Chapter 49, North of Happenstance

North of Happenstance: Chapter Forty-Nine

So Kate and Penny headed back outside to try it again. Swim Lesson 2.0

Grabbing up their towels, they walked determinedly toward the water’s edge. Staring out at the expanse of water, the tips of their toes lying against the last inches of grass there, Kate heard Penny take a deep breath, and then another. But this time, she wasn’t the only person nervous of wading inside those cool depths. Kate’s stomach clinched.

Because now she knew. She knew just how terrifying a step this all would be for Penny: letting her feet fall against the wet sand, feeling their weight sink against the surface there, letting her body break against the waves, the semi-suffocating texture of water encircling her, touching her—

Kate reached for Penny’s hand again, only this time she didn’t follow the action with a quick step forward. In fact, her fingers entwined tightly with Penny’s, this time she didn’t move at all. So instead, they just stood there, staring out ahead of them, watching the still water, neither moving.

A minute passed. And then another. Tick-tick-ticking…Kate could feel the panic stealing over her person. The confidence she’d felt earlier that afternoon, when she’d shown up like some heroic savior, was absent now, shadowed by the reality of what her presence meant. She didn’t want to screw this up again. She was no longer certain she had the capacity to help Penny…

The sound of feet crunching against the gravel driveway next door, the echo of movement where moments ago there had been only silence, caused Kate’s head to shift reflectively.

Jackson was home. Lost in her own thoughts Kate hadn’t heard the sound of his car approaching, hadn’t listened for the answering hum of an engine dying, a door opening and closing again.

Not until now…

But it was only too obvious that he’d seen them.

“Hey girls,” he called out then, his arm lifted in greet as he walked over to where they were stoically standing. “Doing a little sunbathing?” he asked, that easy smile on his face, his eyes taking in their outfits.

Sidling up to Kate’s left, the side not holding Penny’s hand, Jackson was suddenly much too close—and another kind of panic settled over Kate’s distraught nerves. Dropping Penny’s grip, she quickly skirted to stand in front of her friend. Her eyes avoided Jackson’s entirely. Instead, Kate focused on Penny, whose face seemed to be carved from stone…or ice.

“Actually,” Kate said in answer of his question, though her gaze never once left Penny, her arms folded stiffly in front of her body, “we’re thinking about going for a swim.”

That got Jackson’s attention. Slowly, his head turned to take in Penny; his eyes were soft, compassionate when the psychic slowly tilted her head in his direction.

“Is that true, Pen?” he asked, an odd note in his voice.

Penny nodded. “Yeah. Maybe. I—,” she cleared her throat. Then, with a decisive word, she amended. “Yes.”

And Jackson smiled. A big, sincere, honest-to-goodness grin split across his face. “Atta girl,” he said, his arm coming up to give her a half-hug.

“Well, don’t get too excited yet,” Penny murmured drily. “We haven’t made much progress yet.”

“That’s not true,” Kate countered. “We got in the water earlier…”

“But it didn’t end well,” Penny finished in a self-deprecating manner.

Jackson gave Penny’s shoulder squeeze. “No? What happened?”

“I ran out screaming bloody murder.”

Kate ducked her head in shame.

But Jackson didn’t miss a beat. “But you’re back here, ready to try it again anyway?” he asked, that soft note still there in his voice.

Kate bit her lip. The way he was talking—in that protective, loving way—it made him almost irresistible. She wished he’d knock it off.

“I guess.”

“Well then,” he said slowly, “I’m not just excited. I’m proud of you, too.”

Then Kate could feel Jackson looking at her next, and she’d just bet that look was in his eyes—the one that said he thought she was amazing and beautiful, and that he was proud of her too, that she was a good friend for doing this, yada, yada, yada. She’d seen that particular look before (he’d worn it two nights ago when they’d gone fishing after dark; and the day prior, when she’d made that corny joke; and the time they’d kissed under that tree before the triathlon, it had been out in full wattage then….)—the one he personally seemed to specialize in, that chased all the butterflies loose in her stomach.

That look made her knees weak. That look made her want to throw her arms around him…it made it difficult for her to breathe properly. Suddenly, she wished there was more fabric to her bathing suit. She wished she could shield her body inside that towel lying down by her feet.

