Penny tried to keep her facial expression neutral, but it wasn’t easy. Jake was sitting inside her too-cramped office, his body effectively cutting off whatever walkway she maintained—knees brushing up against the edge of the table, back chair legs pressed up tight to the wall. The picture of a somber, nervous man sat opposite her—and he’d come to talk about Kate.
Penny just managed not to frown.
Kate. The thing was, she and Penny weren’t exactly on speaking terms. Hadn’t spoken, in face since Penny had more-or-less come unglued on the woman, telling her she was no longer interested in…well, in this.
So imagine Penny’s feelings on the subject. Conflicted didn’t even scratch the surface.
“Now…what’s this about Kate?” Penny asked reluctantly, playing dumb. She really, really didn’t think she wanted to talk about this. Not to Jake.
“I think you know already,” he returned, and it was clear he wasn’t buying her forced nonchalance.
Penny sighed, a stray ringlet of curls scattering across her cheekbones at the action. “Yes. Okay. I might, uh, have heard some things about the two of you,” she hedged.
Jake’s mouth turned-down. Penny was being far from encouraging. “Did you know I told Kate that—uh…” Jake looked distinctly uncomfortable. Still, he tried again: “It was about a month ago now, and I ran into Kate and I—”
“Oh!” Penny said, rushing to his rescue. He clearly didn’t want to finish that sentence and honestly, she didn’t want to listen to him do it, either. “The thing at Julie’s Diner, you mean?” For a euphemism, it was hardly clever, but it got the job done.
Jake laughed. “Yeah. That thing.”
Penny nodded. “And has Kate—?” Now it was Penny’s turn to look and feel haunted. “How does she feel?”
Jake frowned, his mouth pulling down hard at the corners. “That’s what I came to ask you, actually?”
Leaning forward, arms crossing over the top of the oak table, Jake looked closely at Penny, his voice plaintive: “You’re friends. You talk to one another.”
“Most of the time.”
Jake gave her a level look. “Penny, you saw us at M.T.’s house.”
“Yeah,” Penny drawled. “I did.”
“And Kate told you what happened…?”
Penny felt her cheeks burning a little. “Well, as to that…we never did quite discuss it.”
Jake looked confused—and unless Penny was way off the mark, a little hurt too. “You didn’t?”
“Kate wanted to,” Penny started to say and then thought better of it. She wasn’t exactly, precisely on Team Jake, but admitting that straight to his face? She couldn’t do that. It would raise too many questions. “But—we got side-tracked and honestly, I haven’t talked to her in a couple of days, so….” Penny waved her hand dismissively.
“Oh. I got the impression you two were usually joined at the hip,” Jake said softly.
Penny shrugged. She hoped it looked off-hand, chill. “Usually.”
“It’s just—I don’t know what to do. She’s—” Jake seemed to be searching for the right word. “She’s a hard woman to read.”
“I just thought—maybe she would have said something to you about it? I don’t know.”
“As to that,” Penny remarked. “I’m not sure I’d be allowed to tell even if she had.”
Jake accepted this with a jerk of his chin. “Yeah. I suppose.”
“What I can do, though, is listen to your side of the story, perhaps help you gain some perspective on the situation,” Penny improvised, even though every other part of her was screaming: NO! RUN! So much for self-preservation. “So tell me, what happened down there Jake? After I left.” With a movement of resignation, Penny realized she was not going to get that lunch after all.
Jake cringed. Then sighed. “I-I pushed her away. She told me she wasn’t ready, that she needed time, but I—I asked her to make a decision, to choose me anyway. I know!” He cried, raising his hands at Penny’s stern look. “I was a jerk. It’s just…with Jackson right up stairs, I couldn’t seem to help myself.”
“Ah.” So that was it.
“That’s where she is right now, you know,” Jake said.
“And you know this how?” Penny asked, trying to keep the creeped-out factor from entering her voice. Stalker much?
But Jake seemed to have sensed it all the same. “No, no, no! No,” he rushed to defend, the flat of his hand slicing thickly through the air, as if to validate his denial. “The play at the LitLiber later on this month? Jackson is directing it and he and Kate are having a private practice today to make up for one she missed last week.”
Penny nodded slowly. The fact that Jake remembered they were having that practice today, right now, spoke volumes.
Jake threw Penny a dark look. “I think he likes her. Jackson, I mean.”
Penny was no longer just conflicted. She was acutely uncomfortable.
Jake shook his head. “No, I’m sure he likes her. And—”
Penny’s hand shot up. Talking about Jackson felt like a betrayal. Not to mention, it made her feel guilty. Little did Jake know he was confiding in the one woman who was vehemently against the idea of him and Kate. “What happened downstairs Jake?” She repeated. Redirection, that’s what this conversation needed. “After I left?”
