“Ohmigod, can I just say that I feel great?” Kate shouted at Penny.
Biting her lip, Penny tried not to laugh at the sight before her. It was barely five o’clock, and already Kate was, to put it politely, tanked.
It was entirely Penny’s fault. She’d demanded Kate get in the car—she’d demanded an evening of relaxation. She’d demanded this little girl’s night in.
Kate hadn’t been keen, not at first. “That’s really not necessary,” she’d stressed when Penny informed her of the plan.
“Well, I insist. Now where did you park?” Penny had thrown back, craning her neck to the left, the better to see behind her.
“Why?” Kate had tried to ask, but it was fruitless. Penny had already spotted her compact sedan. Her effects redoubled, without invitation, she’d made her way over to it, knowing good and well that Kate would inevitably follow behind; what else could she do?
“We’re going to need liquor that’s why. If this is going to happen, it’s going to happen right.”
As Penny predicted, Kate had finally relented.
“Well, why the hell not,” Penny had heard her say to herself. “I hadn’t been able to with Simon Yates, that’s for sure.”
Penny had a feeling that Phil—from the little she’d been able to glean of his character—probably hadn’t stood for such behavior either. No doubt, Kate was due for it.
They’d left only long enough to grab the essentials: a bottle of tequila, a six-pack of import beer, a bag of potato chips, and enough margarita mix to drown a person. When they returned to Penny’s place, arm’s loaded down, they were stocked-up, settled in, and ready to commence on the evening’s entertainment.
Now, four hours later, the snacks were long since demolished, glass bottles were strewn out about the fire pit, the scent of salt and lime remained, permeating the air, and Kate was standing chin-deep in the lake…wearing nothing but her bra and panties. Penny wouldn’t have thought the city woman had it in her to do something so, well risqué.
It had started out innocently enough—lawn chairs were perched around a cozy bonfire, a makeshift bar was constructed, well within arms span, and soft music played out over the still afternoon air. The scene was set: inviting but loose, intimate yet vague. It was exactly what Kate needed. Penny announced herself both the bartender and emcee: firmly resolved to keep the drinks coming and the conversation deliberate. So they drank and talked. Not about anything serious, Penny made sure of that. It was chill. Short anecdotes were swapped back and forth in a lively non-threatening way:
“I had a client last week ask me to get in contact with her dead cat.”
“Shut up. Did she really?”
“Yes. It was a very awkward conversation.”
“With the client or the cat?”
“Well, both really. The cat was glad to be dead. Never liked her owner.”
“I used to have a cat.”
“Well, no not really. It was imaginary. I named him Mr. Whiskers. I know, I know, how very original. My mother wouldn’t let me have a real one. Not the great Calida McDonald. She wouldn’t hear of owning such a filthy animal—the hair, the claws, the meowing. It was all too much. So I made one up. I think I did it to spite her.”
They sat there, laughing, reminiscing, each one content in their environment. Until…well, until what happened next. In retrospect, Penny figured it was probably the fourth beer-margarita that pushed Kate over the edge. Call it overkill. One minute she’d been calmly swaying against her chair, her speech only slightly stirred as she stared, mesmerized, into the flames of the fire, her actions depressed from the effects of the alcohol and then…boom! Kate pulled a one-eighty. Pushing herself off the chair, her glass dangling precariously in one hand, she was suddenly adamant that it was perfect weather for an evening dip. Then she’d giggled. Then she’d hiccupped. Kate’s behavior was as abrupt as it was unexpected. They hadn’t been talking about swimming—or even the lake for that matter!
Penny tried reminding Kate that she hadn’t brought her bathing suit. Did she forget that? Kate had simply shrugged off this information, telling Penny that she didn’t need swimwear. Then she hiccupped again.
Throwing her hands up in the air, Penny caved. She doubted there was much she could say or do to dissuade Kate after that. And she wasn’t about to be a killjoy. The designated sober party, Penny hadn’t allowed herself to reach even so much of a buzz. She’d been too focused piling Kate with booze to bother overmuch. She was glad for that now. Someone had to keep an eye out.
Scooting one of the chaise loungers closer to the perimeter of the lawn, Penny cautiously congratulated herself on the night’s success. Kate may be a hurting unit tomorrow morning—Lord only knows how that would bode for Tuesday’s class schedule—but tonight, well tonight she was having a damn good time.
