The Mountains of North Carolina, 1998
I am going to kill him,” Emily Jane Todd muttered; then, her voice rising, she said louder, “Kill him! Murder him. Tear him limb from limb!” She pounded her fist on the car steering wheel, but even as angry energy filled her, she felt it leave as she remembered her humiliation of tonight. And the embarrassment renewed her anger.
“Did they just give me the award because I’m going to marry Donald?” she said out loud as she swung the car around a sharp curve in the road. When one wheel hit the gravel of the shoulder she took a deep breath and told herself to slow down. But even as she let up on the gas, her foot came back down on the pedal harder and she took the next curve even faster.
When she whizzed too close past a tree in the darkness of the moonless night, she felt tears cloud her eyes. This night had meant a lot to her. Maybe being honored by the National Library Association was nothing to Donald, but it was everything to Emily. So maybe delivering free books to rural areas in the Appalachian Mountains was nothing to a big-deal newscaster like Donald, but it’s what took up a lot of Emily’s time—as well as nearly all of her money—and she had been thrilled to have someone notice what she was doing.
As the tears started to obscure Emily’s vision, she dashed them away—sure she was smearing her mascara, but who was to see it now? She was driving back to a romantic little inn that had sherry and date cookies in each room. There were antique chests and flowered bedspreads, and the room had cost her a fortune. But she was going to spend tonight there alone!
“I should have known that everything was going wrong when they gave me a room with two beds,” she said aloud, then heard her car hit the gravel shoulder again. “It was the beginning of the worst week and in—”
She broke off because as she came around another sharp curve in the road, trees closing in on her on both sides, standing smack in the middle of the road was a man, his hand shielding his eyes from her headlights. Emily swerved. With all her might, she swung the wheel to the right trying not to hit him. She’d rather wrap herself around a tree than hit another human being, but suddenly, the man seemed to be between her and the side of the road. She swung to the left, back toward the center of the road, but she was going too fast for the car to respond.
When she hit the man, she felt a sickness inside her such as she’d never felt before. There was no sound in the world like that of a car hitting human flesh.
Emily felt like it took hours instead of seconds to get the car stopped, and her seat belt unfastened before she leaped out and started running. The headlights provided the only illumination in the blackness and her heart was pounding. She could see nothing.
“Where are you?” she choked out, feeling frantic and very frightened.
“Here,” she heard a whisper, then she went tearing down the side of the steep embankment that ran alongside the road. Her long, beige satin dress caught on every fallen branch, and her high-heeled sandals sunk into the soft leaf mold covering the floor of the woods, but she kept going.
He had fallen—or been knocked—several feet down the hill, so it took Emily a while to find him, and then she almost stepped on him. Dropping to her knees, she had to feel him to see what part of him was where, since the trees blocked the light from the car above. She felt an arm, then his chest and finally reached his head. “Are you all right? Are you all right?” she kept asking as she ran her hands over his face. There was dampness on his face, but she couldn’t tell if it was blood or sweat or from the moisture of the forest.
When she heard him groan, all she felt was relief. At least he wasn’t dead! Why, oh, why hadn’t she purchased the cell phone Donald had wanted her to get? But she’d been selfish and said that if she had a phone in her car, Donald would talk to everyone but her.
“Can you get up?” she asked, smoothing his hair back from his forehead. “If I leave you here to go call for help, I’m afraid I won’t find this place again. Please tell me you’re all right.”
The man turned his head in her hands. “Emily?” he said softly.
At that, Emily sat back on her heels and tried to look at him. Her eyes were adjusting to the darkness somewhat, but she still couldn’t see his face clearly.
“How do you know my name?” she asked, and every horrible news report she’d ever heard Donald give on T V went through her head. Was this man a serial killer who faked injuries in order to lure women to their doom?
Before she knew what she was doing she had shifted her body to run back up the hill to the car. Had she left the engine running? Or had it stalled when she’d stopped so abruptly? Could she get away from him if he made a grab for her?
“I won’t hurt you,” the man said as he tried to sit up.
Emily was torn between wanting to help him and wanting to run away as fast as she could. Suddenly, his hand gripped her wrist and the decision was no longer hers to make.
“Are you hurt?” he asked, his voice hoarse. “You were driving very fast. You could have hit a tree and been hurt.”
Emily blinked at him in the darkness. First he knew her name, now he knew how fast she was driving. I must get out of here, she thought, and again looked up the hill toward the car. She could see a tiny ray of light through the trees. Would the headlights drain the battery too much for the car to start?
Still holding onto her wrist, the man tried to sit up, but Emily didn’t help him. There was something very strange about him that just made her want to get away.
“This body feels awful,” he said as he raised himself into a sitting position.
“Yes, being hit by a car is indeed dreadful,” she said, her voice rising as her fear increased with each second.
“You’re afraid of me,” the man said, his tone one of disbelief. It was almost as though he expected her to know him.
