What was it about her shop lately, Penny wondered fleetingly—everyone and their mother, it seemed, felt compelled to just drop by unexpectedly, seeking all sorts of random advice (like she was some columnist in the newspaper). All of this would be fine, of course, if even one person were interested in the spiritual world.
But there was pretty much zero chance of that, especially considering the latest in the long line of unannounced visitors who’d just passed over her threshold—
Didn’t need to by psychic to know he wasn’t here to get insight from the Angel messages.
Penny tried not to grimace when she looked up to see his unnerved person shadowed against her curtained doorway.
“Hank,” she stated drily, lifting one incredulous eyebrow at his entrance.
He nodded formally. “Penny.”
She pursed her lips. She had long ago gotten over her infatuation with the man, not the least of which had to with the fact that Maggie seemed so incredibly happy with him, that she and Hank were obviously the right choice. Penny was glad to have surrendered her chase. Hank treated Mags like…well, like she deserved to be treated.
But Penny wasn’t sure she was willing to forgive the man yet for his mocking attitude toward her profession. He’d laughed. Said he didn’t believe in her kind of hocus pocus. Granted, he’d said it kindly (she supposed) but it had rankled all the same.
And now he had the audacity to show up at her place of work?
Kate hadn’t understood her ceaseless grudge on this issue.
“It’s not like half the town hasn’t said the same about your psychic powers before—or worse,” she’d remarked one evening.
Penny had shrugged. “I know. It’s just—he was supposed to be different.”
“But he wasn’t. So you moved on. Isn’t that actually for the best?”
Penny had considered this for a second. “I suppose.”
“And really, isn’t it more important that he follow M.T.’s faith?”
“Do you still have feelings for him?”
Penny had made a face. “No.” And she’d meant it. Her feelings for Hank had never been real; she’d based them on an illusion of the Hank she’d made up in her mind.
“So what does it really matter?”
“Then learn to like him because I’m pretty sure that Maggie’s in love with him.”
Penny tried to hold on to that conversation as she reluctantly waved Hank inside her cramped quarters. “What can I do for you?” She enquired and then, before she could help it, Penny reached for her pack of Tarot Cards. “Questions about the future you’d like me to shed some light on?”
Hank stilled. “Ah. No. That’s, ah, that’s okay.”
“I thought not.” The sarcasm was as rich as it was uncomfortable.
Hank shifted from one foot to the next.
Penny waited him out.
Hank opened his mouth. “Penny…”
He scratched the side of his head, his eyes dropping to the floor. And was that a blush working its way up his neck?
“I know we don’t know each other very well.”
“But you mean a whole lot to Maggie.”
“We’re sisters,” Penny stated simply. And they were.
“Yeah. And she really values your opinion, you know, and—”
Spit it out, Penny thought impatiently.”
“I want to marry her, Penny.”
“Marry her?” Penny sputtered. She hadn’t been expecting that.
“I’ve come here today to ask for your permission.”
“I think she’d want that.” Hank cleared his throat. “Actually, I’m positive she’d want that. Your blessing—well, like I said, you mean a lot to her.”
“You want to marry Maggie?” Penny repeated.
“I love her.” There was no doubt about it now, Hank’s face was red.
“But—” Penny shook her head. “Give me a second here please. I’m just—this is such a surprise!”
Without warning, Hank nabbed the seat opposite Penny. She had a feeling his legs wouldn’t hold out on her much longer anyway.
“I know we haven’t been together for very long.”
Penny nodded silently.
“And Maggie, how does she feel?”
“I haven’t talked to her about it. I came to you first.”
Penny was oddly touched. Still… “It is awfully quick. You’ve only been together for, like…”
“Well. Yeah.” Her voice was skeptical.
Hank sighed. “The thing is…”
Penny shook her head. “I mean, marriage—”
“I’m losing her, Penny.”
“What?” Penny was fast losing the thread of this conversation.
Hank waved his arms around furtively. “The church. Her position there. It’s, ah, put a toll on our relationship.”
“Oh.” This old thing again.
“At least, that’s what she thinks.”
“She lives in the proverbial fishbowl of practice what you preach.”
“Has she talked to you much about it then?”
Penny shrugged. “Yeah. She has.”
Hank looked disgusted. “Did she tell you she was planning on talking to the council—asking them for permission to basically date me?”
Penny nodded slowly. “She did.”
Hank pounded his palm down on the tabletop. “Like they should get to decide? Pfft. Are they God?”
Penny could do nothing but shake her head. “I couldn’t agree with you more there.”
“She’s a person just like anyone else.”
“She shouldn’t have to defend her private life.”
“No more than anyone else.”
