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Mackenzie Thorn looked up just in time to see two men walk into her classroom. One of them, a guard, nodded at his coworker stationed inside the door, and kept his hand at the elbow of the taller man beside him. This man, clad in an orange jumpsuit sporting the initials ODOCOregon Department of Correctionsswaggered into the classroom, head held high, windswept brown hair falling over his collar. The intensity of his blue eyes struck Kenzie immobile for a moment as they approached.
"Ms. Thorn," the guard began.
Kenzie shook her head to clear her thoughts before holding up one index finger to the guard. "Just a moment, please." Turning to the two men sitting at the first table on her right, she said, "Mr. Ramirez, Mr. Chen, please pass out workbooks to everyone." The two men began their task while she moved to meet her new student.
"This is Myles Parsons. The superintendent's office said to put him in this class."
The guard made no apologies for bringing in a new student five weeks into their six-week GED session. Decrees from Superintendent JB Ryker's office were law inside these walls. The inmate would just have to try to keep up.
The man's piercing blue eyes bore into her face, seeming to study every crevice. She knew for a fact that her face was not that interesting. Mr. Parsons's face, on the other hand, was well worth studying. The crooked bridge of his nose had been broken at least once, but the imperfection was intriguing rather than off-putting. His wide mouth and pink lips pulled into a smirk, exposing his arrogance. Running thick fingers through his shaggy brown hair, he continued staring back at her, something few of her other students had ever daredto do.
Suddenly she realized how incredibly inappropriate she was being and ripped her gaze away from his handsome face. "Welcome to our GED prep class, Mr. Parsons."
"So you're Ms. Thorn?"
"Yes, I am. You seem surprised."
"I am." The man certainly did not mince words. "I expected someone more " He stretched to his full height, which was at least a foot taller than her. "The way the others talk, I expected someone more intimidating."
Despite her skittering pulse, she quirked the corner of her mouth into a partial grin. "Trust me, Mr. Parsons. My tests are plenty intimidating. You may take a seat now. Third row on the left." Effectively dismissing him, she turned to the rest of the class and began teaching the basic fraction lesson.
Myles Parsons gazed at Ms. Mackenzie Thorn. Obviously frustrated by her wild, curly hair, she shoved it behind her ears, giving herself streaks of white where the chalk from her fingers lingered in her curls.
Her passion for the mundane principles of fractions astounded him. Her voice, like a melody, rose and fell as she singsonged through adding and subtracting the tricky numbers.
He shook his head to clear away the distractions of her intense gray eyes. He chastised himself for his own bad luck to end up inside these walls. Her pretty face wouldn't be enough to make his current mission worth it.
Somehow, he'd let his FBI supervisor, Special Agent in Charge NathanNateAndersen, talk him into taking this assignment. An assignment that could be summed up in two words: Kenzie Thorn.
When Nate received a tip two weeks before that the governor's granddaughter was in danger working inside the Oregon State Prison Complex at Evergreen, Myles had wondered about the validity of the tip. But Nate believed it, and he'd assigned an agent to the inside to protect her. As the youngest special agent stationed in the office, and one of the few without a family, Myles was the obvious pick to go behind bars to protect Kenzie.
Protect her from what, he wasn't sure.
But as long as he was on this mission, he'd keep an eye on her. He'd do his job and do it well.
KenzieMs. Thorn, as he was going to have to think of herturned around at the front of the class and flicked another streak of white through her hair, rambling on about finding the lowest common denominator. His mouth quirked up at the corners of its own accord at her spunky head bob, and he had to fake a sneeze in order to keep from laughing out loud.
"You're smiling awfully hard for a man who is five weeks behind the rest of the class, Mr. Parsons." Ms. Thorn's voice was soft, and she leaned closer to him, suddenly at his side. She smelled like citrus, like lemon and lime mixed together. Relishing the crisp scent in a room full of mostly unwashed bodies, he looked up into her stormy gray eyes. A row of freckles at the top of the bridge of her nose softened her hard glare, and he physically had to fight a smirk in response to her childlike cuteness.
