North of Happenstance: Chapter One

Kate McDonald looked up from the newspaper in her hand to the house in front of her; according to the rental ad, the two bedroom one bathroom residence, located at 257 Eveleth Ave, had a semi-furnished basement, a fireplace in the rustic, high-vaulted living room, and a modernized kitchen. She narrowed her eyes. The price was a steal. She’d paid more for her 750 square foot loft in Minneapolis.

Welcome to Whestleigh, Connecticut.

Rolling the newspaper up, and sticking it in her back pocket, she climbed the stairs to the front door. It was painted red. She might as well give it a look, despite vague doubts—just what exactly did they mean by ‘modernized’?

“Mrs. McDonald,” she heard as the door ahead of her swung open, revealing a middle aged woman with upswept blond hair.

“Ms. McDonald,” Kate corrected quickly, holding out her hand to greet the realtor, who she recognized from the advertisement’s accompanying picture.

“Pardon me. Ms. McDonald,” she said with a smile, her arm guiding Kate through the threshold and onto the split entryway landing.

Grey speckled rubber tile met her feet. It was far from appealing and the wood paneled walls screamed eighties chic, or something. Kate’s fears confirmed, the word modernization had been stretched to its furthest limit. To be sure, it wasn’t love at first sight.

Kate listened with half an ear as the woman prattled on. This, she was told, opened onto the mudroom, situated two steps up and to the right; from her vantage point, Kate saw it was composed of the same material design. Mentally, reclassifying it as the vestibule, Kate considered that given a couple rugs, some fresh paint and maybe a potted plant or two and the room would be almost charming.

Immediately to her left were stairs leading to the basement. A bare light bulb flickered ominously overhead. Kate wasn’t sure what compelled her but, swept by impulse, and perhaps already a little bored, she ditched propriety and, without waiting for invitation, made it her intention to check out that area first, her feet steering her downward even as she spoke. Accordingly, much to the chagrin of the realtor, whose name eluded Kate at the moment, this resolve could only be pronounced as off-script.

“It might be best to look through the upper levels first,” she called to Kate, her high-heeled footwear impeding her attempts to catch up. Indeed, Kate was already halfway through the first of the rooms hosted in the dank compartment by the time she huffed and puffed her way to down.

Kate took a deep breath. The cinderblock walls and green felt carpet hardly constituted as semi-finished in her mind. Narrow but long, the rooms were attached to one another like soldiers, lined up back-to-back in a stately fashion. It was only in the next of this succession that Kate managed to find some degree of relief.

A sauna, of sturdy pine, had been built into the walls. Beside it was a late model hot tub. Both needed a good scrubbing out but Kate figured she could work with that. Nothing was more comforting after a tough exam or hard day’s studying than muscle-relaxing heat. She had the best of both sources right here. And, the green carpet hadn’t extended this far, so that was a definite plus.

Scurrying past Kate, the harried realtor pressed on, despite interrupted attempts to properly show the house: “And here, through this back door, is the utility space, replete with a fully working washer and dryer…or so I’m told.” The last words came out haltingly as that woman turned into the room’s corner, her eyes ominously following the direction of her voice. Squeezing her own body into the small, cramped space Kate immediately saw the source of this sudden reticence.

She wasn’t sure how old the washer and dryer were but if the muted yellow color was anything to go by she felt sure they were a product of a bygone decade… or two.

“Well, as you know, machines from these generations were really, um, built to last,” the lady said then, slapping her hand solidly against the washer’s lid.

“Yeah, I guess they do say that,” Kate agreed awkwardly. What else could she say?

Nervously, the realtor sprang into action. Grabbing Kate’s wrist she more-or-less pushed her backward, forcibly retracing her steps. “Now, listen, before you make any quick judgments, you haven’t really seen any of the house yet. Let’s take a spin upstairs and check out what this place really has to offer.”

Kate didn’t have the heart to tell her no, plus she was too busy trying to keep up with her to offer up any protests. Those shoes may have been hell on the stairs two minutes ago but, dang, if that woman couldn’t sprint when she’d set her mind to it!

It was only upon reaching the mudroom—no, vestibule—that Kate was allowed even the smallest respite to catch her breath, but only because the realtor had come to a halt, stopping to rifle through a briefcase, which Kate, up until that moment, hadn’t noticed she’d been lugging along with her.

