She sat on the sofa, a short distance from him geographically, but an ocean away from where she wanted to be.
Speaking of oceans, he still smelled of sea salt and motor boat fuel. And the rubber of his diving suit. And of aftershave and sweat.
She sipped the edge of her coffee mug.
Don’t get carried away with yourself, she thought. And stared at the professor’s weird rattan rug, wondering when it had last been hoovered in here.
Oh, what does that matter? She drank a big gulp of coffee before she said something stupid.
Look at his back, she thought. It wants to burst through the cotton shirt. Blue as the ocean, blue as his eyes. I wish he would just turn around and look at me!
He was too busy leafing through some books. He had said something about the ‘purity of a shark’, which was odd, as they hadn’t been talking about sharks yet. But he’d said it, and then leapt to his feet, all six-foot-two of him, and he’d sauntered over to one of the many piles of books that — despite their number — seemed piled with a certain asymmetrical order.
He was saying nothing as he looked for what he sought, and she wondered if he had forgotten she was here.
‘Professor,’ she had wanted to say, but he seemed deep in concentration. Or his back did. Could a back look like it was concentrating?
Yes, for sure. For his did.
His hair was blond from the sun, and she could see the tan on his neck too.
“There!” he said with a suddenness that shook her, and he was back in the seat opposite her so quickly she felt hunted.
If only, she thought.
She found herself looking at a full colour spread of a shark. And gave an immediate shiver. Too much of the movie Jaws, she supposed.
She felt embarrassed he might have seen her reaction.
“What do you see?” he asked keenly. And for the first time in a long while, she felt like her response mattered fiercely to him. She was the centre of his attention. It was thrilling.
She became nervous, for she felt there was a right answer. Most times she didn’t pick right answers. She would say something stupid. Something to regret and replay when trying to sleep.
She assumed he then took pity on her hesitation. So, he answered the question himself.
She was relieved. She nodded.
“What type is it?”
“Species, you mean?’
Of course! That was stupid. How was he going to let himself have a research assistant who thought animals come in types? Or fish, even. Oh hell, this isn’t going well.
“It’s a great white,” he said. Then smiled. “But you know that. I saw your eyes flutter.”
He made the sound of the Jaws theme, and she wondered if he was deliberately toying with her.
“This is the one I actually wanted to show you,” he said.
And he opened the page where his thumb had sat patiently, waiting for his little joke to finish.
“This, is a tiger shark.”
I think I knew that, she thought.
She drank some more coffee, to silence any dumb, ill-prepared responses, like asking if it was related to the tiger.
She was punishing herself, she realised. Ok, so she was more of a land animal afficionado, so what? Her whole reason for wanting to be Professor Newman’s research assistant was to learn about fish. Sharks!
Oh, hell. No, you just fancy him.
But she was no groupie. And she hoped that’s why he was interviewing her.
This is an interview? Yes! Bring yourself back down to earth, you have a Masters degree in Zoology. Does it make me immune to my own biological responses, just because I study other SPECIES? No! Of course not.
He stood up again, and for a moment she thought he was going to hit her with the book. She had no idea why that thought popped in her head.
“Ah, you’re humouring me,” he said with some sadness. “Nobody is interested in the tigers. They don’t have their own soundtrack.”
“I am interested,” she said.
He looked back at her, the book flailing limply in his lowered hand. She could not read his expression then, but he seemed a little melancholy. An expression that did not look right on him — his features were not made for it.
“What do you know about them?” he asked.
She took a deep breath. Oh hell, she thought. What had she read?
“They’re aggressive predators,” she began. His expression turned icy.
“That’s what you’ve heard?” he asked.
“Yes. They’ll eat almost anything which comes their way. Even things which aren’t edible.”
He rubbed his chin thoughtfully.
“They have a bad reputation, do you think?”
“I don’t know. Perhaps they like to try everything that’s out there.” She didn’t know why she felt like chuckling. Nerves, again. “They are large,” she continued. “Strong.”
She thought of his back again, how it strained against his shirt. And then visualised the smallest details of him, something she practised often on those sleepless nights.
He had big shoulders, and strong arms — almost a little too muscular for a forty-five-year-old marine biologist. He had the body of a twenty-year-old surfer. A surfer who did nothing more with his days than catch waves, consume cans of beer and hunt for young female tourists.
She wasn’t entirely sure that was a fair comparison to make — either to the Professor, or to surfers. But it was a romantic image, and one she’d picked up from somewhere. Maybe surf movies, or half-read articles. She was no stranger to either.
But she could imagine he had been a surfer in his twenties. Perhaps he still was. Why didn’t she know that about him already? She chided herself. No facts should escape her.
He came a little closer, but did not sit.
“How are you around aggressive predators with a bad reputation for having a voracious appetite?”
She looked up at him, a little startled. They maintained eye contact. She didn’t know how to break it. Didn’t know that she wanted to.
Her words tumbled.
“I’m good around them. Are we still talking about sharks?”
He sat down, and for the first time, looked a little embarrassed.
“You’re top of my list. But it’s a three-month trip. We’ll be living in close quarters. I’ve been asking about you, and apparently you’re quiet, reserved, and don’t have a boyfriend — or girlfriend — to speak of. I hear you’re gifted. Competitive. And excel at everything you do. Why no significant other?”
She flushed a little. She definitely felt the heat of it on her face.
“My mind is occupied with other things. I’m not a prude. Or overly shy, if that’s what you mean. I’ve had boyfriends. I’m not sheltered.”
She couldn’t get thoughts of him showering out of her head. She blamed this on assuming these questions were because he was worried the sight of him naked on a small boat — it was bound to happen — would send her into some kind of paroxysm.
You just want to think that’s why he’s asking. Because you want an excuse to think about it! Oh, shut up, she told herself.
“And, the reputation. Doesn’t put you off?”
“We’re not talking about the tiger sharks, are we?” she said.
“No. I feel confident you will find them beautiful despite their greed for anything that floats in their path.”
“I know you have a reputation, of course I do. But you’re the best in the field. I could learn so much from you. And I’m pretty sure I can control myself.”
He laughed, loudly.
She felt her flushed cheeks redden even more brightly.
“It’s ok,” he said. Then he laughed again. “You will control yourself, I’m sure. And I will too. The tiger sharks need us. They have a low reproduction rate. Did you know that? That’s why they are near-threatened.”
“Not lower than mine,” she said, and stared into her cup. Then looked directly at him.
That’s very clumsy flirting, she told herself. Oh, why not. Three months away together. We both know what’s going to happen. Or, even worse, it won’t happen — and that would be unbearable. Might as well gauge his interest now, rather than moping on a boat for three months being jealous of the attention he gives the sharks.
“The position is yours,” he said, and nothing else. Then offered his hand.
It felt large and warm and weathered around her own.
She liked the way he looked at her then, and she glowed inside.
Yes. Any position I want, she thought.