The guardian, p.1
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       The Guardian, p.1

           Nicholas Sparks
 
The Guardian


  Nicholas Sparks

  The Guardian

  For Larry Kirshbaum and Maureen Egen

  Wonderful people, wonderful friends

  Acknowledgments

  It would be impossible to begin any acknowledgments without thanking Cathy, my wife of nearly fourteen years. You're the sweetest person I know, and I love you more than you could ever imagine.

  And, of course, no book would be complete without thanking the kiddies. Miles, Ryan, Landon, Lexie, and Savannah can be a handful, but are nonetheless a source of endless joy. My days would be incomplete without you.

  Theresa Park of Sanford Greenburger Associates also deserves my thanks. Theresa, you're my agent and manager, but also a genius and a sympathetic ear. You're also one of my dearest friends. It's hard to believe we've been through seven novels so far, and I look forward to many more in the future.

  Jamie Raab, my editor, is quite simply the best editor in the business, and this book, more than any other, needed her patient guidance. Jamie, I couldn't have completed this novel without you, and it's my honor to work with someone as wise and kind as you are.

  Denise DiNovi, the producer of Message in a Bottle and A Walk to Remember, has become one of the most special people in my life. Denise, thank you so much for changing my life for the better. I don't know if there will ever be a way I can repay you.

  Julie Barer, an agent at Sanford Greenburger, was gracious enough to read and offer suggestions for the manuscript while on vacation. Julie, I can't thank you enough for what you did, and I hope you're pleased with the main character.

  Howie Sanders and Richard Green, my film agents at UTA, also deserve my thanks for their work not only on this project, but on all of my novels. They are the best at what they do.

  Scott Schwimer, my entertainment attorney, is not only fabulous at what he does, but also a friend who makes my job a lot easier. Thanks for always sticking by me.

  Dave Park, my television agent at UTA, has patiently guided me through the intricacies of the television world, and deserves my thanks for all the work involved with The Rescue.

  Lorenzo De Bonaventura and Courtenay Valenti of Warner Brothers, Lynn Harris of New Line Cinema, Mark Johnson, Hunt Lowry, and Ed Gaylord II have all been tremendous to work with and deserve my thanks.

  Jennifer Romanello, Emi Battaglia, Edna Farley in publicity, editor John Aherne, and Flag have all helped to make my career what it is. Thanks all.

  And finally, thanks to Todd Robinson for working so diligently on the television series. I'm fortunate to have been able to team up with you.

  Prologue

  Christmas Eve 1998

  Exactly forty days after she'd last held the hand of her husband, Julie Barenson sat looking through her window toward the quiet streets of Swansboro. It was cold; the sky had been angry for a week, and the rain made gentle tapping sounds against the window. Trees were barren, their cragged limbs curling in the frigid air like arthritic fingers.

  She knew Jim would have wanted her to listen to music tonight; she could hear Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas" in the background. She'd put up the tree for him as well, though by the time she'd made that decision, the only trees left were dried out and sparse, free for the taking outside the supermarket. It didn't matter. Even when she finished decorating it, she couldn't summon the energy to care. It had been hard to feel anything at all since the tumor in Jim's brain finally took his life.

  At twenty-five, she was a widow and she hated everything about the word: how it sounded, what it implied, the way her mouth moved when she formed the word. She avoided it completely. If people asked how she was doing, she simply shrugged. But sometimes, just sometimes, she had the urge to answer. You want to know what it was like to lose my husband? she wanted to ask. Here's what it's like.

  Jim's dead, and now that he's gone, I feel like I'm dead, too.

  Is that, Julie wondered, what people wanted to hear? Or did they want platitudes? I'll be okay. It's hard, but I'll make it through this. Thank you for asking. She could do the brave soldier routine, she supposed, but she never had. It was both easier and more honest to simply shrug and say nothing.

  After all, she didn't feel as if she were going to be okay. Half the time, she didn't think she was going to make it through the day without breaking down. Especially on nights like tonight.

