“So Penny, tell me, what do you do for a living?”
Kate almost choked on her piece of bacon. Looking nervously from Penny—in her flowing, multi-colored caftan, to her mother, she squirmed a little in her seat. It wasn’t like she hadn’t expected the question, she’d worried about it all night, as she’d lain in bed. (The bed she’d grown up in; the bed she’d thought to never sleep upon again.)
She’d known her mother would ask questions, indeed she’d been mildly surprised that she hadn’t pounced on them the moment Kate had agreed to come home. But Calida had been relatively silent yesterday as the girls had unpacked for their stay, as they’d been slowly taken throughout the house—she’d been watchful, undemanding during the evening meal.
But that was yesterday. And this was a new day. Holding her breath, she wondered if it hadn’t been a terrible mistake…bringing her friends here.
Penny, on the other hand, didn’t look the least taken aback by Calida’s abrupt question. Taking a deliberate drink of her orange juice, she smiled demurely. Kate wondered about that smile.
“I am a psychic.”
Calida’s knife rattled against the side of her plate. “Excuse me?” One perfectly plucked eyebrow rose up half an inch in surprise.
Kate’s stomach revolted. Pushing her plate away from her body, she waited….
“I’m a psychic. You know: visions, spirits, seeing the unseen—” Penny waved an arm about the table dramatically.
M.T. narrowed her eyes disapprovingly.
“Well…how” Calida looked lost for words, “I’m not familiar with that type of thing, of course, but—”
“If you’d like a consultation, I’d be more than happy to sit down with you.”
“No. No, that’s all right.”
Calida switched her gaze to M.T. “And now, Maggie you’re a pastor, correct?”
M.T. smiled. “Yes.”
“It’s interesting, that’s all, you being sisters, and yet each bound to a vocation of entirely different beliefs?” Calida mused out loud. Then she laughed. A tinkle of sound. “Next thing you’ll be telling me you grew up Catholic!”
Penny looked oddly disappointed.
Kate felt like she’d been hit over the head.
Calida directed her next question to Kate: “Now, my love, what is it you’re going to do today?”
Kate’s eyes rounded. That was it? Calida was just going to accept Penny’s profession without so much as a demure? No criticism? No heavily veiled insults and sarcasm? No demands given or explanations needed? That was it?
Where was the mother Kate had grown up with? This certainly wasn’t her.
“What? Oh,” shaking her head, Kate brought herself back to the moment. “Right. Well, visit with Nanny Moore, I suppose.”
Calida waved this away. “Of course my dear, but you can’t expect to spend all day at the hospital. You’ll wear Agatha out if you do.”
Aha! This was familiar footing. Here it came: Calida, neatly planning and organizing the entirety of Kate’s stay. Sure, she’d ask Kate what she was planning to do but, no matter the answer, she’d cleverly alter first one thing and then another…there would be some important client in town; perhaps Kate could drop by and pay them a visit? Undoubtedly some particularly trendy exhibit would be in town, with hard-to-come-by tickets that Calida just happened to have laying around—Kate really ought to take in a proper show while she was there….
Jutting her chin out, Kate was determined to forestall her mother. “After that, I thought
I’d play tour guide for Penny and Maggie. Take them anywhere they want to go. Show them the sights.” Kate knew her mother. Calida would detest such a lowly, kitschy occupation—that is, if it wasn’t in aid of procuring the confidence of some important dignitary or whatnot. Maggie and Penny would fall far short on that category.
But Calida only smiled, her gaze shifting back and forth from Penny to Maggie. “We live in such a culturally rich metropolis. I’m sure you’ll be charmed. And who better than Kate to show you around—she knows everything about our beloved twin cities.”
Kate’s mouth gaped open. Her eyes stared suspiciously at her mother’s averted gaze. Just what was her end-goal here? But the chorus of excited echoes streaming from Penny and Maggie’s lips stopped Kate’s scrutiny short. Stabbing her fork into her runny eggs, Kate consigned herself to wait her mother out. She’d find out soon enough what Calida had up her sleeve.
