Jake’s lips were cool where they pressed against Kate’s, his hands roaming up and down her back, drawing her steadily closer, until her legs were pushed up tight to his, until she could feel his chest moving with the force of his breathing. And, curling against him, Kate kissed him back.
That is, until a crash of noise invaded her senses. Pulling back at the sound, Kate’s eyes popped open, her head shifting to the side, to watch an empty plastic bin tumble loudly down the stairs.
“Oops, clumsy me,” Penny called out. She was standing on the third step down from the top of the stairwell, a tight, almost hateful smile on her face. From her vantage point, she would have had a clear picture of Kate and Jake’s little…moment.
And judging be the very non-apologetic lift of her eyebrows, the very non-approving line of her mouth, she had seen them…and she hadn’t liked it.
Cringing inside, Kate backed out of Jake’s arms. Jake, too, took a hurried step backward, his legs colliding with a stack of old cardboard boxes lined up against the wall. Running a hand through his thick mane of hair, he looked guiltily from Kate to Penny and back again.
Penny, however, never took her eyes off Kate, who was standing with her shoulders hunched now, her eyes pinioned to the cold, hard concrete at her feet.
“Please, don’t let me interrupt—” Penny said coolly. Her voice was just as hard as her features. Turning, one hand held tightly to the rail, she put one foot on the tread above her, ready to depart. “I’ll just come back…”
“No, no!” Kate’s plea was loud, forceful. “Wait—” but her words fell on deaf ears. Without so much as a backward glance, Penny ascended the rest of the way until she was once again on the main floor. And then, with a deliberate click, she shut the door behind her.
Jake sighed into the empty stillness around them. “Kate…”
“No.” Shaking her head, Kate repeated: “No. I can’t do this right now!” She held her arms out in front of her defensively. Her legs continued to back up until she was at the far side of the basement, her movements steadily putting as much space as possible between the two of them. “I’m just—I’m not ready. Okay?”
“Ready for what?” Jake asked.
“I told you—”
“No you haven’t. I don’t understand. What aren’t you ready for?”
But Kate just looked at him silently.
“We just kissed Kate!”
“I know,” she said. “I know and—”
“You keep saying that—‘I’m not ready’” Jake said. “But what does that mean?”
Kate lifted her shoulders with a jerk. “It means…I was engaged to be married this time last year.”
If Jake’s sudden inhaled breath was anything to go by, her statement had taken him by surprise.
“I was engaged to be married to the wrong man,” she added. “And I’m—not ready to start something new yet. It’s not something you get over in a day.”
“I’m terrified to make that mistake again.”
Jake laughed roughly. “I’m not asking you to marry me.”
“No, I know that.” Kate’s face pinkened. “But you have to understand…”
“No. I understand,” Jake insisted. “You’re scared. Unsure of yourself. And me. And what I represent.”
“But Kate, that fear won’t go away all by itself. You can’t know if something is right or wrong if you don’t even try.”
Kate’s lower lip pulled out. “Maybe you can jump quickly from one relationship to the next, but I can’t.”
“You just broke up with your girlfriend. If I’m not ready to date, and it’s been almost a year, how are you?”
Jake took a deep breath. His answer was slow in coming. “I guess because I’ve liked you for a long time. Longer than I should have while I was dating another woman…and now, I don’t want to miss the chance.”
Kate nodded sharply. “It feels wrong. You’re my boss.”
“I know.” Jake sighed.
“I don’t want to be your rebound.”
“No Kate. You’re not that. Never that.”
She shrugged. “And Ashley… she works with us. She’s your employee! How would that work?”
Jake smiled sadly. “You’re dodging the issue Kate. This isn’t about Ashley—”
“I like her. I don’t want to hurt her.”
Jake shifted. “No, I know. I don’t want to hurt her either.”
“And I don’t want to get hurt again,” Kate admitted.
“And you think I would hurt you.” It wasn’t a question.
“No. I think I would. What if—what if I haven’t learned anything since Phil? What if I just fall into the same pattern: letting someone else tell me what I like and don’t like, who I love and don’t love?”
