Kate stared nervously down the length of space separating her from her mother. She cleared her throat, her fingers almost white as they gripped the edge of her front porch railing. “There’s someone I’d like you to meet,” she called out. And then: “That is—unless you have to go?” Kate let her gaze drop uneasily. “I know Phil is waiting for you…”
“It’s not as if the man can’t board a plane by himself,” Calida countered drily, her lips pulling into a discerning frown. She nodded sharply, decisively. “I’m not his mother, after all.”
Kate goggled, unsure.
Brushing her hands down the sides of her pretty outfit, eyes not quite meeting her daughter’s, Calida made an impatient noise in the back of her throat. “Yes. All right.”
“I’d like to stay,” Calida admitted. “If you’ll have me.”
“I’ll have you.”
“Okay.” Kate felt the weight of those words. “Right. Good.”
For a moment silence descended. Neither woman spoke, neither woman moved, each seeming to be waiting on the other… The air was thick with uncertainty. Fidgeting, Kate wasn’t sure where to go from there; her bravado of moments ago had abandoned her, deflating her courage; she hadn’t thought beyond asking her mother to stay.
“Is the person you’d like me to meet hiding somewhere inside your house?” Breaking the heavy quiet, Calida raised an incredulous eyebrow.
Kate frowned. “What? No…”
“Then—” Calida motioned pointedly toward her rental car, which was parked a little way down the street. “Shall we?”
“Oh! Oh, right!” Kate laughed awkwardly. “Yes. Let me, um, let me just tell the girl’s we’re going.”
“That’s fine. I’ll wait in the car,” Calida assured her. “Don’t be long.”
“Yes. Okay.” Grimacing at her lack of conversation, Kate turned on the steps. Quickly, she took herself back inside, back to the kitchen, where she found Penny and M.T. impatiently waiting, their gazes locking on her the moment she passed into view.
“So?” Penny asked unashamedly, leaning forward eagerly.
“Umm…” Kate bit her lip. “I asked her to stay?”
“I’m just saying…”
“I want her to meet Jackson,” Kate said, interrupting them.
“Have you lost your mind?” Penny asked, glancing frantically out toward the front walkway, where Calida could be seen striding toward her car.
Kate shifted. “I think…”
“Look I’m all about the two of you patching things up, but Kate your mother is a barracuda. You really want to sick her on Jackson?” Penny’s eyes were large. “May I remind you, he’s not any too happy with you at the moment? This might not be the time for the Great Calida McDonald…”
“But that’s just it. I think it’s exactly the right time,” Kate argued. “Introducing him to her—it’ll prove my feelings. It’ll show him that I’m ready to commit, that I’m fully invested in our relationship.”
“Jackson knows about me and my mother,” Kate defended hotly. He knew Kate’s situation; that she’d had more-or-less run away from home (at the ripe old age of twenty-eight, no less) just to escape her clutches.
“Don’t you miss your family back home?” He’d asked her one night a few weeks ago. They’d been snuggling on the couch, eating popcorn as they watched an old black-and-white on the television.
“My family?” Kate had stuttered.
“You hardly ever talk about them. In fact, besides that trip to Minneapolis this summer, I’m not sure you’ve ever brought them up.”
Kate’s voice had hardened. “There’s not much to tell.”
“I’m sure that isn’t true.”
“Fine,” Kate had told him. “There’s not much I want to tell.”
Jackson had reached over to kiss the top of her cranky heat. “Okay, I’m sorry. I won’t pry.”
“No, I’m sorry,” she’d said then. “I just—my family, they‘re the reason I’m here. In Whestleigh.”
Beseechingly, Kate tried to make herself understood now as she stared at Penny’s disenchanted face. “I told him how she never approved of who I am; that I was never allowed to make my own decisions or stand up for myself, or even just believe I had a right to make my own choices without the fear of her constantly trying to change me. Don’t you get it?” Kate cried excitedly. “If I introduce Jackson to her—to the very root of my issues with commitment—that’s big! That has to mean something, you know, that I’m done running scared. It’ll make things right between us, I know it will. It’ll show him that he’s worth fighting for.”
“Yeah, well, your mother is definitely that. A fight.”
“I think it’s a fantastic idea,” M.T. offered. “Jackson’s an important part of your life and introducing him as such, to your mother of all people, will speak volumes.”
“He’s angry because I kept us a secret,” Kate insisted, “and what better what to show him I’m through with all that then this?”
“But what about our plan?” Penny hissed out of the corner of her mouth.
Kate’s lips twitched. Oh, yeah. The plan, aka the “Big Romantic Gesture”, aka Penny’s scheme to get Kate back in Jackson’s good graces. Like most plots involving the psychic, it had been big, intense, and characteristically nutty. It had called for a whole host of props, among them a fully decked-out float, replete with yards and yards of crepe paper, duck-tape and balloons; discretely assembled loud-speakers, with accompanying microphones and camcorders; a garishly painted banner; music by the local bell-ringers; and one insanely elaborate ruse to get Jackson down to Bailey’s park at 12:07 in the morning…
It was all still in the preliminary phases, but just thinking about it gave Kate anxiety.
