The air in Kate’s kitchen was thick. Edgy. Sitting around her table, the morning sun shining through the bay window there, Kate’s eyes were trained determinedly on Maggie, who was busy moving around the counters, grabbing mugs and spoons and pouring out coffee for Kate and Penny…and them.
For a moment no one spoke.
Calida McDonald and Phil Sheller were in her house. After finding them on her doorstep, Kate had remained motionless, immobile. It was only after Calida’s scathing: “Won’t you invite us in, Kate? Or do you prefer to have private conversations outside of doors? Is that how news travels in small towns?” that Kate had begrudgingly allowed them entrance. Besides, her legs were shaking so badly, she knew she’d require a chair sooner than later.
So now here they sat, huddled uncomfortably together.
“Your kitchen looks—” Calida sniffed delicately, bringing Kate’s eyes back around to her mother’s inscrutable face. “Homey.”
“You traveled all this way to make small talk?” Kate asked, mildly surprised at her own daring.
Calida’s gaze narrowed on her daughter’s mocking stare. Her chin lifted up to a haughty angle. “No,” she told her quietly, coldly. “I told you—”
“Yeah, I heard what you said,” Kate interrupted. “I just don’t have a damned clue what you’re talking about.” Sitting on the opposite side of the table, two chairs down of Calida, Penny was busy giving Kate a winning smile and a thumbs-up gesture, clearly proud of the younger woman’s bravado.
Calida smiled but it wasn’t a nice smile. “You weren’t the only person who’d had their feelings hurt, Kate. And that is why you’d run away like a petulant child, isn’t it? Because we’d somehow hurt your feelings?” The distain was only too evident in her question.
Kate felt her face heating up. “I wouldn’t have put it like that…” but she might as well have saved her breath; Calida wasn’t through.
“What you did, up-and-leaving like that—twice, I might add!—you hurt a lot of people, yourself,” Calida told her with a meaningful look.
“I wonder why I had to stoop to such drastic measures,” Kate murmured half under her breath. “You hired a private detective; you tricked me into talking to you, into confiding in you and for what? So you could do what you wanted, my feelings be damned.”
Calida stiffened. “A mother has a right to know where her child is, I should think.”
“I needed space,” Kate clarified. “But you refused me that. Though why should I be surprised? Since when has what I wanted ever counted for anything?”
“Oh, don’t be so melodramatic.”
Kate’s fist slammed against the tabletop. “This is exactly what I’m talking about!” She yelled. “You don’t listen to me—you don’t listen to what I’m saying. It just doesn’t matter to you. Whenever I try to explain myself I’m never allowed to get even one word out! So yes,” Kate seethed. “I ran away from you. I ran away from being ignored—from being told what it was I meant to say, what it was that you actually heard, despite it all.”
A stunned sort of silence met Kate’s outburst. With the timing of a saint, Maggie appeared at the edge of the table, steaming hot coffee held in her hands as she deftly doled out the cups. Wrapping her hands around the warm mug, Kate took comfort from its enveloping warmth.
“It doesn’t seem to be stopping you now,” Calida spoke softly, quietly.
“The ability to speak up.”
Kate smiled wanly. “I’ve had help in that department,” she admitted with a wry glance at Penny and M.T.
“Is there anything else?” Calida asked and, at Kate’s questioning look, continued: “That you’d like to say? Anything else you’d like to tell me—I promise, the floor is yours.” She opened her arms up expressively.
Kate felt her body tense, unsure if she was walking into a trap or not. With Calida, one could never been sure… “No. That’s, ah, that’s it.”
“Good. Then please allow us to have our turn.”
Yup. Definitely a trap.
“You’re right. I tricked you this summer up in Minnesota when I took you out to my club,” Calida admitted ruefully. “I piled you with alcohol and proceeded to get you relaxed—because I’d hoped you’d let something slip. And you did.”
Penny snorted into her cup.
“But it wasn’t—” Calida shook her head. “It wasn’t what you’re thinking.”
“Oh, you mean it wasn’t so you could ambush on my own front steps.”