It was clear from the expression Jake’s face that he no longer understood Kate. “Same pattern? Letting someone else…? Kate, this isn’t about anyone else. It’s not about—what did you say his name was? Phil? It’s not about Ashley either. It’s about you. What do you want?”
“That’s just it,” Kate cried, her arms motioning frantically now. “I don’t know. I’ve never—I’ve never been allowed to question that before now. So while it’s easy for you to make decisions, it’s all so new to me. It’s scary and unnerving to walk down a road without a map.”
Jake took a step toward her. “Okay. Then start small. Do you want me to kiss you again? Don’t over think it. Just tell me what you want.”
“Jackson, will you grab Maggie—” Penny asked, turning to look up at him. Her eyes, however, didn’t quit meet his. They hadn’t since she’d returned from the basement. Luckily, he hadn’t seemed to notice. “I’m not sure if she wants us to take up the carpet in the closet, as well.”
“Yeah, sure.” Jackson said, rising up from his haunches. They’d been working in the guestroom for over twenty minutes now. Scraps of carpet were piled up anyhow around them. Setting his pliers carefully on a window sill, he moved out in the hallway.
It took him a minute to find her, but when Jackson entered into the living room, there she was, standing quietly looking out one of the windows. Her fingers were playing absently with a heart-shaped locket strung around her neck. She hadn’t seemed to hear him come in, her thoughts entirely taken up by the view outside.
“We’re home. It took a long time,” she whispered, her fingers rubbing against the gold-plated chain. “But we’re home. I’m so sorry you weren’t able to see it—to play out in the yard, to bake in the kitchen with me…”
Feeling like he was intruding on something private, Jackson was on the point of slipping quietly back out in the hallway when Maggie, catching sight of him out of her peripheral vision, turned around.
Dropping her hands quickly down to her sides, Maggie gave a start. “Oh! Jackson. I didn’t see you—”
“Sorry!” He rushed in to say, “I didn’t mean to—that is, Penny asked me to come and find you…” He took in her watery eyes, her stiff posture. “Hey, are you okay?”
With a wave of her hand, Maggie cut his scrutiny short. She laughed shortly, dismissively. “Of course. You just caught me daydreaming. That’s all.”
Jackson smiled, coming further into the room to stand beside her. “Admiring the view?”
“Picturing the memories I’ll make here.”
“And the ones you won’t?” Jackson asked meaningfully.
Maggie made a strangled sound in her throat
Jackson slid his gaze sideways. “You know, I thought about moving when Emily died. The old memories…they were so hard to live with during those first few months.”
M.T.’s hand reached out and squeezed his. “I know.”
“I’d wondered if a fresh start wouldn’t have helped me move on.”
M.T. didn’t say anything, her look steady on the outside window. “But then I realized,” Jackson said, his voice soft, barely there soft. “I would have carried her with me anywhere. So it didn’t matter. Any home of mine, and a part of her would have been there. And I would have wondered: how would she have planted the garden? Would she have approved this color of paint or that style of cabinetry? How would her laugh have sounded, echoing off these walls?”
Maggie nodded roughly.
“It’s the worst and best part about loving. You can’t take it back. And you can never let it go.”
A stray tear rolled silently down Maggie’s cheek, highlighted by the dim rays of light shining weakly into the room. “I’m so sorry for your loss, Jackson.”
Jackson looked pointedly at the locket hanging discreetly off her neck. “And I’m sorry for yours.”
Maggie closed her eyes. “That feeling of betrayal… moving on, trying to be happy again. It’s so hard. Part of you thinks you should mourn forever….”
“While the other part is already seeking peace and happiness,” Jackson finished for her.
“And once it finds it…”
“It’s a vicious cycle,” Jackson said softly, his arm curving around the pastor’s shoulders, bringing her in closer to his side. “Survivor’s guilt isn’t just for the war-torn.”
A moment of silence passed.
Maggie sniffed. “It’s a beautiful house. I’m filled with joy at owning it.”
“And it’s okay to be a little sad, as well, that someone won’t be able to enjoy it too.”
Another beat of silence.
Maggie laughed then, shifting in Jackson’s arms. “Goodness, listen to us! All this heavy talk…well, that’s enough of that. Today is about celebrating! And I mean to do that.”
