Whipping open the front doors to the LitLiber, Kate barreled inside, her face a mask of frozen fear as her feet tripped, unseeing, past a throng of shoppers. Her breath wheezing out past her parted lips, Kate quickly found herself outside Jake’s office; terrible images transposed themselves before her eyes—what would she encounter when she opened that door? Frantic, she twisted the handle in her numb hands, her eyes hunted…only, nothing so dire materialized when she bowled across its threshold. Instead, Jake was seated quietly behind his desk, head bent over the computer screen before him, seemingly fast at work; Janessa sat sulkily in a chair across the way, looking bored as she thumbed through her phone.
“Janessa…what…? Jake,” Kate sputtered, her gaze alternating rapidly from one to the other and back again. “Theft?” She finally settled on.
Janessa rolled her eyes. “Calm down Kate,” she muttered.
“Calm down!” Kate squealed. Wincing at the sound, even Kate was surprised by the pitch of her voice. She hadn’t known it could sound so bad. “Calm down? Janessa do you understand…stealing? Stealing!” Kate took a deep breath, fighting for composure. “Do you get how serious this is, how it could affect your record, your reputation? What possessed you?”
Janessa shrugged, not looking at Kate. “I just forgot to pay, that’s all.”
Kate looked helplessly at Jake, whose had lips formed a hard line across his mouth. “Is that true?” She asked him desperately.
Jake sighed, slowly pushing his chair back and standing up. His eyes steadied on Janessa. “No, it’s not true. When I approached Janessa outside in the parking lot, enquiring if she realized she hadn’t purchased the book in her bag, she tried to run.”
“Big mouth,” Janessa breathed.
“Janessa!” Kate railed, shocked at the girl’s outrageous response. What was going on? Sure, Janessa could be a little rough around the edges, but this was bad even for her!
“Kate it wasn’t like that—”
“Shut up,” Kate said impatiently. “Just shut up, Janessa. I cannot believe you. Why? Tell me why? Why did you do this?” Up to now, Kate hadn’t been aware she could even be this upset with another human being. Her whole boy radiated with furious disappointment.
Walking around the side of his desk, Jake touched Kate lightly on the shoulder. “I’m going to step outside for a few minutes, give the two of you time to talk alone. Okay?”
Kate flashed him a thankful smile. Jake seemed to understand, by the surly snarl crossing the teenager’s mouth, that information would be less-than-forthcoming with him present…He was a stranger, an unwanted interloper in an awkward, embarrassing, upsetting discussion.
The door closing securely behind his retreating form, Kate nabbed the seat next to Janessa’s. Taking a deep breath, she opted for a softer approach. “Janessa, look at me. Tell me why you did this?” she asked again.
Shrugging one shoulder, Janessa stubbornly kept her eyes on the phone in her hands. In a hot second, Kate swiped away. That got the girl’s attention. Gasping, Janessa raised surprised, rebellious eyes up to Kate. “Give that back.”
“Not until you talk,” Kate countered, slipping the electronic device inside her pants pocket. “Why Janessa?”
“I needed the book,” Janessa said simply enough.
“You needed it?” Kate repeated incredulously. “For what?”
Her body stiffening, Janessa was all bristling defiance: “It was for this stupid thing at school. You wouldn’t understand.”
Kate closed her eyes. “Then explain it to me. What book did you take?”
Arms crossed defensively, lips curled obstinately, Janessa spat: “it was an SAT study guide, okay?”
“Okay,” Kate said slowly. Janessa was going to take her SAT’s? That was news.
Scuffing her shoe against the floor, Janessa muttered: “Our guidance counselor recommended that we get one to prepare for the test.”
“But why steal it?” Kate asked reasonably. Just for kicks? The thrill of the chase?
“Why else?” Janessa sneered, “because I couldn’t afford to buy it.”
Kate chose to ignore the venom seething out of the younger girl’s mouth. “Why didn’t you ask your mom for the money?”
“You think she can afford some hoity-toity college preparatory book, Kate? Please. She would have just said No. I spared her the opportunity, that’s all.”