Calida sighed softly. “Not originally, no. But then, when you were back home—”
“This is my home. Whestleigh is my home,” Kate insisted.
Calida flicked her wrist dismissively. “Fine. Whatever. Back when you were in Minnesota, we’d planned to…
“Oh, I know what you’d planned,” Kate interrupted.
“We saw your car pulling up to the driveway,” Penny intoned with a quiet look at Phil, who sat silently, watching mother and daughter.
“And that’s why I left the way I did,” Kate claimed. “You just couldn’t help yourself, could you? And there I was, ready to believe everything you’d been saying—how you’d missed you, the regrets you had, and it was all a ruse.”
“No it wasn’t.” Calida was stiff, her voice scratchy.
“It was just a ploy to keep me there long enough. And just what were you hoping for? That I’d see Phil and—snap!” Kate clicked her fingers together, “—the prodigal daughter would return? That I’d fall right back into the same pattern. Just another control tactic….”
“No, what I was hoping for,” Calida said through her teeth, “was a little closure. For me. And for Phil. You owe us that.”
“So you thought a surprise attack was the best way?”
“It’s the only reason we’re sitting around your table right now, isn’t it?” Calida challenged. “This summer, I figured it was the last chance Phil had. Who knew when you’d ever come back hom—to Minneapolis again. And I knew if I so much as breathed his name you’d leave, that maybe you’d never return.”
“I assure you, the way you did it was much worse.”
Calida had the grace to look ashamed. “Isn’t that what hindsight is for?”
“With you? Doubtful.”
“Didn’t you surprise attack me?” Phil’s voice, its low tone accompanied by that gritty accusation, seemed to suck the remaining air out of the room. All eyes turned to take in his somber expression, which belied the angry outburst.
“I woke up one morning—September 21st. It was a Monday, just any normal day, except you were gone. Gone.” Phil’s voice was sharp. “I looked all around the house, but it was empty. I tried your phone, but it went straight to voicemail. The car wasn’t in the garage, but your daily planner still lay on the small table in the entryway.” He shook his head. “You’d never believe the excuses I gave myself at first. She probably got up early for a run. She ran to the market to get eggs. Maybe she’s at the neighbors, helping Margie with one of her Junior League projects…”
“I left you a note,” Kate whispered.
“Yeah.” He shook his head. “It took me a minute to find that, stuck half under the blotter in my study. And when I did, at first I thought it was a practical joke. Then maybe even a ransom note.” His mouth thinned. “The alternative, that you’d actually written me this—this letter,” Phil spat out that last word. “I just couldn’t believe it.”
Kate opened her mouth to speak.
“We were engaged! We had plans. I just couldn’t believe—”
“But we didn’t love one another,” Kate protested weakly.
“Speak for yourself,” Phil said. “I loved you. I loved you desperately.”
Kate felt the pain in those words. It lanced at her heart, shaking her. “But Phil, you loved someone who wasn’t real,” Kate told him gently. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to—”
“But then you wouldn’t take my calls—wouldn’t reach out to any of my attempts at contact,” Phil went on staunchly. “And I was forced to face the facts. You really had left me. In the middle of the night. Without a word or a look or any indication that you were unhappy at all. Without giving me any chance to make you happy.”
Kate felt tears sting her eyes. She hadn’t known. She hadn’t realized—she’d always told herself she’d done them both a favor, running away as she had. She’d promised herself that he wouldn’t be hurt. Not really. Just embarrassed. Outraged with stung pride. Superficial wounds.
“It was a cowardly thing, what I did, the way I did it,” Kate confessed, palms raised in surrender. “I apologize for that, but you have to understand…”
Phil’s posture was stiff. “I was devastated Kate.”
“I was humiliated.” Phil made a sound deep in his throat. “Having to tell everyone, having to explain the unexplainable. The pitying glances, the gossip—you put me through hell.”
“Please forgive me, Phil,” Kate pleaded quietly. “I wasn’t the girl you thought I was.”
