“Kate, I’m so glad you could stop by,” Penny announced immediately after that woman had pulled aside the curtain marking the entrance to the psychic’s House of Intuition.
A droll smile on her face, Kate gestured toward her phone. “I got your text message. It sounded urgent,” she admitted. Penny’s missive had been short but implicit: they needed to talk. Clearly, whatever it was hadn’t been something which could be shared over the phone. “So, what’s up?” Kate asked, moving inside the room to grab up an empty chair around Penny’s table.
At the same moment, Penny sprang to her feet, her movements feverish suddenly. Pacing the length of her shop (which spanned three footsteps) she spun around to stare down at Kate’s vaguely amused expression. “I had a vision,” the psychic informed her.
“A vision?” Kate asked in dismay. She’d thought this was a real emergency. She should have known better.
“Yes,” Penny said impatiently. “I get them from time to time—a flash of insight brought about by one of my clairs. This time, I saw something…”
Kate nodded wordlessly, distractedly.
“It was while I was preparing for a session that it struck me, my senses bombarded by the uncalled prophecy….” Kate frowned. Penny sounded even more ludicrous than usual, her voice all but dripping with heavy drama. “That’s how these impressions generally work—coming to me abruptly, unexpectedly, without conscious thought or provocation.” Penny pointed a finger to her head. “They’re so genuine, so authentic, you’d swear it was really happening, right there in front of you, but then, just as quickly as the image appears it disappears and, all at once, you know….” Penny didn’t expand upon this, for which Kate was grateful. She didn’t have time for a psychic rundown.
Clicking her tongue theatrically, Penny continued: “And the foreseen cannot be ignored.”
Kate checked the urge to look down at her watch. She didn’t have all day here. Apparently, her lack of enthusiasm communicating itself to Penny, the other woman hurried onward, “Anyway, as I was saying, I had a vision. It involved you.”
Kate kind of figured that. “Go on,” she said though, hoping the prompt would successfully move Penny along on her tediously slow story.
“You were standing before me, arms stretched outward… and on either side of you where the hazy silhouettes of two men, their faces blackened out, disguised from my sight. Each had a grip on one of your hands, each trying to tear you away from the other one and into their own respective arms.” Penny paused here for a moment, to let the picture settle over Kate before saying. “In that instance, I felt your confusion, your indecision, your inability to move one way or the other. You wanted to go to both of them, unable to choose…”
“Are you sure I wasn’t being kidnapped?” Kate asked drily, but Penny didn’t laugh at her lame attempt at a joke.
“You’re matchmaking knows no limits, does it?” she return, her tone playful.
“This isn’t about matchmaking,” Penny insisted, her hands, balled up in fists, planted firmly on her curvaceous hips.
“Then what is it about?”
“I think you know,” Penny said softly. “It’s part of why you came to Whestleigh, after all.”
“To find a man?” Kate queried mockingly.
“Well, maybe that too,” Penny mused, tongue-in-cheek. “No, Kate. You came here to find yourself, to answer the questions waging war within, torn on who you should be versus who you actually are…Well, it seems that struggle as intensified. Part of knowing yourself is discovering what it is you want—for yourself and from yourself.”
“And the balance to all this hangs between the embrace of whichever fella I decide to fall into?” Kate scoffed.
“You’re awfully deflective for a woman who supposedly doesn’t believe me,” Penny said, changing tacks nicely. “Makes me wonder… Are you uncomfortably aware what my vision represents—the truth of what it means? Do you know who these two men are?
Kate didn’t answer her.
“Did I hit a little too close to home?” Penny pushed, not bothering to mince her words.
Well, of course she knew who those two men were—and what they meant to her—Kate steamed, back in her car once more. Pushing her foot down on the accelerator, she breezed down one city block for another, until, according to her satellite navigator, she came up on her destination. Turning into a parking lot there, she carelessly threw her car into the nearest free spot. Shutting off the ignition and reaching into the back seat, she reached for the midsized nylon-mesh bag she’d packed back there.
Penny’s timing was impeccable, Kate fumed, her feet taking her quickly inside the building to a surprisingly clean and cool lobby. Having never been there before, precious minutes were wasted while she located where it was she needed to go but, soon enough, she found herself standing before the door she called for, her fingers curling confidently around its handle…beyond this was a childhood she hadn’t lived. On that thought, Kate pushed it open….