“Aha,” that woman said triumphantly then, pulling out a brochure from within its faux leather depths. “Shall we start?” she asked while simultaneously shoving the glossy pamphlet in Kate’s hand. It didn’t appear there was any other option.

“Sure, why not,” she said with a shrug. How much worse could the building get?

 

 

Two hours later, sitting in a nearby coffee shop—she couldn’t remember its name, something kitschy like Bean Tamptations or something—Kate wasn’t entirely convinced she hadn’t just made a year-long mistake. The beginnings of a headache beat at the edges of her temples. It was done, the decision made official, the contract binding… The pressure against her sinuses grew at the thought. It probably didn’t help any that she was sitting in a room crowded with strangers, anonymous conversations floating overhead. Still her decision to stop at the local cafe had been deliberate. She was suddenly desirous to get better acquainted with the town, and the people within it. She’d thought the public place might help calm her nerves (though on second thought, caffeine may not have been a wise choice). After all, she would soon live here too.

She’d signed the lease agreement. She was the tenant. For another twelve months, give or take.

Certainly, the rest of her tour with the realtor, whose name she later learned was Cathy, proved as underwhelming as the basement. Admittedly, the kitchen was large, with solid oak cupboards bordering three-fourths of the walls but unfortunately they were also painted a soft peach color and offset by red tiled countertops. Still, the pine-covered flooring was open, and the bay window, tucked in an alcove where Kate pictured a dining room table would sit, brought in a lot of natural light. Of course, it also brought in an imposing view of the neighbor’s lawn and possible goings-on, but one couldn’t have everything.

The living room was moderately sized. Windows lined the south side of walls painted olive green, a byproduct of the previous tenants. Very drab. Cathy assured Kate she could repaint anything she wanted. The bathroom was old, with originally laid hexagonal tiles and a claw-foot bathtub (which, ok, was actually pretty awesome). The upstairs was boring, nothing but a long hallway with four doors on either side, all beside one, which turned out to be a linen closet, leading to identically arranged bedrooms: four walls and a couple square windows.

So the house wasn’t anything to write home about. Especially not to Kate’s family home, but she’d figured it was good enough. For now anyway. Besides she needed a place. The hotel she’d been staying at the past couple of days smelt kind of moldy and the elevator made an unnerving squeal every time it charted her up or down from her third story room. Classes started next week and she didn’t want any distractions or unknowns. It had been five years since she’d last seen the light of a classroom. She was twitchy with her nervousness. She needed a place to call home, a place of consistency. Even if it was only temporary.

Pocketing her keys, Kate nodded her head decisively. The house on Eveleth Ave it was.

“Too much of that and you’ll give yourself a headache.” Kate’s head snapped back at the unexpected, and unsolicited, advice coming so close to her left ear. Looking up, she encountered a pair of striking blue eyes staring back down at her. Above them, sitting high on the stranger’s head was a beehive of dark curls, the monotony of which was broken only by the addition of a bejeweled head scarf, wrapped in the form of a bow. The owner of these features appeared to be near Kate’s age, perhaps a little older—maybe early thirties?

“Huh?”

A festively painted fingernail tapped a rhythmic tattoo against the papers clutched in Kate’s hand. “You’re staring pretty hard. It’ll give you a headache. Or worse, wrinkles. What is it anyway?” Kate felt those eyes peering heavily over her shoulder, “a rental lease?”

Carefully placing the stapled contract back down on the table—face first, Kate answered this more-or-less rhetorical question. “Yup.”  She hoped her show of brevity would convince this newcomer it was a private, personal matter.

“You’re new in town, right?” To Kate it sounded like another statement. “I hope you don’t mind, but curiosity is my profession,” the person continued, pulling out the chair opposite Kate and taking a seat. “This spot isn’t taken?”

“Uh no, go ahead,” Kate reassured. It was probably too late to say anything else anyway.

“I’m Madame Penny, the town psychic,” the woman said at last, holding out a hand expectantly. Kate shook it.

“I’m Kate McDonald.”

“Yes, I know.” At this frankly curious look, Madame Penny went on, “No, no, I didn’t channel my intuitive senses. Nah. I’ve noticed you around town the last couple of days—it’s not very often leggy blondes with ridiculously clear skin come into town, especially when they’re housing enough baggage to outfit an entire orphanage—do those things even still exist? Nevermind. What was I saying? Oh yes, your name. Well, I saw you in here today,” she said, waving her hand around the coffee shop, “so I asked Jenny and she told me.”