One thing was quite certain. She wasn't going to erase his smile standing this close to him.
An intriguing contradiction, her piercing eyes and gentle face tempted Myles to turn this exchange into a flirtation. Shoving those thoughts away, he focused on the mission, knowing he had to keep his mind alert for any signs she might be in danger.
Finally, the class ended, and Kenzie took a moment to let her head rest on her desk, trying to clear her mind from the terrible day she'd just had. The day started with Cory Johns, one of her favorite students, cheating on his third and final try at the GED exam, forcing her to fail him. Any hope for a change in his life after his release went in the trash with his exam.
The next class brought her new student, Myles Parsons, whose cocky smirk and arrogance made her bristle every time she looked in his direction. He raised his hand to answer almost every question she asked, and even worse, he was always right!
Eyes closed and forehead still leaning on her arm draped over the papers littering her desk, Kenzie took the opportunity to pray for her students.
God, please give me the words to reach these men. To give them some hope and skills for when they are released. I pray for the families that are eagerly waiting for their return. And, Lord, I pray specifically for Cory Johns. I pray that he will find anotherway to earn his GED and support his family. And I ask that You give me a special dose of patience for my new student. Please help his attitude to change toward me and this class. Thank You for Your many good gifts. In Your name, Amen.
Just as she dragged her head from its resting spot, a noise in the doorway caught her attention. A handsome man with sleek silver hair filled the entire doorway.
"Mac!" she cried, jumping up from her seat and throwing herself into the man's waiting embrace. She clung tightly to him as he almost squeezed the breath out of her. "What are you doing here? I wasn't expecting you until tomorrow."
"You know how it is." He chuckled, a smile spreading over his face. "Sometimes the governor's schedule changes." He gave her another quick squeeze before stepping back to really look at her.
His gray eyes, so much like her own, assessed her carefully and he frowned. "You look tired. Is this position too much for you?"
Kenzie resisted the urge to roll her eyes. He said the same thing every time he saw her. "I've been here for two years. I'm doing okay."
"Are you taking care of yourself?"
"Of course." She looped her arm through Mac's and smiled into his loving face. "I've missed you, Grandpa." She rarely called Mac "Grandpa," and since he was elected governor nearly six years before, she could count on one hand the number of times she had done so. But today she needed to be reminded that she was loved by her father's father, the man who had loved her as a daughter, ever since she lost her parents all those years ago.
Mac squeezed her tightly to his side and kissed the top of her head. "Sweet pea, you have no idea how much we miss you in Salem. I can pull some strings to get you a position at a school there. You'd make a wonderful kindergarten teacher. This place is rough. It's not good for you."
"It's okay. I'm okay. They need me, and to tell you the truth, I think I need them, too." Kenzie smiled and snuggled a little closer to his side. Mac had always been able to right the wrongs in her life, protect her from the boogeyman, dry her tears. He was larger than life when she was a child, and his presence today almost wiped away thoughts of concern over her new student.
She looked around Mac's arm and spotted his usual entourage. "Harry. Buzz." She nodded at each of the men standing just inside the doorway. Harry was built like a bulldozer and Buzz like a long-distance runner. They were part of the best security detail in the state, and Kenzie had grown fond of them through the years, as they protected Mac. "Candace." She acknowledged Mac's personal aide, a tall blonde standing beside Buzz.
Candace looked up from the notes in her daily planner. "Good afternoon, Kenzie." She offered a brief smile, then returned to keeping Mac on schedule.
"Well, you'd best show me around your classroom." Mac's voice was gruff, but held a grin.
"Sure. There's not much to show really. We have tables where the students sit. Our bookshelf is pretty meager, but the prison library has a good selection that I sometimes assign for additional reading, for those that need the practice to prepare for the exam. And of course, my desk."
