Kate looked at herself carefully in the mirror. Her blonde hair was brushed carefully off her face, the meticulously curled tendrils falling softly down her shoulders. Her lips were painted a becoming pink to match the dusting of blush covering her high cheekbones. Other than her eye-shadow—a golden hue smudged at the edges with the lighted dabs of grey—which she was seriously starting to doubt, she looked fine. Good. Maybe she should leave off the smokey accents?
With a resigned sigh, Kate wiped off the offending make-up. Her hands shook. Jackson was picking her up in less than half an hour. For their first date. Jackson.
Kate smiled tremendously. At least her outfit was ready: black tights underneath a peach-and-black knee-length accordion skirt and a black-and-white striped full-sleeved shirt (which hugged her curves in all the right places). The lacey scarf tied artlessly over her neck was just enough jewelry. She’d decided to forgo her silver watch in case that sent across the wrong message.
Painstakingly applying a more neutral honey-toned shadow to her eyes, Kate tried to breathe normally. Her stomach was a bundle of nerves. She hadn’t eaten all day. Correction: she hadn’t been able to eat all day. She just hoped it wouldn’t pick an inopportune time to start rumbling. She had a date with Jackson! It had consumed her thoughts all day. And, since she hadn’t been able to talk to Penny about it; and yes, Kate knew what sort of chicken that made her, she’d found herself unable to relax, unable to enjoy the anticipation building in her body, humming throughout her nerves.
Setting her make-up brush down on the bathroom vanity, Kate took a step back to once again view the finished product. Better. Much better. She looked bright and breezy. Retreating into her living room, before she had a chance to change her mind yet again, Kate looked anxiously at the clock.
Jackson would be there in less than fifteen minutes. Oh god! She hadn’t picked out which pair of shoes she was going to wear…!
As it happened, Kate had only just landed on a pair of patent leather sling-backs when she heard the unmistakable breaking of a car right outside her drive, followed closely by the opening and closing of a car door and then the muffled sound of footsteps walking up her drive. And, even if her ears hadn’t already been on a ridiculous high-alert, Danger’s unmistakable bark, following closely by his nose pressed up anxiously against the parlor room window, his doggy breath foggy up the pane there, would’ve tipped her off.
Shushing him ineffectively, whipping the shoes anyhow on her feet, Kate hurried to the door, her fingers patting furtively against her already perfect hair-do as she came upon the door.
Breathe Kate. Just breathe.
Throwing a smile on her face, Kate opened the door with something of a flourish, which in retrospect, was a bit premature since Jackson hadn’t yet knocked on its solid frame. In fact, he hadn’t even reached the doorway yet. Jeez. Could you look any more desperate, she silently ridiculed herself? Good God, at least pretend at being unaffected by his presence.
“Jackson,” she breathed hurriedly, her hand batting at the air. “I thought I heard you drive-up.” Great opening Kate, she berated herself. Very original. Why don’t you just out-right state that you’ve been pacing up and down, anxiously awaiting his arrival!
But if Jackson thought this was a funny way to say hello, he didn’t let on. He merely smiled. “The perks of having a guard dog, huh?” he joked, coming forward to stand before her. Obviously, he’d heard Danger’s mad woofing.
Kate nodded. “Yeah, sorry about that…” and, as if on cue, Danger took that moment to lunge himself toward the door, his nose working overtime in his attempt to sniff out Jackson’s intentions. Only Kate’s quick movements blocked what would have undoubtedly been a full-on pounce.
“Lay down Danger,” she instructed gruffly, pointing the mammoth dog back where he’d come. Whimpering quietly, he did as told, but the button eyes he leveled at Kate told her just how the animal felt about the dismissal.
Turning back to Jackson, Kate smiled shyly, her eyes not quite meeting his. “We’re working on his manners still. Sorry about that.”
And then, for a moment, a tense sort of silence fell between them. Kate looked down at her fingers, which were busy fiddling together, her nails scraping against one another.
“Would you like to come in—?”
“You look lovely,” Jackson said, speaking at the same time as Kate.
“Oh…” Kate blushed, her hands having turned their attention to splaying nervously down the sides of her shirt. “Thank you,” she mumbled. Then, her eyes peeking up, Kate took stock of Jackson’s appearance. Black slacks. Light brown pullover—very form-fitting, but then again, weren’t all of Jackson’s clothing? After all, the man had an impeccable body.
“You look lovely too.” Closing her eyes, Kate felt heat suffusing her face. “No-not lovely,” she corrected then. “You look Nice. Very…nice.”
Jackson laughed quietly. “Thanks.”
“I’m nervous.” The words blurted out of her mouth before Kate knew she was even saying them. And then, as if she were totally without command of her senses, Kate just kept on talking, making it worse and worse. “I haven’t been on a date, a real date, that is, in a long time.”