“New plan,” Kate informed her matter-of-factly. “And I think this one might work even better.”
“I guess,” Penny relented begrudgingly.
Kate nodded. She glanced quickly up at the clock. “Well, I better get going. Calida’s waiting,” she murmured, taking a half-step backward. “Wish me luck.”
“All the lucks.”
“Oh, and lock up when you leave,” Kate called, already making for the front door, her purse slung haphazardly over her shoulder.
“Do you even know where we’re going?” Calida couldn’t seem to help herself from asking when, five minutes later, Kate pulled off the main road down the short, dirt dead-end drive that wound to a close at the base of Jackson and Penny’s private houses.
“Of course,” Kate sighed, pulling over on the side of the rutted track. Getting out of the vehicle she waited while her mother gracefully alight from the passenger side. Now that they’d arrived, she was experiencing some severe second thoughts. What if Jackson wasn’t home? Or worse, what if he refused to answer the door? What if Calida made no impression upon him? What if he’d decided that Kate wasn’t worth all the hassle after all…
“Are you all right?” Calida asked, her voice unusually loud in the stillness of the lake as she rounded the back of the car to where Kate stood. “You look a bit pale.”
“I’m fine, mother,” Kate bit off. Throwing her hair haughtily over one shoulder, she marched up to Jackson’s front door, heedless of her mother’s faltering steps behind. Bringing a shaking hand up to the doorbell, she pressed the buzzer.
“You never mention who we’ve come here to see? Don’t tell me your also good friends with a Catholic Priest—?” Calida’s jovial words were cut short by the sudden opening of the door before them.
“Kate?” At the sight of her, Jackson stilled, the door only halfway open. His lips formed a thin, hard line.
Kate could hardly breathe. “Jackson. Hi.”
He sighed tiredly. “Look, Kate I’m not in the mood to hear more excuses right now,” he started to say, in a very un-Jackson like tone of voice.
“No, I know,” she said. “And I’m—”
“Look. I know you’re sorry,” he finished, “but that’s not, I need a little…”
“Open the door, Jackson.”
“It is open.”
“No. All the way,” Kate said, and reaching forward, grabbed for its edge. Pushing against his hold on the doorknob, she swung the structure wide.
Jackson’s eyes widened at the unexpected sight of a strange woman standing beside Kate. Swiveling, his shocked gaze got the full force of Calida’s intense, unwavering stare.
Taken aback, his eyes shifted back to Kate.
Screwing together the last of her courage, she said, her eyes never leaving his: “Mother, I’d like you to meet my boyfriend, Jackson.” She smiled hopefully up at his inscrutable face. “My boyfriend Jackson, who I love very much.”
Her mother gasped softly.
Jackson’s mouth dropped open just slightly.
Sitting cross-legged on her office floor, Penny tried to relax her mind.
“Breathe in. Feel your body infusing with air. You’re light. Floating… And breathe out. And take all the thoughts and emotions, all the clutter lurking in there out with that cleansing breath. Anchor your body to the ground, to the earth. Breathe deeply. Expand your chest. Reach up to the sky, open to the celestial world above. And close. Let everything out. Out, out, out. A blank, open canvas,” she muttered to herself, her eyes tightly closed, palms resting, face up, on her thighs. “Be open. Be vulnerable. Be free.”
But it wasn’t working.
She just kept seeing Jake’s damn face.
After Kate had left with Calida, Penny’s problem (the one she’d happily put on the back-burner when Kate had called from under Jake’s office at the LitLiber, the one she’d much preferred not to think about anyway) had unfortunately resurfaced. In a big, bad way. Going home had been out of the question. She needed to think. Or to escape thinking, she wasn’t sure which. She needed to mediate, to be one with the Angels and Spirits around her. Gain a little perspective. So she’d gone to the one place that always steadied her—Madame Penny’s House of Intuition.
But perspective was being elusive and she wasn’t connecting with the Universe.
“Fail,” she muttered, opening her eyes warily.
Then she screamed.
“Jesus,” she cried out, one hand slamming up against her shaking chest. Gasping on a chocked breath, she felt her face infuse with heat. “How long have you been standing there?”
Because leaning up against the doorway to her office was none other than Jake Farrow.
His lips twisted into a cruel smile. “Surprised to see me?” he asked softly. Scrambling quickly to her feet, feeling at a disadvantage on the floor, Penny tried to find her inner serenity.
“Well. Yeah,” she offered plainly.
“That’s funny,” he mused, bringing a seemingly casual hand up to his chin. He rubbed his fingers against a slight bit of stubble there. “Because I was surprised to not see you. You remember: this morning. My bed. You were supposed to be there when I woke up.”
Penny’s mouth dropped open.
He looked disgusted. “I never would have taken you for a coward.”
“I am not a coward,” Penny demanded, pointing a finger at him. “How dare you…”
“No? Then what was that little disappearing act? Shame?”
