad smile on his face.
A handsome face; although maybe a bit pale. No surprise there. Drew’s gaze swept the auditorium, seeming to connect with each person, a communication tactic Allison wished she had attained. He obviously loved being on stage and among youth. Or was this his public façade? What was he like off the stage? What did he go through when his wife died so tragically? How did he handle being alone now?
Drew’s eyes connected with hers. They remained locked for a long second then his fingers swept through his thick wavy dark brown hair. They exchanged smiles and Allison flushed, a rare sensation.
Drew returned from lunch in the student dining hall to an empty office suite. A stack of mail sat on his desk, and he shuffled through it with disinterest. Seminars, invoices, the Chronicle of Higher Education. More junk. He dropped into the black high-back leather chair and reached for the phone to call the next person on his lengthy list, the athletic director.
“Excuse me, Mr. McKinley,” a smooth alto voice said from the doorway. “I’m Allison Bennett, the new communications specialist. I’m here to see Ms. Abbott, but she’s not in her office.”
Drew stood, motioned her in, and grasped her hand in welcome before he realized this was the girl—no, the woman— who caught his attention at chapel. He quickly let go of her hand and spoke with more enthusiasm than necessary, “Please, call me Drew!”
Lush chestnut hair cascaded in gentle waves to just below her shoulders. Wispy bangs brushed dark eyebrows that framed green eyes. A faint yet warm smile graced her lips. He had seen her before: in church, the dining hall, and with Sharon briefly last week. But she was among the dozens of students he had never formally met. Too many students. Never enough time.
“It looks like Sharon is literally out to lunch.” He gestured for her to take a seat.
She placed her worn blue backpack on the floor and eased into the guest chair in front of Drew’s desk, posture straight, chin high, confidence in her eyes.
“We’re happy to have you with us, uh, ….” What’s her name? Angela? Andrea?
“Yes, Allison. Sharon has been inundated since her last assistant left to get married. She’s relieved to have found you.”
“And I’m relieved she hired me,” Allison replied. “I almost gave up on grad school, but thanks to this job and the Hope Scholarship I got at the last minute, I’m here.”
A flutter in his heart at the mention of the scholarship distracted Drew for a moment, but he refocused on Allison. “The new one-year full-ride scholarship? Congratulations.”
“It’s a God Thing, that’s for sure. My goal is to get my master’s degree in three semesters, since this is my sixth year at Riley.”
“Six years? Then you must have attended part-time?” Drew asked.
Allison tucked a lock of hair behind her left ear displaying a small silver hoop earring. “Yes, I did. It’s hard for students like me to graduate in four years because we have to get jobs— sometimes more than one at a time—to avoid overwhelming student loans. Fortunately, I got a lot of scholarships, supplemented them with jobs, and had a full-time temp job at the Omaha World Herald this summer.”
Drew settled back in his chair and looked Allison square in the eyes. They were more than just green. They were a striking emerald reminding him of the necklace he had given Kendra for her twenty-fifth birthday. He gulped the memory away. Would the flashbacks ever end?
“I’m not sure how familiar you are with our student life team,” he began. “In addition to Sharon, Aaron Coffman is director of residence life. The front office staff manages activities, daily student interaction, and administrative coordination. We don’t oversee the graduate or seminary programs, which is a good thing. Another five hundred students would overwhelm us.”
Drew’s desk phone jangled and seeing the caller ID he reached for it. “Just a minute. It’s the president so I need to get this.”
As he listened to Dr. Sullivan’s kudos and observations on the first chapel, Drew noticed Allison’s glittering eyes sweep the office. He was relieved he had taken his spare suit to the executive gym in the lower level that morning; otherwise it would be hanging on the coat rack. No use having a new employee confirm the rumor that had been circulating the campus for seven months. His office had become his den, sometimes his bedroom, thanks to the comfortable leather sofa against a wall.
Today, a red and black RU afghan lay decorously draped across the back. Blue and white University of Connecticut accent pillows rested on either end. Assorted books and thick black binders sat on polished floor-to-ceiling mahogany bookshelves on one wall. There were photos of his parents, casual shots of his brother and two sisters with their families, and the photo of him and Kendra taken on a Maui beach two summers before. His favorite artwork, a New England summer landscape painting that reminded him of home, hung on another wall. A door in a far corner of the room connected to a hall that led to the gym and the building’s back exit, which came in handy for quick get-aways.
As the call ended, Drew noticed Allison’s eyes fix on the empty red blown-glass bowl in the middle of the oblong conference table. Kendra had always kept the bowl filled with peanut M&Ms.
“The student life division deals with the social, cultural, community-building, volunteer, and leadership aspects of the undergraduate students’ time here at Riley,” Drew said increased volume to regain her attention. “We engage students through organizations, events and activities. Thanks to some effective committees and a solid student senate, we’ve got an outstanding program that many colleges emulate. In fact, Riley is thought of as a Christian Ivy League university.”
A dimple popped on the right cheek of Allison’s face as a broader smile emerged. “That’s on the home page of the website, the student handbook, and all admissions material.”
“You’re observant,” he chuckled. “We’ll keep busy this year. We have a new student senate president, three clubs have been chartered, and enrollment is up seven percent. If we’re not careful, we’ll outgrow the campus.”
“Be thankful for that.” Allison stared him down. “Many Christian colleges are struggling with declining enrollment. Some have closed. Others are getting so expensive that students can’t afford to attend unless they work more hours than they’re in class. Some colleges are becoming elitist because not even middle-class students can afford them. But I’m sure you’re aware of all that.”
Her frankness surprised Drew and he slid his chair up to the desk. “Do you think Riley is elitist, Allison?”
“Not yet, but it might come to that if tuition keeps rising and the administration loses touch with the students’ needs.”
Whoa! Did she just tell me off? He rested his forearms on the desktop, weaving his fingers together. As much as he would like to discuss this with her more, he knew it would end in a juggernaut. Better move on. “I think I’ve seen you at campus church.”
“Yes. We’ve attended since we came here.”
“We?” His glance drifted to Allison’s bare left hand lying on her lap. A small black-banded watch wrapped around her wrist.
“My roommate and me, Renee Landers. She graduated in May with a business administration degree and is assistant manager at a boutique in Oak View Mall.”
Sharon dashed over the threshold into Drew’s office. “Good, you two are finally getting acquainted. Sorry to be late, Allison. I hope I didn’t keep you waiting too long.” Allison rose, swept up her backpack, and again extended her hand to Drew.
He gave it an extra grasp. “Welcome to the student life department, Allison.”
After they left, Drew sifted through the files on his desk to locate Allison’s resume. He had scanned it earlier, but didn’t remember anything beyond the bachelor’s degree in communication. He pulled up her student records on the network and perused the basics. Born in Nebraska, father deceased, no siblings. Until her senior year in high school, she attended Linden School District, in Morris, Nebraska. She graduated valedictorian from Prairie Ridge Community School in Iowa. She came to Riley a year after high school graduation. Commuter student. Twenty-five years old.
Drew continued reading with increased interest. Allison had received numerous prestigious scholarships, maintained a 3.9 GPA as an undergrad, and had a full class load this semester in the academically rigorous Business Communications graduate program. Impressive. But how can she take five courses, including a night class, and work part-time? She’ll burn out before Halloween.
He recalled Allison’s tone about balancing work and studies under financial strain and felt as if he had been scolded by his father.