Jackson stared unblinkingly at Kate.
“I love you, Jackson,” she repeated again, her voice barely a whisper of sound. Her teeth gnawed against the side of her lip at his extended silence. “I hope that’s okay?”
Because suddenly she was terrified. She’d said those words before, of course, but never to Jackson (and he’d certainly never said them to her). Only, she’d never really meant them. Not until just now.
But then Jackson smiled and some of her fear melted away. “Yeah Kate,” he said, his voice low, husky. “It’s okay. It’s more than okay.” With a half step, he made to move toward her, his eyes soft as he neared….
Calida cleared her throat pointedly. She’d clearly been forgotten. Her interruption had the desired effect. Jerking at the sound, Jackson ceased in his movement toward Kate. His eyes shifted, swiveling to take in Calida’s expectant expression.
He smiled charmingly.
“Excuse me, Mrs. McDonald.” Shifting gears, he didn’t skip a beat; to Kate’s quiet dismay, his attention was lost now, transferred instead to the elegant woman beside her. Whatever he’d been about to say next—whatever his response to Kate’s exclamation would have to wait. “It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
“How kind,” Calida purred, holding out a hand, which was quickly taken in his own.
“Please, won’t you come inside?” he asked, stepping back to allow them entrance.
Calida smiled, but it held little warmth. “I’d be delighted, I’m sure.”
“No, the delight is all mine,” Jackson assured her as she stepped daintily into the foyer, Kate bringing up the silent rear. “I can’t tell you how long I’ve wanted to make your acquaintance.”
Jackson had impeccable manners.
“I only wish I could say the same,” Calida said, her eyes quick to take in everything around her. Opulent surroundings. “But as it happens, I’ve only just heard about you.” Her laugh was a tinkle of social merriment.
Jackson had to bite his lip to keep from pointing out the obvious: that until just recently, she and her daughter hadn’t been speaking at all.
Likewise, Kate shot her mother a speaking look; but Calida was too busy inspecting Jackson’s home he led them down the arched hallway off the entrance and into the main living area, to pay any notice to her daughter. As her sharp eyes gazed around the room, her usually pinched features took on an even harder look. Her long patrician nose quivered as she glanced over the gilded mirror hanging above the fireplace, the authentic Oriental rug underneath the sofa—the tasteful throw pillows and blankets, the classic sconces on the papered walls, all the trinkets and baubles scattered about. The room screamed of money and high taste.
It was abundantly clear that Jackson came from wealthy stock.
And Calida couldn’t find one damn thing wrong with the place.
Clearly it rankled. Kate smiled.
“Well,” she said sharply. Too sharply. “You have a beautiful house. What is it your family does?”
How like Calida to get right to the matter at hand. Before Kate could throw out a reproached, Jackson was answering her.
“Well, if I have my history correct, I believe the earliest Fischer’s were with the railroad industry.” He grinned openly. “But other than that, in the last fifty years or so the family has, er, rather diversified our interests.”
Calida cocked her head. “Meaning what, exactly?”
To his credit, Jackson didn’t look unnerved by her tone. “Meaning…”
“Jackson teaches English at the high school,” Kate cut in, her voice loud and deviant. Her eyes sparkled from a suddenly hot face, her very stance—arms crossed and chin raised— practically begged her mother to mock his profession, to make comment. “And he’s absolutely brilliant at it. The kids love him.”
Jackson shot Kate a quick wink.
“Oh.” Calida smiled. “How…noble of you.” The exaggeration of her pause, the stress she placed on that one word made the hairs on Kate’s neck stand at end.
She let out a huff of breath. “I should certainly say so, mother.”
Calida made a dismissive motion, “Oh don’t be so sensitive Kate, I was merely complimenting the man.” With her hands clasped behind her back, she shifted, her eyes taken with some glass ornaments placed inside a crystal bowl on the mantelpiece. Gone now was the picture of Emily that used to rest so lovingly on its rough-hewn wood. “After all, much like some must invent while others assemble, so too must one educate so another can achieve greatness…” She touched one of the glass-blown bulbs.
Turning helplessly to Jackson, Kate raised her arms impotently. “I am so sorry,” she mouthed. She could actually feel the blood drain form her face. Rude didn’t even begin to cover it…
But Jackson only shrugged, not looking the least put out by Calida’s words.
“I’ve always thought that knowledge is the best kind of power,” he said in quiet agreement.
Kate wanted to throw something. Preferably her mother, right out the door!
It wasn’t until sometime later, after Calida had swallowed her second cup of coffee that, placing the empty cup back on its saucer, she asked politely where she might find the washroom—and Kate found herself alone with Jackson for the first time. Finally.
Waiting until Calida was safely out of earshot, Kate threw Jackson a tremulous look. “Jackson. I don’t even know what to say. I’m so sorry. Really—”
“Nah,” he said, waving her words aside. “Don’t worry about it.”