If Penny got a hold of that look on his face, if she got even a hint of Kate’s answering response…well, hell, it didn’t dare thinking about.

Staring determinedly at the ground, Kate hunched her shoulders against a pretend chill in the air. “Well I guess—”

“Got any advice?” Penny asked then, cutting over whatever Kate had been about to say.

Jackson seemed to consider this carefully. “I’ve got a couple actually…”

“Shoot.”

“Number one: we should get you a life jacket.”

Kate wanted to smack her hand against her forehead at the words. Well, duh. Of course! She should have thought of that.

“It’ll make you feel safer and that’s a big part of getting comfortable, gaining confidence…”

“Oh.” Penny’s face fell for a moment. “I’m not sure I have any—we used to, but I think I threw them away a few summers ago. They were pretty tattered.”

Jackson dropped his arm from around her shoulders. “No worries. I have a spare. Let me go and get it.”

And once that was done, and Penny was safely suited up, Jackson offered his second piece of advice. “Well, actually, it’s not so much advice as it is a request…?”

“And what’s that?” Penny asked eagerly. Kate hated herself for the smidge of resentment and jealous creeping over her person. Penny hadn’t sounded or looked anywhere near as calm and unaffected as she did now, with Jackson.

Kate was failing miserably.

“Let me help.”

Kate’s head snapped back at the quiet plea. Penny, too, looked startled. “You already have—”

Jackson waved her words away. “I want to be here, I want to watch you beat this. I know how hard it is for you, just being close to the water. And I know why.” He stops to let the intimacy of this statement resonant. I suppose he has a point. “And…I’d really like to help you get this back.”

Penny’s head rotated slowly. “Kate?” she asked quietly, nervously, waiting for permission.

Kate smiled at her friend, and she swallowed her pride. “I think that sounds like a great idea.” Then, rising her eyes to Jackson, she smiled flatly, in what she hoped was a casual, friendly sort of way. “Thank you. I’m sure we’d appreciate all the help we could get.”

And then, they were each holding on to one of Penny’s hands, with an absolute promise from each they’d let go it she asked, or panicked, or felt like she needed to run away. Slowly, with Jackson talking the quiet lead, they walked out into the water, just up to their ankles. After each step Jackson would stop, tell Penny to breathe, let her body relax, absorb the water—the feel of it playing against her skin. He’d wait until she felt fully in control before moving forward. It took a long time, but finally he had Penny in as far as mid-thigh…

“Well, how do you feel?”

Penny considered the question for a moment. “I feel fine. But that probably has a lot to do with you and Kate being beside me.”

Jackson chuckled. “Fair enough. But what about if Kate and I let go?”

Penny’s face whitened, her fingers tightening….

“No, no, no—” Jackson said, as though he’d read her thoughts. “I’m not talking about you going out on your own. I’m saying, right here, right where we are now, can you stand on your own and feel okay? It’s absolutely fine if the answer is no Penny. This isn’t a test, I’m just trying to gauge your reaction…”

Penny wiggled her toes against the sandy bottom. “We won’t go any further out?”

“No. Not unless you want to.”

“And you’ll give me your hand back if I want it?”

“Without question.”

Then, slowly, inch by inch, she let go of Jackson and Kate’s grip. Her arms stayed out, angled at her sides, as though to keep her equilibrium. For a second no one spoke, and then Penny lowered her arms.

“Yes.”

Kate breathed a sigh of relief.

Penny lit up like a Christmas tree. Or a firework.

Jackson took a couple careful steps backward, making sure to keep himself perfectly parallel to Kate and Penny. “Okay,” he called. “Can you walk from Kate to me? It’s a straight line, and I promise you’re not going any deeper in the lake.”

Penny took a deep breath. “Okay,” she said. Slowly she moved toward Jackson.

“You did great!” he cried, once she’d reached him. “Do it a couple more times, Penny. Get comfortable. Let your body adjust to the feel of water on your legs. Don’t worry about your arms right now,” he rushed to say, when the words began trembling out of Penny’s mouth. “We’ll save that for another day.”

“Another day?” Penny blinked.