“Who’s Jenny?” Kate asked.

“The barista,” Penny said.

“How’d she know my name?” Kate asked.

“It’s on your credit card,” Penny told her a touch impatiently now.

Kate nodded her head, all the while making a mental note to pay with cash from now on. She’d never lived in a small town before now and Whestleigh, Connecticut seemed a far cry from the city. The town’s population sign claimed that 9,000 people lived there. Kate was starting to have some serious reservations about that math though.

“So you’re a psychic?” Kate asked, latching on to that piece of information belatedly. She hoped it sounded conversational. She’d never met someone of that profession, at least, not someone so vocal about it. Besides, she didn’t have any other talking points ready at hand. She hadn’t counted on actually meeting any of the townsfolk yet.

Madame Penny waved away the question as if it were a gnat to be shooed by the flick of her wrist “Why Whestleigh?” she asked instead, leaning her elbows against the table, her head propped up against her open palms.

“What?”

Penny made a face. “You’ll have to excuse me, it’s just, no one moves to Whestleigh. It’s a small town damn near in the middle of nowhere. Besides Bailey’s Park there’s little here to draw visitors and even then it’s just for a Sunday afternoon picnic. This town is made up of lifers, those who never saw the chance to escape and have since resigned themselves to its ghostly appearance. You aren’t one of them, which begs the question: why move here?” she asked, pointing one of those catlike nails at Kate’s face. “What gives?” Leaning forward as far as the table top would allow, she pitched her ears eagerly in the direction of Kate’s mouth, determined not to miss a word of this.

Kate let her chair scoot back a little, trying to be unobtrusive. Madame Penny had gotten awfully close all of a sudden.         “I moved here for college.”

Madame Penny shook her head bemusedly, unused to hearing those words, that particular explanation. “What, you mean that little bitty school the next town over, in Hiltbolt? What’s that place called? Cordwyn College?”

“That’s the one,” Kate said drily, reaching for her cup of coffee.

“Humph,” the older woman said, “I’m not buying it. What’s the real story?” Grabbing Kate’s wrist, she effectively forestalled the intended action of bringing cup to mouth.

“Huh?” Kate asked, tugging her arm free. She wasn’t sure if this Madame Penny was annoying or if her overly-invasive conversational tactics were refreshing. It was, after all, her first real dialogue in over two weeks. She supposed it was nice to talk to someone no matter the subject matter, which was probably why she hadn’t vacated her seat yet.

“No one moves here for that college. Hell, they don’t even market outside a thirty mile radius of the campus. The only people that go there are as follows: those that don’t have the money for a big name university, those that have SAT scores too low for one, or those that are preparing for their role as a town lifer. No offense,” she persisted, “but you, with your designer hand-bag, $500 dollar hair cut, and intellectual carriage are none of those things.”

Kate smiled, remaining stubbornly silent.

“So? What’s the real story?” Madame Penny asked again, doggedly determined to have her own way.

Kate pursed her lips. She had to admit that while she didn’t believe in psychics, Madame Penny possessed a heightened sense of perception. And a frank tongue. Kate shook her head; it wasn’t as if she hadn’t given herself the same lecture, asked the same questions a thousand times already in the past two weeks. And, in a way, Penny had kind of complimented her.

“Life is unpredictable,” Kate said simply.

When it became clear to Madame Penny that that was all Kate planned to say, she took it as her turn to speak again. “Don’t want to talk about it? Okay, that’s fine. Listen I won’t pressure you.”

Kate opened her mouth in thanks but before she could get a word out Madame Penny continued: “It just seems to me that everyone’s got to talk to someone and well, girl you look likely to explode if you don’t spill it, and soon.” She shrugged. “Since you don’t appear to have anyone in this town…”

Kate didn’t bother to answer her this time, which was for the best because Madame Penny wasn’t yet finished. “But as I said, no pressure. Besides I love a good mystery—just about as much as I love solving one,” she said meaningfully.

Because her business was in curiosity, Kate silently reminded herself.

“Honestly,” Kate said cutting her off this time, the aim of which was to shut her up. The tactic worked, but for how long Kate didn’t care to wager. “You’ve made this out to be something bigger than what it is. I think you’d be letdown by the truth now. There’s nothing of intrigue about it.”

Much as expected, Madame Penny’s lips had barely trembled to a close before starting up again, her expression perking up at this. “Does that mean you’re going to tell me?” she asked hopefully.

