“What?” I gasped, my heart wrenching to an abrupt stop.
“Bug,” he repeated in that smooth, deep voice. “In your hair.”
I raised my hands, swallowing my banshee-like shriek. “Get it out! Get it out! Get it out!”
“Oh dear,” Mrs. Reed murmured from the doorway—her bug-free doorway.
Jensen’s lips twitched as he stepped closer. “It’s just a bug, Ella.”
“I don’t care. I don’t care.” I squeezed my eyes shut. “Please get it out. Please.”
With my eyes closed, I couldn’t see jack, but I knew the very second he got close. The light scent of cologne mixed with the outdoors filled the next breath I took, and then I felt his warm breath along my forehead.
In an instant, I forgot about the bug as a shiver of awareness skated over my skin. Was it necessary for him to get that close to just get a bug out of my hair? My breath halted in my throat.
“Got it.” He moved back, and I opened my eyes to see him flicking the brown bug into what was hopefully the afterlife. “It’s gone now.”
I didn’t move. He was still so close. The tips of his boots touched my toes. His arm was close to mine, and I knew if I drew in a deep breath, my chest would brush his.
That one side of his lips curled up again, forming a lopsided smile. “You’re totally okay and have officially entered a bug-free zone.”
I still stood there.
Ms. Reed cleared her throat loudly. “Yes. I’m pretty sure the bug crisis has been averted. All is well in the world once more.”
I blinked once, then twice. And then my body was burning again. Jensen cocked his head and his eyes traveled over my face, lingering on my scratched cheek. He started to lift his hand, but with a little shake of his head, he spun around gracefully and walked away.
“Jensen!” I called out.
He stopped, and as my heart pounded against my ribs, he slowly faced me. His expression was empty, but his pale blue eyes were locked on mine with the intensity those eyes always held. I took a step forward. “Thank you. I didn’t get a chance before . . .”
A muscle popped along his jaw as he watched me with a look that said he wasn’t quite sure he knew what I was thanking him for, but the words I got you cycled over and over again in my head.
“Thank you,” I repeated, holding his gaze. “For helping me Saturday night.”
Jensen didn’t reply. All he did was nod and turn back around. I probably would’ve stood there forever watching his retreating form if Ms. Reed hadn’t motioned me into her office.
I still couldn’t believe it had been Jensen of all people that had been the one to show up when he did, startling the attacker. If he hadn’t been getting into his truck and turning on the lights at that exact moment, God only knows what would’ve happened.
One thing I didn’t understand, and hadn’t been able to figure out, was why Jensen was still out there by the road. He’d left a good five to ten minutes before I had. Or at least I thought he had.
“Why was Jensen here?” I blurted out the question before I could stop myself. I flushed as I sat down. “That’s probably none of my business.”
“You’re right. It wouldn’t be any of your business.” She sat behind her desk, folding her hands atop a closed file. A lock of dark hair fell across her forehead. “Normally. But I wanted to see him this morning for the same reason I wanted to see you. I wanted to make sure he was okay after everything since he was the one who found you.”
Ms. Reed wasn’t too much older than us, and everyone liked her as far as I knew. She was relatable in a way that most of the staff in school weren’t. I enjoyed my time with her at the end of last year when I’d picked out my classes for senior year and she’d piled on the forms for financial aid and college applications, but that didn’t mean I wanted to do the whole care and share thing with her.
“I really don’t want to talk about Saturday night,” I said, sitting rigidly still.
A sympathetic smile crossed her face. “Too soon?”
“You could say that.” I reached up, twisting a lock of hair around my finger, a nervous habit I’d never been able to break. “Before you ask, I’m totally okay.”
My gaze flicked up, meeting hers.
“I know you can’t be a hundred percent okay, Ella. What happened Saturday night had to have been terrifying for you.”
Really, Captain Obvious?
The chair squeaked when she shifted, leaning back. “That kind of event is going to leave an impact on anyone, especially someone who—”
“I know,” I interrupted, feeling my stomach dip. Closing my eyes, I curled my hands into fists until my sore palms ached. The mask—the porcelain looking clown face—flashed before me, forcing my eyes open. “But I don’t want to talk about it or anything else.”
Ms. Reed held my gaze for a moment longer and then nodded. “Is there anything I can help you with?”
I started to tell her no, but that’s not what came out of my mouth. “Can you help me defend myself?”
She blinked slowly. “Come again?”
“I couldn’t fight him off,” I said. My voice came out unexpectedly hoarse, and I struggled with my next breath. “I didn’t know how to. I couldn’t fight him, and the only reason why I got away was luck—that’s it. Luck. I was helpless.” My voice cracked and I felt my cheeks heat. “And I don’t want to feel that way again. So, unless you can help me become a ninja, there’s really no reason for me to be sitting here.”
A beat of silence passed. “Well, I don’t know if I can help you become a ninja.”
“Of course not,” I muttered.
But she smiled widely, surprising me. “But I do know something about self-defense classes—more like someone who helped teach the one I was in during the summer. The classes are over, but I’m sure he’ll make an exception for you.”
I so wasn’t expecting that. “Are you serious?”
“Yes.” She looked happy to be helpful. “And to be honest, I think this is a brilliant idea. I think all women should take a course in self-defense. I wish we lived in a world where that wasn’t necessary and we didn’t have to worry about our safety, but until society wakes up and acknowledges we have a huge, misogynist problem on our hands, I’d rather be prepared to defend myself than not.”
I nodded so quickly my throat hurt. I was so relieved that Miss Reed hadn’t laughed in my face. “Exactly.”
“It’s also very empowering, and I’m proud that you are taking a step to gain back the power in the situation rather than doing nothing. Come back here at the end of the day and I should have the information for you.”
I stared at her.
Ms. Reed laughed softly. “Look, like I said, I think it’s a great idea for girls to learn how to defend themselves. Besides the fact that sadly a lot of teenage boys have been raised to believe that girls are put on Earth simply for them—”
My brows climbed up my forehead.
“—You can never be too safe. And I think that it will help you feel . . . better about things,” she continued, taking off her glasses. “Everyone talks about women needing to have ‘girl power,’ as if that’s something we’re just born with. I mean, really, what is girl power? A pill or a drink we can take? Is it having a ton of female friends? Playing sports? Knowing how to kickbox coming out of the uterus? Being incredibly wise or a general smartass?” She snorted while I openly gaped at her. “What exactly are we teaching our girls? What about self-worth as empowerment? Instead of acting like a girl, or hitting like a girl being an insult, it’s something to be proud of. Because let me tell you, I hit like a girl and I can knock someone into next week.”
I glanced around the office, my eyes wide. “Um . . .”
“In my opinion, being empowered isn’t so much the act or what you do, it’s the driving force behind playing sports, having friends, knowing how to fight, and so on. It’s knowing when you need help and the conscious decision to seek it out instead of doing nothing. Being proactive and taking back the control I know you feel like you’ve lost even though you don’t want to tell me.”
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