  In the reflected glow of the Christmas tree lights, Julie put her hand to the window, feeling the cold press of glass against her skin.

  Mabel had asked if she'd wanted to have dinner tonight, but Julie had declined. So had Mike and Henry and Emma, but she'd turned them down as well. All of them understood. Or, rather, they pretended to understand, since it was obvious that none of them thought she should be alone. And maybe they were right. Everything in the house, everything she saw and smelled and touched, reminded her of Jim. His clothes took up half the closet, his razor still sat next to the soap dish in the bathroom, the subscription to Sports Illustrated had come in the mail the day before. There were still two bottles of Heineken, his favorite, in the refrigerator. Earlier that evening, when she'd seen them on the shelf, she'd whispered to herself, "Jim is never going to drink those," and she'd closed the door and leaned against it, crying in the kitchen for an hour.

  The scene outside her window was out of focus; lost in her thoughts, Julie gradually registered the faint sound of a branch thumping against the wall. The thumping was persistent, steady, and it was a moment before she realized she'd been mistaken about the branch.

  Someone was knocking at the door.

  Julie stood, her movements lethargic. At the door, she paused to run her hands through her hair, hoping to compose herself. If it was her friends checking in on her, she didn't want them to think she needed them to stay for a while. When she opened the door, however, she was surprised to see a young man in a yellow slicker. In his hands was a large, wrapped box.

  "Mrs. Barenson?" he asked.

  "Yes?"

  The stranger took a hesitant step forward. "I'm supposed to deliver this to you. My dad said it was important."

  "Your dad?"

  "He wanted to make sure you got this tonight."

  "Do I know him?"

  "I don't know. But he was pretty insistent about it. It's a gift from someone."

  "Who?"

  "My father said you'd understand as soon as you opened it. Don't shake it, though-and keep this end up."

  The young man pushed the box into Julie's arms before she could stop him, then turned to leave.

  "Wait," she said, "I don't understand. . . ."

  The young man glanced over his shoulder. "Merry Christmas," he said.

  Julie stood in the doorway, watching as he climbed into his truck. Then, back inside, she set the box on the floor in front of the tree and knelt beside it. A quick peek confirmed the absence of a card, and there were no other clues about the sender. She loosened the ribbon, then lifted the separately wrapped lid and found herself staring wordlessly at what she'd been given.

  It was matted with fuzz and dwarflike, no more than a few pounds, and it was sitting on its haunches in the corner of the box, looking just about as ugly as she'd ever seen a puppy look. Its head was large, out of proportion to the rest of its body. Whimpering, it looked up at her, a glob of muck in its eyes.

  Someone, she thought, bought me a puppy. An ugly puppy.

  Taped to the inside of the box was an envelope. As she reached for it, it dawned on her that she recognized the handwriting, and she paused. No, she thought, it can't be. . . .

  She had seen that handwriting on the love letters he'd written to her on their anniversaries, on hastily scrawled messages by the phone, on paperwork he'd piled on the desk. She held the envelope in front of her, reading her name over and ov
er. Then, with trembling hands, she took the letter out. Her eyes traveled to the words written in the upper left corner.

  Dear Jules,

  It was Jim's nickname for her, and Julie closed her eyes, feeling as if her body were suddenly growing smaller. She forced herself to take a deep breath and started again.

  Dear Jules,

  I know that if you're reading this letter, I've already passed away. I don't know how long I've been gone, but I hope you've been able to begin healing. I know that if I were in your position, it would be hard for me, but you know I've always believed you were the stronger of the two of us.

  I bought you a dog, as you can see. Harold Kuphaldt was a friend of my father's, and he's been raising Great Danes since I was a kid. I always wanted one when I was little, but since the house was so small, Mom always said no. They are big dogs, granted, but according to Harold, they're also just about the sweetest dogs in the world. I hope you enjoy him (or her).

