Kate looked down uncertainly at the slight edge of piping she could see poking out from underneath the kitchen sink. M.T. stood by the back counter, her hands busy as she rifled through a large toolbox.
“Do you even know what you’re looking for in there?” Penny asked, strolling into the room, a banana in one hand, and a bright pink bandana covering her head.
M.T. shrugged. “No, not really.” She smiled. She couldn’t seem to stop smiling. She was still stuck in homebuyer’s euphoria.
Penny chewed thoughtfully, her eyes going hesitantly toward Kate. “How about you? Do you see what the problem is over there?” She waved in the general direction of the drains.
Kate shook her head.
Penny nodded. “Yeah, I didn’t think so.”
M.T. did frown then, throwing a dark look toward her sister. “Talk like that isn’t going to help us…”
“No, you’re right. We do need help,” Penny insisted, rounding on the pastor. She flicked a glance over toward Kate and then quickly away again. “Which is why I asked Jackson to come over and give us a hand today.”
“You did what?” Kate demanded roughly.
Penny sighed. “I asked Jackson to come over today,” she said slowly, empathically. Kate’s eyes narrowed. “Oh. Don’t be so melodramatic. It’s no big deal,” Penny sighed out, her voice just barely perceptible.
But before Kate had the time (or the courage) to question Penny’s comment, M.T. was talking, her voice prattling on nervously, her eyes skittering from Penny to Kate and back again, as though she too sensed a new tension in the air.
Looking down at the sink, letting M.T.’s voice drone on overhead, Kate tried to reign in her emotions. She was not being melodramatic. Where did Penny get off saying so? And what was with all that attitude? It wasn’t that Kate couldn’t be around Jackson. It was just…
“I asked Jake to come and help us today, too,” Kate blurted out, her voice a little panicky on the delivery.
“You did what?” This time it was Penny’s whose voice shot out quickly, sharply between the women. There was no mockery in the question, either. There was, however, a whole lot of accusatory suspicion.
Kate shrugged, her finger running over a slight chip in the Formica countertop. “He saw me at the bookstore looking for information on plumbing and he…well, he sort of offered—”
“And you said yes?” Penny asked. Her voice was clearly incredulous.
“Penny…” M.T. warned softly.
“Yes,” Kate returned, hands on her hips. “I said yes. That was kind of the point of what I said just now. He’s coming over.” She sounded like a spoiled-snot, but Penny was baiting her.
“I can’t believe it,” Penny muttered, her voice low again, barely above a whisper.
And for some unknown reason, Kate felt ashamed, embarrassed…defensive. Why was Penny acting like that? Talking like that—with such a bite to her voice? And just what the hell couldn’t she believe?
“Ah, Penny—will you help me with a light bulb out in the front hallway?” M.T. said. She spoke sharply. With a meaningful look, and without waiting for a response, she proceeded to grab for a fistful of the physics shirt, half-dragging her out of the room. “Kate, will you please grab some towels and buckets and…well, whatever else you think the boys might need for down here,” the pastor threw over her shoulder as the women left.
“Yeah, sure,” Kate said on a whisper.
“What in earth was that all about?” M.T. hissed once she and Penny were out of earshot.
Penny pulled herself loose. “Nothing.” And then, at Maggie’s look: “I’m just getting a little sick and tired of Kate’s never-ending histrionics. There’s always something with her.” Penny rolled her eyes. “She’s a hot mess, Maggie. And she seems to like it that way. Nothing ever gets resolved. She just spins faster and faster.”
M.T. frowned but she didn’t deny what Penny said either.
“…I’m not sure if it’s that she craves the attention she never got any at home, or if she just really enjoys having something to pick apart, to analysis to death. Maybe she’s addicted to the inevitable highs and lows of the same old reoccurring conflicts. The W-curve. Moving but staying in place. Rinse and repeat. You know what I mean?”
“I think so. You got a little poetic there at the end,” M.T. admitted, “but yes, I think I followed most of that.”
“And you disagree?” Penny asked.
“But you don’t necessary agree either.” Penny insisted. “I’ve noticed you aren’t immediately coming to my defense on this.”
Maggie hitched up one shoulder, her ash blond hair swaying slightly with the motion. Her eyes traveled toward the back of the hallway, where the sound of Kate’s footsteps could just be heard. “It’s not that….I just don’t think the solution will be found in creating yet another source of controversy in Kate’s life. Pick a fight with her and you may end up on that looping W-curve yourself.”
Penny took a deep breath. Then another. “Yeah. No, I don’t want that. It’s just…getting on my last nerve lately, that’s all.”
“And I think you made that clear to Kate just now,” Maggie said, referring to Penny’s earlier comments to the blonde woman. “So let that be enough. She heard you. I guarantee it.”