Kate sighed, the action blowing her bangs, which were cut in a heavy fringe across her narrow forehead, in complete disarray. She’d worry about that later. Right now she had a story to disclose. “I don’t see any way out of it.”

Madame Penny leaned even closer, if that were at all possible.

“You’re right, I’m not from here,” Kate began drily. “I was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota.”

“That explains your accent,” Madame Penny interjected before resuming her role of active listener.

Kate nodded absently. “And you weren’t all together wrong about my place at Cordwyn College either. I have an MBA—and yes, I did receive it from a prestigious university, as it seems you would’ve supposed.” Her voice softening, Kate couldn’t help but be transported back in time, if only momentarily. Her voice, when she continued, softened slightly with nostalgia. “I was only twenty-three years old then. After graduating, I accepted a position with an investment bank, a cushy ladder with which to climb by way of corporate speak. It was the life I always thought I wanted. I was even engaged to be married for a little while—”

“You were engaged to be married?” Madame Penny interrupted, exploding into speech. “Whoa, kind of buried the lead there, didn’t you?”

Kate felt her lips twitch. Like a bloodhound on the hunt, Madame Penny seemed bent on sniffing out the story, replete in all its faded glory. Well, if that were the case, she was doomed to disappointment. Kate hadn’t traveled near half-way across the country to revive the story of a life she left behind. “I guess. To me it’s all one-and-the-same—the past.”

Madame Penny accepted this statement with the bob of her head. “I see, but how’d you get from there here—to the present?”            she asked emphatically.

Kate laughed glibly. By aide of distance and hard-won perspective, with the advantage of a mental ‘no trespassing’ sign stamped on certain memories, she almost felt like an impassive narrator.  “How does anyone? Life happened. Things change, people change. You can’t control it, instead you find yourself just tagging along for the ride,” she added meaningfully. Smiling with an air of flippancy, she meant to leave it at that, before the rigid control she had over her emotional paralysis exhausted itself.

“The life we think we want is often mistaken for the life we are meant to live,” Madame Penny mused in consent to this, the meta-cognizant statement unknowingly pushing her companion nearer the limit of her restraint.

“Amen. You can’t dictate the realm of reality the way you can the imagination,” Kate thought out loud, sounding oddly relieved at the unexpected rally, “dreams are invariably disappointed, duped by illusions of…nonsense.”

But of what, Madame Penny wasn’t sure. The inference of those last words, loaded with significance, reinforced her intention to find this woman out. Patience, she told herself. It wasn’t going to happen today. She could see that by the stubborn set of Kate’s mouth, the lines of strain curving the edges of her lips. She’d shared enough.

Kate had come to the same conclusion herself; staring down at the table where her fingers were clenched tightly together, the maneuver a deliberate stall, she wondered if she hadn’t meant to confess that last bit vocally, least of all to this unsettling neighbor. “What happened is irrelevant,” she amended. “I just, I needed a fresh start.”

Madame Penny nodded, looking oddly wise for a woman in that getup. “You left it all behind,” she said.

“Yeah, I did,” Kate said, remembering the frantic movements that night which lead her to Phil’s home office, her hands filing through stacks of papers, scattering pens and sticky notes onto the floor in her rush, searching blindly through the darkened room for the tri-folded escape route. “I took out a map—an actual atlas, and ran my fingers across its length. When I looked down they were hovering over this city.” Kate shrugged, determined to keep it light. “So I packed up my bags, enrolled in the local college, this time for an art history degree, and found myself a new home. Here.” The ease with which she spoke now was not lost on Madame Penny.

Needing no further encouragement, the psychic’s heavily ringed hands reached out across the span of table between them to cover Kate’s balled-up fists. The action was protective, sheltering. “At some point, you’ll have to get it out. All of it,” she demanded, serious suddenly despite Kate’s best attempts otherwise. “The aura shadowing behind you—this clinging sensation of heartache and betrayal—it’ll consume you if kept locked up inside for too long,” she informed her, not bothering to mince her words. “Everyone’s got to talk to someone,” she repeated with resonance. “That’s how it gets better, whatever it is.”

And when you’re ready I’ll be here, she considered silently to herself, waiting to hear the rest of it.

“Dully noted,” Kate answered, the touch of Madame Penny’s hands, where they imprisoned her own, casted a peculiar impact on her. Instinctively, she wanted to recoil at the imposed vulnerability of that hold but, before she could do more than flinch in self-defense, her hand stilled. To pull away would be a dead giveaway. Her lips pulling up sardonically, she forced her hand to relax.

