tagRomanceAngels and Guardians Pt. 07

Angels and Guardians Pt. 07

byphotodad©

Author's note:

Part Seven. To see where the characters come from, it is highly recommended to read the first six parts. Please remember to vote after reading each part.


***

Chapter 24

Ashley woke Joe at 5, dressed in her cheer uniform. She had slipped out from under Joe during the night to wash both their uniforms, and now laid his jersey, t-shirt, and jeans out on his bed while he showered. They got to the school, and met the senior cheerleaders at the track for a light jog around a few laps. Afterward, the group waited for school to begin, huddled around their favorite place at the closed concession counter in the senior hallway next to the gym. Joe and Ashley were greeted back warmly by the janitor and staff as they made their rounds. As students filed in, a crowd formed around the group with everybody wanting to give Joe their condolences.

Classes resumed as usual, and after lunch, the senior classes were mostly empty, as the teams and many students left school to travel to the game. The last three periods, Joe's teachers had conceded their class time as a wash, letting the remaining few students chat as they wished. Joe and Ashley separately used the time to meet one-on-one with the teachers to catch up on their lessons. The dean told the two in the final study hall period that if they wanted to leave early, they could. About the same time, the student body heard a helicopter circle overhead. Joe looked at Ashley and asked if she was ready and she said yes. He told the dean that his ride was there, referring to the chopping noise that passed on and got quieter, and thanked her for letting them out early. They went to their lockers, grabbed the bags that had been there all week, and headed out to the track.

The helicopter had shut its engines down, but when the pilot saw Joe and Ashley walking across toward him, he restarted the turbines. As the engine revved up, Joe called out to Ashley to tell her to duck below the blades, not only to keep her head attached, but because the rotors beat down a lot of debris. The blades rapidly accelerated as they got close, and Ashley saw what Joe meant. Dead grass, bits of garbage, and sticks flew around her, and ducking made most of the stuff bounce harmlessly off her back. The passenger door opened and they stepped inside. Cindy was waiting for them, and Joe sat next to her. Ashley sat opposite and snapped the belt across her lap. She saw Joe put on a headset that hung behind his seat, and she did the same. Through the headset, she heard Cindy say, "I hope you don't kill me for taking the liberty to go ahead and pick y'all up."

Joe shook his head as they started lifting off. "Nah, thanks for the push. Not subtle, but thanks."

"You're welcome. I figured you really need to at least go to the game."

Ashley watched as the school got smaller. The pilot circled around once to head off east, so Ashley got a great aerial view from all sides and concluded that the school was much smaller than it seemed inside. "These headphones are great," she said. "You're not yelling, yet I can hear every word you two are saying."

Cindy smiled. "They're noise-canceling. The computer chip inside detects the background noise and cancels it out using a second sound wave. With the engine literally on top of us, we would be yelling without these."

Ashley looked out the window, realizing that the pilot had chosen to fly over the coastline, so that they could see the beaches. After a few miles, he trued up his course for a direct flight to Jacksonville, causing the beaches to slip under them and drift away from the right side of the aircraft. With Ashley facing the rear, it took a few minutes for her equilibrium to adjust, but now she was comfortable watching the forests of NW Florida fade away from her point of view. They were flying over Tallahassee when Ashley noticed Joe was lost in thought, but not in his usual focused manner before a game. She was about to say something about it, but decided not to.

They landed in Jacksonville and rode to the game site in a car that Cindy had arranged. When they arrived, the teams were already jogging some warm up laps. Ashley and Joe deposited their bags on the benches and fell in step with their teammates. Jill and Jasmine made their way up to them and Jill asked how they made it so fast. Between breaths Ashley said that Cindy arranged a flight on Joe's helicopter and they just rode in from the airport. Jasmine asked why not complete the show and just land on the field. Ashley simply answered, "Joe's not like that." Joe added that the aircraft needed to refuel anyway, so it was just easier to land there and ride in.

It was the second quarter, and the game lived up to its billing so far. Both teams' offenses were strong and overpowered the defenses. The score was tied at 21, with neither team failing to score on their possessions. Joe was trying to help his defense by playing at defensive back, but the other team had done their homework and avoided throwing to his side of the field. Their opponents had a running game that just blew through anything they put up against them, while Joe's Guardians allowed him to pick apart the defense with precision passing. But, Ashley noticed he wasn't playing like Joe. Usually, he looked as though he played like a kid with a toy while he was on the field. Tonight, he seemed flat, as if he was going about working at a job. At halftime, the score was still tied, the scoreboard reading 35 points a piece. Ashley ran up to Joe before he headed to the locker room and grabbed his arm, pulling him to the side.