  I guess I always knew in the back of my mind that I wasn't going to make it. I didn't want to think about it, though, because I knew that you didn't have anyone to help you get through something like this. Family, I mean. It broke my heart to think that you would be all alone. Not knowing what else to do, I made arrangements to get you this dog.

  If you don't like it, you don't have to keep it, of course. Harold said he'd take it back, no problem. (His number should be included.)

  I hope you're doing all right. Since I got sick, I've worried nonstop about that. I love you, Jules, I really do. I was the luckiest guy in the world when you came into my life. It would break my heart if I thought you'd never be happy again. So please do that for me. Be happy again. Find someone who makes you happy. It might be hard, you might not think it's possible, but I'd like you to try. The world is a better place when you smile.

  And don't worry. From wherever I am, I'll watch out for you. I'll be your guardian angel, sweetheart. You can count on me to keep you safe.

  I love you,

  Jim

  Through her tears, Julie peeked over the lid of the box and reached in. The puppy curled into her hand. She lifted him out, holding him close to her face. He was tiny, and she could feel the bones in his ribs as he trembled.

  He really was an ugly thing, she thought. And he'd grow up to be the size of a small horse. What on earth would she do with a dog like this?

  Why, she wondered, couldn't Jim have gotten her a miniature schnauzer with little gray whiskers or a cocker spaniel with sad, round eyes? Something manageable? Something cute, that might curl up in her lap now and then?

  The puppy, a male, started to whine, a high-pitched cry that rose and fell like the echo of far-off train whistles.

  "Shh . . . you'll be okay," she whispered. "I won't hurt you. . . ."

  She continued to talk to the puppy in low tones, letting him get used to her, still getting used to the idea that Jim had done this for her. The puppy continued to cry, almost as if accompanying the tune on the stereo, and Julie scratched beneath his chin.

  "You singing to me?" she asked, smiling softly for the first time. "That's what it sounds like, you know."

  For a moment, the dog stopped crying and looked up at her, holding her gaze. Then he started to whine again, though this time he didn't seem as frightened.

  "Singer," she whispered. "I'll think I'll call you Singer."

  One

  Four Years Later

  In the years since Jim had died, Julie Barenson had somehow found a way to start living again. It hadn't happened right away. The first couple of years after his death had been difficult and lonely, but time had eventually worked its magic on Julie, changing her loss into something softer. Though she loved Jim and knew that part of her would always love Jim, the pain wasn't as sharp as it had once been. She could remember her tears and the total vacuum her life had become in the aftermath of his death, but the searing ache of those days was behind her. Now when she thought of Jim, she remembered him with a smile, thankful that he'd been part of her life.

  She was thankful for Singer, too. Jim had done the right thing by getting her the dog. In a way, Singer had made it possible for her to go on.

  But at this moment, while lying in bed on a cool spring morning in Swansboro, North Carolina, Julie wasn't thinking about what a wonderful support Singer had been during the past four years. Instead, she was mentally cursing his very existence while gasping for breath, thinking, I can't believe that this is the way I'm going to die.

  Squashed in bed by my very own dog.

  With Singer splayed across her, pinning her to the mattress, she imagined her lips turning blue from oxygen deprivation.

  "Get up, you lazy dog," she wheezed. "You're killing me here."

  Snoring soundly, Singer didn't hear her, and Julie began squirming, trying to bounce him from his slumber. Suffocating beneath the weight, she felt as if she'd been wrapped in a blanket and tossed in a lake, Mafia style.

  "I'm serious," she forced out, "I can't breathe."

  Singer finally lifted his massive head and blinked at her groggily. What's all the racket about? he seemed to be asking. Can't you see I'm trying to rest here?

  "Get off!" Julie rasped out.

  Singer yawned, pushing his cold nose against her cheek.

  "Yeah, yeah, good morning," she gasped. "Now scoot."