“And it’s not just her,” Penny admitted grudgingly. “It’s him. I really don’t want her to choose him.”
Maggie’s voice was dry, deadpan. “Yea. I think you’ve mentioned that before.”
Jake and Jackson showed up within seconds of one another. Jackson had only just been admitted inside when Jake’s fist knocked loudly against the outside door.
“Here it comes,” Kate whispered silently as M.T. swung the door open once more, and Jake’s frame fell upon the group.
Almond shaped green eyes clashed with brown.
“Jackson.” The timbre of Jake’s voice deepened.
Jackson smiled. A muscle in his jaw ticked. “Jake.”
There was no disguising the edge (that unmistakable male challenge) present in each man’s voice as they addressed one another. Jackson’s arms folded across his chest. Jake’s shoulders pulled back, his head lifting…
M.T. smiled charmingly between them. “Thank you both for coming. I’m beyond grateful.” She laughed delightedly, her gazes locking from one to the other, easily pretending not to notice the overabundance of male testosterone flashing between them.
“Anytime, pastor Thayer,” Jackson supplied, but his smile was tight, his cheeks ruddy—and they only got redder when Jake seconded this sentiment, adding his own congratulations on her purchase into the mix.
“This is going to be a great house for you,” Jake finished to a beaming Maggie.
“Thank you. It needs a bit of work still,” she said with a rueful smile.
“Right. As to that,” jerking a thumb over his shoulder, Jackson’s voice rasped out overly loud in the small landing space, “if one of you will point me toward the kitchen, I’ll be happy to take a look at that sink…”
Jake’s eyebrow’s crashed together. “You?” His head swiveled in Kate’s direction. “I thought you wanted me to do that.”
Kate looked down at her shoes. “Uh….”
Now Jackson looked confused. “Penny?”
“There was a slight mix-up,” Maggie said, inserting her voice forcefully. “Both of you, it seems, were invited here to fix my kitchen sink.”
“That’s hardly a two-man job,” Jake said.
“He’s right,” Jackson seconded. “I can do it easily by myself. Done this hallway?” He asked, half-turning to look behind him.
“Yup. Turn right at the end. Last door on—” Penny started to say.
“Right. And my uncle is a plumber—” Jake said, pushing himself forward. “He used to take me out to jobs with him.”
Jake looked at Maggie. Penny looked at Jackson. Kate was still staring down at her feet.
“Oh, well…” Maggie seemed at a loss for words.
Jackson. “And your point is?”
Jake. “That I may have a bit more experience in this department than you.”
Jackson scoffed. “Yeah, from when we were kids maybe.”
In the end, Jake got elected to fix the sink. He’d brought his own tool-belt over for goodness sake. It had specialized equipment and everything. Even Jackson had known he’d been licked.
“You know what, this may actually work out better for me,” Penny said to Jackson as Jake lumbered toward the kitchen some minutes later. “I could use some extra help in the guest bedroom; we’re ripping out the carpet there. That is, if you wouldn’t mind, Jackie…?”
Jackson looked ruffled, but he nodded all the same. “Yeah, sure.” And then, just as he was turning to follow behind Penny, Jackson paused. “Kate,” he greeted quietly, solemnly. Nodding in her general direction, he walked past.
Kate stared blankly, stupidly, ahead. “Kate, would you mind running down to the basement and grabbing a couple things,” Maggie asked. Her voice was soft, gentle. Coaxing. Tapping a finger against her nose, the pastor seemed to be thinking aloud: “Let’s see, there should be a box down there somewhere with face masks, and duct tape, electrical cords…that kind of thing.”
Kate nodded mutely. Maggie squeezed her arm. “Thanks dear.”
Opening up a small, nondescript door halfway down the entryway, Kate clambered down the rickety stairs, her nostrils breathing in the musky, dank air. Her heart thundered. Her throat scorched back unshed tears. And she sort of hated herself for it. Maybe Penny was right. Maybe she was acting a little hormonal right now. Only, nothing about today had gone right.
She’d been so excited earlier. Excited to see Jake—more so than she’d allowed herself to admit before now. And it had all come to naught. Now that he was actually here, she wasn’t sure what to feel.
Shaking her head, she ducked into the low-ceiled room. All those months (almost year now) of curiosity, anticipation…all that fantasizing about a man she couldn’t have…only now, everything had changed. He was no longer off limits, out of her reach. He was there. And, despite all her best resolutions, she’d wondered: what it would be like?
Well, she hadn’t expected it to be like this: him upstairs, and her gladly down here. Of course she hadn’t expected Jackson to be present. How could she have? He was a wrench of confusion—but then, wasn’t he always? She hadn’t expected the lines to get so blurred. Jake was her boss. There’s was a quasi-professional relationship. She really only knew him inside the bookstore. But today—this was personal. Every other intimate moment they’d shared had either been 1.) done under guise of mistaken identity 2.) done under control of alcoholic suppressants or 3.) carried out in by means of Kate’s more erotic-daydreams.