Kate felt her stomach muscles tighten. Janessa was probably right. Kate didn’t fully understand her situation. “Why didn’t you ask me, then?”
“Ask you? Yeah right.” Janessa looked down at her hands, clenched tightly in her lap. “Like I’m not enough of a hassle without adding financial hardship into the deal.”
The self-depreciation wasn’t lost on Kate. Taking a mental step back, she tried for a different tack. “Janessa, we’re friends. At least, you’re my friend,” she hastened to clarify. “And friends help one another out. You could’ve asked me, I would’ve said yes. I want you to know that. You can always ask me…about anything. I may not always fall in with your plans, you know—I may not always say yes, but you can still talk to me.”
Janessa’s mouth twisted. “I want to go to college, Kate. I want to get out of this place. I don’t want to end up like my mother.”
Kate felt her body sag at the confession. It was a small, tiny step, but it was in the right direction. Janessa was sharing.
“Okay,” Kate said simply. “I’m going to talk to Jake, see if I can get this thing sorted out. Wait in here,” she said, rising to her feet. Taking the phone out of her pocket, Kate handed it back to a subdued Janessa. “I’ll just be a few minutes.”
Exiting the office, Kate’s eyes scanned the area around her, looking for Jake.
She spotted him easily enough, sitting almost directly in front of her at one of the bistro tables scattered across the small café. Making her way toward him, Kate tried to calm her racing heart. What if he still planned to press charges? What would she do then?
Glancing up expectantly, almost as if he’d known she would be there, Jake smiled in greeting. “Hey Kate,” he said softly. Waving toward the empty seat across from him, he invited her to take a seat. “Where is Janessa?”
“I left her in your office, for the time being. I hope that was okay?” she said. Besides, from this vantage point, Kate had a clear view of the door. She’d see if Janessa tried anything stupid.
“Yeah, that’s fine.”
“Jake…listen, I’m so sorry,” Kate rushed to say, unsure of what else she could say. Her voice cracked over the words. “I-I please, Janessa is sorry too. I’m sure she didn’t say it in so many words. She’s not good with polite society. You see, Janessa’s had a rough life…” Kate said, deciding that it was probably fair that Jake know a little more of the girl’s background, that he grasp the purpose of her and Janessa’s relationship—where it had stemmed from and why. It might help enlighten him of the situation.
“She just, she just didn’t know of any other way. I’m not trying to make excuses for her, I promise I’m not. She’s young and she’s learning but unfortunately that means making some mistakes along the way. She hasn’t always had a lot of guidance.”
“That’s where you come in?” Jake asked.
Kate tilted her head a little to the side. “Yeah, I guess,” she admitted uncomfortably. She hadn’t meant it like that; put it that way, she seemed little better than a self-proclaimed philanthropic.
“Lucky her,” Jake said, a small secretive smile playing across his mouth.
Feeling her face flush for the second time that day, Kate ducked her head in embarrassed acknowledgement of his words. “Thank you.”
“Where is her mother?” Jake asked.
Kate shrugged. “I’m really not sure. Honestly, I’ve never even met the woman.”
“You’ve never met Janessa’s mother?” Jake asked, clearly puzzled.
“I know…she doesn’t seem concerned with the people that Janessa hangs out with. She heard I was from the church and that was, apparently, good enough for her.” Kate frowned. If Janessa were her kid…hell, Kate would have done a personal background check on any adult who wanted to spend time with her adolescent child. Not to mention, Janessa has a problem with lying…she could have said that anyone was her mentor (Kate wouldn’t put it past her). Would her mother have just believed it then, too, no questions asked? Does she truly care so little?
“Tough break,” Jake said, pursing his lips at the news.
“Yeah,” Kate said, staring down at the wrought-iron table.
“But you care.” He seemed to recognize this as a statement of fact.
Glancing up, Kate tried for a smile. It felt tight. “Yeah, I care. Certainly, Janessa doesn’t always make it easy on me,” she confessed wryly, waving an expressive arm toward the office, “but I care.”