Little did Kate know how very true that statement would turn out to be….
Getting ready for bed that evening, after a whirlwind of all the best sightseeing highlights, Maggie yawned. “I’m exhausted.”
“Yeah,” Penny agreed. She was sitting cross-legged on M.T.’s bed. “Kate was definitely on a mission today—” She’d drug them from one place to the next: parks to museums, shopping boutiques to art centers, zigzagging up and down the streets relentlessly. It wasn’t until Penny had finally protested in complaint that Kate had agreed to some much as hail a taxi. “My feet are barking!”
M.T. nodded. “It is beautiful here, though, isn’t it? Mrs. McDonald was right, Kate sure showed it off well.”
Penny’s mouth set at the mention of Calida. “I don’t trust that woman. There’s something about her.”
Penny rolled her eyes. “Mrs. McDonald.”
“Oh Penny, get off it already, would you?”
Holding up her hands, Penny demanded: “But you see how uncomfortable she makes Kate. Even when she’s being nice—especially when she’s being nice—Kate gets all fidgety, edgy.”
M.T. nodded reluctantly. “Yes, there are still wounds that need to be healed there.”
“That’s putting it mildly,” Penny said, warming up to the subject now, “one day with her mother and Kate turned all weird—running around half-ragged trying to play the perfect host…I mean what was that?”
“It wasn’t that bad.”
“Come on Maggie!” Penny cried. “Did that girl today seem like the Kate we know and love? ‘And this is a particularly beloved piece of city art depicts the celebration of blah, blah, blah,’ Penny mimicked, impersonating Kate’s voice; there had been an uppity, pompousness to it, missing at Whestleigh.
“All right, I admit, she was acting a bit strangely.”
Penny just shook her head. Clambering off the bed, she shrugged. “A bit? Oh Maggie, don’t be fooled by Calida’s show of warmth. That woman’s a viper. I can see it.”
“The same goes to you,” Maggie argued. “Don’t be so quick to judge her based on rumors of the past. People change. You have to give them the chance to show it.”
Walking out into the hallway moments later, Penny turned toward her own bedroom. Seeing Regina, busily stacking folded linens in a tucked-away supply closet there, Penny watched her for a moment.
“Ms. Penny—is there something I can get you?”
Penny smiled. “No Regina. Thank you. Goodnight.”
The next day followed a similar pattern as the one before, only this time Calida accompanied the girls on their visit to Nanny Moore, insisting afterward on taking them to the family’s country club.
“I think a few drinks around the pool are in order, don’t you darling?” she asked her daughter.
Kate smiled tightly. “If Penny and Maggie would like that…”
M.T. looked at Penny, who shrugged. “I’ve never been to one before—”
“You’ll love it. Maybe we can even sneak in a reservation at the spa.”
And that’s exactly what they’d done. Even Penny, who looked for it closely, could find nothing to complain about. The staff was friendly and prompt, the drinks ever-flowing, and Mrs. McDonald set out to be the perfect companion—even stooping so beneath her position as to enquire further about Penny’s professed occupation.
“I must confess, I’m rather intrigued…”
Kate, against her better judgment, allowed herself to relax, sitting back against the bamboo lounge chair as they women’s talk flowed gently overheard. Maybe Nanny was right. Maybe it was time to bury the hatchet, to let her mother in. Though she hadn’t said so much out loud, Kate knew her mother was dying to know where Kate lived, what she was doing in her “new life.”
Maybe Calida wasn’t the only one who needed to remake an acquaintance. Had Kate let her hidden resentments color her perceptions all these years? Had she missed out on the woman her mother actually was?
“I’m back in college.” The words popped out of Kate’s mouth before she had time to fully consider them.
Calida almost dropped her martini. “What?”
Kate shrugged. “College. I’ve reenrolled. I never really like finance.”
For a moment, silence hung overhead as Calida digested this newest revelation. “What-what are you studying?” For a first question, Calida handled her surprise rather well.
Kate felt her shoulders relax. “Art.”
It was a first step. A baby step, but a first step all the same.