“Are you sure you don’t want to-to come in?” Kate sputtered. Coughing, the last words came out garbled as she took in a mouthful of water.
It was the gurgle of her words—that gulp of soggy, accidental, inhalation—that did it. Penny’s body seized at the remembered sound, at its dark influence. She’d worked hard to forget it, to feign that she’d forgotten it. Hell, she’d laughed earlier when Kate jumped into the water, consciously in command of it—or so she’d thought. Not anymore. A mental paralysis, a derelict flashback, a holy nightmare; Penny no longer saw Kate dancing against the tide, she no longer heard her friend’s girlish squeals of delight as the water brushed against her skin; she was no longer mildly amused at the antics. Just like that, one innocuous, wet reverberation and it all came flooding back.
Transported to another instance, to an unwanted memory, the world around her seemed to shrink, as if rewinding back through time, stopping, sticking, and playing on repeat: she tasted bile on her tongue—she couldn’t swallow. Blinded, dots flickered spasmodically across the cornea of her eyes. Brilliantly, they expanded then burst, over and over, hindering her vision, protecting from the sight of what lay ahead. The sound of her feet, smacking against the wooden dock, beat a hurried drum against her ears, accompanied only by the sound of her voice breaking out over the rippling waves, screaming out an echo of resounding fear….
And suddenly the water wasn’t gentle anymore, the slosh and babble of its movement no longer melodic or soothing. The dusky reflection, broken here and there by the sway and spray of the current, wasn’t picturesque. It looked angry, billowing and spitting out a blackish pit, frothing at the mouth to swallow up everything in its path….
“Stop it,” Penny half-scolded to herself. Shaking her head, dislodging any claim of the past, she unclenched the fits she hadn’t realized she’d made down by her sides. Shakily, she let out her breath. Clearing her mind, erasing, she firmly refused its presence, disallowing herself to go back there. Not tonight. Not with company over.
With a concentrated focus, she stretched her lips outward and upward, channeling her energy, centering her spirit, to a lighter plane. She was fine. Kate was fine. Everything was fine.
Opening her mouth, she prayed for glibness: “No, no. I like to keep a dry distance from all that business,” she assured her lightly. “I’m more of a spectator than partaker.”
Kate was drunk and some fifteen yards away, Penny doubted she’d notice the slight wobble in her façade.
“Your loss,” Kate called before dunking her body underneath the darkened liquid washing gently around her.
“Kate don’t go out too far,” Penny called urgently, checking herself just in time. She hadn’t been lying. She couldn’t swim and Kate, in her current condition, couldn’t be all that much better off. If something happened…!
“Don’t be such a sour puss,” Kate called moments later, her head rising above the glassy surface fearlessly. Madame Penny breathed a sigh of relief.
Easing back against the mesh cushion, Penny decided to follow Kate’s lead; she certainly didn’t appear worried—probably she was an ace swimmer, even while under the influence. She didn’t seem to be sinking, at any rate. Yeah, Penny would follow Kate’s lead. She was fine. She was just fine.
No sooner had Penny come to this conclusion, her body reclining comfortably, her muscles loosening under the strain, then a distinct sound, coming just left of the dock, reached her ears. It was rhythmic, swift and steadily growing nearer. Perking, her attention diverted in that direction, she decided it was the echo of repeated movement: water cresting, splicing and breaking over…over something. But what? Squinting her eyes, Penny could just make out the lines of a shadowy object hovering in the midst of this quiet commotion. Leaning forward, she studied its accent, its voluntary extension, its limber projection. And then she knew, she knew what the sound was.
Good God, it was the stroking motion of a swimmer. And that swimmer was most definitely not Kate McDonald, who was too busy treading water to do much more than simply remain afloat.
Madame Penny didn’t need to be psychic, either, to know who was in the lake with an unsuspecting Kate. It was Jackson Fischer, her one and only neighbor. His was the other house on the lane, sitting almost directly across the way from her own little cottage. Only, his was a dark grey clapboard estate—boasting three levels and 3,000 square feet of space. He’d inherited it from his late grandfather. She’d always wondered how he afforded to keep the place up. Penny had also inherited her home (about the only thing her mother had possessed of any redeeming value and worth), and even that, with its far humbler heritage—a veritable shoebox in comparison—was damn near too much house to manage and maintain for just one person. A mystery, she’d always suspected Fischer had more money than he let on.