Jake’s lips pulled up slightly at the reference. “Yeah, I’m not sure I’ve ever really heard you upset before today. Not like that anyway.”
Kate felt her shoulder hitch in reaction. “She has a way of bringing that out in me.”
Jake laughed softly and, reaching across the table, laid one hand gently atop her clasped fists. Kate tried not to react to the feel of his skin against her own, locking away memories of the last time he’d touched her…instead concentrating all her attention on his next words: “Believe me when I say this, your coming here today, how angry you were, how fiercely you barged into that room…she needed that. She needs to feel like she’s worth that kind of energy.”
His words were heavy with influence, strong in conviction.
“Are you speaking from experience?” Kate asked quietly.
Jake laughed. Leaning back against the chair, his hand falling away from her own, Jake nodded. “Oh yeah.”
“Jake the wild child?” Kate mused a loud, her lips pursed in amusement. “I can picture that.”
“Can you now?” Jake teased, rubbing a hand down his chin. “Pretty far removed from the social set you associated with, I’m only too sure.” His voice was dry, confident.
Kate shrugged fatalistically. “Guilty as charged. I was the preppy, popular girl.” She made a face at Jake’s look of mock shock. “It’s not all sunshine and roses under that patch of grass either. There’s a lot of pressure, always competing: grades, sports, academic prowess…”
“Miss perfect,” Jake teased her.
“Rebel without a cause,” she threw back at him.
“I suppose I should be glad we didn’t know each back other then.”
“Why?” Kate asked, not sure if she’d just been insulted.
Jake winked. “I’m not sure you’d have liked me.”
Kate wasn’t sure where she got the audacity, but before she knew it she said: “I always had a weakness for the badboy.”
Jake’s eyebrows rose eloquently.
Before she was allowed time to fully regret that comment, Kate changed the subject. “Actually, my upbringing is a source of contention between Janessa and myself. She won’t let me in because of it,” the humor eeking out of her voice, Kate felt the monumental weight of those words. “She thinks I can’t possibly relate to her feelings, her situation. It’s caused a wedge I’m not sure how to dismantle.”
“Don’t take it so personally,” Jake advised. “Part of that is just being a teenager. They don’t think anyone can understand them, regardless of social status. They think they’re the first people in history to feel what they do. Give her time. Listen. Stick it through.”
“How do I get past it?” Kate asked on a sigh and then: “Or worse, what if she’s right? What if I can’t … You know, she’s so different from me, her lifestyle so foreign from the one I know. What if I’m not the right person for her?”
“That doesn’t sound like the overly ambitious Kate McDonald that I know and love,” Jake said, his hand snaking out again, this time reaching for her chin. Tilting it up, he brought her face in line with his own, her eyes underneath his. “First of all, it’s normal to flounder with kids. No one knows exactly how to reach them—even parents who live with them.” Jake dropped his hand, but his eyes remained firm on her face. “But you are getting past it. Janessa pleaded with me to call you instead of her mother and, when I called her anyway, the relief was palpable when I couldn’t get through. She wanted you Kate.”
“Are you going to call the police?” Kate blurted out. She couldn’t hold the question back any longer. Hell, she’d scarcely thought of anything else since Jake’s call. If the police got involved….Janessa future was at stake here.
“Listen,” she continued, before Jake had even answered her: “I’ll pay you for the book. Right now. I’ll pay you double for the book…!” Kate’s voice was high in desperation.
Jake sighed, throwing a quick hand through his hair. “Kate—”
“I know she did something stupid,” Kate said, “but the irony here is that she did it to escape this kind of life—the only kind of life she knows. She’s used to going without, to using any means to get what she needs. That’s why she did this, to get ahead, go to college, get an education. She did it to learn better than to stoop to something as low as theft,” Kate pleaded, her eyes unbelievably large in her pale face.
Jake’s hand came up to cover Kate’s mouth, effectively cutting her off from further defenses. “Kate, I’m not going to call the police,” he told her simply.
“You’re not?” Kate mumbled through the blanket of his fingers across her lips.
