North of Happenstance: Chapter Two

Kate wondered if she didn’t need her head examined. She and that Madame Penny woman had barely stepped inside the LitLiber when Kate was informed that the book the psychic needed was something called: Spiritual Cleansing: Intuit Invocations, Smudging, and Clearing.

In other words, Penny explained, the book focused on purifying dwellings of any leftover, lingering spirits and energy. While she had never personally performed a cleansing herself, she felt more than up to the task. Plus, the recent popularity in its practices had convinced her of its necessary inclusion in her professional services. All she needed now was to practice and well, since Kate had just moved to town, it seemed only natural that she be her first client—pro bono of course.

Before Kate had time to come up with even one reason why she didn’t need her house cleared of spirits or sources of energy (whatever all that meant), Madame Penny had already pinned her down to an eight o’clock session that very night, complete with her written down address and phone number, in case something held her up; she did, after all, have to run and grab the necessary supplies to accomplish the job. Kate just hoped those supplies wouldn’t stain anything.

Standing there, stunned, next to a newsletter advertising a New Age lifestyle, Kate had barely felt Madame Penny’s hand patting her softly on the shoulder, or her expressed delight at the prospect. She’d nodded her head passively when instructed to keep her possessions in their moving boxes just a little while longer—it helped to keep the house as unfurnished as possible, for de-cluttering and contamination purposes. Contamination? Kate had opened her mouth to question the use of that word but she’d been too late. Madame Penny had already left, turning on her heel and scurrying down the aisle, her point of direction ominously final: the check-out counter. She’d called over her shoulder a short goodbye, adding that she didn’t have time to waste if she was going to get to the natural food store before they closed. She’d see her soon!

Kate had felt so bemused after the interaction she’d completely forgotten to buy her school books. She’s simply gone home. Madame Penny had given her veritable grocery list of items to accomplish before her arrival.

She’d try again tomorrow. This time, however, she’d be going alone.

 

Stretching out against the steps leading to the upstairs, Kate glanced down at her wristwatch; Madame Penny was officially five minutes late. The curved wood was hardly ideal for reclining, hardly ideal as a stoop for waiting, but Kate was limited in options. If she un-loaded her lounger Madame Penny would undoubtedly have a fit or worse, order its presence be removed/covered/or whatever. Not that Kate necessarily believed in spiritual cleansings, but she also didn’t want to appear rude. Besides, Madame Penny’s insistence upon this experiment hadn’t been all for naught. It had forced Kate to scrub the place properly, from top to bottom. It had been one of Madame Penny’s stipulations about the evening’s proceeding events. Apparently, it was damn near impossible to execute a proper purification if the house was swamped in dust and must.

Wiping a forearm across her brow tiredly, Kate considered that at least she hadn’t wasted the afternoon. If nothing else, she probably owed Madame Penny a ‘thank you’. She was one big step closer to moving in completely; all that was left was unpacking, furnishing and decorating and that wouldn’t take long. She hadn’t brought all that much with her, there hadn’t been time.  Then she’d be able to focus her attention entirely on her studies.

With a start, Kate heard the doorbell chime. Rising to her feet, she had half a mind to pretend she wasn’t home, or that she’d fallen asleep, or perhaps that Madame Penny had the wrong house…. Entertaining the notion was one thing, but follow-through was another altogether. Kate found her feet leading the way to the front entryway posthaste.

The sight which met her eyes next, upon opening the ornate wooden door, left Kate’s confidence about this little operation at an all time low. Madame Penny had changed into something she could only assume was a muumuu—Kate had never actually seen one up close before but if the billowing tent-esque shape of the multi-flowered print thing encircling her body was anything to go by…. Her hair was in much the same shape as earlier, only she’d swapped scarves, the newest version a deep set purple with gold pattern swirls zigzagging across its width. An overstuffed tote was thrown over one shoulder, the edge of a green glass bottle poking through the top. The word ‘elixir’ came to mind at the nondescript, sciency sight. Kate nonetheless waved her inside.