Jackson smiled, hugging her close one last time before letting her go. “All right. You’re right. But…I meant what I said. Anytime you want, I’ll be here for the rest of that story.”
Maggie smiled tightly. “And someday I may take you up on that offer.” She cleared her throat. “Now, what was it that Penny needed me for?”
“Knock, knock,” Kate called softly, her knuckle rapping softly against the door leading to the guest room. Having spied Jackson walking out of the room not moments before, she knew Penny would be alone. And judging by the scene she’d made in the basement not ten minutes ago, Kate felt obligated to talk to her. To explain herself.
“What do you want, Kate?” Penny asked from somewhere inside the room. Without waiting for admittance, Kate walked inside. The psychic was kneeling on the floor, compiling the bits of carpet into a semblance of order.
“Penny—listen, about what happened downstairs…”
But Penny only held up her hand. “No need to explain yourself. I was at the optimists only a week ago. My eyesight is perfect.”
Kate took a deep breath. Okay, she was even more pissed than Kate had expected.
“Penny, it wasn’t what it looked like.”
“Jake kissed me. I—it was a planned thing. He just, he just…” Kate’s gestured wildly.
“And you kissed him right back.”
Kate felt the first licks of her temper flaring. Just where the hell did Penny get off with that tone of voice?
“Yes I did.”
“And what if it had been Jackson who’d be at the head of the stairs?” Penny asked. “What if I’d asked him to go down there instead? What if he’d seen you with Jake? What then?”
Kate sucked in a hard breath. “Did you tell him?”
Penny twisted at the waist now, her eyes staring leveling up at Kate’s. “Oh, so suddenly he matters again? Huh?”
“Penny don’t be like that.”
“You know, what it doesn’t matter. I don’t care anymore,” Penny said, turning back to the pile of green carpet in her hands.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Kate asked, hating the little girl wine that accompanied the question.
Penny shrugged. “Look. You’ve clearly made your choice. It’s Jake. There’s no reason for you to explain yourself.”
Kate felt trapped. “I didn’t say—”
Penny’s voice railroaded her. “And in a way, I guess I’m glad.”
Penny made a face. “At least the wondering is over. Maggie and I won’t have to sit on the teeter-tooter that is your romantic liaisons anymore. Jake or Jackson? Jackson or Jake? You’ve picked. It’s done.”
“Teeter tooter?” Kate snapped. “Is that how you view my life?”
“Well how else am I supposed to?” Penny asked, getting to her feet now, to properly square off with Kate. “You bounce all over the place, making big dramatic moments out of everything! And you freaking love it! You revel in the waffling: ‘Jackson kissed me. Jake said he loves me. I’m not ready to date. I think Jackson was flirting with me. And, oh, I flirted back! But then I had this fantasy about Jake.’ I mean, come on Kate.”
“Wow,” Kate whispered, hurt beyond words. “Thanks for your support”
“Are you kidding me? I have done nothing but support you. I’ve listened. And I’ve sympathized. And I’ve waited. But there’s only so much back-and-forth I can take…”
“So sorry I’m not moving at your pace then,” Kate threw back.
“You’re not moving at any pace. That’s the point!”
“What are you talking about? Were you not downstairs just now? Did you not see me and Jake?”
“So, he is the one. It’s Jake.”
Kate shook her head. “No, stop—you’re putting words in my mouth.”
“Oh. So, Jake isn’t the guy? You told him you wanted to be with Jackson instead?”
“But you did tell him something. You gave him an answer. Yes or No?”
“That’s not fair, Penny.”
“Maybe not. But either way, I’m done hearing about it. I’m done hearing about all of it.”
Kate’s head snapped backward. “What?”
“Listen, if you don’t want anything to happen with Jake or Jackson, and it doesn’t seem like you actually do, then let them go. Both of them. Or just finally make a damn decision between them. It’s really not that difficult. But either way, leave me out of it.”
“Fine,” Kate bit off. “Sorry I’ve been such a burden to you this past year.” Tripping in her haste to leave, Kate stumbled backward.
“I didn’t mean that, Kate.”
“But you said it.”
“No, what I said is that they deserve better than this. You all do.”