“I . . . I’m not really afraid . . .” she began, thinking that she should pacify him. “Yes you are. I can feel it. It shines from you. Emily, how could you—”
He was rubbing his head as though it hurt him a great deal. “I’ve always known your name. You’re one of mine.”
That does it! she thought, and with a sudden wrench, she pulled away from his grip and started running up the hill toward the car.
But she didn’t get very far before he caught her about the waist and pulled her into his arms to hold her close. “Ssssh,” he said. “Be calm. You can’t be afraid of me, Emily. We have known each other too long.”
Oddly enough, his touch began to calm her, but at the same time, his words disturbed her.
“Who are you?” she asked, her mouth against his shoulder.
“Michael,” he said, as though she should have known that.
“I don’t know any Michael.” Why wasn’t she struggling to get away? she wondered, even as she leaned against him. Who was it who had been hit by the car, anyway?
“You know me,” he said softly, his hand entangling in her hair. She’d had it put up for the awards ceremony tonight, but it had come down and was now hanging in a mass about her neck. “I’m your guardian angel and we have been together for a thousand years.”
For a moment, Emily stood where she was, safe in the circle of his arms, and didn’t move. Then what he’d said began to penetrate her brain—and laughter began to bubble up inside her. Laughter was what she needed after this horrible day. What should have been a great honor for her had turned into a great humiliation and had ended with her hitting a man with her car.
A man who now claimed he was her guardian angel.
“An angel, are you?” she said, pulling away from him. “So where are your wings?” She didn’t know whether to laugh or run away in terror.
“Angels don’t really have wings. It’s something you mortals invented. We appear in them sometimes so you can identify us, but we never have them when we are in mortal bodies.”
“Ah, I see,” she said, smiling, as she stepped away from this insane man. “Well, look, I can see that you’re not hurt and, besides, I guess you can fly out of here. That is, if you decide to put on your wings.” She was backing up the hill toward the car, which was no easy feat considering that she was wearing a full-length evening gown and high heels. “So I think this, uh, ah, mortal will be leaving now.”
He caught her at the edge of the tarmac, his hand going about her waist.
Enough, she thought, and whirled on him. “Look, mister, whoever you are, whatever you are, keep your hands off me.” With that, she walked to the driver’s side of the car and got in. And as soon as she was seated, she saw him standing in the headlights. For someone who’d just been hit by a car, he could certainly move quickly.
For just a second, as she closed the car door, she had a look at him. He was tall, broad shouldered, with a great mass of black curly hair. But he also had eyelashes that were so thick and heavy that she wondered how he could see out from under them. His clothes were dark and they seemed to be stained, but she wasn’t going to stay and find out what the stains were.
The car engine was still running, so what had seemed like hours must have been minutes. She meant to drive around this crazy man, but the second she put her hand on the wheel, he crumbled to the ground in front of her, lying in the beam of the headlights as though he were dead.
Cursing under her breath, Emily was out of the car in seconds as she went to him, slid her arms under his and helped him to stand. “Come on, I’ll take you to a hospital,” she said wearily.
He leaned against her. For someone who had just run up the steep bank of a hill, he now seemed peculiarly helpless.
“I knew you couldn’t leave me,” he said, smiling down at the top of her head. “You have always been a lollipop for a wounded man.”
She helped him into the passenger seat, fastened his seat belt and then got behind the wheel before she thought about what he’d said. Lollipop? she said to herself, then, Oh. A sucker.
She drove into the tiny mountain town where she had a room at what had to be the most romantic inn on earth with a crazy man beside her. She’d defy anyone to come up with a worse weekend than she was having! Yes, she thought, she was indeed a lollipop of a sucker!
“I can’t find anything wrong with him,” the young doctor was saying to Emily. “Not a scratch or even a bruise on him. Are you sure you hit him with your car?”
“You don’t forget a sound like that,” she said, sitting in the chair across from his desk. It was two o’clock in the morning, her new dress was torn, she was dirty and tired, and all she wanted to do was go to bed and forget that this day had happened.
“Well, either you are both very lucky or . . .”
He didn’t have to say it, but she could tell that he thought she may have been drinking, or sniffing some sort of fairy dust. What kind of drugs did angels do, anyway? Wasn’t there something called angel dust? Or was that angel hair, and it went on the Christmas tree?
“Are you all right, Miss Todd?” the young doctor asked, staring at her.
“What about his saying that he’s an angel?” Emily snapped. She was not the patient.
For several seconds, the doctor blinked at her, then looked down at his clipboard. “Michael Chamberlain, aged thirty-five, born in New York, six-foot-one, one hundred ninety-five pounds, black hair, brown—”
“Where did you get that information?” she snapped, then apologized. “I’m sorry, it’s been a long night.”