Now it was Jake’s turn to act unaffected. And it was Penny’s turn not to buy it.
“Yeah, I kind of know that isn’t true,” Penny reminded him drily.
“No, I mean—,” running a hand through his thick hair, Jake struggled for words. “You left and Kate started back-pedaling, like usual—backing away from me. I tried to stop her but—she kept saying something about not getting hurt again.” Jake stopped here for a moment, his eyes taking in Penny’s form in the gathering dusk settling outside the one window in the room. “Do you know what that means?”
Jake looked impatient. “Okay?”
“No, no.” Penny laughed. She may be mad at Kate but damned if that skinny blonde wasn’t Penny’s very best friend in the world. She would never ruin that. “That’s all you’re getting out of me. Yes, I know what that means. Next question?”
Jake took the hint well. “Right. Well…she was talking in riddles—something about falling into the same old pattern, about other people getting hurt, about other people hurting her… I tried telling her: “This isn’t about anyone else….” but it didn’t seem to penetrate.”
And finally, though she’d hardly admitted it, even to herself, Penny got to hear the rest of the story about what had transpired down in that basement. Because, though she’d sworn to Kate that she wasn’t the least bit curious, Penny had been practically bursting at the seams, wanting answers. And Jake, bless him, filled them in:
They were standing in the basement, dim shadows dancing against the dark walls. Shutting the door in her quick, and angry departure, Penny had inadvertently given them even more privacy than before. Squared-off, Jake tried to assure Kate…
“You’re dodging the issue Kate… it’s not about—what did you say his name was?” Jake asked. “Phil? It’s not about Ashley either. It’s about you. What do you want?” Jake’s voice was low, barely above a whisper as he waited for her to respond.
Kate’s forehead crinkled. Her blonde hair hung damply to the sides of her face.
“That’s just it,” she cried, her arms motioning frantically now. “I don’t know! I’ve never—I’ve never been allowed to question that before now. So while it’s easy for you to make decisions, it’s all so new to me. It’s scary and unnerving to walk down a road without a map.”
Jake was sure there was a story to be found in that cryptic remark: she’d never been allowed to ask herself questions like what did she want? But those were avenues to be traversed another day. Instead, he took a step toward her. A protective step. A step of intent. “Okay,” he told her. “Then start small. Do you want me to kiss you again? Don’t over-think it. Just tell me what you want.”
Jake stared down at Kate, who in turn, stared up at the spot on the stairs that moments ago had held Penny’s weight. Her mouth opened…
Jake felt his stomach twist.
Then Kate’s lips moved…but no sounds came out. Her eyes still hadn’t strayed from the top of the stairwell. Her body was held tight, taut, as if she might come lose if she allowed her muscles to relax even half an inch.
At her name, Kate’s head snapped back around, her eyes large when they connected with his. Then her arms were up, warding him off, pushing him back. And her lips were compressed now, tight. “Stop.” And she didn’t sound like Kate anymore. “I told you,” she hissed, “I need time. Space. And you just won’t give it to me.”
Quickly, wincing at the rough sound of her voice, Jake heeded her command, his feet almost tripping in his haste to create some distance between them. “I know,” he confessed. “I’m sorry.”
“Yeah. So you keep saying,” she reminded him. “You tell me you understand, that you won’t pressure me and yet—here you are!” Kate cried, her arms hugging her body tightly again, her voice an pitchy squeak. “And I just—I can’t. I told you that. Not now.”
“I know, I know.” Arms raised up in defense, Jake thought it best to move yet another step away from Kate. “You’re right. You’re absolutely right. I shouldn’t have—.”
“No, you shouldn’t.” Kate’s face crumpled for a second. “You said—I told you…and you said that was fine. Said you didn’t need me to be ready. Remember?”
Jake nodded. The accusation in her voice, the anger: it told him all he needed to know. “Then you need to be fine with it,” Kate told him firmly, though her voice cracked just a little.
“Then act like it.”
Kate looked down at her shoes. And suddenly, all that steam from before seemed to seep right out of her, leaving her listless, fragile once more. “Listen, I understand that this isn’t what you want, and if you, um, you know, if you don’t want to wait for me–to uh, figure out my life and all that, I get it. You have to do what’s right for you,” she stressed. “But so do I. Which is why I can’t—I can’t be there yet. Not where you want me to be.”
Jake nodded silently.