She could feel her face scrunching up. “God…please, don’t listen to me. I don’t know why I just said that…”
“Hey,” Jackson said, thankfully shutting her up. “If it helps, I’m nervous too.”
Clearing her throat, Kate nodded jerkily. “Can we start over?”
And, miraculously, they did start over, Kate gaining some much-needed composure as Jackson walked her out to the car. And from there, the date went…well, it was perfectly. Jackson had made reservations at a restaurant just outside of town—a fancy place with linen tablecloths, and bow-tied waiters. It was the vicinity, rather than the grand atmosphere, which most pleased Kate.
Because she hadn’t talked to Jake yet; and to have him stumble upon her and Jackson out on what was clearly a date would have been tantamount to cruelty. She was going to talk to him…she was, only Kate wanted to do it right. And yes, okay, she knew she needed to do that sooner than later…. She was being a coward—what else was new?
It was just, Kate had meant what she’d said to M.T. the other day. She didn’t want anything to detract from her excitement over this date. And talking to Jake would have certainly put a damper on things. And—a very, very small voice at the back of her mind had kept insisting—was she ready to fully, firmly close that door yet?
But, by the time desserts were being delivered that evening, Kate knew the answer to that last, lingering question.
Not only was she ready to close the door between her and Jake, she was ready to dead-bolt the thing shut. Tomorrow she’d talk to him. Let him down nicely. Because, smiling across at Jackson, Kate’s stomached pinched tightly at her waist. She was done being wishy-washy on this issue. She liked Jackson.
And she wanted to see where this led.
She was in. Fully in.
“…and then I told her, ‘Hey, calm down. It’s only a book,’” Jackson said, drawing Kate’s attention back to the conversation at hand.
Laughing, she nodded quickly. “I know what you mean. Jake and I had to explain that to a customer the other day, who thought we were racist for shelving Adventures of Huckleberry…” but, at the quick frown that covered Jackson’s face at the start of this tale, Kate’s voice petered out.
“What’s wrong?” she asked quickly. Had she said something?
“Do all your stories include Jake in some form or another?”
Kate blanched at the question. Had she been talking about the other man too much? Mentally she counted off the list: she’d talked about last week’s bookseller conference—but of course Jake would have been there; and there’d been the one about how, between the two them, Kate and Jake had rearranged the entire store a couple weeks ago; and…well, she had told Jackson about the time she’d twisted her ankle, though she’d left out how Jake had literally had to carry her to the hospital.
Maybe she had been talking about him a lot. But-but, it wasn’t like that!
“Oh. I-I’m sorry…” Kate said, staring down at the dessert spoon clenched between her fingers. She didn’t want to give off the wrong impression!
“No,” Jackson insisted, his lips compressed in a tight line. “No, Kate, I’m the one who’s sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.” He tried to smile. “It was completely uncalled for.”
Kate smiled back wobbly. “It’s okay.”
“It’s just—he likes you. You know that right?” And there it was, that edge back in Jackson’s voice again.
Kate reeled. “I—oh…”
Jackson sighed. It was world-weary. “Dammit. Kate…I didn’t mean—”
“Oh, I think you did,” Kate muttered. What was happening here? The evening had been going so well…
“No. Forgive me Kate.” Jackson sighed. “It’s been a long time since I’ve found myself jealous of another man. I’m not handling it well.”
“Jealous? Over me?” Kate hedged.
Jackson gave her a dry look. “I know, I should be above such juvenile antics…”
Though she’d never admit it out loud, though she shouldn’t even admit it to herself, Kate found Jackson’s antagonism toward Jake oddly…endearing. Though feminists all over the world would despise the notion, Kate found herself more than a little complimented by his words, his attitude. Worse, she found herself more than a little heady of the power she obviously welded.
Of course, it also spelled trouble….
“Can I take a page out of your book, and ask for a redo?” Jackson pleaded then. “—and forget everything I just said?”
But Kate shook her head. “No.”
“No?” Jackson looked worried.
“Look, Jake and I work together. I see him almost every day. And I’m going to talk about him. Probably a lot. I don’t want to have to censor myself around you. Because that would make me feel guilty or, or whatever.”
“I don’t want you to do that either…”
But Kate wasn’t listening to Jackson. “But it’s not—,” she shrugged. “It doesn’t mean anything. Jake and I. The stories, they don’t mean anything.”
“Of course,” Jackson agreed. “I’ll stop acting like a jerk now and retrieve my foot from my mouth.”
“You weren’t,” Kate contradicted. And at Jackson’s confused look: “Acting like a jerk, that is. Not entirely,” Kate felt compelled to say.
