Professor Comstock sat on the edge of his chair, peering into the eyepiece of a brass microscope. Nora set her box on the table and settled onto the stool beside him. He either didn't hear her or chose not to acknowledge her, because he continued to study his slide, making clicking noises with his tongue and murmuring.
"Professor," Nora said.
He held up a finger.
Nora grinned. She well understood the excitement of discovery. When Cornell first received the microscopes, Nora had spent hours studying the world she'd previously been unable to see. Pulling away to attend to the mundane was always difficult.
Professor Comstock sat up straight and shook his head. "Look and tell me what you see."
She pulled the microscope toward her and bent over it. Expecting the brilliant scales of a butterfly's wing or the spiky hairs of an ant's mandible, she was perplexed by the translucent orbs clinging to what looked like a tortoise shell comb. "Pollen? Are you studying botany now?"
"Only as it relates to apiculture. The pollen is clinging to the legs of a honeybee. It's fascinating. I'm beginning a new class next year. If you pursue your master's, you will take it."
"I've used my entire inheritance to obtain my bachelor's degree, but I'll attend your lectures." Nora thought she'd spoken well, with no trace of tremor in her voice.
He patted her hand. "Perhaps Lucius will..." He grimaced.
She laughed without humor. "We both know that's unlikely. Especially after Cornell released him from his job the way they did."
The professor sighed. "That's the second time the university has done that—let someone go by announcing it in the paper. And at Christmas! So unprofessional." He shook his head for a moment, then rapped the table with his knuckles, as though trying to wake himself up. "Tell me what you've brought today."
Nora pushed the cardboard box toward him and leaned forward, the anticipation delicious. When her father died, she thought she'd have no one to share her love of insects with. She'd have to suppress her joy when she discovered an orb-weaver's web or a centipede crawled into her upturned palm. But Professor Comstock and his wife, Anna, filled that empty place. They hadn't yet had children, and they'd watched Nora grow up. She'd joined them and her father when they tromped through the gorges. Her little hands could reach into the crevices behind wet rocks to pull out the insects hiding within. Nora wasn't sure how she could have managed the last six years without them.
Professor Comstock flipped open the box, and a delighted grin pushed his thick mustache northward.
She craned her neck to see into the box and recapture the moment she first saw the mounted insect. "What do you think?"
With gentle movements, he pulled it out and set it on the table. "He's beautiful. Where did he come from?"
Nora scooted her stool nearer and stared at the bug secured by brass pins. She liked the romantic-sounding name of jewel bug, but it was also known as a metallic shield bug, and that was more appropriate. An iridescent green and red scutellum shielded its abdomen and wings, and it looked like it wore armor—a miniature soldier waiting for battle orders.
"My father's old friend, Mrs. Martín, lives in the Philippines with her husband, who is a Spanish diplomat. She's an amateur entomologist and often sent insects to my father, but she stopped after his death. I wrote to her months ago and told her I'd still love any she thought might add to my collection, and this is the first I've received. Isn't it incredible?"
Professor Comstock nodded. He lifted the insect and peered between it and the card. Satisfied, he set it back down. "It will make a nice addition. I do wish we could get a look beneath its wings...." He glanced around as though searching for his scalpel.
Nora slipped the bug back into the box, imagining him slicing into it, bug parts flying as he figured out all he could about the internal workings of her magnificent little soldier.
He caught her surreptitious movement and smiled. "I promise to leave him in one piece." As he gazed at the bug, a faraway look clouded his eyes. "Wouldn't it be something, studying insects like this in Asia?" He turned to her, one brow raised in question. "Nora, I've just had a wonderful thought. A British colleague is in India, collecting butterflies for a book commissioned by the Crown. He's had the worst luck with illness—his assistants are dropping like flies." He gave her a wry smile. "He's asked if I can recommend anyone to join him. What about you?"
A short laugh escaped her throat as Nora imagined herself clad in linen and traipsing through the jungle with an umbrella net, capturing golden butterflies the size of her hand. She blinked away the unlikely dream. "I couldn't possibly." She was content to live and study in Ithaca. And to save the journal from Lucius's terrible management.