Jackson smiled. “Yeah. I think we’ve gone in far enough for today. Don’t you, Kate?” He asked, calling the question down the line.

And Kate knew when she’d been licked. As much as she wanted to let Jackson’s take-charge attitude sting her pride, she was also humbled by his approach, grateful for his appearance this afternoon. He was better at this than she was. He was doing it right. And so her pride could go hang.

“Oh yeah. Another day.” She smiled over at Penny, who was making her clumsy way back toward Kate. “Penny, you’re doing so well. So well!”

And so, for the next twenty minutes,  Penny did as Jackson instructed: she moved in the water—back and forth, from side-to-side, her toes curling against the swaying sand, her legs building confidence in the heavy, buffeted water as she circled this small stretch of lake…and she laughed (laughed!) and smiled.

Afterward, Penny insisted that she walk out of the water all by herself (after all, it only got shallower from there on in). Hanging back to watch, Kate felt Jackson cozy up beside her in the water. Out of her peripheral vision, she watched, horror-struck, as his arm came sweeping up, ready to land against her shoulders.

Ducking quickly out of reach, Kate made a shivering motion, her arms quickly going to imprison her body. “Brr!” she called out suddenly, and, rubbing her hands up and down her arms ruthlessly, she scooted out after Penny, who was just then gaining solid ground, her fingers already reaching for the towel ready on the grass there. “Grab mine too, will you Penny?” Kate shouted, her voice breaking out loudly, frantically.

Wrapping the sun-warmed material around her body, Kate kept her voice carefully light. “You did amazing out there today, Penny. Truly amazing.”

Penny blushed. “It wasn’t anything a five year old couldn’t have done.”

“Not true—”

The sudden re-emergence of Jackson, his great strong arms reaching around Penny to engulf her in a gigantic hug, his body lifting hers off the ground in his exuberance, stopped Kate in her tracks.

Penny giggled.

“You! I’m so damned proud…you did it! Look at what you accomplished…” He told a still laughing Penny, whose hands were futilely swatting at Jackson’s shoulders as she pleaded with him to put her back down.

“Stop it, the both of you,” Penny insisted, but there was no denying the sparkle in her eyes, the pride in her smile. “It wasn’t all that much.”

“Yes it was.”

“Don’t be so modest…”

Penny pursed her lips. “Okay,” she relented. “It was kind of huge.”

And Jackson hugged her again, but this time, when he released her, before Kate had time to react, those impossibly strong, masculine arms had engulfed her in a hug.

“We did it, coach!” He said moments before he brought her into his body.

Mumbling incoherently, her arms going slack at her sides, her back poker straight in protest, Kate held her breath, trying not to breath in the scent of his wet skin, not to act on the pull of attraction between their scantily clad bodies…

Training her eyes to some far-off distance, Kate waited stiffly, until finally, she felt his arms drop away. And even though she could sense his eyes on her, could almost feel the insistent magnetism of them drawing her gaze, Kate refused to meet that look. She knew he would be confused, hurt…probably even a little angry at her rejection.

But she wasn’t rejecting him. Not really. It’s just…it was complicated, what with Penny and everything that had gone on with them recently. She and Kate were finally talking again.

They were almost there, back to where they’d been before…they were so close. Too close to muck it all up now.

And if Kate did what she really wanted to do, throw her arms around Jackson’s shoulders and kiss him passionate gratitude, well, muck it up would be too timid a phrase…. She and Penny would be finished. Over.

Because Kate still hadn’t told Penny about Jackson. It wasn’t like she’d meant to keep it a secret. At first, they’d been fighting; and then Penny had started in on her not-so-subtle hints about Jake; add to that Maggie’s lost necklace and…well, the longer Kate went without talking to her, the harder it was to start.

So, backing hurriedly away from Jackson, Kate kept her eyes downcast. A wooden smile etched over her face. And all the while, she wished he’d go away.

Apparently, Jackson read minds, because that’s what he did.

“All right,” he said, taking in Penny’s beaming face. “I’ll leave you two to celebrate this major victory. I’m guessing champagne is in order—”

“Leave us?” Penny asked, clearly oblivious to the tension radiating between Jackson and Kate. “Don’t you want a glass yourself? You were a pretty big factor in all this?”
Jackson smiled. “Another time. Unfortunately, I’ve got a meeting at school this evening.”