  With that, Singer snorted and found his legs, further squashing various parts of her as he got up. And up. And up. And up. A moment later, towering over her with just a smudge of drool on his lips, he looked like something from a low-budget horror movie. Good Lord, she thought, he is huge. You'd think that I'd be used to it by now. She took a deep breath and looked up at him, frowning.

  "Did I say you could get into bed with me?" she asked.

  Singer usually slept in the corner of her room at night. The past two nights, however, he'd crawled in with her. Or, more accurately, on top of her. Crazy dog.

  Singer lowered his head and licked her face.

  "No, you're not forgiven," she said, pushing him away. "Don't even bother trying to get out of this. You could have killed me. You're almost twice as heavy as I am, you know. Now get off the bed."

  Singer whined like a pouting child before hopping down to the floor. Julie sat up, ribs aching, and looked at the clock, thinking, Already? She and Singer stretched at the same time before she pushed aside the covers.

  "C'mon," she said, "I'll let you out before I get in the shower. But don't go sniffing around the neighbors' garbage cans again. They left a nasty message on the machine."

  Singer looked at her.

  "I know, I know," she said, "it's only garbage. But some people are funny that way."

  Singer left the bedroom, heading toward the front door. Julie rolled her shoulders as she followed him, her eyes closed for just a moment. Big mistake. On the way out of the bedroom, she slammed her toe against the dresser. The pain shot from her toe up through her lower leg. After the initial scream, she began to curse, combining profanity in all sorts of marvelous permutations. Hopping on one foot in her pink pajamas, she was sure she looked like some sort of deranged Energizer Bunny. Singer merely gave her a look that seemed to imply, What's the holdup? You got me up, remember, so let's get going here. I've got things to do outside.

  She groaned. "Can't you see I'm wounded here?"

  Singer yawned again, and Julie rubbed her toe before limping after him.

  "Thanks for coming to my rescue. You're worthless in an emergency."

  A moment later, after Singer stepped on Julie's sore toe on his way out the door-Julie knew he'd done it on purpose-he was outside. Instead of heading toward the garbage cans, Singer wandered over to the vacant wooded lots that bordered one side of her house. She watched as he swung his massive head from side to side, as if making sure that no one had planted any new trees or bushes during the preceding day. All dogs liked to mark their territory, but Singer seemed to believe that somehow, if he found enough places to relieve himself, he'd be anoin
ted King Dog in all the World. At least it got him out of her hair for a while.

  Thank heaven for small favors, Julie thought. Singer had been driving her crazy for the last couple of days. He'd followed her everywhere, refusing to let her out of his sight for even a few minutes, except when she put him outside. She hadn't even been able to put the dishes away without bumping into him a dozen times. He was even worse at night. Last night, he'd had a growling fit for an hour, which he'd thoughtfully interspersed with an occasional bark, and the whole thing had left her fantasizing about buying either a soundproof kennel or an elephant gun.

  Not that Singer's behavior had ever been . . . well, ordinary. Except for the peeing thing, the dog had always acted as if he thought he were human. He refused to eat out of a dog bowl, he'd never needed a leash, and when Julie watched television, he would crawl up on the couch and stare at the screen. And when she talked to him-whenever anyone talked to him, for that matter-Singer would stare intently, his head tilted to the side, as if he were following the conversation. And half the time, it did seem as if he understood what she was telling him. No matter what she told him to do, no matter how ridiculous the command, Singer would carry it out. Could you go get my purse from the bedroom? Singer would come trotting out with it a moment later. Will you turn off the bedroom light? He'd balance on two legs and flick it with his nose. Put this can of soup in the pantry, okay? He'd carry it in his mouth and set it on the shelf. Sure, other dogs were well trained, but not like this. Besides, Singer hadn't needed training. Not real training, anyway. All she'd had to do was show him something once and that was it. To others it seemed downright eerie, but since it made Julie feel like a modern-day Dr. Dolittle, she kind of liked it.

  Even if it did mean she talked to her dog in complete sentences, had arguments with him, and asked for his advice now and then.

 
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NICHOLAS SPARKS SERIES:

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