Sneakered feet stepping hesitantly onto the rubber-mated gymnasium floor, her eyes quickly took stock of the room. Arms breaking out in chills, the by-product of the tank top she was wearing, Kate felt her breath catch when she spied him there. .
He was alone in the room, with only the rhythmic bounce-bounce-bouncing to keep him company in the large auditorium. He was also wearing a sleeveless shirt and Kate had to forcibly take her eyes away from what it revealed. She’d always suspected that Jackson had muscles but holy boy did that man have muscles! Even his legs, exposed from the knees down, looked lean but strong, nicely defined and toned.
“You know, I probably should warn you now,” Kate called out without warning, the abrupt nature of her voice disturbing Jackson’s one-man game. “Though I always wanted to play basketball, I never actually have. I’m not even sure I can dribble a ball.” Moving gracefully onto the court, she met up with Jackson, who’d stopped throwing baskets at the sight of her.
“Don’t start backpedalling on me,” he teased her, tossing the ball her way. Kate caught it easily. Slowly, she rotated the foreign object in her hands. “This is happening.”
“I’m not I just—I don’t want to feed you any false claims,” Kate shrugged uncomfortably. It was hard to admit, not being good at something. “I’m afraid this won’t be much fun for you.”
Jackson winked. “This act isn’t going to work,” he insisted. “I take no prisoners.”
Kate just shook her head. “I tried to warn you.”
Jackson rolled his eyes exaggeratedly at her solemn tone. “Kate, I’m well aware that you’ve never played before. That was the point of your memoir, wasn’t it?” Kate swallowed uncomfortably at the mention of that writing assignment. They had yet to bring up Jackson’s own particular storyline. “I’m not expecting you to be ready for the WNBA here, okay? Let’s just have fun.”
Kate laughed. “Okay.” She looked down at the ball in her hands. “I guess, dribbling doesn’t look that hard.”
Jackson threw her a devilish look. “If you need, I can always stand behind you, show you how to move…”
Kate felt her cheeks color. Did she know who the two men were? Oh, most definitely. One of them was standing beside her right now… Looking up at him surreptitiously, Kate studied his blondish hair, spiky attractively at the edges, his eyes a warm, gentle glow and she couldn’t help but wonder: what did she want?
Jackson was gentle but guarded, educated but naive, kind, generous but at times, mocking, bitter…
Jake, on the other hand, was ambitious but indulgent, considerate but also careless, thoughtless but never intentionally…
And both, in their own way, were very, very taken.
These thoughts tumbled unendingly inside Kate’s mind throughout the rest of the evening, long after she and Jackson had finished up for the day (which, though she’d been terrible at, managing to make only one shot, had given her almost unknown pleasure. Spending time with Jackson, flirting shamelessly, reveling in her own understandably lacking ability…Kate had been able to momentarily forget everything else…).
It was late by now, nightfall descending thickly. Shutting the lamp off in her living room, yawning through her frustrated ruminating, Kate decided to call it quits for the night, and just go to bed. She hadn’t gotten any school work done and the way her thoughts were going, she wasn’t bound to either.
It was as Kate was shuffling across the wooden floorboards toward the stairwell leading to her bedroom that she heard a sound coming from outside. Stopping, she listened intently. There it was again! Cautiously sidling up to the window in her kitchen, she pressed her face up to it, her ear cold against the frozen glass. It was too dark to see anything, plus the window was foggy from the wintry chill, so she’d didn’t bother peering through the shifting shadows.
There! Feet it could just be heard, slipping across the frozen ground…multiple pairs of feet, followed closely by the subdued noise of quiet chatter amongst the troupe. As Kate stood there, frozen in her curiosity, they passed by, the hum of their soft commotion dimming into the distance.
Intrigued now, Kate padded out to her front stoop, the better to eavesdrop. Wrapping her arms tightly across her stomach to ward off the cool night air, she gazed about, waiting for her sight to adjust to the blanketed evening, her head blindly following after the strange echo.
After a moment of squinting, she could just make out the shapes of four bodies—maybe fine, standing there, a couple of houses down from her. Wait, wasn’t that Anne Ganthy’s house? Circle around one another, their voices hushed with muted excitement, they appeared to be teenagers. Kate didn’t remember Anne having any children. She was closer to retirement age than anything…Riding a close second to that observation came another: in the hand of what was obviously the ring-leader of this little outfit, was a package of toilet paper.