Penny and Jackson had grown up together. She knew him almost as well as a sister knows her brother. His daily routine could be clocked to the minute: he swam the perimeter of the lake every evening, right around this time. She should have remembered that. How could she have forgotten that? Had she forgotten that? Had she really?
Maybe, and then again, maybe not. Some things were meant to be overlooked. Who knew?
Tall, broad-shouldered with sandy blond hair, cut meticulously short to compliment brown eyes, Jackson was a fine looking man. Even more, he was dependable, honest, always willing to offer a helping hand. Single, too. Penny had it on good authority that Jackson was very single. Truth be told, she would be drooling over him herself if she hadn’t know him her whole entire life. But Kate…well, that could be a different story. He was no Simon Yates. No harm in meeting someone new, right?
Of course, Kate was out there in her underwear. That gave Penny pause.
“Um, Kate I think it’s time to come out of there,” she called out, rising from her chair now to wave her drunken charge back to the shore. If her voice sounded a bit frantic, well, dammit this time she didn’t care; on second thought, they could meet some other day.
“No way, the water feels so-o nice,” she heard back.
“No really, I think it’s—,”
Too late, Kate saw what Penny had been trying so hard not to point out, what she’d been trying so hard to screen Kate from. The screech she let out at the incoming intrusion of Jackson’s breaststroke was enough to send Penny’s hands up to cover her sensitive ear buds. Unfortunately, it was also loud enough to alert Jackson, knocking him off balance.
Bobbing up out of the water, his eyes zeroed in on Kate, who was now squatting in the water, hoping to shield her scantily-clothed person from his prying eyes.
“Wha—?” His half formed question was only too well understood by Penny. No one other than she lived on that side of the lake and he knew all too well that her idea of submergence went no farther than the dip of her toes. He’d probably never run into another person here before—much less on a school night, much, much less howling like some crazed animal.
“Oh hello there,” Kate said, demure now, her alarm giving way to a correctness of manner she’d probably had beaten into her at a young age. If Penny hadn’t been so embarrassed for her, she’d have probably laughed at that. As it was, Kate’s eyes rose no higher than the water level and Penny’s heart went out to her. “Pardon me. You gave me a fright.”
“I noticed,” Jackson said drily.
“Jackson, Jackson,” Madame Penny called, waving her arms overhead to get his attention. It worked.
“Oh hey Penny,” he called back, seemingly less disoriented at the entrance of her presence. At least he wasn’t going to have to kick someone off the property now.
“So sorry to startle you,” she told him, coming up to the sandy shore. “Um, have you met Kate?” she asked dumbly. Shooting an apologetic glance her way, Penny called herself a fool; she’d meant to distract his attention away from Kate, not redirect it there. She’d panicked.
As if on cue, Jackson turned back to Kate, who was only visible from her chin up by this point. “No, I can’t say that I have,” he answered, with just a hint of mirth. “Uh, it’s nice to meet you,” he said, holding out his hand to properly introduce himself. Water dripped across the splay of his fingers. Awkwardly, he made to move closer, stopping only at her frantic half-step backward.
“Yeah. Yes. It’s, um, nice to meet you too,” Kate replied back, saluting him from the safety of the distance carefully kept between them.
Jackson noticed that too. A wicked glint entered his expression. “I’d be careful of moving back too much farther,” he cautioned her. Pointing up at the yard light situated exactly between his and Penny’s property line he added, “Pretty soon I’ll have a clear sight of what you so obviously don’t want me to see.”
Kate stopped, petrified at the words. Her eyes, hunted, wide, sought out Penny for help. It was clear the psychic would be of little assistance however, even to an inebriated Kate. She was damn near bent over double in her fit of laughter.
“Oh Jackson knock it off. You’ll give the poor girl a heart attack.” Penny guffawed out, her voice far from commanding. It seemed Kate would have to make do with that.
“Sorry,” he said to Kate, but he didn’t sound sorry. Not in the least. “But if you’re going to skinny-dip you’ve got to be prepared to be found out.”
“I am not skinny-dipping,” Kate protested, straightening her back artlessly at the accusation. The action left her shoulder’s bare. The cups of her bra could just barely be made out from the outline of water pooling around her.
“Yeah,” he said slowly, his eyes eloquent, “I see that.”
With a second screech, Kate feverishly crossed her arms over her chest, plunging her body back underneath the wet layer of protection, her knees buckled meanly. “That was a low thing to do,” she seethed.