"Are you okay?"

"I would be if we could stop them."

"That's not what I meant, Joe."

"Ashley, I gotta go. What do you want?"

"You're not playing like yourself. Are you okay?"

"I've got like 300 yards passing, what more do you want?"

"You have 274," she corrected him. "I want you to play for you. You're not having fun out there, and I'm afraid that you'll get hurt because of it."

"I'm just trying to win, Ashley."

"I know, and you're doing great. Just please get back to playing a game, rather than working a job?"

Joe reflected on her comments while the defensive coach berated the squad for letting the running back through so much. He realized that she was right. Tonight wasn't fun at all. His thoughts were interrupted when Coach Mike asked him if he noticed anything that could give them an edge. Joe shook his head, reminding the coach that he missed all the videos during the week. Coach Mike pressed a bit more, asking if he saw anything tonight that might help.

"No. He lines up perfectly square, and he has that damn visor on, so I can't see what his eyes are doing. Maybe shade everyone to that side of the field, since they're avoiding me?"

"That would leave you all alone."

Joe shrugged, "you asked for ideas. Didn't say it was a perfect one."

The game's pace slowed down after the half, as both sides tried to break free of the pattern. Joe returned to some of his old ways, toying with the defense a bit by changing calls to run right where they were guessing, and then throwing perfect passes to burn the secondary. His Guardians started to tire as the game wore on, but Joe started having fun again. As the protection broke down, he would spin, juke, and run out of sure tackles, usually able to finish up the broken plays with a short completion.

Then, very late in the fourth quarter, the game clinching play happened. The opponents decided to chance throwing the ball to the receiver Joe was covering. He saw his assignment's eyes go up and Joe turned to track the ball in the air. He jumped to knock it away and it glanced off his finger tips. The receiver made an improbable catch, grabbing the flailing ball just before it hit the ground behind Joe. The contortion he did to make the catch sent the receiver off balance, running out of bounds to try and stay upright. Joe had recovered and was right behind to make a tackle if he stayed in. The receiver still was off balance and was barreling straight for the group of cheerleaders who were facing the crowd. Joe leaped and hit him off course, causing Jasmine on the end to only get brushed. The officials flagged the move, penalizing Joe for a late intentional hit out of bounds. Coach Mike nearly got ejected for vehemently objecting to the call, saying Joe was trying to save the girls from injury and did not attempt harm, but the call stood. The penalty gave the other team an extra 15 yards that put them in field goal range, and they ran the time down until they had just long enough to kick the winning score.

The coaches met midfield to congratulate each other for making the playoffs and on the good game. Joe led the majority of players across to shake hands with the opposing ones. He made a bee line for the receiver who he covered most of the game. Joe found him celebrating with the outstanding running back that killed his defense. Joe held out his hand and said, "I just wanted to say that I hope you know why I hit you out of bounds. I didn't try to hurt you."

His opponent took the handshake and replied, "thanks man. I mean that. I really was trying to stop, but just couldn't. Your girls are okay?"

Joe nodded, "yeah, I think so. I clipped Jasmine's elbow, but she was still standing. Anyway, congratulations."

"Sure, you too for making it this far and almost pulling it out. My name's Will, this hos is Ben."

Joe acknowledged the introduction. "I'm Joe. Y'all seniors, I hope?"

"We know who you are, as it's been on the news. You're every stretch as good as they say. We were hoping you wouldn't be here, but I am sorry to hear about your folks."

"Thank you. Been a rough week."

"I imagine. Anyway, yeah, we're seniors. In fact, we're signing with FSU tomorrow."

Joe's eyebrows went up. "Really? Should have a pretty decent freshman class, then."

"Oh man, you throwin' the ball to me, and Ben runnin' behind you...we'll be unstoppable."

"Well, I don't like counting chickens before they hatch, but it should be interesting. Good luck on State Finals, and congratulations again."

"Thanks, we'll see ya this summer."

Joe about jumped when he turned to find their head coach standing right behind him.

"Good game, son."

Joe took his hand and shook it firmly. "Yeah, you too. Wish it went the other way for us, but y'all deserve it."

