She was about to present her research with Professor Mires to a roomful of distinguished professors in their fields, some prominent reporters for big newspapers, and who knew who else could be in attendance. She thought she might be sick.
Sure, she knew the education policy material like no other, and she had worked her ass off to make everything perfect, but she still felt like a really small fish here. It was a feeling that she didn’t like.
“Okay. Let’s get started,” Professor Mires said, quieting the room. “Ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much for attending this panel in undergraduate research. I would like to start off this session with one of my own students, Miss Liz Dougherty. She will be presenting her paper, ‘Education Policy and New Media in Political Journalism,’ to you today. Take the floor, Liz.”
“Thank you, Dr. Mires,” Liz said. She stood demurely and smoothed out her knee-length cream pencil dress, which belted around the middle with a black buckle. She had taken off her matching black blazer, because the room was warm enough without her freaking out. Her black heels clicked across the hardwood floor as she took the stage. Her eyes roamed the room, but she took it all in in a haze.
Somehow she started speaking. The words tumbled out of her mouth in coherent sentences that made the people sitting in the room nod their heads along with her. A few older gentlemen in the middle stared stonily up at her and she quickly averted her gaze. She hoped they always looked pissed off and weren’t angry about her presentation.
She had a fifteen-minute time slot, and when she reached the halfway point, Dr. Mires gave her a reassuring smile. It eased more of the tension off of her shoulders and she barreled forward. She could do this. She didn’t want to do it every day or anything, but she was doing all right so far.
The door at the back of the room opened and Liz’s eyes flicked up to the interruption in her speech.
Brady Maxwell walked into the room.
Her tongue tied, her face flushed, and she stood in front of everyone like a blubbering idiot. He closed the door quietly and stood in the back of the auditorium, his arms crossed, leaning against the back wall.
She couldn’t believe he had come to her panel. She knew that he was going to be at the colloquium for a politicians’ roundtable this afternoon, but she had expected him to attend his event and then be gone.
But no. Brady was currently in the room for her presentation.
Her memory did not do justice to the man. Even at this distance she could see the contours of his face, the sleek three-piece suit, the confident attitude, those dark brown eyes. Okay . . . maybe she couldn’t see those, but her imagination sure filled in the details.
What the hell had she been talking about before this?
Education policy. Right.
Liz broke eye contact with Brady across the room and looked down at the paper she was clutching in her hands with a death grip. She took a moment to collect herself. She knew Brady was watching her. She could feel his eyes all over her, and she felt vulnerable and exposed. How long in her dark times after walking away had she imagined him coming to find her and begging for her to come back? How many times had she thought about that beautiful face, reconstructing it in her mind? How many times had she wanted those eyes on her, assessing her, judging her, loving her?
No. Christ, she couldn’t go there today. She couldn’t love Brady today. She couldn’t love him ever again. She had buried those feelings, buried them in that dark, dank place that she would never be able to access. A drum beat a fast rhythm in her chest as she tried to regain her bearings.
She just had to get through this presentation. Then she could freak out. She could hold it together until then.
Liz cleared her throat and looked back up at her audience. “As I was saying, our education policy as it stands needs to be revamped. Students are skimming by, learning only to take a test, not to think for themselves. Several studies have shown that previous generations performed better in college when the emphasis was on forward thinking and not test taking.”
She went through the next few slides, detailing the work of political scientists and journalists who had looked at education policy more closely. Then she outlined her own findings and conclusions about the role of social media and how journalism could improve and refocus the political agenda.
“These changes, with the aid of political journalists in the field as well as the support of politicians, could create major improvements not just in secondary education, but on up through the university system.”
Liz concluded her presentation and then took a seat. She felt like a towel that had just been wrung out.
Besides her mishap when Brady had walked into the room, she didn’t think the presentation had gone poorly. But Brady hadn’t taken his eyes off of her the entire time. In fact, she had felt like those chocolate-brown eyes that had once made her entire body warm with desire were drilling a hole straight through her body. And she was talking about education policy, of all things. She had always been passionate about it.
How many times had she argued with Brady about pushing aside education policies that could have benefited the university for some budgetary measure? And she had thought for a long time that he was favoring the donors he so heavily relied on . . . that he was doing this for money . . . that he just wanted to be in the spotlight. It was a sentiment she had never been able to understand, because she had never wanted those things for herself. But then over time she had realized how wrong she was about Brady.
Too late now. She had left. He was with someone else. She was with Hayden.
She didn’t hear the next three presenters as each took up his or her own fifteen-minute slot. She knew what they were discussing because of her assistant work for the colloquium, but the words coming out of their mouths might as well have been gibberish. The only thing she could concentrate on was the person standing stoically in the back of the room.
“Thank you so much to all of the presenters,” Professor Mires said as the last person finished. The crowd applauded and she waited for the room to quiet down before speaking again. “All the students have worked tremendously hard, and we appreciate the effort. Since we have a little extra time, I’d like to open up the floor for questions.”
A few hands were raised and Dr. Mires called on people. Liz answered one or two questions, as did everyone else. Answering questions definitely wasn’t as hard as giving her speech, though as a reporter she was used to firing them off.