“You have every right to hate me,” Kate realized with something of a shock. She’d never really stopped to think about his feelings at all before now. It was a sobering, sad reality. “You do. That’s the worst of it, too, that you never even knew me. The girl you met, she was a carefully programmed carbon copy of the real thing. You met a lie. You weren’t to know that I was playing a part; that the real Kate was hiding behind those perfect manners and that coifed hair.” She laughed hard. “You never knew the woman you’d planned to marry—and that was wrong. And I’m sorry about that.”
“Sorry that I was engaged to a woman I didn’t know or that I was jilted by her?”
Kate smiled ruefully. “Both, I guess.”
“You could have talked to me.”
Kate looked down at her fingers, splayed against the table. “That’s just it. I couldn’t,” she admitted. “Talk to you. I didn’t know how. Not then. I wasn’t strong enough. I wasn’t sure who I was, only who I wasn’t.” She dared to look back up. “If I’d stayed…. if I’d waited until morning, I would have never had the courage to go. I would have let you talk me out of it. And Phil, I needed to go.”
His face twisted.
“No.” Kate shook her head. “I didn’t mean it like that. It had nothing to do with you. I mean, it did but— you, you didn’t make me unhappy, and so you couldn’t make me happy either. I had to do that. But you did nothing wrong. Nothing. I had to go for me.” Kate stalled. “And I had to do it alone. But please know that you were everything a girl could have wanted in a fiancé.”
“Just not what you wanted.”
“And I’ll forever regret that weakness, that cowardice that had me sprinting away in the dead of night. Believe me when I say that. But it was the only way. At the time, it was the only way!” She took a deep breath. “And Phil, I know I don’t deserve your forgiveness, but I hope someday—”
“I forgive you, Kate.”
Kate’s heart lifted. “You do?”
Phil made an empty gesture, a half smile forming momentarily on his lips. “I’m getting married.” He gave her a dry look. “For real this time.”
Kate blinked. “You are? Oh. Oh! Ah, congratulations—” she stuttered. “I’m so glad for you.” And she was.
“Her name is Lucy, and she’s—well, she’s everything.” Throwing out a wry smile, Phil added: “And, I suppose I wouldn’t have met her if you hadn’t done what you did. So in that regard, I should probably thank you.”
“Your welcome, I guess?” Kate laughed quietly. Phil’s lips twitched. Sobering, she said then: “But seriously, Phil, you deserve nothing less than everything you want.”
Phil nodded in seeming agreement. “I was angry at you for a long time, Kate.”
“But I’m not anymore.” Phil told her. “I’m happy. I’m—” He shrugged again. “I came here today to put the past to bed, to end it, all the questions, the hurt and betrayal. All of it. I came to say a proper goodbye this time. I needed to do that before I married Lucy.”
“And now I have.”
“Thank you,” Kate said quietly. “For your persistence, for coming here.” And she meant it. She hadn’t known until just this moment how long she’d been waiting for this moment. Resolution. Restitution. Atonement.
Slowly, Phil rose to his feet. “Be happy Kate. I know I am.”
Gaining her own legs, Kate smiled tremulously. “I will be,” she promised him.
Edging back from the table, he came around to her side, and bending down, brushed a soft kiss against her cheek. “Goodbye Kate.”
“Goodbye Phil,” she whispered.
With a speaking look at Calida, he moved toward the door. “I’ll meet you back at the hotel then, shall I?” he asked politely, expectantly, just as though his leave-taking had been a carefully staged exit.
Then again, knowing Calida, it probably had been.
That woman nodded slowly. “Yes, that will be fine.”
And with that Phil was gone, slipping out the door, his departure as quiet as his entrance had been thunderous.
When Calida remained firmly in her seat, Kate sank despondently back into her own chair. It was only too clear that Calida, unlike Phil, was not leaving. Not yet anyway. Kate’s eyes skittered over to Penny and M.T. who sat silently at the far side of the table. Neither woman had spoken throughout the exchange. But Kate doubted they’d missed so much as a word. They’d dissect the conversation later, in private.
