The July heat was oppressive. Kate’s bangs, cemented in sweat, lay heavy on her forehead. Her legs, pumping against the hard ground, were tired, weighted down. And, according to her calculations, she still had another mile to go…! It had been a long time since she’d run any distance; she was definitely feeling it now. And that damn sun!
God, she could almost feel jealous of Penny—her legs propped up on the chair beside her, a cool iced-tea in hand, with only a measly stop-watch to impede her relaxing afternoon sit-down.
She’d no sooner thought this then Kate cringed, silently berating herself. Get a grip, girl! It was a petty, spiteful thing in which to wish. Penny had sprained her ankle. Sure…she was sitting down on that chair, and her legs were propped up, but it’s not as though Penny were having a ball of a time—her ankle a swollen, achy, throbbing mess. And it’s not like Penny had wanted to injure her leg—it’s not like she wasn’t probably sitting there, right now, wishing it hadn’t happened. She’d been forced out of participating in the triathlon this weekend. She was undoubtedly upset about the whole thing. Kate was being insensitive.
Kate frowned. Still, it wasn’t fair. She hadn’t wanted to join this stupid event. Neither had M.T. They’d been forced into doing this ridiculous endurance test—a fundraiser for the school board—by Penny. And yet, here it was, two days to go-time and the only one not feeling the burn, the only one not pushing themselves out in this grueling, hateful heat was the only person who’d apparently wanted to do it in the first place.
How was that for justice?
Rotten. That’s how it was.
Uncaring of the childishness of it all, Kate resumed her earlier way of thinking: she wished it had been she who’d sprained her ankle. She’d have happily traded places with the psychic right now if only that were possible. God—she hated running!
It was a common misconception. When people saw her, all long, shapely legs and toned calves and thighs…they immediately assumed that Kate was athletic. Or that she aspired to be. And especially, they took it for granted that she was a runner.
Kate’s lip snarled. And they were always wrong. On all counts.
Turning at the break in the trees, Kate felt her heart-rate kick up a notch or two. She was almost there now. Just a matter of a few yards. Craning her neck to the side, her feet relieved at the lack of resistance as she sprinted down the hill that would eventually bring her to the mouth of Penny’s driveway, aka her Finish Line, Kate felt the first moment of giddiness she’d experienced since starting her leg of the race.
God, she was so close.
Feeling her body verging expectantly, Kate felt first one foot and then the next fall against the rocky, cracked pavement that marked the end of her treacherous journey. Finally, at long last, her feet came to a thankful stop.
Bent down at the waist, Kate tried to suck in her breath. She really, really hated running. Vaguely, she heard the soft patter of feet coming towards her, but she didn’t even bother lifting her head.
“What did you do to piss Penny off?” Jake teased, coming to stand beside her, holding out a cold water bottle.
Kate took it greedily, her fingers quickly twisting the cap off. Her chest heaved with the force of her breathing. “God—it must have been something bad,” she returned, but her eyes wouldn’t quite meet his.
“Do you even like running?” Jake asked, walking with her toward Penny’s yard, where she could just make out the sound of M.T. and Penny’s voices in mid-conversation.
Kate made a face. “That obvious, huh?”
“You looked like a hunted woman.”
Kate made a weird laughing sound. “Yeah.” And that was it, she couldn’t think of anything else to say—her bantering had come to a close; and considering how stilted and unoriginal it had been up to that point, this was saying a lot! It was just too much, talking to Jake this way, all easy and cool, the way it used to be—too much had happened, too much still needed to be resolved, for them to just go back.
Kate frowned. Bringing the water bottle up to her face, she took a strong drink of the icy cold liquid, anything to disguise her lack of conversational skills. Damn Penny.
Because, if the psychic spraining her ankle had sucked, the fact that she’d recruited Jake to take her place in their three-man team had been a total downer. Today marked their first practice together under this new formation—Kate, M.T. and…Jake. Since each member began the race at a different spot, besides a quick, breathy ‘hey!’ in passing, as Jake finished his segment of the race and Kate took up hers, they’d thankfully, mercifully, had little chance to talk.