“I didn’t do anything,” he protested, arms raised in defense. Smiling boyishly between Kate and Penny, he seemed to be looking for reinforcement on this issue.
“Oh Kate, its fine,” Madame Penny said soothingly. “You aren’t showing anything a bikini wouldn’t put on display.”
In response Kate whimpered, hugging her arms around her chest even tighter if that were possible. Jackson laughed. Kate shot him a scathing look which he ignored.
“Hey, if it bothers you so much, why don’t you just get out of the water?”
“Because—because you’re here,” Kate garbled. “I can’t—you’ll see…stuff,” she ended lamely.
“All right, all right, calm down,” Jackson chuckled. “Listen I’ll swim out away from the dock and you can escape, how ’bout that? I won’t be able to see anything that way, okay?” At Kate’s suspicious look he added, “If it’ll make you feel more comfortable I’ll even agree to remain completely underwater throughout. I can hold my breath for about forty-five seconds. That should give you enough time to reach land and cover up sufficiently.” There was nothing for it but to agree to this.
“You better not peek,” Kate said.
Jackson didn’t respond to this, which was just as well since he’d already told her he wouldn’t. “Penny have you got a something to cover her up with?” he asked instead, turning away from Kate without so much as a by-your-leave. His indifference smarted, not that Kate was about to admit it.
“Oh!” Turning in earnest, Penny wondered where she’d put the beach towel she’d brought out earlier. “Yes,” she called triumphantly, grabbing it from off the back of the lounger she’d since vacated; she’d hung it there for easy reach.
“Great. Ready?” he asked Kate now and, without further ado, dove under the water, his feet kicking out for momentum behind him.
In all Penny’s life she’d never seen anyone move as quickly as Kate did just then. She was up and out of the water and swaddled in Penny’s microfiber towel before such much as thirty-seconds had passed. They never even saw Jackson’s head rise above the water. Kate had Penny firmly inside the house, the blinds pulled, tightly closed, and the lights dimmed down before then.
“God, what a righteous jerk, making fun of me like that. So I went swimming without proper attire, so what?” Kate said, her voice infused with feeling, her wet hair dripping on Penny’s carpet. She’d barely allowed for the front door to swing shut before barging into speech.
Penny tried to be neutral. “Jackson’s just a teaser—it’s nothing personal. You’d have to know him but—”
“Pfft. Nothing personal? That was the very definition of personal out there Penny!”
“I just meant he’d do it anybody, regardless,” Penny said, but she might as well have been talking to herself for all the attention she received.
“And as for getting to know him, that’s not likely,” Kate seethed, pacing the short length of Penny’s living room. “I mean, he was just so—so, like casual about the whole thing.”
Penny shrugged, unsure how to proceed. “Well, it wasn’t a big deal Kate. You were decently covered—in your underwear. Like you said, so what?”
“It wasn’t a big deal?” Kate shouted, turning on Penny. “I was practically naked in front of the man, and…instead of being a gentleman and, you know helping me out of an uncomfortable situation, he just sat there, snickering!”
“He was caught off guard too—”
Kate was hardly listening. “Did you see the way he was looking at me?”
“Uh, I don’t know?”
“I mean, am I so unappealing? Is it ludicrous, to expect a level of deference rather than hilarity at the site of my body?”
“Is his body so perfect?” Kate damn near shouted.
Kate’s eyes narrowed at Penny’s hesitation. “Yeah, okay, fine. He’s in great shape. He lives on the freaking water—I should hope he takes advantage of all the aquatic exercise at his disposal!”
Penny fought back a smile. Aha, so maybe there was something there, between them, after all—or at least, there could be, in time, fostered by a certain amount of pushing and prodding, here and there, of course. Without a doubt, Jackson had made an impression on Miss Kate. And it was definitely strong. Madame Penny wasn’t a conceited woman but her gift of intuition hadn’t led her astray yet. Besides, she figured, everyone needed at least a little companionship. Who better than her oldest friend and the woman fast becoming her dearest?
Silently she turned her attention back to Kate:
“I’ve never been more humiliated in my life! You don’t think he saw anything, do you?”
“No, I’m sure he didn’t,” she soothed quietly.
Okay, so maybe the night hadn’t been a complete triumph but at least Kate wouldn’t find her life in Whestleigh boring. That had to count for something.