“It has been a long night for all of us,” the doctor said, letting her know that he didn’t usually see patients at two A.M . on a Saturday morning. “His driver’s license,” he answered. “Everything we needed was on it. Now, I really would like to go home and get some sleep. I have patients coming into the clinic at eight A.M. I suggest that if you want further tests done on Mr. Chamberlain, that you drive him to the hospital in Asheville. Now, if you don’t mind . . .” he said pointedly.
Emily hesitated, wanting to insist once more that this man must be at least slightly hurt.
But the doctor’s raised eyebrow was enough to make her keep her mouth shut. In his view, she had dragged him out of bed to look at a man who was in perfect physical health.
Except that Emily knew she had hit him with her car hard enough to knock him thirty feet down the side of a mountain.
“Thank you,” she managed to say quietly, then slowly made her way out of the office and into the waiting room
She expected the crazy man to be sitting there waiting for her, but there was no sign of him and she breathed a sigh of relief. Why couldn’t insanity be seen, like a scar or a birthmark? she wondered.
Sometimes you had to know a person for years before you realized he or she was crazy.
As Emily reached the door to the outside, she was beginning to relax. Whatever was wrong with her? The man had just been hit by a car! It was no telling what a person might say after being knocked down a mountain. Maybe she’d misheard him and what he’d really said was that he felt his guardian angel had protected him. Yes, of course, she thought, smiling. Believing in guardian angels was all the rage lately. Having one meant a person was personally watched over by Heaven. A guardian angel could make a person feel very special.
She was musing on this idea so intently that she didn’t see him until she was inside the car and buckled in her seat.
“Now I see why you mortals sleep so much,” he said as he gave a bone-cracking yawn and Emily nearly jumped out of her skin. He was sitting in the passenger seat.
“What are you doing in my car?” she half screamed.
“Waiting for you,” he said, as though she’d said something odd.
“How did you get in here? It was locked and—” She cut him off before he could say another word. “And so help me, if you say that you’re an angel and that’s why you can open locked car doors, I’ll . . . I’ll. …” She never had been very good with threats. Instead, she opened her door and started to get out.
“Emily,” he said as he caught her arm and drew her back in.
She snatched out of his grasp. “Keep your hands off of me!” She drew a deep breath and tried to calm herself. “Look, I don’t know who you are or what you want, but I want you to get out of my car and go back to wherever you came from. I am very sorry I ran into you but the doctor says you’re fine, so you can go home. Do I make myself clear?”
He gave another of his huge yawns. “This isn’t your town, is it? Do you have one of those . . . mmmm . . . what do you call them? Places where you stay overnight.”
“Yes,” he said and looked at her as though she were a genius. “Do you have a hotel room where we can stay?”
“We?” she asked, anger just below the surface. She was no longer afraid of him, just fed up.
Leaning back against the headrest, he smiled. “I can read your mind, Emily. You’re thinking about sex. Why do mortals think about sex so very much of the time? If you people just used a little restraint—”
“Out!” she shouted. “Get out of my car! Get out of my life!”
“It’s that man, isn’t it?” he asked, turning toward her. “He let you down again, didn’t he?”
For a moment she had no idea what he was talking about, then she nearly exploded. “Donald? You’re asking me about the man I love?”
“Isn’t there something in this country named that? Or is that in Persia? Now, what was that? Oh yes, a duck. He’s—”
At that, Emily doubled her fists and lunged at him as though to beat him in the chest. But he caught her wrists in his hands, then looked at her for several moments nose to nose. “Your eyes are quite nice, Emily,” he said in a low voice that made her hesitate before jerking away to lean back in the driver’s seat.
“What do you want?” she asked heavily.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I really don’t know why I’m here. Michael told me there was a serious problem on Earth that involved you, and he asked if I’d be willing to take on a mortal’s body so I could solve it.”
“I see,” Emily said tiredly. “And just who is this Michael?”
“Archangel Michael, of course.”
“Of course,” Emily said. “Whatever was I think ing? And I guess Gabriel is your very best friend.”
“Heavens no. I’m only a level-six angel. Those two are. . . . Well, they don’t even have levels where they are. But when Michael asks you to do something, you do it. No questions asked.”
“So you came to earth to help me do something—” “Or to help with something involving you.” “Yes, of course. Thank you for correcting me. And now that that’s straightened out—”
“Emily, we are both tired. These mortal bodies are certainly awkward, heavy things and—what is it you say?—I’m asleep on my head.”
“Feet,” she said wearily. “Your feet? Di d you hurt them?” “Asleep on my feet. I am asleep on my feet.”
“Me too,” he said. “But I think I’d really rather be asleep on my back. Could we go to your hotel now? I got you one with two beds, didn’t I? Or did they disobey me? Sometimes making mortals actually hear you is difficult. You people don’t listen very well.”
Emily opened her mouth to speak but closed it again. Maybe if she slept, when she awoke she’d find out this was all a dream. She put the key in the engine, started the car and drove to the inn without saying another word.