“But we’ll leave that for another day,” Madame Penny said, patting her hands once before relinquishing the hold.

Not wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth, Kate took the opportunity to push her empty cup to the edge of the table, scoot her chair back and make a move to stand up, signaling her intention to leave. “It was-a, really nice meeting you,” she told the physic then, holding her hand out demurely for it to be shaken. “I’ve got to run—school supplies, you know. Where do you suppose is the best place to purchase my textbooks?” she asked politely, by way of explanation.

If she’d hoped to dissuade Madame Penny and make a smart departure it was now her turn to be disappointed. Her face perking up at the words, Madame Penny eagerly nodded her head.  “LitLiber. It’s our local bookstore. I’ll show you the way; I have to stop there myself.”

Kate made a noncommittal sound in her throat as the other woman linked her arm through the crook of Kate’s elbow, effectively leading her out the door.

With a sigh of defeat, Kate matched her steps.

Carnival Lights: Chapter One

The office was slowly clearing out. Looking up briefly from her computer screen, Christina canvassed the bullpen. Most of the desks were empty by now. It was coming on five thirty and business hours had ended half an hour ago. The weekend loomed enticingly.

Beside her, she felt rather than heard her boss’s door open. Hardly bothering to glance that way, Christina’s fingers moved rhythmically over her keyboard. She just had one more document to import and then her Friday night awaited.

“Still here?” Her boss, Mr. Gordman asked conversationally as he came into view, a briefcase held loosely in his left hand.

“Almost finished.”

“Good.” He eyed her knowingly. “Don’t stay too late.”

Christina nodded absently. “I wouldn’t dare.”

“I mean it.”

She sighed theatrically, flicking her eyes up to his. “I know.”

He grimaced. “Don’t make me nag you.”

“It’s not very often that bosses reprimand employees for working too hard.” Christina’s drawl was deliberate.

He chuckled, his briefcase swaying absently in his grip. “I’ll see you Sunday?” It wasn’t a question.

Christina hunched up her shoulders. “About that—I’m not sure…” she stalled. Just thinking about Sunday was enough to make her drop her eyes.

He sighed. It had a weary sound. “Don’t make me sic Mary on you.”

“Don’t even.”

He smiled in a predatory fashion. “I’ll take that as a yes, then. Remember, lunch is at one o’clock. Don’t be late.”

She gave her computer a hard stare, but her stomach was doing that weird thing again. Her fingers hit the wrong keys. “You know I’m not even religious,” she grumbled.

“Not that old argument again.”

“It’s kind of a crucial component…”

“We don’t plan to baptize you.”

Christina’s eyes narrowed.

“It’s just lunch.”

“On Easter.”

Mr. Gordman pursed his lips. “I can only assume you’re fighting me on this because you’ll be heading home for the holiday this year?”
Christina made a sound in her throat.

“I thought not.”

“I don’t want to impose.” That wasn’t quite true….

“I don’t have time for this,” Mr. Gordman assured her. “I’ll just tell Mary to give you a call this evening. You can convince her that you’re an imposition. My sympathies when she hears you say that.”

At the second mention of this threat, Christina laughingly shook her head. “Okay, okay,” she relented, as she’d known she would all along. She raised her hands. “I give! Lunch at one o’clock.”

“A sensible choice.”

Christina narrowed her eyes. “I didn’t know when I applied for this job it’d come equipped with a built-in family.”

But Mr. Gordman only laughed, shaking his head as he began walking toward the exit. “What can I say?” He called out over his shoulder, shooting her a mischievous smile. “I’m a generous employer.”

Christina didn’t say anything. Instead, she watched him walk out, her fingers unmoving on the keyboard now. Her thoughts spun furiously, mentally unpacking every scrap of clothing attire in her closet. Within seconds her bed was loaded with rubbish and not a scrap of fabric remained on her hangers.

At the mere thought of spending the afternoon at his home, she could feel her heart skidding in her chest, her breathing felt light. There was the finest of tremors in her hands. She balled them up.

“Calm down, Christina,” she scolded herself, forcing her mind back to work. “Don’t be a spaz. It’s one day. One afternoon. It’ll be fine.” Unfurling her fingers, she bent back over the computer screen, determinedly reminding herself that it would be fine.