“What’s all this?” she asked skeptically as the other woman trudged through the vestibule and into the kitchen. Heaving the bag onto the portable island that had come with the place, she began busily emptying it of its contents. The green bottle was placed on either side of a small wooden serving bowl and a glass jar, popped shut with a cork stopper; next came a transparent bag containing what appeared to be potpourri and a small capsule holding some form of liquid inside its opaque depths. Madame Penny quickly lined them up accordingly on the counter space before retrieving her newly bought book from the same bag and laying it out, one particular page specially dog-marked. Settling it center stage, it was only then that Madame Penny seemed to hear Kate’s question.

“I told you I’d need a certain amount of supplies in order to complete the ceremony, didn’t I?” she asked, turning in Kate’s direction. She gestured a touch impatiently toward the stuff behind her.

“I guess,” Kate agreed, mentally cringing at the thought of what this house cleansing would entail. She should have put her foot down at the first mention of this little charade, but it was too late now. It would be unheard of to cancel; it was clear Madame Penny had gone through a lot of work to bring this thing to fruition. Not to mention, it would be hard to pull off the “I’m sick, let’s reschedule” shtick when she was already here, two feet in front of her.

“Now, first I’m going to open all the windows in the house,” Madame Penny said, and wasting no time in this effort, she reached over to crack the seal on one sitting directly above the kitchen sink. “It helps to give the spirits an easy portal to pass through on their way out—except for doors. We don’t want them to leave through the doors because sometimes they can get stuck there. Keep those suckers shut.”

Kate nodded her head dumbly but, at Madame Penny’s speaking look, she moved obligingly through the rest of the house, opening windows as she went. Soon enough each pane was cast ajar, and Kate’s arms had goose bumps running their length. It was a windy night.

Then Penny went hunting. Apparently, energy had a knack for hanging out around studs and drywall because the first thing she did was place her hands up against the walls—especially the archways—to feel for any unbalanced energy there, or at least that’s what she claimed when Kate asked.

Kate’s initial fear that a sledgehammer would be required in the event of any evacuation was shortly put to rest. It seemed a simple chant would do.

“AHH OHH AYE! Spirits listen to my call. Cast out what once was here, yes listen to my call,” Madame Penny sang out, as she walked the length of the kitchen. Biting down hard, Kate could barely contain the laughter drumming against her throat. It was all just a little too much. She had to applaud Madame Penny, though; she didn’t seem the slightest bit embarrassed by her part in this bizarre and frankly ludicrous act. “AHH OHH AYE, AHH OHH AYE,” she continued unabashed, “Spirits one and all: embrace the future, leave go the past, yes spirits one and all.” Exiting the kitchen she made for the bathroom. The chant consisted of multiple verses but Kate, deciding not to follow her around the house, and, as such, declining to eavesdrop on this section of the performance, wasn’t within earshot to hear the rest, excepting for small bits caught here and there as Penny made her rounds. Kate figured the less she knew about this whole process the better anyway.  Honestly, Madame Penny was the only thing that looked possessed, shuffling around the interior of the house, her palms never leaving the plaster casing.

 

“All right, I think we are finally ready,” Madame Penny announced minutes later, having appeared from the basement, apparently satisfied with the health and well-being of the primary walls.

“There’s more?” Kate asked incredulously.

“We’ve barely begun sugar,” Madame Penny told her. Holding out her hand, she beaconed Kate stand beside her, back at the kitchen island where it had all begun. Kate did as she was bidden, curiosity piquing when Penny reached for the green bottle and the wooden bowl.

“I’m going to recite a little invocation to help heal the house of any negativity. But don’t worry, I didn’t encounter anything of much concern as I canvassed the place just now,” she assured her.

Kate nodded her head. What else could she do? This was so far out of her element that even if she’d recorded tonight’s proceedings, she rather doubted anyone from her old life would believe she’d partook in all of this.

“Spirits of a higher and lighter love, I beseech thee: let the joining of the Universe’s elements cleanse this house and bestow upon it the sanctity of peace,” Madame Penny began, her voice low but strong. “Blessed oil,” she announced, pausing momentarily to put the words to deed, pouring this so-called substance from the green bottle and into the bowl. Then she continued, “Purest water; dried flower pedals; and kosher salt,” and again and again, Penny punctuated the words by dribbling, sprinkling, and pinching each of the named ingredients from their respective containers and into the bowl until all were combined. Reaching for a spoon, she mixed them together.