“It’s summer…”

Jackson grinned. “Only for a few more weeks. I’ve got a syllabus to get ready, a classroom to prepare, the school calendar to consult….”

Penny sighed dramatically. “Okay. Fine. But I’m holding you to your promise. We’ll celebrate another time. My treat.”

“Deal.”

And then he was gone.

 

 

 

She’d explain everything. He’d understand. She’d explain everything. He’d understand.

This had become Kate’s overnight mantra, as she’d tossed and turned, guilt churning away at her stomach…. What if she’d managed to save her friendship with Penny only to ruin her relationship with Jackson?

A pain so hard it caused her to sit bolt-upright in bed, clenched in Kate’s stomach.

No, no. Jackson would understand.

She’d call him and explain everything. He’d understand.

The next morning, blue smudges under her eyes attesting to her lack of sleep, Kate reached for her phone… Of course he’d understand, this was Jackson, after all.

But when he answered, Kate knew she’d been kidding herself.

“Kate. What’s up?” he asked, no preamble, no welcome. His voice was curt. It was unlike any greeting he’d ever given her before.

Kate straightened her shoulders. Okay, so she’d ruffled his feathers more than she’d thought. That was fine. She could handle this. “Hey…listen, I wanted to talk to you about yesterday—”

“What about it?”

“Uh, well…first of all, I wanted to thank you for helping me with Penny.”

Silence met her words.

Kate cleared her throat. “Right. Well, I-I just, you were really great with her.”

Jackson sighed loudly. “You don’t need to thank me. I’d do anything for Penny.”

“No, I know,” Kate amended quickly. “Of course. I just…”

“Kate, I’m kind of in the middle of something here…” Taking the phone off her ear, Kate stared at the device as though it had sprouted wings. Where was the compassion and softness of yesterday? “Was there anything else—?”

She screwed up the last of her courage. “Yes, actually there was. I wanted to apologize.”

A beat of silence and then, “Okay.”

“It’s just, I’m sorry if I can across a little…” Kate struggled to find the word.

“Cold? Unfriendly? Distant?” Jackson, however, didn’t seem to be having any troubles in that area.

“I don’t know if I’d said that…”

“I would.”

“Oh.”

Jackson sucked in a breath. “Why then?”

“Why?”

“Were you were being so…whatever?” Kate had never heard that particular emotion seep into Jackson’s voice. Hard mockery.

Kate decided on the truth. “Because I haven’t told Penny about us yet, and I didn’t want her to find out that way.”

“Wait—you haven’t told her? Why? I mean, I thought she was your best friend?”

“She is…”

“And?” Jackson’s voice was tight, suspicious.

Kate winced. “It’s sort of difficult to explain…”

“It’s difficult to explain that we’re dating?”

“No, not that—”

“Then what?”

Kate felt her teeth clench. “I—the thing is, Penny and I…”

Jackson made a sound. “Look Kate, I know we haven’t been seeing each other for very long—”

“It’s not what you’re—”

“But I thought we were on the same page,” Jackson said. “We talked about being exclusive, and we spend almost everything evening together—”

“Yes, I know…”

Jackson sighed wearily. “I’m looking for something serious, Kate. I thought you were too.”

“I am.”

“It doesn’t sound like it. And it certainly didn’t seem like it yesterday. I have no interest in juvenile theatrics—hot one day, cold the next…”

“That’s not fair!”

“No? Then why haven’t you told Penny?”

The phone pressed hot against Kate’s ear.

Jackson tried again. “How about Jake? Does he know you’re taken?”

Kate’s mouth went dry. She knew Jake was a sore spot for Jackson.

“I see.”

“I don’t think you do?”

“Then tell me, why the secrecy? If you’re not holding back Kate, then what’s going on?”

“Nothing! That’s what I’m trying to explain,” Kate cried desperately.

“Yeah,” Jackson said quietly. “I’m just not sure I want to listen to you try.”

“Jackson.”

“Actions over words, Kate.”

“Wait—”

She could practically see him shaking his head. “I’ve got to go.”

“Jackson, just wait a minute!

But he’d already hung up.

 

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