The rest of the afternoon passed in a blissful haze of high, good feelings. After a luxuriating mud-bath, Calida took her leave of the girls, but only after extending her wish that they’d all sit down to dinner at the McDonald residence that evening.
“I have a special meal in mind for tonight,” she hinted. Smiling apologetically, she looked pleadingly at the others: “I don’t mean to monopolize your time, Kate. Only, I don’t want to waste a single opportunity to spend with you.”
“It’s fine,” Kate stammered, blushing a little. She wasn’t used to this kind of attention from her mother. “I’m sure we’d love to join you and father.” She looked enquiringly at M.T. and Penny, both of whom, taking their cue, nodded in vigorous agreement.
Calida clapped her hands together. “That’s settled then.”
M.T. was just putting the finishing touches on her outfit when the door to her bedroom was unceremoniously thrust open. Tilting her head a little to the side, she watched her sister enter the room.
Only, Penny didn’t look quite like her usual self. The headscarf was gone. Her long, curly hair was set loose, the dark masses spilling over her shoulders and down her back. There was no billowing skirt of patchwork quilt, no peasant top or tie-dye shirt. Penny had swapped out her usual garb for a plain black dress with a square neckline and capped sleeves. The only jewelry she wore was a plain gold ring on one finger and a pair of dangling earrings.
This was a Penny M.T. had never witnessed before. “Ruthie,” she breathed, “you look stunning.”
Penny pulled at the material of her dress. “I don’t know…”
M.T. stilled her wrist. “Really. You look beautiful.”
Penny pulled a face. “Yeah well, I figured dinners around here are probably pretty fancy.”
M.T. gestured toward her own ensemble: a conservative, powder blue shirt with a beige skirt and stockings. “I got that impression myself.”
“Listen,” Penny said, leaning in closer to M.T. “Don’t tell Kate this but—well, I don’t exactly, entirely hate her mother.”
M.T. winked. “Me either.”
The sister’s shared a private look.
But just at that moment, with something of a crash, Kate burst through the open doorway, a blaze of legs and arms. Gazes clashing, M.T. and Penny stared at each other open-mouthed, before two sets of eyes swiveled, taking in that of the newest arrival to M.T.’s room.
Her fingers grasping against the doorframe, Kate pulled herself to a halt. Eyes wide in an unnaturally pale face, in her haste, her carefully coiffed hair had come loose, her camisole ruffled….
“Kate—whatever is the matter?” M.T. asked.
But Kate only shook her head frantically. “Shh!” she breathed. “They’ll hear you.”
“Who will hear us?” Penny asked.
“We need to leave,” Kate insisted. Then, as if her legs simply couldn’t carry her any longer, she slumped against the wall, her body sliding slowly to the floor.
“Leave? What are you talking about?” Penny asked, hands on her hips.
Kate’s head swing viciously from side-to-side, a mirthless laugh erupting from tight lips: “I knew it. I knew she’d do something like this.”
“Kate, sweetheart, you aren’t making any sense,” M.T. said, kneeling down on the floor in front of her. “Talk to us. What’s happened?”
“The table—it’s set for six people.”
It took Penny and Maggie a second to piece together the relevancy of that statement. “You’re mother invited someone over,” M.T. said slowly, as a sinking sensation grew in the pit of her stomach.
Penny seemed to have reached the same conclusion. Smacking a hand over her mouth, she gasped. “She didn’t invite—”
“Phil.” Kate nodded.
“Are you sure?” M.T. asked, a last ditch hope.
Kate nodded jerkily. Raising her arms, she pointed toward the window. “I saw him pull up. That’s when I noticed the extra seat at the table.”
“I can’t believe it.”
“They were going to ambush me—if I hadn’t been in father’s study….”
It had been the first opportunity Kate had had alone with her father. Knocking quietly on the door, she’d poked her head inside the dark paneled room that was so clearly her father’s domain. Bent over a pile of papers scattered across his desk, he’d nonetheless looked up cheerfully at her disruption.