“Be with us now!” she invited, while systematically tossing a portion of this homemade remedy in a circle around the two of them. Then she bowed her head and, by default, Kate followed suit. Madame Penny may have a few screws loose, but Kate was brought up to respect the beliefs of those around her.

Seconds ticked by in this fashion, the only sound a soft humming coming from between Penny’s lips. With a flick of her eyes, Kate looked over at the psychic, unsure what was happening now. Penny’s eyes were closed, her mouth pulled slightly downward, her body seemingly in a state of utter relaxation, despite her standing position.

Kate tried to emulate the other woman’s posture, her own eyes screwed shut and a sigh suspended upon her lips… but she found the humming rather distracting. She spent the rest of the time, which she recognized as quiet meditation, trying to put words to the music.

The hum stopped abruptly. Madame Penny lifted her head, her eyes open, the irises bright with color and excitement. The room was thrust in sudden silence and expectation.

“Wow,” Kate whispered then, awkwardly. The well-worn interjection was unfortunately the best she could come up with after that, um… well she didn’t quite know what that was just now. Except. Except she was almost envious of how Penny’s body had sprung back to life in the aftermath, just as though it had been in a trance of rejuvenation or something.

“We aren’t done yet,” Penny informed her captive assistant with a wink. “Join hands with me and we will command the spirits of yesteryear to depart.” Shifting her body to face Kate’s, Madame Penny reached for her, holding tight. “Are you ready?” she asked.

“Uh. Yes?”

“Spirits of a dark and unholy light, spirits of unknown origin and evilness and sin, spirits hosting an unwanted and unsought-for negativity, leave this house now and never return again!” With a flourish, Madame Penny raised her arms up high over her head, and, in consequence, so did Kate. They held this position for a number of seconds until, seemingly satisfied that these so-called being’s had listened, Madame Penny lowered her arms back to her side, breaking contact with Kate in the process.

Rubbing her palms against her jeans, Kate was surprised to note their slight dampness. “What happens next?” Kate whispered to Penny, who was busy retrieving candles and incense from her bag.

“Now we smoke ‘em out,” that woman said, setting a lit flame against the first of these articles, “just in case they didn’t get the message the first time I asked.” Turning away, she headed for the living room. Kate wasn’t sure but she thought she heard the beginnings of another chant echoing across the walls.

 

 

 

 

The room was shrouded in darkness, the blackness broken only by a smattering of light filtering through the bedroom window, the source coming from a streetlamp half a block down,  marking the entrance into Lorring Park. Beside Kate, Phil’s body moved rhythmically with his breathing, the sound deep and even. The sight and sounds were familiar. Deliberately squeezing her eyes shut, Kate hoped to fall back to sleep. Rolling onto her side, she considered that Phil was on the verge of snoring, the noise breaking out over his mouth slowly building in a crescendo, so if she expected to get any rest tonight she’d better not waste any time reaching a state of slumber. Once Phil got started there was no stopping the small orchestra of phlegm-infused instrumentals…

Phil. Phil. Phil.

Phil!

Jack-knifing into a seated position, Kate’s wild eyes landed on his sleeping form yet again, but this time with a panic and fear. His slenderness was most noticeable at night, without the added material of his suit and tie. His skin looked pale. He could never tan. Not even when they took that vacation down to Mexico last summer. He’d received only the mildest of sunburns after their trip.

What the hell was Phil doing there?! Kate’s eyes swiveled from left to right quickly. The only piece of distinction was her grandma’s bureau which currently resided against the wall beside her closet, a narrow cubbyhole she feared would hardly contain her summer wardrobe. Not that she knew this for certain yet. Her clothes were still hanging in their garment bags downstairs. She was at her new home, on Eveleth Street.

Somehow Phil had found her. He’d found her….Oh God!