As Kenzie pointed out the tables, sparse bookshelves and her own desk, Mac walked around the room, glancing at the mathematic posters, the only decoration on the gray walls. He glanced twice at a particularly colorful formula, hand-drawn, on a large white poster board, but he didn't comment.
"How's the program?" he finally said.
"It's wonderful. Since you authorized this pilot program two years ago, we've had more than two hundred inmates earn GEDs. We have almost a two-thirds pass rate. You don't have to worry about us right now. But maybe"
"You're a good kid, Mackenzie Thorn." He cut her off before she could confess that she was hoping the state legislature might be able to allocate more funds. Distracted by his use of her full name, she forgot what she was going to say. No one called her or Mac by their shared first name. After complications with their first and only pregnancy, Kenzie's parents had decided to pass the family name down through their daughter, even if it was a man's name. She'd worn it proudly, always going by Kenzie to avoid confusion.
Now she smiled wider in response to Mac's compliment. Could he tell how much she loved teaching these men? Could he read in her eyes how much it broke her heart when they chose to give up, rather than fight for the skills that could lead to a new life?
A noise in the doorway made her turn. JB Ryker, the prison superintendent and an old friend of Mac's, limped into the classroom, nudging Harry and Buzz aside. His knee had been injured during the Vietnam War, and when it rained he often needed the aid of a cane to manage the slick cement halls of the prison.
"Macky, you ol' dog." Kenzie cringed inwardly. She always hated it when JB called her grandfather "Macky." He was the only one who could get away with it, and Mac never seemed to mind. But she still hated it.
She also hated the way his lip curled up, like a back-alley used-car salesman. Something about him always made her skin crawl.
"Why the early trip?" JB said.
Shaking hands with his old friend, Mac said, "I have a meeting tomorrow at the capital that couldn't be rescheduled."
"Must be tough being the governor."
Mac just grinned. He'd taught Kenzie to hold her tongue in situations like this, where there was no right answer. If only she could do as he taught.
"It's certainly not easy, Superintendent," she retorted. A sharp glance from Mac made her bite her tongue to keep from saying anything else.
JB ignored her comment. "What do you think of the place? I'm sure Kenzie has kept you up-to-date on the success of the program."
"Yes, she was just filling me in. It seems to be working well. If the statistics remain this high, we may move forward with expanding the program to the other state prisons sooner than expected."
For an instant, JB looked like he'd swallowed his tongue. But he swiftly recovered, putting on his famous poker face. "That's wonderful. How soon do you think?"
"I think we can start moving forward now. It should take us just a couple of months to get things in place in the other prisons, as we have such a strong example to work from with the test program here at the Evergreen complex."
"That's wonderful, Mac!" Kenzie's smile was so wide it almost hurt her cheeks. With the expanded program, the state might be able to set aside a little more for her own classes. She opened her mouth to ask Mac just that, but stopped herself when she looked at Ryker. He'd warned her not to discuss the budget with Mac, but sometimes she had to physically restrain herself from asking for just a little more money. When Candace called to him, Mac hurried across the room, grabbing the cell phone she held.
Kenzie looked at JB's surly face and wondered if he might answer some of her questions. He hated talking budget. "We don't talk budgets, except at budget meetings," he had said on her first day. "And we don't discuss budgets with anyone outside of prison, including family. Including your grandfather. If Mac increased the budget at your request, his opponents could claim he gave you preferential treatment. That could damage his chances in another run for the governor's office." His hard glare had been stern, almost cruel, and she shivered even now at the mere possibility that she could hinder Mac's chances at reelection.
With Mac on the other side of the room, she seized what might be her only chance to talk with JB alone. Regardless of her apprehension toward JB, this would help her students and other prisoners.
"If the program is ready to expand already, do you think the state legislature might be able to increase funding for us just a bit? I worked out some figures, and raising our budget by just fifteen percent could increase the number of students we can accommodate by over twenty-five percent." JB stared back at her blankly. Keeping her voice low, she plowed on. "I'm planning on petitioning the legislature next month for an increase in the budget for the next fiscal year."