“Well…” Penny bit her lip. “But like I said—she’s got that whole ‘practice what you preach’ thing to follow. And then there’s the issue of a moral clause—though I’m not sure if that’s actually written anywhere in the bylaws, but she certainly seems to think so.”
Hank looked defeated. “Yup. She said it was the only way. She’ll have to talk to them, discuss the situation.” His lip curled. “I don’t mind her talking to the congregation about her personal life—”
“That’s a relief,” Penny felt obligated to say. “From what I hear, she does it constantly. You’d better get used to it now—”
“But there’s a line. She acts like she’s not free to have one without their say-so.”
“Especially her dating life.”
Penny was starting to get the picture. “Unless, of course, she got married. Is that it? Then she’d be off the hook to live her private life, um, privately?”
Hank’s face flushed.
“So that’s why.”
“The sudden rush toward the altar.”
Hank shrugged. “I would have asked her anyway.”
“Just not quite this soon had it not been for all that.”
“I guess,” Hank mumbled.
“She’s distancing herself from me. I can feel it.” Hank ran a rough hand through his hair. “Okay, so I don’t think we should have to grovel at anyone’s feet just to hold hands, but it doesn’t mean I don’t understand the responsibility she welds to the community…”
“And all the fringe conditions that go along with it,” Penny muttered.
“Exactly!” Hank insisted vehemently. “I just think there should be a limit.”
“But no matter what I say, she seems convinced that I’ll eventually leave her. That I’ll grow tired of it all.”
Penny nodded. “Bracing for the inevitable.”
“I can’t get through to her.”
“Yeah. I guess.”
“Will you? Get tired of it?”
Hank laughed. “Probably. But I’ll never leave her.”
“Fair enough.” Penny took a deep breath. “Still. That doesn’t sound like the best reason to get married—”
Hank looked affronted. “I’m doing it to save us!”
“Yeah. I know.” Penny looked sad. “But that’s just it. Marriage shouldn’t be used to save a relationship much like children shouldn’t be used to save a marriage.”
“You’re twisting it.”
“I love her. I want to spend the rest of my life with her.”
Penny smiled. “Yeah?”
“Yeah and—and if I don’t do something quick I won’t be able to. She’ll push me right out the door.”
Penny considered this.
Hank rubbed a hand down his face. “This isn’t going the way I planned.”
“Conversations with me rarely go the way anyone planned.”
Hank looked up at Penny. “It wouldn’t be—I want you to understand I wouldn’t be marrying her because of the church.”
“I didn’t think that was the case, but that’s good to kn—”
Hank continued doggedly. “I mean, I’m not doing it for the…ah,” he coughed. “For the ah, um…”
Hank blushed. “That either.”
Penny patted him softly on the shoulder. “Yeah. I know.”
“So what do I do?”
“Talk to her,” Penny said. “Tell her what you told me just now. I promise you, she’ll stop running. And if she doesn’t, I’ll duck-tape her to a chair long enough to at least hear you out. You were willing to marry her just to keep dating her. That says something.”
Hank laughed begrudgingly. “Yeah. Probably that I’m a fool.”
“A fool who’s in love.”
“She’s lucky to have someone who cares so much.”
Hank looked acutely uncomfortable. “She’s a good woman.”
“One of the best.” Penny fixed him with her gaze. “You really want to marry her?”
“That’s all I really need to know then, isn’t it?”
Hank smiled tightly. Then, with a hesitant movement, he gained his feet. “Well. I best be going. But, um, thanks,” he mumbled, his arms gesturing emptily: “for the…well, for whatever this was. I’ll talk to her.”
“I’m glad I could help,” Penny said, smiling after him as he made it toward the door. Perhaps he wasn’t so bad after all.
“Oh, and Hank,” she called out as his hand reached toward the curtain. He glanced back at her. “About my blessing…”
“Ask me for it again in a few months,” Penny told him quietly. “I’m pretty sure you’ll like my response.”
Hank smiled. “I’ll hold you to it.”
Leaning back against her chair, once Hank had finally left, Penny felt a smile inking out across her lips. Maybe it wasn’t so bad, that everybody just kept showing up here.
Hank wanted to marry Maggie.
Because Penny had believed him when he said that he loved her, that he wanted to spend his life with her—that it wasn’t for the church that he’d come asking (if perhaps her position within its walls had been the reason he’d come asking now.)
Hank wanted to be with Maggie. That’s what was most important. Wedding or not, he wanted her.
Feeling oddly emotionally in the wake of her conversation with Hank, Penny almost reached for her phone to call Kate. Only Kate was on the way to Coventon with Janessa. Wincing a little, Penny wondered how the trip was going. According to her calculations, the girl’s should be arriving in town any time now.
That only left Maggie. And obviously she couldn’t talk to her about it.
Squirming in her seat, Penny felt her glee blossom.