 

 

 

 

The sound of Kate’s own voice screaming against the shadows woke her. Clumsily pushing the covers off, she pulled her body up against the headboard as the memory of her dream rushed against her consciousness. Telling herself she was being idiotic, Kate couldn’t help looking to her left, in what had once been Phil’s side of the bed. The space was empty, unslept-in, the pillow still freshly fluffed from her ministrations earlier that evening. Calling herself a fool, she felt her hands patting down the comforter over there, just to make sure nothing (or no one) was hiding underneath. Then, sadly, she stooped so low as to lifting the blanket over her head, still not entirely convinced. Only the sheets, still nicely tucked in, stared back at her.

Dropping her head backward, the base of which knocked against wrought iron bars, Kate let out a sigh. Then a giggle. It was just a dream. Just a stupid dream. It was probably the stress of the last couple of days. Stress gave her nightmares. Isn’t that what landed her in this town in the first place? The nightmares?

Guess Madame Penny’s cleansing hadn’t removed all the negativity; Kate’s former life was still haunting her.

 

 

Kate didn’t fall back to sleep after that. She finally gave up trying at four o’clock in the morning. It was only as she was rolling out of bed, with the intention of putting some coffee on that she remembered: she didn’t have a coffee maker anymore. She didn’t have any household appliances anymore. She was going to have to make a trip to a department store sooner rather than later, an activity she both greeted with excitement and nervousness. She’d never personally picked out so much as a saucepan before in her life.

In the end, Kate had to wait another two hours, when that coffee shop downtown opened, before she got her morning shot of caffeine. By then she was bedraggled and crabby. It was the first time in her life she’d ever left the house without showering, without doing her hair. It was the first time in her life she walked out in public wearing something as grungy as a sweatshirt with a pair of faded jeans, loafers strapped to her feet. And it was exhilarating. Still, the coffee shop, at an hour of day unlikely to receive much traffic, was one thing, the rest of her errands—namely the bookstore and a retail outlet—would have to wait until she’d properly dressed herself. She might actually run into someone there.

And actually, as it happened, Kate didn’t make it to either of those places that day. Nor the next for that matter. By the time she got home, the night’s sleep deprivation had subsided and, thanks to an overwhelmingly burnt cup of café au lait, the sensory cells connected to her nose had perked up accordingly. Unfortunately, with the reawakening of these receptors came a newfound realization:  Madame Penny’s little cleansing the night before had stunk up her house!

The rest of her afternoon was spent ridding it of the overwhelming smells: Frankincense and Patchouli—incense the psychic had burned throughout the place, claiming they possessed healing powers; Olive Oil and expired potpourri—ingredients from her invocation.

It took fans strategically placed at each of her three exterior doors, all propped open to allow for a breeze; bowls, filled to overflowing with expertly ground coffee, stationed between her living room and kitchen, where the walls had been most heavily doused with the ‘blessed’ elements; and baking soda, the amount of which should have prequalified Kate for a stake in the company, sprinkled just about everywhere else, before she succeeded in neutralizing the pungent odor.

Already sweaty and determined, the following two hours saw Kate attempting to put the house to rights, an admittedly limited activity because she’d had time to pack very lightly before she moved, taking with her only the bare essentials, and not even all of those. Her clothes were quickly hung up in the closets of both her bedroom and the guestroom. Gram’s bureau was painstakingly pushed into the hallway, its thick design overpowering anywhere else. Pushed up against the back wall she considered it was both decorative and functional. She could house her linens in there. Maybe she’d buy a plant to set on its surface. Looking around the dimly lit space she considered it’d have to be something that didn’t require a lot of natural sunlight.

Next she moved her recliner, a relic from her college apartment which Phil had refused to exhibit in their loft and she’d quietly stowed away in the basement of her parent’s lake home, to the living room with the sole addition of an end table. The sparse furnishings, if nothing else, gave the appearance of a rather minimalist style—plus, the space looked enormous that way. The only other item she had left was the china dish set her mother had given her as an engagement gift which, since she and Phil hadn’t set on display yet, deciding to wait until after their wedding vows, had been easy to grab on her way out. They were entirely too fancy for her current living arrangements, but they’d do for now.

On the second day, Kate barely managed to get out of bed at all. Mostly, she snuggled deep against the pillows and cried. Fear. She knew it was fear. Starting all over, from scratch, by herself was scary. Instead of fighting the sensation, as she’d done for the past two weeks, she welcomed its presence, giving into its demanding insistence.