Calida cleared her throat. “So I suppose it’s my fault then,” she said to the quiet room. “What you said to Phil: that you weren’t allowed to be you before, well, before your little defection. I suppose I did that, made you someone else?”
Kate swallowed difficultly. “I don’t know what you want me to say…”
Calida laughed. “And wasn’t that the whole problem, Kate? That you were always waiting for me to tell you what to say?” Her voice was harsh, waspish.
“No. Don’t.” Calida shook her head vigorously. “I was only ever trying to do right by you.”
“I know that,” Kate insisted. “I do.”
“But you still hate me.”
“I don’t hate you.”
“You don’t?” Calida sounded honestly surprised. “That’s not the way I’ve understood it this past year.”
“I don’t know…”
“I didn’t know where you were!” Calida cried. “I wasn’t even allowed to know that much!”
Kate cringed. “You would have just—”
“Found you?” Calida laughed weakly. “Yes and God forbid that!”
Kate looked down at her coffee. It was cold now.
“You have no idea the stress, the pain you put your father and me through. We were upset and confused and—”
“I’ve never been any match against you,” Kate cried. “Growing up, you have no idea how hard it was for me. You pushed and pushed and pushed me to be the little girl, and then the young woman, you always wanted. And for awhile I thought I wanted that too—I thought if I could just make you proud, I’d be willing to do just about anything…”
“So you disappeared?”
Kate sighed tiredly. “Somewhere along the way I lost sight of what mattered most: finding out what made me proud, finding out what I wanted.”
“I was so desperate for you to love me mom, but I couldn’t, not at the expense of—”
“Of your own happiness,” Calida said. “Yes. I heard you.”
“I’m sorry,” Kate said, the words sticking to the back of her throat. “I-you’re right. I was selfish. Running off like that, hiding away. I hurt people. I hurt you.” Kate licked her lips nervously. “I was so focused on me, on what I was feeling, that I never stopped to think of how my actions would affect anyone else.” She took a deep breath. “And honestly, at the time, I don’t think I really cared anyway.
“I was so frantic to get away, to find myself that I took all the resentment that had been building in me for years and…”
“I meant what I said in Minneapolis.”
Calida’s eyes were steady on Kate. “That I had regrets. That I’d missed you. That I would jump in mud-puddles with you, if only you’d let me.” Calida’s body was tense, her voice wooden, unnatural.
Kate shifted. “It’s hard to trust you.”
“I’ll admit that I made mistakes, but so did you.” Calida insisted.
But Kate wouldn’t budge an inch. “Keeping tally?”
“Dammit Kate, don’t be so obstinate!”
“Like mother, like daughter.” Kate’s lip snarled. “Guess we’re alike in some ways, after all.”
Calida’s eyes closed momentarily. “Well…” Pushing herself up from the chair, she made a face. “I can see this is getting us nowhere…”
“Don’t blame me,” Kate defended. “I didn’t ask you over.”
And suddenly Calida looked tired. “No, you didn’t.” Grabbing her coffee-cup off the table, Calida walked over to the sink.
“You don’t have to do that—” Kate protested, half-rising from her own seat.
“And you didn’t have to earn it,” Calida said gruffly as she set the porcelain cup inside the stain-less steel surround. Spinning back around then, she returned to the table, her steps sharp and quick as she grabbed her purse off the back of the chair there. Her eyes glared down at her daughter. “My love. You never had to earn that. You always had it,” she muttered as she slung it over her shoulder, before marching toward the door.
When her hand closed over the doorknob, she paused, but didn’t turn back around, to say: “So please—I’ll go. I promise I’ll leave you alone, never see you again if that’s what you really want, but at least let me know where you are. Give me that, if nothing else!”
Kate felt her throat convulse as she watched her mother turn the knob in her hand and glide through the door, and out of her life.
And then Kate was catapulting to her feet, racing after her. “Wait!” she cried, throwing the door back open wildly. Calida stopped mid-step, her neck craning over her shoulder to gaze up at Kate’s frantic features. “That’s not-that’s not what I want.”
Calida raised a quizzical eyebrow.
“Don’t. Don’t go,” Kate managed through trembling lips.