Kate sat up a little straighter in the plush velvet chair. “Jake and I…there was som—”
“Kate you don’t have to tell me this.”
“You’re right,” Kate informed him stanchly, “but I want to.”
And when Jackson looked like he was going to say something else, Kate rushed to add: “This is probably heavy talk for a first date, but…” Kate tried not to blush at her forwardness: “But I want to get it out of the way for our second date—or third or fourth…that is, if you ask me out again.”
“Oh, I’ll ask.”
Kate smiled. “Okay, then.” After all that build-up, Kate wasn’t sure what she even wanted to say, so she just started talking. “Your jealousy isn’t completely unfounded. There is history between me and Jake. But it’s just that, history. And his feelings for me, whatever they are, are private, personal, and they have nothing to do with you. His feelings for me are none of your business.”
Jackson had the grace to look ashamed.
“What is your business, however, is this.” Kate paused to gather her nerves. “I have feelings for you. And, just to be clear, not for him.”
A slow, sweet smile curved up the sides of Jackson’s mouth, making fine lines crinkle in the corners there. However, “We’d better get the check,” was all he said in response to this.
“We’re leaving?” Kate asked unnerved.
“Oh, we’re leaving,” Jackson told her. “Because what I want to do now is better left done without an audience.”
And Kate grinned. Then she giggled.
Penny frowned deeply as she locked up her store that evening. She hadn’t been able to get it out off her mind lately. Because, it turned out those text messages from the other night, the ones Kate got at M.T.’s Girl’s Night Dinner, they hadn’t been from Jake.
Penny bit back a smile. She’d been so sure that’s who’d been on the other end of those secret missives which had put Kate in such a blushing mood. She’d been so sure…but then she’d made the mistake of stopping in at the LitLiber to talk to Jake….
“Knock, knock,” she’d called smartly before pushing open the door to his private office. Jake had been bent over his desk, his writing hand flying over some form or another when he’d stopped to look up in greeting.
“Penny?” he’d asked in surprise, half-raising to his feet at the sight of her. One eyebrow had risen. “You look…different.”
Penny had made a stiff gesture. “No I don’t.”
Jake had capitulated easily. “All right. Well, what’s up?”
Penny had leaned against the door. “Nothing. I just wanted to say…I was with Kate last night when she got those texts, and I just thought you’d want to know, she seemed happy. Giddy almost. So whatever you’re doing, keep doing it.”
“Texts? What are you talking about?” Jake had asked ominously, his eyebrows slamming together.
Because Jake hadn’t sent her any such texts messages. Though he’d tried to cover it up, Jake had looked upset at the news. And why shouldn’t he have? Penny had all but told him there was someone else, hadn’t she? Someone who Kate wasn’t demanding give her space to think.
And this, in turn, had made Penny feel terrible about bringing it up in the first place.
“And why did you even go there—the LitLiber?” she muttered crossly to herself as she started walking toward her car, parked halfway down the block.
“Because I thought—whatever, because I thought it was Jake she’d been talking to and I wanted him to know…”
“Know what?” Penny asked ruthlessly, cutting herself off in mid-thought. “That she’d smiled at the sight of a text message? Wow, big news! He definitely needed to hear that—a worthy reason if there ever was one for scurrying over to his place of business at the first available chance,” she mocked harshly. “Even if it had been from him…God, Penny how pathetic, running to him like some lapdog.”
“No!” Penny denied. “It’s not that. I’m just trying to right a wrong, that’s all,” she defended loudly. “I feel guilty. So yes, I want to help him, and yes, to do that I have to spend time with him—which means I may sometimes have to make special trips in to see him, but that’s all it is.”
Looking up at that precise moment, Penny saw it—a flyer stapled to the side of the community board outside the bus stop. 16th Annual Whestleigh Triathlon Scramble. The contest comprised a three-man (or woman) team competing for the fasting times in three separate categories: running, biking, swimming. Each member of the team completes in one leg of the race before passing the veritable torch on to the next member of the team and so on…
That was it! Penny smiled brightly, her frown from earlier dying away as a new plan formed in her mind—that was how she’d make it up to Jake (especially after her accidental slip about Kate’s mysterious texter). Grinning, Penny fetched her phone quickly out of her purse before shooting off a group test message.
< Recepient List: Mags; Katy Kat
From Penny: Kate, M.T. get ready… I’m
signing us up as a team for the Triathlon
Scramble. It’s next Saturday.
Kate, you’re running. I’m biking.
Mags, you got swim-duty. Get training!
- Sent 8:15 p.m.
From Mags: I don’t suppose we have any choice in the matter?
- Sent 8:23 p.m.
From Penny: None at all.
- Sent 8:24 p.m.