“Katie Kat.” He smiled wide. “Come in, come in! You have impeccable timing, love. I could use a break. Have a scotch with your old man?”
Kate smiled girlishly. “Okay.”
He waved toward the built-in shelving unit to her right. “Pour, will you? You know how I like mine.”
“Straight up.” Moving automatically, sunlight from the tall sash windows of an adjacent wall illuminating her progress, Kate reached for the glass decanter.
“I’ve miss this Kate. I’ve missed you.”
Kate smiled softly as she poured the first glass. “I’ve missed you too Dad.”
“You’re leaving like that, it was hard on us…most especially for your mother.” There was the slightest note of censure in his words.
Kate’s shoulder jerked defensively. “I’m sorry—”
“Oh, I know the woman can be difficult. Tough even, but she loves you, Kate. She just wants what’s best for you. We both do.” Kate heard her father sigh. “Remember that, okay?”
A prickle of unease shot up Kate’s spine at the words. Holding the glasses in her hands, Kate was on the point of turning around when she saw it—the flashy black tint of a foreign car pulling onto the street. She knew that car. Doubtless would never forget it. How many times had she driven in it—how many lectures had she received while riding within its plush interior? Too many to count.
With unbelieving eyes, she watched it get steadily nearer. Peering closer, she gasped as it turned into the driveway, coming to a graceful stop. The engine turned over, dead.
Stumbling, she half-turned, lifting questioning eyes to her father’s face.
He blanched, his arms opening wide. He’d obviously seen what she had. “Now Katie…”
“What did you do?” she whispered.
He didn’t bother pretending ignorance: “If you’ll just listen…let me explain—”
“What is he doing here?”
“Your mother thought it would be best. Ah, to give you two some closure, and talk through some stuff…”
With a crack, Kate snapped the glasses down hard on the window sill; her hands were shaking, her head tingling. “I’m sure she did, but that’s always been the problem, hasn’t it? She thinks she knows best.”
“You weren’t even going to tell me—!” She shook her head in smug disapproval. “I should have seen this coming. She was just lying in wait, wasn’t she? Buttering me up!”
“Your mother thought that if….”
But Kate was done listening to what Calida thought; so she ran, her body propelling headlong out of her father’s office, eyes frantic for the sound of a door opening, for the sight of that long-ago face…but she’d seen no one in her mad dash up to M.T.’s room.
“We need to get out of here. I can’t—I can’t face him. I’m ready for that.”
“Oh Kate,” M.T. whispered, “I’m so sorry. I can’t believe Calida would do something so underhanded.”
“Well I can,” Penny interrupted, conveniently forgetting her earlier words with M.T., uttered not five minutes ago. “You said we need to leave? I’ve got a way out.”
Kate stared up at her sluggishly. “What?”
Penny shrugged. “I figured an escape route might come in handy… Follow me.”
Slinking silently, the women snuck from M.T.’s bedroom down to Penny’s. There, against the set of windows taking up the whole of one wall, was a stack of sheets, which had been neatly tied together, end-to-end.
Taking them in with a look, Penny smiled. “Ever rappelled down a building before?”
“Is this a joke?” M.T. asked. “Sheets? You expect us to climb down the window with sheets? I thought that was only done in sitcoms?”
“Where did you get them?” Kate asked, momentarily distracted.
“The linen closet.”
“Penny, I don’t know about this,” M.T. tried to counsel, but her sister only shook her head.
“It’s this or walk out the front door—and that’s not really an option is it?”
Because that’s exactly where Calida and Phil would be. Waiting….
With a resigned sigh, Maggie made her way over to the window. Sticking her head out it, she looked down nervously. It was rather a long way down. “All right. So what’s the plan?”
Coming to stand beside her, heads close together, Penny pointed: “Shimmy down the sheets until you reach the rose trellis—two steps down from that will bring you within reaching distance of that tree limb and from there it’s a small jump to the ground.”
Maggie looked back at Kate. “Are you sure this is what you want to do?”
Kate nodded. “I’m sure.”
M.T. sighed again. “All right. Penny—lead on.”