Until now, that was. After every practice, the girl sat down in Penny’s backyard to talk logistics and strategy, gossip over a beer or two…. Blowing out a hard breath, Kate considered that, of course, Jake would be expected to join them now.
A pang of something uncomfortably close to guilt pinched at the sides of her stomach. Kate needed to talk to him. She needed to tell him…well, maybe not about her and Jackson, per se—that would probably be over-sharing, but the fact remained the same. She wasn’t interested in Jake that way. Not in the way he hoped; not the way he was interested in her.
Wiping her forearm over her lips, Kate dropped the bottle down to her side. It was time to tell him. Past time.
Today. She’d find a moment to talk to him today.
Only that didn’t happen. Instead, walking up to where Penny was perched on the edge of her woven chaise lounge, sunglasses perched jauntily on her nose, and a margarita held loosely in one bejeweled hand, Kate’s intentions were quickly forgotten, easily overwhelmed. Nabbing an empty seat, Kate looked up to find Penny staring mournfully at the stopwatch in her hand. She was tisk-tisking loudly. M.T. rolled her eyes extravagantly. Jake grabbed for a beer.
“Guys,” Penny said, sighing out the word for dramatic effect. “These times, they just aren’t cutting it. If we’re going to win this thing, I’ve got to see you giving more.” The wide grin splitting across her face gave told to her little joke.
Maggie shrugged, a cocky smirk coming to rest upon the usually serene pastor’s countenance. “Don’t look at me,” she said. “I beat my best time today.”
“True,” Penny said. “Very true.”
Kate pouted cutely at Penny. “Unfair—she got a break from all this heat, swimming in the cool water! Plus, I was staring right into the sunlight!”
Penny whistled. Her devilish eyes landed on Jake. “Well, I guess that leaves you.”
Jake’s eyebrows rose. “Me?”
“To take the blame for everything wrong with these times.”
Jake’s eyes narrowed.
Penny grinned. “No actually, now that I think about it, it makes perfect sense.”
Kate nodded eagerly, playing her part.
“And hey, don’t worry,” Penny purred, leaning forward to pat the back of Jake’s hand. “We understand. You’re new to our team. Adjustments need to be made. Expectations need to be lowered. That’s all.”
“Expectations need to be lowered?”
“I’m a hard act to follow,” Penny informed him. “I get it. We all get it.”
“A hard act to follow?” Jake said, taken to repeating her most ridiculous comments. “Now be careful Penny… or have you forgotten how many years we shared gym class together?” Jake made a point of turning to look at M.T. and Kate. “Oh the stories I could tell.”
Now it was Penny whose eyes narrowed ominously. “You wouldn’t dare.”
But dare he did, a wicked smile gracing his features. “Do you remember the time, Coach Wilson asked you to go and grab a rack of basketballs?” Jake asked, his teeth flashing white across his tanned face.
“It could have happened to anyone,” Penny insisted, a laugh bubbling up in her throat.
“What could have?” Maggie asked curiously.
“Basketballs are orange Penny. And they bounce,” Jake poked.
Penny flushed. “Well…those soccer balls kind of bounced…”
Kate’s laugher pelted the mid-afternoon air.
“And didn’t you trip once during the stair-step test?” Jake asked. “You go up and down the same step the whole time…it was impressive.”
“Well, we can’t all be athletic stars,” Penny shot back, “and you’re welcome for it, Mr. All-Time MVP. Without us, how would you have stood out so brightly?”
“Wait.” Jake held up a hand. “So, my prowess notwithstanding, I owe my legacy to you—because you sucked at sports?”
Penny nodded slowly. “Exactly.”
Jake chuckled. “You are the wind beneath my wings.”
And on and on she and Jake had gone, round and round, laughing, teasing, arguing with one another. Kate and M.T. had sat between them transfixed by the witty repartee, the rapid-fire back-and-forth, the parry and thrust.
And, though Kate knew she should have, though she’d scold herself for it later, she just hadn’t had it in her to ruin the fun. Everyone was having such a good time. Jake was having such a good time. He looked…happy. She couldn’t do it. Kate looked around the group. This was neither the time nor the place—the subject matter could hold. She nodded. Yeah. Later. Not tonight.