Kate’s eyes bugging out of her head, she remained immobile, stunned by what was about to happen right in front of her. They were going to prank Anne! Just as she thought it, Kate watched as the first strand of toilet paper sailed up in the air, falling limply against one of the bushes she kept neatly trimmed on either side of her front porch….
Covering a hand against her mouth, Kate held back a girlish giggle. She shouldn’t find this situation funny. Indeed, she should go right up to those hooligans and confront them, make them clean up the mess they were obviously intent on making at the woman’s expense and-and apologize for their behavior. But then again… it was Anne Ganthy they were targeting. Anne Ganthy. Not exactly Kate’s favorite person in the whole, certainly not someone she had any intense desire to help or defend. Honestly, Kate couldn’t force up the energy to pretend she wasn’t a little thrilled the woman was going to get a little back… She’d had enough run-ins with the Anne herself to know that she probably deserved it.
That thought firm in her mind, Kate retraced her steps, slipping unheard back inside her home without the slightest guilt, leaving the kids to their own devices. Besides, it wasn’t as if T.P. was dangerous, just a nuisance.
Besides, Anne Ganthy loved to be a nuisance to others, Kate reminded herself the next afternoon. She and Danger were testament to that, she considered, leading her rambunctious puppy from the car and into the building touting the sign: Whestleigh Dog Obedience Training and Academy. She’d signed Danger up for the course hoping it would help appease the grumpy Ganthy in her relentless pursuit to have Danger removed from the neighborhood. If she could just get his barking to abate….
Tonight marked the beginning of the academy’s eight week long session and Kate could hardly deny the bundle of nerves she experienced as she walked inside the foreign building. Danger was a good dog, a great dog, but he did have this little authority problem.
Tugging him gently after her into the large, open space where the program was being conducted, Kate took a deep, calming breath. The trouble with being new in town, she rationalized, biting her lip nervously as she looked for a quiet, unobtrusive spot to stand, was that you had to do everything by yourself, surrounded by veritable strangers.
No sooner had Kate supposed this than her eyes met with a familiar face among the crowd. If the other person’s smiling nod in greeting, their sudden movement in her direction, was anything to bog y, Kate wasn’t about to be lonely for long. Swallowing thickly, she wished now—almost desperately—for what, only moments ago she’d despaired over. A cruel twist of fate, the only person Kate would gladly take isolation over was making her graceful way toward her.
Ashley Burns. Ashley, Kate’s co-worker and Jake’s secretive girlfriend. Ashley, the girl who didn’t know that Kate had accidentally kissed her boyfriend. Ashley, the girl who’d wipe that affable look off her face if she had any idea just how often Kate fantasized about that same boyfriend. Dammit.
“Hi Kate,” Ashley called in greeting, her knuckles white against the leash holding her large German Shepherd, muscles tensing in her feebly attempt to drag him along after her. He didn’t seem inclined to follow her lead. “Here for the dog training class?”
Danger, lying down at Kate’s feet now, tongue hanging out of his mouth lazily, was clear evidence to that. Ashley’s cheeks burned crimson.
Duh. Still, Kate smiled nicely. “Yes.”
“Oh, I’m so glad. I didn’t think I’d know anyone here tonight. It’s a relief to see a friendly face,” Ashley said, talking fast, her movements jerking with the force of her dog’s continued resistance. Clearly, he wasn’t interested in standing still. “Trigger, be still!”
Kate nodded limply. She and Ashley could hardly be classified as acquaintances, much less friends. Sure, they worked together but rarely on the same shift, and even when they did, Ashley, being popular amongst the ranks, had never before freely sought out conversation with Kate—not unless it had to do with the LitLiber specifically. She didn’t have to. She belonged. She had real friends there. Kate was peripheral. Still, she’d always been kind during those infrequent exchanges…. Kate guessed that was something.
“Yeah…” Kate mumbled, at a loss for words. Her nerves from earlier were nothing compared to now. Just standing by Ashley, Kate felt inferior, guilty, dirty, her mouth just itching to spill the beans. Clenching her teeth tightly together, she focused her attention down to Danger, who was half-asleep by now.
Jake and Ashley.
Kate with Jake.
Kate and Ashley.
It was too much.