Maggie was going to get her happily-ever-after. Penny couldn’t think of anyone who deserved it more. She wasn’t quite sure when it had happened but, Penny could no longer imagine her life with M.T. in it. For so long she’d tried to fight it, afraid that she’d get hurt again, abandoned again.
But there it was: Penny loved Maggie. Desperately. Forever.
There it was: despite all her efforts to the contrary, Penny had let Maggie back in. And now that she had, Penny knew she’d never let her out again.
She supposed it was true, what they say: that ex step-sisters make for the best kind of family.
With a contented sigh, Penny folded her arms over her stomach. Everything was finally coming together. Kate had Jackson. Maggie and Hank. And Penny had…
Frowning, Penny straightened slowly in her chair.
Who did she have?
For the first time Penny wondered at the flash of jealousy, almost instantly squashed, that squeezed at her chest: Kate and Jackson. Maggie and Hank. Kate and Jackson. Maggie and Hank. Penny and nobody.
Zip. Zilch. Nada.
“Well that’s quite enough of that,” Penny scolded herself, frowning so deeply that creases formed around her mouth. “I’ll have none of that, cry baby.” She nodded sharply. “I’m happy for Kate and Maggie. Incredibly. Sincerely. They both deserve everything they’re getting.”
But the words rang a bit hollowly in her mouth.
It was true—Penny was happy for them—only it wasn’t the whole truth;
no matter how many times she told herself it didn’t matter, that it shouldn’t matter, Penny still felt a little sad, bereft…alone at the thought of what Kate and Maggie had.
Because Penny couldn’t share in it.
Because she desperately wanted it.
Because she didn’t have it.
Penny wouldn’t take their joy away for anything in the world, but she also couldn’t deny a longing to be in their place…
“Hey. Hi.” A slight pause. “It’s Penny.”
“Yeah. I know. What’s up?”
“You doing anything tonight?”
A quiet chuckle. “With you?”
“Well, who else?”
“Yeah. What did you have in mind?”
“I don’t care as long as there’s booze involved.”
“Everything okay?” A note of concern wove its way into the conversation.
Penny laughed. It had a smoky, deep sound. “It will be after about four tequila sunrises.”
The other end of the line went silent for a moment. “I’ll pick you up in an hour.”
“Make it half an hour and we’re good.”
Jake grinned. “Half an hour then.”
It took three pints of a local IPA and one unfortunate tequila shooter, but finally Penny was feeling no pain. Squinting across the small round bar table at Jake, she grinned. Three empty glasses and two shooters lay scattered on the hardtop between them.
“You want to tell me what’s going on?” Jake shouted across the din. A live band was just starting up their second set.
Leaning closer, so he could hear her, Penny was forced to shout: “Nothing.” She waved her hand dismissively. “Really, I’m fine.”
Jake smiled. “Well, sure, you are now. But that’s hardly fair.”
Penny giggled. “It’s your fault. You ordered the last round.”
“You threatened bodily harm if I didn’t.”
Penny pouted. “I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Jake gave her a level look, not bothering to get distracted. “Come on, Penny. What’s up?”
“It’s not nothing.”
Penny shrugged. “It’s embarrassing. Stupid, really.”
“It’s not stupid to me.”
Penny blinked. “Why not?”
Jake faltered. “Because you’re my friend.”
“Yup. Got lots of those lately.”
“And that’s a problem?”
“But—don’t you ever feel, I don’t know, lonely?”
Jake lifted his drink slowly to his mouth. “Yeah. Sure.”
“I know it’ll pass but it’s just hard. Seeing everyone else falling in love.”
“I get that.”
“First it was Kate and Jackso—!” Slapping a hand over her mouth, eyes clamping shut, Penny felt something close to horror steal over her body. Then self-hatred. How could she have let that slip?
Opening frightened eyes, Penny forced herself to look up at Jake. He seemed frozen, his glass still halfway to his lips.
“Oh Jake!” Penny felt like an ass. “Oh God. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry—I-I don’t know what I was thinking…” Penny cried, frantically now. “I just—I’m drunk…Please don’t pay any attention to what I’m say—”
“It’s okay, Penny,” Jake said, placing his glass down on the table now. “I knew already. Kate told me.”
“Yeah. A few days ago.”
“Oh.” Penny nodded. “You didn’t tell me that.”
“Well, clearly I didn’t need to,” Jake pointed out.
“Right.” Penny nodded. “Are you—are you okay?”
Jake shrugged. “If you can believe it, I was kind of relieved.”
“You were?” Penny felt her face go blank. What?
Jake smiled down at his beer. “Yeah.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Yeah. That’s kind of what I’m afraid of.” With a quick motion he brought his beer back up to his lips. Three long swallows and he’d emptied it. “Want to get another round?”