She’d talk to Jake later.
The morning of the Whestleigh Triathlon Scramble dawned bright and hot. (In fact, it would end up being the hottest day of the summer). Pulling into the cramped parking lot where registration was being set up, Kate groaned weakly as she alit from her vehicle. Already, the sun was beaming generously from a practically cloudless sky.
Checking herself in, Kate looked down at her watch. She still had a good fifteen minutes left before the buses would arrive to pick up the bikers and runners, depositing them at their respective starting places. Good, she wanted to loosen up at bit first. Moving off to the side, bent on finding a quiet spot to do some stretches, one hand shielding her eyes from the heavy beat of the sun, Kate pouted again. “Just my luck. Why couldn’t it be storming out?”
Drifting past the other runners, she found a deserted spot at the edge of a tree line. “And why does running have to come last? The sun will be at its highest point then!” Grumbling to herself, one hand braced against the steady trunk of a nearby pine, Kate reached back for her left foot, bringing the heel of her shoe up against her hamstring. “Why couldn’t I have been picked to swim instead of stupid running?”
“I don’t know,” a deeply masculine voice said from behind Kate, causing her to gasp in surprise, “but I’m sure glad you weren’t.”
And then, before she had time to so much as respond, Kate felt a pair of strong, familiar hands grip her arms and, in a flash, she felt her body being lifted, turned, until she found herself suddenly on the other side of the tree, her body hidden from view of the other racers.
“Jackson.” Amused, breathless at his antics, Kate found herself smiling up his face. Her heart beat strongly against her neck as she watched his face lower…those hands holding her upper-arms were caressing suddenly, the pads of his thumbs rubbing up and down from her shoulders to her elbows and back again.
“Hi,” he breathed seconds before his lips pressed down against hers. Kate’s breath fluttered nervously out of her mouth, her fingers picking at rubbery material of his wet-suit. When his tongue slipped past her lips, Kate had to bite back a groan, her fingers tightening their hold. Then his hands were behind her head, holding her close. Kate felt her body meld against his. Her teeth grazing against his bottom lip, wanting more…
And then he was gone, Jackson tearing his lips away from hers.
Kate stared up at him dazed.
“Yeah. I’m definitely glad you’re not swimming today,” Jackson murmured, breaking away just far enough to utter the words. “It would have been a drowning hazard, competing together in that lake this morning.”
“Promises, promises,” Kate sighed, as his head bent, teeth nibbling lightly against the base of her jaw line.
“Yeah,” he muttered, “and it would have been awkward…you know, when I beat you.”
Kate’s head reared back. “Beat me?” she mused playfully.
Jackson shrugged winningly.
“Pretty confident, aren’t you?”
“Just playing the odds.” Jackson grinned down at the look on Kate’s face.
But whatever she was about to say was cut short by the sudden boom of a microphone amplified through a speaker-system…
“The race is starting soon,” Jackson muttered inanely, his head twisted toward the announcer’s booth; but nothing important was being said yet—parking information, registry reminders, yada yada…
“Yeah,” Kate returned. Reluctantly, she broke free of his hold. “I should probably get to my spot.” With a small gesture, she moved backward, her feet easily side-stepping the tree. Spinning on her heel, she made to start walking, heading straight toward where she could just make out the first of the buses lining up on the curb…
Jackson couldn’t help himself: “Oh and Kate…”
Pausing mid-step, she twisted her head around. “Yeah?”
“On behalf of male’s everywhere, thank you for wearing those shorts.” Jackson winked, a wolfish grin splitting across his tanned face.
Kate laughed. Freely. Then, with a lazy swish of her hips, the action stretching the taut material over her body in all the right places, Kate batted her eyelashes, looking demurely over her shoulder. “You’re welcome.”
“All right,” Jackson groaned good-naturedly, his hand batting at the air. “Get away from me now, you siren. I need to focus.”
Kate smirked. “Afraid of a little distraction?”
“Cold water has never looked more inviting,” Jackson agreed.
Turning back around then, a spry jump to her step, Kate couldn’t help laughing again. “See you at the finish line, stud.”