Her childhood nanny, aptly referred to as Nanny Moore—or just Nanny—had told her never to hide from her feelings. It is okay to be happy when you feel happy, just as it is to be sad when you feel sad, she’d tell her, when a young Kate would burrow her head against the folds of her long skirts in unhappiness. It is foolish to ignore your feelings, and only the weak pretend to be something they are not. This had brought untold comfort to a small child. But, of course, she’d caution next, in rather the same breath, one cannot allow these feelings to linger for long—too much of anything is dangerous, my poppet. The strong are inspired by their existence, the weak are consumed. So, cry it out now my poppet, but don’t be sad tomorrow.

            Kate couldn’t stay in her bed forever and she knew it. So, on the following day, she made herself get up. She brushed her teeth, she hopped in the shower, and she applied make-up to her face. And, like Nanny Moore had always predicted, she felt better. Even if only a little bit, she still felt better. She would not enable fear to control her life.

School syllabus in hand, Kate made for the door. Today she would go to the LitLiber bookshop, she would smile at the strangers she came across along the way, knowing that they were her new neighbors, and possibly, maybe, hopefully someday, her new friends. She would welcome the sunlight streaming through the kitchen windows, and she would be ready to tackle the day for what it brought her: a fresh perspective. And if she felt a little scared, that was fine.

She would meet it head-on.

 

Carnival Lights: Chapter Two

Staring at her reflection in the oval mirror hanging above the sink in the Gordman’s downstairs powder room, Christina patted her cheeks with cold water. Her mind spun. She remembered the first time she’d met Jason. How long ago was that now? Three years ago? Yeah. Probably.

Christina had been new at work. It was been a Thursday evening—she remembered that well; despite her best intentions, she never lost that day from her week. Anyway, it had been a frantic week, which Christina had spent obtaining, organizing, and arranging sundry presentation packets for an important business meeting Mr. Gordman had that Friday morning. Christina had been on the verge of shutting down her computer and heading home when she’d seen them.

See, the thing was, this wasn’t just any business meeting. Mr. Gorman was on his way to Atlanta, Georgia for the meeting. The one he’d been planning the last two weeks around. The one which could chance the trajectory of his business forever if all went well … His flight was scheduled to take-off the following morning. But as Christina had stood up to grab her coat off the back of her chair, there they were.

The packets. Sitting on the edge of her desk. Mr. Gordman, in his rush to get home and packed and ready to go, had forgotten them. Groaning, she’d remembered holding them out to him as he’d prepared to take off that evening. He’d placed them on her desk to put on his gloves, simultaneously reminding her she didn’t need to come into the office the next day…

“You’ve more than made up the time,” he’d assured her nicely. “And I really appreciate all the hard work you’ve put into this thing.”

She’d mumbled some sort of thank you then, her face flushing darkly. Compliments had become hard to hear.

He’d patted his pockets, making sure his car keys were available. Then he’d sent her a wink. “Wish me luck,” he’d said, bending down to grab the briefcase he’d set down by his feet. “We really need this client.”

As if she hadn’t been fully aware of that fact.

“All the luck in the world,” Christina had offered, smiling softly when he’d turned to walk away.

“Shit!” she’d cried out at the memory, her eyes staring wearily at the packets. Turning to the employee list, she thumbed through the contacts until locating Mr. Gordman’s personal cell phone. Dialing quickly, she waited for three rings—

“Matthew.”

“Mat—Mr. Gordman,” she stammered. “The packets, sir. You left them here.”

“I did?” She heard the sound of frantic scrambling, no doubt as he looked through his briefcase. “Dammit—”

That one word had sent her eyebrows up to her hairline. She’d worked at the office for all of six weeks at this point, but never once had she heard him offer up so much up the mildest of cuss words.

Then, almost before she knew what she was saying, Christina offered: “I’m just about to leave. Would you like—I can bring them to you?”

There had been a long silence and then a heavy sigh. “No, Christina. I can’t ask you to do that.”

“You didn’t ask.”

“Still.” But his resolved had started to weaken. She heard it in his voice. Turning around would have set him back almost an hour. His flight left at five a.m. the following day.