“Do I want you to kiss me again?” Kate asked on a laugh. (Correction: she asked this on a slightly hysterical laugh.) “Absolutely. Yes. And, at the same time: I don’t know. Maybe?” She smiled sadly, shaking her head. “Which probably means No. At least, for now. Not until I’m sure…”
“Shh,” Jake insisted then, his cheeks ruddy with color. “Don’t. I—you don’t need to explain yourself to me.”
“That’s just it: yes I do. Only I don’t know how—”
“Yeah, I noticed,” Jake joked.
Kate laughed. “Stop being so nice to me. I don’t deserve it.”
“Yes you do.”
A soft beat of silence flooded between them. Jake looked at Kate whose down-bent head watched as her fingers fiddled with a ring on her right index finger. Glancing up at him, she fought to look in his eyes. She nodded with a jerk. “Okay then.”
And there it was.
“Okay then,” Jake consented.
And, turning toward the stairs, her shoulders hunched, pallor off-color, Kate made to leave. After all, what more was there to say? Only, at the foot of the stairs, she stopped, and half-turned back to where Jake still stood, stock-still, rooted in spot. “I’m sorry.” she said then, softly. “I’m sorry I couldn’t do what you did.”
“Yeah? What’s that?” Jake asked. There was note of self-depreciation there he hadn’t meant to include.
“Be brave. You know who you are and you’re not afraid of that person.”
Jake smiled. “I know who you are too.”
Kate smiled back. “I don’t think that counts.”
Jake. “No. Probably not.”
“…and then she left the room,” Jake told a rapt Penny. “So I sat down there for a few minutes, telling myself what an idiot I was before making for the kitchen sink. And—” he shrugged. “That was that.”
“Have you talked since?” Penny asked breathlessly.
Jake pulled a face. “No. I rearranged the schedule at work so we wouldn’t have the same shifts….”
“I know,” Jake said, disgusted. “I’m actively avoiding her. And to think she called me brave.”
“And so you are,” Penny argued. “Leaving her alone, giving her time and space to think—unclouded and undistracted. Even when it’s probably the last thing you want to do.” Jake’s gaze flickered up to hers impulsively. “That has nothing to do with being brave. It’s noble.” Penny took a hateful breath. “And it’s exactly what she needs right now.”
“I hope so,” Jake said.
Penny smiled tightly, unnaturally.
“I really like her Penny.”
Yeah. She got that. Loud and clear, thank you very much.
Clearing her throat, Penny tried for words of encouragement, but they didn’t come. She just didn’t have it in her.
Kate pressed the doorbell nervously. Then, feeling guilty—and then angry about feeling guilty, because it was none of anyone else’s business anyway—she watched her eyes skip back over her shoulder, looking for any lights on at Penny’s, any movements marking her presence in the small house just across the way.
But the house remained as pitch dark as when Kate had carefully, hesitantly brought her car down the dead-end lane. Penny wasn’t home. And, though she despised herself for owning the weakness, Kate was glad about it. She didn’t need to fuel the psychics flaming accusations with any more ammo than necessary. And seeing Kate, dressed in tight fitting jeans and a stretchy pink tank-top, her face carefully made-up, and her hair pinned back at her best advantage, right outside the door of Jackson’s house, would hardly help the cause.
Then, eyes careering back around, Kate could just make out the muffled sound of footsteps coming from inside the house…and just like that, all thoughts of Penny fled. And, just like that, Kate felt her stomach pinch painfully on itself. And, just like that, it was all-Jackson.
“Coming!” Kate heard seconds before he was standing before her, the heavy door swung open to reveal his lazy smile of greeting. Jackson’s hair, always cut neatly short, shown almost brandy in color, and his shirt, a tan polo (perfectly pressed of course) fit almost as close as a second skin, showing off those beautifully sculpted arms, the by-product of living on a lake, and those impossible-not-to-notice shoulders. A swimmer’s physique. Pair that with fitted khakis pants, and Jackson looked pretty much the same as usual: a well-groomed city boy with the most country-boy muscles Kate had ever seen.
Except, besides fashion and physical appearance, Jackson wasn’t really all the much like Phil. Right? For one thing, Jackson had a wicked sense of humor.
“Kate,” he said now, his voice interrupting her musings, which was probably for the best.
“Hi-hey Jackson.” Kate cringed. That came out breathy. Awkward. Rushed.
“I see you brought your script,” he said, seeming unfazed by her gawky speech, staring instead down at the strangled papers she held in her hand. All business.
“What?” Looking down, Kate flushed. “Oh. Yeah.”
“Good. Well, come in, come in,” Jackson invited, moving back to allow Kate entrance into the rather grand foyer there—replete with black-and-white checkered tiles on the floor. Maybe he and Phil weren’t so dissimilar after all. Kate frowned.