“It’s just, I know she can be, ah, tough sometimes, and I’m sorry that I just thrust her on you like that….” Maybe bringing her mother over hadn’t been such a good idea after all. Calida was always going to be Calida.
Jackson moved closer to her. “Hey,” he said. “Stop apologizing. It’s okay, Kate.”
But she couldn’t seem to stop: “But surprising you this way? I mean, what was I thinking? She is not an easy woman and I should know. Only I wanted to—” the rest of Kate’s flustered words were cut short when Jackson’s head bent, his lips silencing hers in a hard kiss.
It was both unexpected and exactly what she needed.
But all too quickly, it was over and Jackson was lifting his head to stare down at her. His eyes were tender, the pads of his thumbs coming to brush away the hair at the sides of her face. “I love you, Kathryn.”
She smiled gloriously. “Yeah. I know.”
Jacksons looked momentarily thrown. “You do?”
She nodded impishly.
He grinned then, one eyebrow raised devilishly. “Confident, weren’t you?”
“For the last forty minutes, you’ve not only put with my mother and her rudeness and her sundry inquisitions,” Kate informed him, “but you’ve also been kind to her.”
Kate smiled. “And, I figured, there could only be one explanation for that.”
“Gave myself away, huh,” he teased, rocking her gently from side to side within the circle of his arms.
Kate wrinkled her nose. “Big time.”
Jackson’s smile disappeared, and his voice, when he spoke next was somber, solemn. “Thank you,” he said, and at Kate’s quizzical look: “For bringing her here. To see me.”
“Thank you for opening the door.”
“For you? Always.”
“I’m all in, Jackson” she told assured him earnestly. “I need you to know that.”
Jackson nodded toward the hallway. “After this, how could I think anything else?”
Kate followed his line of sight. Her lips twisted. “Now perhaps you can appreciate why I ran away from home.”
“Oh, yeah. Big time.”
Penny was so mad she could have spit. Yanking hard on the door of the LitLiber, she crossed quickly inside the bookstore. It had taken two minutes of sitting on her cold office floor, tears flowing easily tracks down her cheeks, before it all started to make sense.
Her conversation with Jake, circling through her consciousness, snatches of his angry words splicing at random across her memories:
“Because I was surprised to not see you…this morning. My bed. You were supposed to be there when I woke up.” Jake had been so angry, so upset. And with a snap, it pulled itself into place.
He’d wanted her there. In his bed, when he woke up.
She could still see his face, twisted, distorted in fury. “Am I to take it that last night is to be forgotten? Never spoken of again?”
His scorn and derision were nothing but a mask to hide the truth.
… “I’m done pretending.”
“To be your friend.”
Over and over, the past two months washed over her, pricking and poking at her:
Jake taking her to the concert.
The fact that he’d hidden knowledge of Kate and Jackson’s relationship; he’d continued on with the ruse even though he’d known it was pointless. He’ done that to be with Penny. There was no other reason.
“Well, from where I’m sitting, the view across the way doesn’t look too bad.”
“Brunettes….. I like brunettes.”
“—someone who’ll wait up for me when I ask, who’ll climb out windows for me without a second thought…”
“Oh my God,” Penny had cried out weakly, her head snapping upright as the thunderbolt flashed across her startled mind. “Jake has feelings for me.” Tasting the words on her lips, for a moment, Penny had smiled in dawning realization, her body curling into itself, savoring the statement as it hung in the air, her body warm, safe—
And in the next, she was swearing. “That goddamn—and he had the nerve to call me a coward!” Scrambling unsteadily to her feet, Penny’s eyes had narrowed in a pale face. “Well, we’ll see who’s cowering now.” Straightening her skirt, she’d turned toward her door. Stopping only long enough to lock up, and stick a sign on the front saying that she’d gone to lunch, Penny’s feet had taken her quickly, clipping hurriedly up the block, until she’d reached LitLiber.
Now, striding across the moderately busy store, she only just kept her lips from snarling at the passersby, only just kept her arms from pushing the oblivious customers out of her way as she blazed a trail toward his office door. Once she reached it, Penny allowed herself only enough time to anticipate the look on his face before she stormed in, throwing the door open with a bang.
Jake was bent over his desk, busily writing something down when her shadow fell across the hardwood floor, when his office door crashed angrily against the wall. Looking up sharply, the frown marring his forehead at this extravagant entrance disappeared immediately at the sight of her standing before him.
For a moment, he seemed too shocked to react at all.
At last, he seemed to find his voice. “Penny?” Rising quickly to his feet, his body held defensively, guardedly, he watched her advance into the cramped space.
“Surprised to see me?” She mocked him.
Jake didn’t comment.
Reaching the opposite side of his desk now, Penny leaned across it until her finger, the one she had pointing at him, jabbed into his chest. “You—you…” Her lips twitched, curling. She took a deep breath.