“Trigger, stop!” Ashley called roughly, pulling Kate from her terrible reverie. Tugging none-too-gently on the leash in her hands, leaning back against her hunches, she appeared to have her hands full just trying to harness her dog’s single-minded intention of having his own way. His ears were perked upright, breath heaving out of his mouth excitedly, neck straining hard against his collar. The pair of them made quite a sight.
Still, Kate got the impression Ashley was embarrassed by his show of defiance, so she pretended not to notice, reaching down to scratch Danger appreciatively under his chin. At least he was being cool.
“You’d think I’d be used to this by now,” Ashley muttered, her own breath coming fast now, determined to win this particular game of tug-of-war.
“Hah,” Kate smiled inanely. “Have you had Trigger for a long time?” She asked, trying to remain conversational.
Ashley’s head whipped around at the question and, too late, Kate realized Ashley been talking to herself and, what’s more, Kate wasn’t supposed to have heard that.
Laughing despite this, Ashley shrugged. “No, I just got him actually… but, Trigger seems to share a lot of the same traits as my boyfriend. You know what I mean, I say sit and he says run!” She giggled at her own joke.
Kate felt the breath whoosh out of her stomach at the reference to Jake, even in all its subtlety. All the blood seemed to drain from her face—her cheeks tingling numb and cold. She couldn’t do this. It was too much, too damn much!
Clearing her throat, her expression choked, Kate hardly heard herself respond. Empty, polite small talk had been drummed into her from such a young age, it came naturally. “Right,” she laughed hollowly. “Men! They’re so contrary.”
Eyes downcast, Kate called herself every kind of coward. Men might be contrary but women were devious—as she was learning firsthand.
Ashley smiled, but it looked kind of sad. “Yeah, and mine’s no different in that department. I swear, sometimes I wish I knew what he was thinking. It’s like, one minute he’s the guy I feel in love with, the one I know inside and out and then, in the next, he’s as distant as the sun, and just as unreachable.”
Kate wasn’t sure how to respond. The conversation had turned awfully heavy all of a sudden and Kate—especially knowing what she did—did not feel equipped to carry it out. Why was Ashley telling her this? Kate hardly knew her!
A niggling warning siren sounding in the back of her head, Kate wondered for a frantic minute if Ashley knew. It would explain her abrupt decision to share something so private, so personal with Kate. Was she fishing for information? Or worse…was she truly unaware of Kate’s recent bout of indiscretion, and just looking for someone to confide in? How was Kate supposed to befriend her if that was the case, how could she possibly accept this confidence?
“He never used to be like that,” Ashley said then, speaking into the silence surrounding them, a silence thickened by Kate’s own conflicting feelings on the subject. Frowning, the words falling ominously from her mouth, she looked incredibly fragile in that moment, incredibly scared at the implications present in that statement.
And, against every moral fiber of her being, against her own will to think otherwise, Kate felt a horrible, unthinkable twinge of hope….
M.T. was bent over her desk, with only the soft glow of a lamp beside her computer to illuminate the room around her. The church had been closed for hours now, but there she remained—probably writing out her sermon. Fingers spread over the keyboard, lips pulled downward in concentration, her posture remained rigid, her attention fixed to the task at hand.
At least, that’s how it looked to Penny, standing silently at the entrance to the pastor’s office. She’d been on her way home when, driving by Good Shepherd, she’d seen Maggie’s light on and…throwing out a customary knock on the door now, softly announcing her presence, Penny watched M.T.’s head bob up at the unexpected sound.
“Hey Maggie,” she said in tentative greeting.
“Penny? What are you doing here?” M.T. asked excitedly. Easing her way further inside the room, Penny felt a little of her anxiety loosen at the obvious welcome.
“I was on my way home—” Penny started to explain but, on second thoughts, decided not to travel down that line of thought. She wasn’t ready for that yet. “Are you hungry?” she asked instead.
If M.T. was taken aback by her question, nothing of it appeared on her face. A smile curled its way around the corners of her mouth. “I’m starved,” she lied. She’d eaten supper not half an hour ago, but she wasn’t about to confess that to Penny, not when it seemed like…well, like an invitation to dine out together loomed imminently.
“I thought I might hit up Yellow Flame”—Penny’s favorite restaurant—“for a meal. Want to, do want to join me?” The usually cool physic was anything but in that moment…the words were flat, stiff, easily matching her body language.
Pushing her chair back from her desk, M.T. gained her feet. “I’d love to.”