Dropping his hand back to the table top, Jake shook his head. “No. I thought Janessa would have told you…” Jake sighed. “I won’t be pressing charges, Kate. I think the threat of it all was enough to get through to her.”
Kate opened her mouth in grateful response to this but before she got the opportunity to speak two things happened simultaneously:
The door to Jake’s office slipped open, Janessa’s head poking out: “Kate, are you guys almost done? I’m bored…”
And, from the opposite direction of the store, another voice rose out above the din of the customers milling around them, the sound as unexpected as the visitor himself: “Kate!”
Was that…? Please, no.
With a sinking heart, Kate turned just in time to watch the lanky stride of one Simon Yates stumble breathlessly upon their table. “I’m glad I found you…” his voice petering out, Simon looked over at Jake, as if it had only just occurred to him Kate wasn’t alone. “Jake,” he said.
In stunned silence, Kate watched while Jake gained his feet, holding out his hand in greeting. “Simon,” he returned gently, taking the other man’s grip with easy affection.
“So?” Janessa hissed in Kate’s ear, having snuck up unawares to the other side of the table. “Can we got or not?”
“In a minute,” Kate hissed right back.
“Kate,” Simon said and, gaining her attention once more, continued: “You ah, you left this behind earlier.” He held up a notebook.
“Oh. Thank you,” Kate said softly, taking it out of his hands. “I definitely need this,” she assured him graciously. It had the outline for her class final inside it.
Simon smiled tightly, “Yeah, well you left so suddenly…” he questioned, probing. “Is everything all right?”
Kate felt her body tense; Janessa was standing right there—what could she say? “Uh…yes,” she muttered, “everything’s fine. Thank you Simon,” she repeated in finality.
“Is this your boyfriend?” Janessa asked suddenly, her voice hard. Kate wasn’t sure why, but she swore she saw the beginnings of a glare etch out across the teenagers face.
Startled eyes flying up to Simon’s reddening face, Kate bit down on a wish to muzzle the girl. Leave it to Janessa to ask a question like that…and to Simon of all people! As if things were uncomfortably enough between them.
Clearing her throat, Kate prayed for tact. “Ah, no…” she sputtered clumsily. “We’re, we’re good friends though—”
Janessa’s face cleared. Her voice, cutting ruthlessly across the rest of Kate’s explanation (which was probably for the best anyway), sounded shy, coquettish even as she addressed Simon. “Hi, I’m Janessa,” she introduced herself. With the flick of her wrist, she tossed her hair behind her shoulder, the gesture girlish, almost coy. “Janessa Cooper. I would be the reason Kate had to leave you so quickly.” Sticking out her hand, smiling up through her lashes, Janessa suddenly looked too old for her age.
Kate didn’t like it.
Shaking her outstretched hand, Simon smiled politely. “I’m Simon. Simon Yates. I would be the friendly tutor,” he said mocking Kate.
Janessa giggled. She giggled!
Kate thought her eyes were going to bulge out of her head. Sneaking a glance at Jake, she saw he was also mesmerized by what was materializing before them. Janessa was flirting with Simon!
“A tutor?” Janessa queried with calculated interest, and the look she shot Kate was filled with promised rivalry. “Actually, you know, I could use a little help with school myself. I don’t suppose…?” Biting down on her lip, she stared up at Simon. The look had premeditated sex written all over it.
Kate stood up jerkily. “We have to go,” she announced to no one in particular. “Jake, again, thank you. Thank you,” she expressed profusely. “Simon, I’ll call you later to reschedule, shall I? And thanks again for bringing this to me,” she was quick to add, talking loudly. Grabbing hold of Janessa’s arm, she asked the young girl: “Janessa, do you have anything you’d like to say before we leave?” She sent a speaking glance toward Jake.
“Oh. Yeah,” she muttered. “I’m—I’m sorry Mr. Farrow.”
“It’s okay Janessa. Just, don’t do it again, all right?”
