With something akin to panic, Jake stared down at the concert tickets sitting on his kitchen counter. They were for her favorite band—when he’d found out they were playing in town, he’d rushed out to buy them. It was going to be a surprise.
Grimacing, he pushed them out of his sight.
Kate had the absolute worst timing.
Pushing himself up, Jake paced from his kitchen counter to his living room windows and back again. That would all end now; they would go back to the way things had been before. Because—because, he and Penny’s relationship was a farce, built on the fabric of something false, something that turned out to be, ironically, only in the way….
Because Jake didn’t want Kate anymore.
He wasn’t entirely sure when it had started, but somewhere along the way she’d just become the excuse, the reason to keep hanging out with his old friend, his friend that he’d forgotten how much he missed; his friend that had somehow become more important than the girl.
But he wouldn’t have that excuse anymore.
Jake shook his head, his mind rewinding back to half an hour ago, when he’d heard that unexpected knock at his door…
“Kate,” he’d announced, surprise etching across his features when he found her on the other side of his doorstep.
“Jake.” She’d tried to smile. “I-uh—are you busy right now?”
She’d looked momentarily relieved, and at the same time sharply uncomfortable. Nodding with a jerk, she’d taken in a noisy breath. “I was hoping, erm, can we talk?”
And Jake had known already what she’d come to say. Stepping back, he’d waved her inside. “Of course,” he’d inviting, a pit forming in his stomach.
Fidgeting, she’d moved into his living room.
“Can I get you anything to drink?” he’d asked automatically, hoping to dispel some of the nervous energy practically oozing out of her pores.
“No, no, that’s okay,” she’d said. Then, squaring her shoulders, she’d looked him dead in the eyes. “I’m not really sure how to say this, so I’ll just start…”
“Kate,” Jake had interrupted then, holding up a hand. “It’s okay.”
But she’d gone on anyway. “I asked you for time. I asked that you wait for me to figure out what I wanted…which was selfish of me, unfair of me. But you did it anyway.” She’d sighed. “You did that for me—and I’ll always thank you for your patience and kindness. Really, truly. The least I can do is be honest with you now.”
Jake smiled gently, hoping to ease her way. “Okay.”
“You have been such a good friend to me,” Kate said.
“And you’ve been a good friend to me.”
“And I don’t want that to change, but—” Kate bit her lip. “But that’s all we can be. Friends, I mean.” Her eyes stared down at her feet. “I don’t—I wish I could say, ‘I just don’t feel that way about you,’ but we both know that wouldn’t be entirely true,” Kate said with a half-laugh. “Only…. I don’t think I feel it enough. And that’s not fair to either of us.”
Jake reached forward to cup her elbow. “I know,” he told her then, silencing her. “I think I knew it all along.”
Kate’s eyes filled with tears. “I’m so sorry.”
“No, don’t be.”
“Jake, I would never deliberately hurt you. And I’m so sorry if I led you to believe—”
“Kate,” Jake had insisted, “the only thing you led me to believe was exactly what you just said: that you weren’t sure what you wanted. That you were confused….and now, now you’ve decided. You’ve done nothing wrong. Nothing. I made all the moves, not you.”
“Stop being so nice to me…”
“No, I’ll never do that—”
Kate gave a watery snort.
“And Kate,” at this, she chanced to look up at his face, her eyes finding a gentle, compassionate response there. “Thank you for telling me—that is, how you feel. Thank you for talking to me about it, and in such a graceful way.”
“I know it’s terrible to say, but I don’t want to lose you.”
“You won’t,” Jake told her. “We’ll be fine. I’ll be fine.” And oddly, he’d meant it.
Jake pursed his lips. The irony was, it wasn’t Kate he was mourning right now, it wasn’t Kate who was making his muscles cramp, his throat feel too tight; it wasn’t Kate who he feared losing. It was Penny. Because somewhere along the way, she’d stolen the show, pushing Kate to the backseat, and making a convenient excuse of the blonde—and all in the name of continuing this ruse.
Only, he hadn’t been willing to admit that, even to himself, not until Kate had walked into his apartment, not until she’d started talking, saying words that should have crushed him, words that should have broken his heart. But all he’d felt was relief. That it was over. That Kate wasn’t in love with him. Because…because he wasn’t in love with her.
There was just one small hitch. Without Kate there was no Penny. And without Penny—Jake swallowed hard—without Penny, his life seemed a little duller, a little less humorous. Without Penny….
Walking back to his kitchen, he stared down at those concert tickets again. It had been a week ago: Penny had called, asking if he wanted to have dinner at her house—she was trying out a new dish and she needed a guinea pig. Maggie was out at Hanks and Jake was the only other person she knew desperate enough to be a taste-tester….
“I see,” he’d teased on the phone. “I’m nothing more than a science experiment.”
“Did I mention that I also have a six-pack sitting on ice?” She’d offered laughingly.
“Be there in five minutes.”
“I thought so,” she’d laughed.
Pocketing his phone, Jake had been true to his word. Wasting two of those minutes to rip out of the sweats and into a clean pair of jeans and a fresh button-up, splash on a little cologne, and work his fingers through his hair, he’d been quickly out the door, whistling as he’d locked up.