Jake, on the other hand, looked almost bored. “I, what?”
Penny’s mouth thinned. “You want me!”
Jake’s eyes widened. He hadn’t been expecting her to say that. Well good.
“Hah!” With a decided punch, she drilled her finger into his shoulder again. “You do! You want me. All this time—!”
But Jake only shook his head. He looked defeated. Tired suddenly. “What do you want, Penny?”
“I want some answers!”
“To what questions? You seem to have it all figured out.” His tone couldn’t be drier.
“So that’s it then?” Penny asked incredulously. “You’re just done. It’s over. Just like that?” She snapped her fingers. “There’s nothing left to discuss—”
“You weren’t even going to tell me, were you?”
He sighed. “Please don’t do this—”
“Why not? Don’t I deserve that much at least?”
“What do you want me to say?”
“You’re just going to walk away?” Penny pleaded.
Jake raised his hands, furious now. “How could I walk away? You left first.”
“That’s not fair!”
“No? Then you didn’t slip out of my apartment this morning?”
“I had to find you, Penny. And when I did, you had nothing to say.”
“You’re twisting things…”
“I needed time to think!”
“About what happened?”
“But I thought it didn’t mean anything to you?”
“When did I say that?”
Jake paused, nonplussed.
“Would I be here right now, fighting for you if it had meant nothing to me?”
Jake’s lips curved in quiet amusement. “Is that what you’re doing? Fighting for me?”
“Well duh!” Penny spat. There was no denying Jake’s smile now. “Which, by the way, is more than I can say for you!”
His eyes gleamed. “My savior.”
“Oh shove it, Farrow.”
His grin only widened.
“Don’t be cute. I’m not in the mood.”
He wiped the smirk off his face. “Okay. What do you want?”
“To make myself emphatically clear,” she said. “Because clearly you haven’t been paying close enough attention these last fifteen odd years.”
“I’m here to tell you—” She made a rough sound. “That I want you right back, you stupid idiot!” She pulled herself straight, her eyes narrowed on his face.
Jake whistled. “Took you long enough to admit it.”
Penny shot back. “Excuse me?”
Instead of answering her, Jake rounded the side of his desk. He took a predatory step closer to her. “Anything else?”
“Anything—? What?” Penny stuttered, at a loss.
“Anything else you’d like to make emphatically clear?” he asked innocently enough. He was almost beside her now.
“Good,” he said, reaching for her…
A week later, smiling across the table at Penny and Maggie, Kate reached for the bottle of newly opened wine. With precision, she poured out three glasses of Chardonnay. The smell of fried catfish wafted through the room, adding to the festive scene.
“Okay, Kate I can’t take it any longer,” Penny said, taking the proffered glass from Kate’s outstretched hand.
Penny waved around them. “Girl’s Night Dinner?” She looked at Maggie for support. “I mean, the suspense is killing me!”
M.T. nodded. “It usually means only one thing….”
“So?” Penny persisted. “What’s the occasion?”
Kate smiled. “Do you know what today is?”
Penny rolled her eyes. “Obviously not.”
“It’s my one year anniversary in Whestleigh.”
Penny sucked in a breath. She looked over at Maggie. Then back to Kate. “No way. It can’t be.”
“On this very day last year.” Kate said softly.
“No kidding.” Penny shook her head. “So much as happened. And yet, it doesn’t seem possible it’s been a whole year.”
“We’ve come a long way,” Kate agreed.
“Well. I think this calls for a toast,” Penny said, raising her glass. Maggie and Kate quickly followed suit.
“To new homes,” Kate called.
“Here, here,” Maggie murmured, clinking glasses.
“To friendship,” Penny added, her gaze taking in the three of them.
“And love,” Kate said, blushing.
“And the muddied waters we waded to find it,” Penny echoed. To think: Kate could have fallen for Jake. Penny might have succeeded in stealing Hank from Maggie. And everyone would have been the poorer.
“To finally putting ghosts to rest,” Maggie murmured, her finger going to massage the necklace hanging round her neck.
“In more ways than one,” Kate said, thinking of her mother. She and Calida would never be close, but at least they were speaking to one another. It was a start.
“Ah yes. Ghosts. My bread and butter,” Penny chimed in, making everyone laugh.
“To the next year and what it has in store for us,” Kate shouted.
Penny smiled, her gaze switching from Kate to Maggie. “Side-by-side-by-side.”
“Amen to that!”
And for a moment, Kate’s kitchen was infused in giggles before the women took their drink of wine.
“Oh, did I tell you,” Penny said then, setting her goblet down on the table. “About my client Madeleine?”
“Is she the one who wanted a reading done on her house plant?”
“That’s the one.” Penny looked at Maggie. “She swears it’s the reincarnate of her late sister.”
“What’d she want you to do this time?” Kate asked, getting up from the table to check on the fish.
“Oh, get this….