The coach shook his head. "No, y'all deserved it. We got lucky. Anyway, I wanted to give you our game ball."

Joe cocked his head. "What, because I won your game by getting flagged?"

The coach laughed. "No, that was a raw deal. I knew you wouldn't have touched Will if your classmates weren't in danger. Or your girlfriend." Joe closed his eyes and shook his head. "Yeah," the coach continued, "we know who both of you are."

"I'm sorry I can't say that about your team."

"Well, that's why I'm giving you our game ball. You were the MVP of the game, even though you had never seen our defense before. You have my sympathy for your folks, by the way."

"Thanks."

"It's just that no team had put up more than seven points against us, yet you burned us for 42...without benefit of seeing any film. That's good, kid. I can't wait to see you play in college. Good luck to you."

"Thanks. Congratulations."

The coach nodded and rounded up his team.

Joe headed towards the locker room when he was stopped by the cheerleaders. They each thanked him with a kiss on the cheek, and he asked what that was for.

"Jasmine found a reporter who played back the tape for us on that penalty you got. We didn't know what happened, since we were looking at our crowd," said Jill.

Jasmine continued for her. "I felt you hit my arm, then I saw the ref throw that flag. Now that we saw the tape...damn, it could have been so bad, especially for Jill and Ashley."

Joe gave the squad a weak smile. "I'm glad you're okay. I still don't know how he caught that ball. But, whatever. No more games until next year."

Ashley hopped up in his arms, giving him a sensuous kiss. "I told you that trying to save me would get you killed. Just didn't think it would kill the whole team."

Joe smiled at her. "It didn't kill anyone. It just ended the season early." He put her down and said he wouldn't be too long, as he headed in to shower.

Ashley came downstairs from her morning shower to find Joe reading the paper at the breakfast bar. The front page was facing her with bold headlines reading "Bad Call Ends Catholic's Dream Season." Under it was a large color picture showing Joe leaping through the air with his arms around the receiver, the group of cheerleaders unaware of the near miss behind them. She leaned on the stove across from Joe and read the caption and story. The caption explained the play shown in the picture and how it allowed the Jacksonville team be close enough for the game winning field goal. The story related how back and forth the game was, heaping tons of praise on Joe for his 398 yards passing, 36 rushing, no interceptions, and 4 touchdowns. It also gave kudos to Ben on his 215 yards rushing and 3 touchdowns. The article ended almost editorial-like, chastising the referees for not repealing the called penalty when it became apparent that Joe was doing what the media was beginning to become familiar with...saving a pretty girl who is now his girlfriend.

She broke the silence after reading the other side of Joe's paper. "Damn, does EVERYONE know we're together?"

Joe smiled slightly. "Apparently. Jacksonville's coach mentioned it when he gave me that ball. It's alright, though. I wouldn't mind if the other side of the world knew."

Ashley had come barefoot around the counter while Joe was talking and kissed him sweetly when he finished. "Nice answer. Good morning!"

His smile got bigger with her kiss. "Good morning! You sleep well last night?"

"I'd still be sleeping if Jasmine hadn't woken me," she said grumpily. Ashley grabbed a bowl and started pouring cereal. "I just don't see why they make it a point to mention me as your girlfriend every time they write something about you."

"Well, they see you as a part of my life. Which you are. Besides, sex sells."

"They better not write about that!"

Joe laughed as she perched on the stool next to him. "If they did, their subscriptions would double, I'm sure. But, if you'd like to stay out of the paper, you could just break up with me."

"You'd like that, wouldn't you? That way Kim could have you all to herself. Is that why you invited her to stay with us?"

Joe's smile disappeared. "No. I was joking, I'm sorry to have brought it up."

Ashley said quietly, "but you did. Do you want her?"

"Ash, I don't want to fight about this..."

"Nobody ever wants to fight," she interrupted. "But, before I invest much more of my heart in you, I need to know. Right now, I trust you as a girlfriend, but can I trust you to stay loyal to me the rest of my life?"

"Well, gee, Ashley. That's looking awfully far ahead."

"I know, and I'm not asking you to get on a knee for me right now. I'd like to know where you see this heading. Do I keep having fun as a guarded girlfriend and lover? I'm content to do that, I really am, and I'll let you have me until you patch things up with her. Or, can I let myself go deeper with you?"