The topic of conversation had happened naturally enough. They’d just sat down at the table, and Jake had begun talking to her about the idea of booking a concert for the LitLiber’s Anniversary Party when she’d offered up her favorite band as a possibility:
“…I saw them for the first time in Hiltbolt. I was seventeen, and it was the first time I’d ever snuck out to a bar…” Penny had informed him. Her face was pink with the memory. “And, I don’t know, I guess it was love at first sight.”
Jake had grinned. “You were forever resigned to be the number one fan of a group called Stink Pig?”
Penny had wrinkled her nose. “Yeah, they could have picked a better name…”
“Are they actually any good?”
Penny had shrugged. “Who knows—but every time I listen to them, I’m seventeen again….”
“Drinking your first illegal beer…”
“…and having the absolute time of my life!”
Jake had teased her then: “I never knew you were such a wild child.”
Penny had laughed. “That’s just it. I wasn’t. I believe that night went down in history as my one and only experience breaking curfew.”
“Really?” And that had piqued his interest. The most popular guy in school, he’d barely bothered to remember that he even had a curfew…there was always a party to go to, a girl to see.
Penny had scoffed then at his show of curiosity. “Can you really pretend that much surprise? You know what I was like.”
And, unfortunately, he had. Penny hadn’t grown up with much money. Her clothes had always been old, second-hand, and frequently carrying the unmistakable odor of stale cigarette smoke and booze. Her hair had been bushy, frizzy back then—add that to her eccentric personality and odd sense of humor, and Penny had pretty much been the laughing stock of the school.
Which was how he’d come up the idea to hunt down Stink Pig, and find out where they were playing next. He had it all planned out. He was going to sneak Penny out of her bedroom window and take her to watch them. He was going to help her be seventeen again.
And as luck would have it, he’d found Stink Pig easily enough. Their website stated that they were playing out at the Wild Oak Bar and Grill that very weekend. Barely a twenty minute drive away, Jake had snatched up the tickets without a second thought. It would be perfect.
The show wasn’t set to start until midnight. Jake would be locking up at LitLiber a little after ten. After going home for a quick change, he was going to drive over to Penny’s and throw rocks at her bedroom window or something like that—very old-school, traditional stuff. He was going to tell her to get dressed and that he had a surprise for her….
He stared down at the tickets once more, his mouth setting in a grim line. He hadn’t realized it until right now, how much he’d been looking forward to it. He hadn’t realized until right now, how much he wanted to do that for Penny…and how much he wanted to do it for himself.
But everything would change now. Their reason for getting together, the underlining theme to it all, the only thing that had drawn them back together and kept them that way (namely Kate)…it was dead in the water. And Jake couldn’t care less about that. Only, he didn’t want to lose Penny alongside Kate.
Only, how did he keep her? They didn’t have the same friends. They didn’t go to the same places. Hell, they didn’t even like the same music.
The tickets stared up at him mockingly.
And in a split second decision, Jake reached for his phone. Scrolling quickly through his contacts list, he quickly dialed the number he actually knew by heart.
“Good afternoon, Madame Penny’s House of Intuition—”
“Penny, its Jake…”
The air on the other side of the line changed. Jake could practically feel it. “So—you heard?”
“Heard?” Jake held his breath, playing dumb. Penny knew already?! Dammit.
She cleared her throat. “Oh, ah, I thought…that is, have you seen Kate today?”
Yup. She knew all right. Which meant there was only one thing to do. Closing his eyes tightly, Jake did something he’d never done before to Penny. He lied. “No. Why?”
He wasn’t ready to explain himself. He wasn’t ready to risk losing Penny….because, bottom line: he wasn’t sure she’d still be his friend without the added incentive of helping out Kate. After all, that’s the reason she was talking to him, hanging out with him, wasn’t it? Because of Kate. Because she was Kate’s best friend. Kate, Kate Kate….
What if—what if he wasn’t enough to keep her interest alone? What if…
So Jake lied.
If he didn’t know about Kate, then maybe they things could remain the same…even if it was just for a little bit longer.
“Nothing,” Penny rushed to say, “No reason. What’s up?”
Jake grinned. “What are you doing tonight?”
“No plans,” Penny said.
“The night you went to Hillbolt, when you were seventeen to watch Stink Pigs—do you remember what you were wearing?”
Penny laughed. There was a husky note in her voice. “Yeah, I guess.”
“Could you replicate it?”
“Tonight, before you go to bed, put on something like what you wore that night.”
“Before I go to bed?”
“Okay,” Penny said, her voice accurately portraying her confusion.
“Oh, and Penny…”
“Make sure the window to your room is closed.”
“I’ll see you later.”
Penny laughed again. “See you later.”
Putting down the phone, Jake grinned. Staring up at the clock, he mentally counted down time. It was almost four hours until he’d start work. Ten hours until he’d lock up for the night. It was almost twelve hours until he’d see Penny.
His heart kicked up a little. Twelve hours.
Walking toward his shower, whistling some old country and western song, Jake stole a look at himself in the bathroom mirror. There was flush on his cheeks that had nothing to do with the room’s temperature. Turning on the water, he stopped to let his mind wander for a second.
He wondered what outfit Penny was going to wear.
His grin only widened.
Time couldn’t pass soon enough.