“It’s not like he’s ever bothered to notice you before. Not in that way,” she hissed to herself and without quite noticing it, her eyes lifted, traveling toward the path her boss had just taken. “And it’s not like you care. It would be a terrible idea.”

And she knew all about terrible ideas.

 

 

 

But all the self pep-talks hadn’t helped. At approximately twelve-fifty Sunday afternoon, she brought her car to a quiet halt outside her bosses three story home. Hers was the only vehicle parked in the semi-circular drive.

Flipping down the visor to re-check her reflection in the small mirror attached there, Christina patted down her perfectly coiffed hair. Her lips were dusted a pale pink, and her eyes held just the slightest of smoky accents. Flawless. That’s how she looked.

“So act like it,” she reprimanded herself as she slowly alit from her vehicle. Reaching into the back seat, she grabbed for the covered pie-pan. “And for God’s sake, smile.”

But each step she took toward the double-door entrance proved a challenge. Her stomach clenched, her knees shook—and she was breathing far too quickly. These sensations were far from unfamiliar. They assaulted her every time she advanced toward those stately doors. She should have been used to it by now. No matter how many times she told herself it was due to a feeling of dread she knew that was lie—it was pure, unadulterated anticipation.

Without thinking, she turned her head back toward the driveway. Her car remained the sole occupant on the cobbled pavement.

Gaining the front at last, she wasn’t even allowed to ring the doorbell before the door was flung open, Mr. Gordman already waving her inside.

“Ah. Right on time,” he announced warmly.

“When have I been anything else, Mr. Gordman?” She teased him, but her eyes wouldn’t quite meet his.

“Hey.” He frowned. “How many times have I told you? Around here, it’s Matthew.”

She rolled her eyes. “Right.”

“House rules. Only first names are allowed.”

Christina smiled slightly and, still cradling the covered dish, nodded toward the kitchen. “Mary in there?”

He made an exaggerated face. “Where else?”

“I’ll go see if she needs anything.” And with that, Christina turned smartly to the left, her feet taking her through the large dining room and into the kitchen. The back wall was floor-to-ceiling windows, and as it always seemed to do, sunlight shone brilliant through the paneled glass. And there, standing at the kitchen sink, her peppered hair slightly askew, an apron tied anyhow around her waist, stood Mary.

“You’re here!” The older woman exclaimed, turning at the sound of Christina’s entrance. Rounding the island, she rushed toward the younger woman. In one seamless move, she snatched the pie out of her hands and grabbed her for a big hug.

Laughing softly, Christina let herself be embraced.

“My God, I think you’re even thinner than last time,” Mary exclaimed, letting her go.

“Measuring me again?”

“You’re taking all the leftovers home. I can’t have you wasting away on me,” Mary tut-tutted.

Christine only shook her head. “Unlikely.”

“Matt would be lost without you.”

Christina smirked. “One that point, I’ll agree with you.”

Laughing, Mary turned back to her oven. “I hope you’re hungry. I’ve gone all out today. Of course, Matthew bought the wrong style of gravy for my famous…”

But Christina wasn’t listening. Her ears pinned to any outside sounds, she tried to calm her nerves. If her stomach bound itself any tighter she wouldn’t be able to eat. And then Mary would probably start force-feeding her.

But there was no crunch of tires on the gravel driveway. There was no accompanying shrill of the doorbell. (You idiot, she scolded herself on the thought, of course the doorbell wouldn’t go off. He isn’t a damned guest…) Smoothing her wet palms down the side of her black wool skirt, she fought for composure. Her mouth felt dry. Her palms sticky. And her breath shallow.

God, would this never end? How many dinners had she shared with this family? Far too many. And still, she acted like it was the first time—

“….but I think I can make do—hey,” the sound of a palm slapping against the counter brought Christina’s eyes up. “Are you even listening to me?”

“Huh?”
“You’re just as bad as the boys,” Mary grumbled, shaking her head. “Here I am, having a great conversation, only to realize that I’m having it with myself.”

“Sorry Mary,” Christina confessed with a lopsided grin.

“Well. At least I keep myself entertained,” Mary huffed, but the smile she shot at Christina let the younger woman know she wasn’t upset.

“Can I help with anything?” Christina asked belatedly, taking in the copious bowls and spoons, pots and whatnot.