Nothing had been real… before today.
That line, that fine, fine line between fantasy and reality, had been snapped into stark focus at Jake (and Jackson’s) arrival here today. And probably it had more to do with Jackson’s being there than Jake’s. She liked Jake. That wasn’t news. But what did she want from him? What had possessed Kate to invite him over without an answer to that question first? Impulse. Drive. And then there was Jackson. How could she have so foolishly disregarded him in all this? Whatever she wanted from Jake would affect what she had with Jackson. And vice versa.
What would have happened if Penny hadn’t invited her sexy neighbor over today? What had Kate hoped would transpire between herself and Jake under Maggie’s kitchen sink? And would she have been prepared for the consequences—or was she still viewing him in the make-believe world she’d created all that time ago? The one where she could touch him, kiss him and then, as soon as her imagination was spent, erase it all clean—as though nothing had happened? Because of course, nothing ever did, not in dreams.
Sighing, Kate felt the beginnings of a tension headache beat against the walls of her head. “This was clearly a mistake,” she said, kicking at one of the boxes down at her feet. “I shouldn’t have asked him to come…it was a mistake.”
“Do you want me to leave?”
Spinning around so fast she almost lost her balance, Kate’s startled eyes flew up the stairs, where, halfway down none other than Jake stood. His hair, usually wild and unruly, looked particularly run-through now, and his shirt showed signs of the water leak. She’d been so lost in her thought she hadn’t heard his tread on the wooden steps.
“Jake… I didn’t know you were there,” Kate said idiotically. Surprise had stolen her good sense.
He smiled. Or at least he tried to, a lopsided grin splitting across his face. “Yeah. I figured that.” Then, his eyes never leaving hers, Jake made his way down the rest of the stairs. “I wasn’t meaning to eavesdrop,” he assured her. He shrugged. “I was looking for the main water line…”
“Oh.” Kate’s head bobbed. “I, listen about what I was saying. I’m sorry—I didn’t mean—”
“No. Don’t apologize. If either of us should be sorry, it’s me,” he said, reaching the bottom step and coming to stand beside her.
Kate’s forehead crinkled. “How’s that?”
Jake gave her a dry look. “Let’s stop pretending. I appreciate that you tried to let me off the hook—” and they both knew he was talking about that night at Julie’s Diner, that night he’d more or less confessed his love for Kate. “But it hasn’t worked, has it?”
Kate shook her head. “No—it hasn’t.”
“And, in a way, I’m glad.”
Kate felt the air seeping quickly out of her body. Her fingers felt numb. Her tongue felt glued to the bottom of her mouth.
“Kate—” Jake sighed. “I may have been drunk that night. And I definitely shouldn’t have said what I did…not in that condition, anyway. But I did say those things. And what happened, it happened. We can’t go back.”
Kate closed her eyes. “I know…”
“And I don’t want to,” Jake admitted. “I may be guilty of having bad timing, but that doesn’t change the fact that what I said was all true.”
“Jake. Stop. I’m not ready—”
“You’re not ready to hear this,” Jake agreed. “I know. And I’m sorry I didn’t listen to you that night. And please know, I’m not asking you to be ready now.”
Kate nodded. “Okay…”
“But I’m done pretending. I’m done pretending that night didn’t happen. I’m done pretending I don’t have feelings for you. I’m just done.”
“But where does that leave us?” Kate whispered, her eyes searching his desperately.
Jake’s hand came up to cup the side of her face. “It leaves us right here.”
Kate felt her cheek nuzzling against that hand. Or maybe his hand was caressing her cheek. “Everything will change.”
“It already has.”
“I’m not sure—”Kate’s voice petered out, her words distracted by the presence of Jake’s thumb, circling lightly over the high arch of her cheekbone. Her head tipped to one side, her eyes closing once more. Her throat bobbed. “What happens next?”
“This,” Jake breathed and in the next second his lips were covering hers, his fingers bringing her head closer, arching it backward. And Kate remembered those lips. Opening her mouth, she couldn’t help the small moan that bubbled up her mouth at the contact. The sound was swallowed down the back Jake’s throat. His tongue brushed against her teeth until she opened her mouth. Pressing up tight to him, Kate relived all over again, the sensations fighting in the pit of her stomach. The frenzied, free-fall of it all…
God she remembered those lips. And how she’d missed them.
Dismissing everything else to the back of her mind, Kate let her fingers fall, twisting into the hair at the back of his head. Her lips bent, twisting, curling frantically against his….The sound of their tangled breathing deafened them to the creak of the upstairs door. Eyes tightly shut, they were blind to the inky silhouette splayed against the stair wall, foreshadowing the presence of another person….