Joe sighed. "Ashley, I love Kim. But not in the way that I'm in love with you. Do I love her? Yes. Is she sexy? Almost as much as you. But looking back I see that I was reasoning out that maybe there was a life for us. With you, I was sure of it as soon as we got together at Homecoming. There is no reasoning when I look at you and me. I KNOW that there is a potential life for us."

She fought back a couple of tears and wrapped her arms around his neck. "You're just full of good answers this morning!" With that, she locked with him in a deep kiss.

"There's the lovebirds!" Jasmine called as she entered the kitchen with their pile of laundry. "Cindy called me to make sure I had y'all up. Something about a meeting at 11?"

Joe checked his watch and hurriedly refolded the paper. "That's right! Ashley, we gotta meet with my parents' lawyer this morning."

"We? I'll go, but I didn't know I had to."

"When you were sleeping on the flight back last night, Cindy said that the lawyer mentioned that the will had something concerning you in it. You, too, Jasmine. Are you and Jill coming along?"

"I hadn't planned on it. I'm not even dressed for a meeting."

Joe looked at her in her t-shirt, jeans, and sandals. "You're fine." He paused to let her grasp the intended second meaning. "Besides, what you're wearing is also okay for this meeting. You don't have to impress the lawyer. You've already done that with my folks."

Jasmine blushed a little. "Thanks Joe. I'll call Jill and have her pick us up, then."

The four met Cindy at the lawyer's office and they waited in the reception area for him to finish with his previous client. They were called in and introductions were made. The attorney pulled out a large binder that could almost qualify as being a box, and removed the first few sheets of paper.

"Okay," he said. "I'll try to keep this as short as possible. If you want me to, I'll read everything that's in this binder, but it's just the legalese restating what's on these few pages."

"Let's just start with the summary, and if I need clarification, I'll let you know," Joe said.

"Very well. Joe, basically everything was left to you, plus a sizable trust. The mansion and its contents, cars, Carter Electronics, business jet, and helicopter. I received the death certificates yesterday from Denver, and their personal accounts have already been transferred into yours. Do you have any questions so far?"

Cindy asked, "Did they stipulate what Joe could or could not do with the company?"

"No. In fact that is mentioned in the letter they updated a few weeks before their passing."

"How does the trust work?" asked Joe.

The lawyer smiled. "That's usually the first question asked in these meetings. I am assuming you can trust these young ladies with your financial information?"

"I trust them with my life," responded Joe.

The lawyer nodded. "Okay, then. The trust is in the amount of $550 million." He looked around for effect, but their expressions didn't change. "Odd. That number usually has people jumping and screaming. Anyway, they set it up in an intriguing way. The money in the trust cannot be touched personally by you, Joe, until your 21st birthday. At that point, you can withdraw up to a specified limited amount each year until you turn 25."

"What do you mean by 'personally'?"

"For personal means, you cannot withdraw any money from it. They figured you'll be in school until you're at least 21, so the personal accounts should last you until then. But, the trust is set up so that if you choose, you can use the money in it for company use."

"What's the limit on that?"

"None. If it's for the business, you can spend it all."

Joe turned to ask Cindy, "how much does Carter owe in loans?"

"$585 million," she replied without blinking an eye.

"Would you work with the gentleman here to set it up so I can clear off as many loans as I can?"

"Yes, sir."

Ashley put her hand on Joe's arm. "Are you sure you want to do that? Don't you want to keep some in reserve?"

He leaned over and whispered in her ear, "I never wanted that life. Besides, I know what I'm doing. Don't worry, I'll make it back in January."

When the side chatter ended, the lawyer smiled and said, "okay, so that leaves two orders of business. First is the letter they left in the event they passed away sooner than expected, as is the case here." He pulled out a sheet and started reading.

The letter was dated just four weeks ago, and mentioned his parents' love for him, and the girls they liked to collectively call Angels. It said that everything was left to him, even though they knew he never wanted to run the company. They trusted no one more than Joe to handle the fate of what they had built, and asked only that he keep in mind the thousands they employed. The letter also gave special mention to Jill, Jasmine, Kim, Ashley, and Cindy as people who especially touched their lives, and gave a detailed example of how. If those girls wished, they were to be allowed to take and keep any one item that held special meaning for them. It ended by apologizing to Joe for their sudden departure and wished him and the girls well in their futures.

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