Authors: Angela Carling
Copyright © 2011 by Angela Carling. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any methods, photocopying, scanning, electronic or otherwise, except as permitted by notation in the volume or under Sections 107 or 108 of the 1976 United States Copyright Act, without the prior written permission of the author.
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To my family—
Knock Knock Knock
7, TTS, TTE
Jennie looked at the mirror critically. This was the sixth outfit she’d tried on and it still didn’t look quite right. Why did she ever agree to go out with Connor? She blamed this mess on Marissa. Ever since Marissa and Braiden became a couple, it seemed there was always some new guy she wanted Jen to go out with. What was it about people with boyfriends anyway? Didn’t Marissa understand she was fine not having a boyfriend? In fact, Jennie considered it a gift to be single. She was busy, too busy to maintain some pointless relationship that would end after graduation and cause her unnecessary tears. No, being single was a much better alternative—but whenever she tried to explain this to Marissa, she would look at Jennie as if she were some pitifully misguided person, and be picking out Jennie’s next blind date at the same time. It was infuriating really, and if Marissa hadn’t been her best friend, Jennie would’ve never put up with it.
Finally, Jennie tore off the silky crimson tank top and replaced it with her favorite black T-shirt. Connor was just going to have to deal with it. Besides, she didn’t want to encourage him anyway. She grabbed her phone and took one last look in the mirror before heading downstairs. Before she reached the bottom of the stairs, the doorbell rang. She moaned inwardly. Suddenly, her little sister Kate appeared from nowhere and answered the door before Jennie could reach it. A blast of desert heat came in with the open door and standing in the doorway stood Connor, looking unusually nervous, even for him.
“Hi.” He conjured what Jennie figured was the quality of conversation that she could expect for the night. Be nice, she heard her mother’s words come to her in the form of her conscience. Jennie took a deep breath. Her conscience was right; it wasn’t his fault. She should’ve said no if she really didn’t want to go. She forced a smile as she walked to the door.
“Tell Mom I’ll be home by 11,” she said to her twelve-year-old sister, who was busy checking out Jen’s date. Kate slowly pulled her eyes away from Connor before looking absently at Jennie for a moment.
“Whatever,” Kate said, trying to appear cool in front of company. Kate was precocious, to say the least. Jennie rolled her eyes as she walked out the door and closed it, nearly taking her sister’s nose off in the process. Before the door even latched behind Jennie, Kate had already moved to the window in the front room to watch them walk to the car.
Connor fidgeted with his keys as they walked down the concrete sidewalk to his Jeep.
“I put the top on for you,” he tried to make conversation.
Jennie smiled politely. As she climbed into his car, Jennie made herself a promise: no more dates for a while. No reason to torture some unsuspecting guy when her heart wasn’t available anyway, and, if she were truthful with herself, it hadn’t been since Jace had crushed it several months before.
Nate looked intently at the thick file on the small desk in front of him. He had been studying it for hours. Jennine Townsend. He said the name in his head over and over to make sure he had it memorized correctly. He would need to know it tomorrow when he met her for the first time; at least he hoped to meet her tomorrow. Palm Springs High was a big school, and he might not run into her the first day.
Nate reached out and flipped open the cover of the cream-colored folder and stared at the picture of Jennie that was paper- clipped to the inside. She was pretty in a sort of non-traditional way. Her long dark hair was replete with hundreds of ringlets that fell loosely around her face, setting off her vibrant green eyes. The curls had to be natural; no one could sit still long enough to curl that much hair. No one would have the time. From her picture, Nate could tell she was likely part Irish, her heritage given away by her ivory skin and a small crop of freckles on her dainty nose.
Nate reached down with one finger and traced around the edge of the 5 by 7 photo that he had been studying. Something about her made him feel apprehensive about what stretched out before him. Maybe he was nervous about his own abilities. There were rules and limitations that he must adhere to, or there would be terrible consequences. Would he be able to fulfill his responsibilities, or would he fail and let down all the people who were depending on him? He shuddered at the thought. It wasn’t that he hadn’t been a protector before. He’d actually stopped keeping track of how many missions he’d successfully accomplished, but this one seemed different somehow, weightier in importance. Celeste, his supervisor, did make a big deal about this job. That alone was enough to make him nervous. If Celeste saw working with Jennie as important, there was a reason. She was a well-seasoned supervisor who only worked with important cases, some more critical than others. Besides, not a day went by that Nate didn’t recognize what a privilege it was to even be part of the guardian angel force. It was a coveted position and not one he ever took for granted.
Nate pushed back his chair and stood up abruptly, creating disruption in what had been a perfectly silent room. He forced himself to close the file and walk away for a minute. A deep cleansing breath seemed to help clear his head. Celeste had believed in him enough to give him such an important assignment; maybe he should believe in himself. Taking fresh courage, Nate walked back over to the desk that was tucked in the corner of his bedroom and opened the folder again. This time when he saw her picture, his lips curled up in a cautious smile. He could almost imagine her returning his first friendly greeting. He reached down and touched the image staring back at him one more time.
I won’t fail you, Jennine Townsend,
he thought to himself and then, as he slipped off his T-shirt and climbed into bed, he finished with a whisper... “I promise.”