“Deal,” Janessa said with a begrudging smile. “Thanks for ah, for being cool.” And, before Kate could steer her toward the exit, Janessa turned to Simon. “It was nice meeting you, Mr. Tutor Man. I look forward to the next time we…”
Too late, Kate was already pulling her down the aisle toward the front doors. She didn’t care to hear the rest of whatever it was Janessa had planned to say to Simon. What the hell was she thinking anyway? Simon was a college student for Christ’s sake.
“He’s cute,” Janessa whispered to Kate as they progressed out into the parking lot. “How come you’ve never mentioned him before?” she asked, the words accusing.
Kate shrugged. “I barely know him Janessa. And anyway, he’s too old for you….”
“Well, Janessa is officially not talking to me anymore,” Kate told Penny later that evening. They were talking over the phone, Kate stretched out on her living room recliner, Penny sitting atop her kitchen counter; the soft peachy hue of the painted walls gave the room a warm glow, offsetting the wintry chill.
“What happened this time?” Penny asked amusedly, bringing a cup of hot cocoa up to her mouth. Kate’s protégé was proving to be a definite handful.
Quickly, Kate filled her in on the little shoplifting episode. “But that’s not why she’s mad at me, though it should be noted she was aggravatingly nonchalant about the whole business. No, no, it wasn’t the theft which turned Janessa against me this time, it was Simon Yates.”
“Simon Yates?” Penny asked, chewing on the name. “Simon Yates as in, let’s go to Hooker Station and I’ll puke all over your shoes Simon Yates?”
“The one and the same,” Kate said drily. As if it hadn’t been bad enough, having him as her tutor, now he’d weaseled his way into her problems with Janessa. If it wasn’t one awkward romantic encounter with him it was another.
“What about him?”
“Janessa likes him. Like, she likes him,” Kate said meaningfully.
“Isn’t he a little old for her?”
“My point exactly. Janessa didn’t seem to agree. She told me, in no uncertain terms that my opinion was neither asked-for, nor welcomed. In short, she wanted me to butt-out,” Kate said, trying to keep it light. In reality, Janessa had been all but spitting when she’d yelled across the console: “You don’t get to tell me what to do!”
“That’s tough,” Penny said shortly, treading carefully. Janessa was a sore topic for Kate.
“So, what do I do? Do I tell Janessa’s mom about this? Simon? Do I betrayal her trust or just hope this thing goes away all on its own?” Kate asked. “I’m not sure she even really likes him. I think she just likes tormenting me.”
Kate sighed: “What do I do with Janessa and these inappropriate feelings?”
“Trust your instincts,” Penny said confidently. “What does it tell you?”
Kate sighed. “It tells me that Janessa isn’t ready for something like this.”
“Well, then there you go,” Penny said quietly.
“Okay,” Kate said brusquely, “enough of my problems. Too much heaviness… Tell me about your day, anything interesting happen?” She could use a quirky story right about now.
The question gave Penny pause. She felt stupid—mean, foolish.
“I went to Burke’s Brakes,” she admitted softly. “I uh, I sabotaged my car. Deliberately.”
“You did?” Kate asked warily, unsure she even wanted to know.
“Mmm-hmm,” Penny said ominously.
“And?” Kate held her breath.
“And…Maggie can have him,” Penny spat. “The topic of Hank Burke is no longer of interest to me.”
“Whoa, wait. What happened?” Kate asked, completely taken aback. That was change in tune.
“I told him I was a psychic. He thought I was joking,” Penny said crisply.
“He accused me of being a charlatan,” Penny admitted painfully.
“What?!” Kate asked, her body springing forward in reaction. How dared he!
Penny shrugged and this time her voice was softer, resigned: “Like I said, Maggie can have him. Though I’m starting to think even she’s too good for him.”
“I’m sorry Penny,” Kate said softly. She could only guess how much his remarks had hurt the other woman.
“He just had to open his big old mouth and ruin it for me,” she agreed. Kate laughed. Penny did too.
“I guess we both had rough days,” Kate mused.
Penny nodded against the growing darkness creeping against her kitchen window. “It’ll all look better tomorrow—it always does.”
Kate crossed her fingers. Penny rapped her knuckle lightly against a nearby wooden cabinet.