Jake raised a dark eyebrow. “Then what?”
Penny felt her face flush, her heartbeat quicken against her veins. “I just…I wasn’t sure what happened?”
Jake barked out a laugh. “Shall I remind you?” He took a menacing step forward.
“No!” Penny held up a hand, stumbling backward. “I mean, I know what happened.”
“I should think so.”
“I just don’t know—”
“You don’t know what?”
Penny felt itchy. She felt on display. And really, why was she required to do all the explaining, all the talking? Why should she spell out her fears when, for all she knew, last night had been nothing more than a casual fling for him? And God, what would he say if he knew how much it had meant to her! No. No, no, no. She shrugged eloquently. “I don’t know what to say.”
Jake sighed. It held a weary note. “So it would seem.”
Penny’s eyes grew in alarm. “Well, what? You can’t just expect me to…”
Jake held up a hand, cutting her off. “Stop. Don’t.” He pushed himself off the wall. “You’ve made yourself patently clear.”
“You certainly haven’t though!” Penny accused.
“Why bother?” There’s nothing left to say.”
“Am I to take it that last night is to be forgotten? Never spoken of again?”
“No. Yes. I-I,” Penny’s mouth kept sounding out words. “Jake, gave me a minute here.”
“I gave you all morning,” he told her. There was a note of finality in his tone as he turned toward the door.
With his back to her now, one fist closed around the thick brocade material of her doorway, Jake only shook his head. “I can’t.”
“You can’t what?”
“Wait any longer.”
“What? I don’t—”
“I’m done pretending.” Penny watched his shoulder’s coil.
“To be your friend.”
Penny felt those words all the way to her stomach.
“It’s not enough for me. Not anymore.” And with those words hanging heavy in the air, he slipped through the curtained doorway, his steps hard and quick as he walked down the hallway toward the building’s exit.
Slinking slowly to the floor, her knees buckling from the confusion, the hurt and tension of the last few minutes, Penny felt tears crowding against her throat.
“Don’t go,” she whispered into the empty room.
Bent over her sermon notes, Maggie hummed softly to herself. After dropping Penny off at her office, the pastor had taken herself smartly back to the church, after first apologizing profusely to Heather, the office secretary, for her unexpected delay and promising to have the Sunday service completely solidified by the end of the day.
So here she sat.
Scratching out a line of text, she felt her lips twist. At this rate, she’d be here until midnight, trying to get everything just right…
On the wings of that thought, Maggie heard a quiet knock coming from outside her office door. Pushing her reading glasses off her face, she carefully kept from frowning. The last thing she needed right now was an unnecessary distraction.
“Come in,” she called, careful to keep her voice neutral.
But it wasn’t one of the ladies from the flower committee coming to discuss altar arrangements, nor was it the youth director coming to inquire about Confirmation Sunday; No, no. And certainly, the tall, handsome man standing in her doorway was not the church volunteer coordinator, here to complain about the lack of interest in the Library Board….
Smiling delightedly, Maggie beckoned her guest forward. “Hank,” she breathed, and suddenly his visit didn’t seem like a distraction at all, but a much-needed break in her day. “What brings you here—not that I mind in the least!” With precise movements, she shuffled the notes scattered across her desk into a semblance of order, pushing them out of sight.
“Would you like a cup of coffee?” she asked, as he crossed the room towards her desk. Hank didn’t respond, but then he wasn’t a talkative man. Half-rising from her chair, M.T. continued “Oh. And I think Heather brought in doughnu—”
Reaching across her desk, one finger fall gently over her lips, Hank stemmed the last of her words
“I came here to tell you,” he paused. “Don’t talk to them.”
Huh? “Talk to whom?” she asked, her voice muffled by his finger.
“The church board. The PPC—whoever in hell that is,” he responded gruffly, slowly releasing his index finger from her mouth. “The congregation. Your staff,” he continued, ticking off the list. “And, I don’t know, anyone else you had in mind—”
“Don’t talk to them about what?” But, actually she had a pretty good idea.
“Our private life. Our-our intimate affairs.” Hank’s neck burned above the collar of his work shirt.
“Oh.” Stall, Maggie. Stall. “But, Hank we discussed—”
“No. You discussed. Now it’s your turn to listen,” he informed her staunchly.
Maggie swallowed nervously. “Oh.”
Now that he had her quiet, undivided attention, Hank seemed to have lost his nerve.
“What is it you’d like to say?”
“Dammit Maggie!” Hank sighed, his hand scratching at his hair. “I don’t want you to have to do that. And I don’t think you want to do it, either.”
“But I do—!”
“I’ll wait.” The words were simple, short. Uttered in a gravely timbre.
Maggie’s eyes widened, but otherwise she remained silent.
“Do you understand me? I’ll wait for you. However long it takes. We’ll do this right.”
Maggie quickly snapped her mouth closed. But nothing could wipe away her smile.
Hank grinned. “Don’t underestimate me, Margaret. I’m a patient man. I’ll wait for you.”