Quickly banishing that thought, however, she clung tighter to the script in her hand and, holding it up triumphantly, strutted across the threshold. Play it cool, Kate. Be confident. Funny. Act natural.
“Wouldn’t be much of a practice if I left it at home, would it?” As far as jokes went, it was pretty lame (though it was a definite improvement of the former: ‘hi-hey’ debacle). Kate cringed for the second time in as many seconds. Be casual. Breezy. Relaxed…
Which, it turns out was terrible advice.
For, no sooner had Kate landed upon these adjectives then her less than graceful gait found itself pitching forward…her foot skipping roughly, unevenly over the rug through down in the center of the hallway, causing her to trip. The fine material bunching together underfoot, Kate felt a moment’s terror grip her stomach as her upper body flayed forward, her arms outstretched, hips swaying, overbalancing, trying to force her body back in the upright position.
Or…wait. Had she really erred, at all?
For, no sooner had her body begun it’s forward dissent, accompanied by some unfortunate squeaks and squeals from Kate’s surprised mouth, then that pair of ridiculously strong arms she’d been so admiring seconds earlier, wrapped themselves around her midriff, bringing her to an ungainly stop halfway to the floor. (Picture this: Kate, bent, hunched forward at the waist, her arms out, hoping to break the fall, her face crumpled in expectation of the pain, stuck in mid-air, suspended in this humiliating pose by the strength of Jackson’s arms.)
Despite this, Kate wasn’t worried about how she looked. She wasn’t mortified by this show of gracelessness. She wasn’t thinking about herself, at all. She was however, breathing quickly—and not just as a result of that near-miss. Her heart was beating, shaking in its awareness of the man behind her: his aftershave, the spicy, smoky scent wafting between their bodies, making her nose crinkle appreciatively. The tingle of her skin, especially where it was pressed up close, held captured by his forearms, and those long-tapered fingers, sizzled, diverting her attentions. She held her breath, afraid that even the tiniest movement on her part and it would all disappear.
And, in the space of time it took her to take all this in, Kate was suddenly, inexplicably swamped with a feeling of enveloping guilt.
A feeling of guilt owed entirely to Penny.
“Are you okay?” Jackson asked, breaking the moment, his breath whispering down Kate’s neck and across her shoulder’s; nodding, she allowed him to slowly pull her up to her feet.
Brushing unnecessarily at her knees, hair curtained in front of her flaming face, Kate took a jerky breath. Was she okay? No of course she wasn’t okay! Twenty-five seconds ago she’d been wrapped in his arms (albeit, not exactly romantically but still…) and she’d liked it! She’d more than liked it, she’d savored the sensations coursing through her body at his touch, been damn near hypnotized by it.
And that, in some twisted sort of way, made her think of Jake. And how she’d kissed him the other day. And what Penny had said: what if it had been Jackson who’d walked down the stairs that day at M.T.’s house, Jackson who’d seen her entwined in Jake’s embrace? What would Kate have done? How would she have explained herself?
But most importantly: how could she have liked being in Jackson’s arms just now when, only earlier this morning, she’d found herself daydreaming about another man—when she’d allowed that other man to kiss her, and whom she’d kissed back? It made everything feel cheap and wrong. Which made Kate feel guilty because she was the catalyst. And what was she doing about it: falling from one pair of strong arms into another pair of sweet-tasting lips!
And really, what kind of woman found herself attracted to two very different men at the same exact time? If she wanted Jackson then that should be that. End of story. End of Jake. But it wasn’t quite that easy. And if that was the case, how much stock could she really expect to put in either relationship’s stability, or…or worth or likelihood of being the real thing? If she could like both of them at once when, for all intents and purposes, she should only like the one over the other, then how much substance was there in her feelings toward them, anyway? How much sustenance? Was it all just superficial, on the surface? And, if not, how did she possibly decide between the men? (Because isn’t this supposed to be a glaringly obvious choice—the right one is the right one and you know it when you’re around them, and all that?) The one diminished the other.
And, in that moment of clarity, Kate knew: this guilt wasn’t going away. Not until she could answer those questions, until she could look one of them in the face and say definitively, exactly as Penny had insisted: I pick you and no one else. And I’m sure.
With a resolution she was far from feeling, Kate took a nervous step forward, out of Jackson’s reach, her arms hugging the sides at her waist, her chin jutting out. “Anyway…” she laughed coolly, breaking the silence. “Shall we get started?”
No more flirting. No more maybes.
But, if Jackson was taken aback by the sudden distance in her tone, he did well to disguise it. With a measured gesture, he motioned her to the room just off to the left. “By all means.”