Nate arrived at Palm Springs High School well before the rest of his soon-to-be classmates. He could already feel the desert sun heating the pavement beneath his feet, and it was only 7:45 in the morning. Reflexively, he wiped off the back of his neck where beads of sweat had started to form as he climbed from his misty blue Mustang and closed the heavy metal door with a solid thud. He scanned the large student parking lot, not really looking for Jennie as much as getting a handle on his new environment. Palm Springs High was big and it seemed like everyone with a driver’s license had a car, making it hard to sort through the sea of metal and kids with backpacks.
Then all at once, he saw her.
She was climbing out of a little silver four-door Honda. Her dark curly hair was pulled back in a neat ponytail, allowing him to see her face clearly. To his surprise, his stomach began knotting up in anticipation like it had the night before. She was pretty, much prettier than in her picture. She slung her pink plaid backpack over her right shoulder and wove through the cars until she was almost in front of him, so close that soon he would be able to reach out and touch her as she walked by. For just a brief second Jennie’s eyes met with his. Instinctively, he smiled at her, and she responded with a guarded but friendly smile in return; then she walked past him and on through the large metal gates as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
He had seen her and she’d smiled! All at once, it came to Nate how he would accomplish the task he had been given. He would be her friend, her best friend if she would let him. He grabbed his own backpack and followed her in.
Jennie obviously knew the campus well. Completely at ease with her surroundings, she strolled through the maze of neutral-colored buildings, waving along the way to people she knew. Finally, she slowed down in front of a long row of metal lockers and began searching for a specific number. When she found what she was after, she reached back into a slim pocket on the side of her backpack and pulled out a basic keyed lock. She pulled the key from the lock and hooked it onto a thin black lanyard that she wore around her neck. Next, she emptied most of the contents of her backpack into the locker and secured it with the key. Then she placed her backpack on the floor and began searching in her bag for something. Nate took the opportunity to look around. By the time he looked back, she was gone. Silently, he berated himself for his carelessness.
Nate blended himself with the increasingly large number of students who were now on campus and walked over to the lockers where Jennie had stood minutes before. Casually, he took note of the number on her locker—199. He could remember that. He noticed both of the lockers next to hers were already taken. He knew his assigned locker was all the way across campus. He would have to do something about that. Suddenly a bell clanged from speakers running the length of the covered walkway; it was time to go to class.
Nate didn’t run into Jennie again for almost a week. He didn’t plan it that way, it just happened. They didn’t have a single class together, and the freshman with the locker next to Jennie was impossible to track down. Once Nate found him, all he had to do was pull out a large wad of cash and the too-young-to-hold-job freshman was more than happy to trade lockers with him.
Even after Nate moved all of his things to locker 200, he still missed her for another two days. The odds seemed to be against him ever finding her. Finally, when Nate wasn’t looking, he ran into her, literally.
Nate was pulling out of his parking space and Jennie was driving through the parking lot, hurrying to get to her after school job. He checked his rear view mirror before he pulled out but was distracted by his cell phone ringing in the passenger’s seat. She was looking forward and not paying attention to cars around her. The sickening sound of metal crushing metal quickly jolted them both back to reality. Nate set his emergency brake and jumped out just in time to see Jennie’s face turn the color of ash. By then, a small crowd of people had already begun forming a viewing section and were busily swapping testimonials of what they had witnessed.
Celeste is going to kill me
. He quickly closed the difference between the two cars and opened her door.
“Are you all right?” he asked, peering down into the driver’s seat.
Jennie smiled weakly as she opened her door and climbed out to look at the damage. “Yeah,” she said, “but I can’t say the same about my car.”
Together they walked to the front of her car to see what exactly had been crushed. By now, the group of spectators had grown to a genuine crowd and they were busily sending pictures and texting the details of the crash to everyone they knew.
“Oh, no,” Jennie moaned when she saw her crumpled bumper.
Nate’s Mustang was made in the sixties before car manufacturers came up with lighter metals. Under the weight of his old car, the bumper of Jennie’s car had splintered and crumbled while his was hardly dented.
“I’m so sorry, Jennie,” he said.
“What am I going to do?” she whimpered. “I can barely afford my insurance now and I’m sure it will go up.”
Nate felt like crawling under a rock. He was supposed to impress this girl, not ruin her life. “I’ll fix it,” he blurted out impulsively. “I know someone who owns a body shop. You won’t even have to report it to your insurance company.”
He knew as a protector, he would be forced to lie on occasion, but he still cringed as the words rolled so easily off his tongue. He was sure he’d hear about this from Celeste, too. Fortunately, the lie worked. Jennie lifted her eyes long enough to see if he was sincere. He would fix it. He was telling the truth about that, and that morsel of truth helped her trust him. Her shoulders dropped and she let out an enormous sigh. Soon people realized there would be no more drama so they began to wander off. Jennie pulled her car into the empty space next to the Mustang so she and Nate could talk. Once she joined him next to his car, he finally reached out his hand to introduce himself.
“I hate that this is the way we have to meet,” he said, “My name is Nate.”
Jennie took his hand. As she did, she felt a surge of something indescribable move from his fingers to hers. The sensation, whatever it was, didn’t alarm her. In fact, it made her feel better the same way her mother’s comforting arms used to when she was hurt or scared. She wondered if her adrenaline was elevated from the accident, causing her to feel strange.