“Well, as to that…” Mary canvassed the kitchen, as well. Her eyes lit up when they landed on a glass dish. “Would you set up the relish tray, my dear?”
Christina laughed. It had a rich sound. “You know Mar,” she insisted, opening the fridge to pull out the pickles and olives. “I can actually cook.”

“And who said you couldn’t?”

“In all the years I’ve worked for Matthew, this is the only thing you’ve ever let me touch.”

Mary grimaced. “I’m not very good at relinquishing control of my kitchen.”

“Right.”

“I’m not.”

“Admit it, you don’t think I can boil water,” Christina teased with a mock show of sorrow. “I get it.”

Mary banged the side of her spoon against the counter. “That’s not true.”

Christina wailed pathetically. “Don’t bother denying it.” She wagged a finger at Mary. “I’ll bet you’re terrified to try some of my pie.”

Mary pulled up her chin. “Am not.”

“Are too.”

Mary shook her head. “I am not.”

“No?” Christina looked over at the dessert in question. “Are you sure?”

Mary smiled devilishly. “Of course I’m sure.” She turned back toward the stove. “I love Carmen’s bakery.”

Christina’s smile fell. “How did you know?” Her eyes flicked to the pie. She’d even taken the time to transfer it to the metal pan she’d bought at a rummage sale a few years back—just to give a look of authenticity.

Mary winked. “The nose knows.”

“But let’s get serious—were sensory glands even necessary? I’ve seen the girl try to make a PB&J sandwich before…the bread looked like it’d been savaged!”

Christina stilled, her hands gripping the pickle jar too tightly as soft male laughter followed this question.

“Jason!” Turning sharply, Mary eyed her son, who was standing just inside the kitchen.

Christina felt him step into the room. Her back toward him, she was glad for the moment’s reprieve.

“Hey mom,” he said warmly, his arms already opening as Mary moved out from behind the stove to hug him. He coughed as her arms squeezed around his back. “A little tighter,” he teased. “I can still breathe.”

“Oh.” She took a step back, letting her arms fall at her sides. A large smile melted her features. “Sorry.”

“Coupe of cracked ribs,” he assured her with a wink. “Don’t worry about it.”

Christina could hardly hold the thread of conversation. Letting her eyes quickly roam over the white veins intersected throughout the countertop, she tried to focus her breathing, to clear her thoughts.

She could feel a muscle in her jaw spasm.

Jason.

He was here.

Her face felt hot. Uncomfortably hot. Her fingers itched to press against her cheeks, cool them. Oh God—was she turning red? Taking a half-step backward, Christina was overcome with the need to check her reflection in the mirror.

Mary swatted at Jason’s wrist. “And don’t go teasing Christina.”

And the mention of her name, Christina knew his eyes were on her. Turning slowly (what else could she do?) Christina leveled him an even glance.

“Hey Chrissy,” Jason offered easily. His right arm he kept slung over his mother’s shoulder. “Kill any slices of bread lately?”

“Jason,” she acknowledged. Her voice felt flat. Flicking a strand of hair behind her shoulder, she frowned. “And it’s Christina,” she reminded him for what must have been the twentieth time.

He smiled, showing large white teeth. “Right. Sorry.” He didn’t look the least repentant.

“And the jelly was cold. It wasn’t my fault it pulled the bread apart,” she insisted.

“Of course not,” he soothed.

“Oh shut up,” she threw at him.

“Bickering all ready?” Mr. Gordman, coming into the kitchen, sent his wife a knowing look. “Is that a record?”

Mary grinned. “It’s got to be.”

“I’m not bickering,” Christina insisted. “He is.”

“You’re face is getting a bit red there, Chrissy.”

“It’s Christina,” she told him forcibly. “And if it’s red—” dammit why did it have to be red?—“it’s only because you’re so infuriating.”

“Easy Christina,” he enunciated carefully. “Or I might think you’re being serious.”

“That’ll be the day.” Pushing herself off the island, Christina turned pointedly toward Mary. “If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to, ah—” faulting, she felt the room’s eyes on her. Her blush worsened. “Bathroom,” she fumbled. Ducking her head, without another word she stalked away.

“Pull yourself together, you raving idiot,” she muttered to herself once she was safely locked inside the downstairs powder room. She took a peek at her face. Damn him. It was red. Patting her hands against the flushed skin, she tried to cool it down. “Just be cool,” she hissed. “Act nonchalant.”

That was easier said than done of course.

Because she didn’t like Jason Gordman.

No, the stupid fool, Christina was in love with him.