“Well then I insist,” she told him. Besides, it hadn’t been like she’d had a lot going on that evening. Or any evening, for that matter. And she really needed the job. “Look, it’s no trouble and it hardly makes sense for you to come back here when I have to leave anyway…”

He sighed and then, finally, relented. “I, yes okay. Thank you Christina. That would be—are you sure you wouldn’t mind? I don’t want to keep you…”

“Not hardly,” she promised him. Grabbing a sheet of paper, she jotted down his address.

It had taken her less than fifteen minutes to find the place. Pulling her car up into his semi-circular driveway, her eyes grew wide in her face as she spied the impressive brick structure—replete with white trimming and a massively framed doorway. .

Getting out of the vehicle, the folders clutched nervously in her arms, she marched up to the front of the house and rang the doorbell without waste. She didn’t have long to wait before one of the two doors before her swung open.

But it hadn’t been Mr. Gordman at the threshold. Nor had it been Mary either (though at that time, she hadn’t known what Mary looked like yet.) It had been a strange man—tall and lean, with blonde streaked brown hair and large hazel eyes, heavily fringed with long lashes.   Early thirties she surmised in that instant analysis. Fit.

And then he’d smiled at her. And there had been something so familiar about him. Something that made her want to drop the papers in her hands and step into him—

“Ah…hello?” The greeting held just as much welcome as blatant amusement.

Christina’s face seemed to blink. She strangled the folders tighter to her person. Bracing herself against this ridiculous sensation, she brought her chin up a notch defensively. “Excuse me,” she offered politely. “I’m looking for a Mr. Gordman.”

His grin lengthened. It was slightly lopsided. She resented him that show of cuteness. “You found him.”

She narrowed her eyes. “I’m afraid not.”

He laughed—a real, genuine chuckle, which for some reason that only further put Christina on edge. She had the feeling he was laughing at her expense. Turning slightly, he raised his voice to the room behind him. “Dad? Dad, there’s someone here to see you.”

Christina heard the welcoming sound of approaching footsteps. When Mr. Gordman came into view, her smile broke forth.

“Christina!” His arms raised gratefully when his eyes caught sight of the packets in her arms. “You are my savior.”

Blushing, she quickly averted her gaze from the hazel eyes which seemed to be watching this exchange with that damnable amusement again. “It was nothing,” she muttered.

“It was everything,” Mr. Gordman insisted, taking the papers from her.

“Who’s at the door Matthew?” But the caller to this question hadn’t waited for a response. Within seconds Christina had found herself looking up into a pair of warm brown eyes. She knew, from the picture that sat on the edge of Mr. Gordman’s desk, who the woman was. His beloved wife.

“Oh. Hello,” Christina rushed to say, smiling nervously. She held out a small hand. “I’m Christina. I don’t believe we’ve met….”

“But I’ve heard about you,” Mary offered kindly, taking Christina’s hand. “Matthew raves about his new receptionist. The efficient Ms. DeLuca.”

Christina felt her blush, which had finally started to recede, rise again. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught the youngest Gordman looking at her again. His lips were pulled up sardonically and there was a look in his eyes—

She pretended to ignore it.

“What brings you…?” Mary’s words trailed off, her shrewd eyes zipping from Christina over to her husband, her expression mirroring the thoughts tunneling through her head; when her swift glance caught sight of the newfound folders clutched in his grip, however, a new look came over her face. “Matthew?” She nodded towards them knowingly. “What are those?”

There was a certainly quality to her question. It would was not to be dismissed.

He sighed. “Ah, paperwork for tomorrow’s meeting?” He asked her, as though he was testing out this excuse.

Mary made a sound in her throat. Her foot tapped rhythmically against the flooring. “Let me guess, you forgot them at work?”

He looked sheepish.

“And so you made her bring them out to you?

Mr. Gordman squirmed. He actually squirmed. Christina had to bite her lip to keep from smiling “Christina offered—”

She nodded quickly. “That’s true. I suggested it…”

“Matthew!” Mary swatted at his arm. “Don’t you have any consideration, at all? Do you even know what time it is?”

“Ah…” His eyes had flickered toward the large hall clock hanging overhead.

“I suppose your supper is ruined now, thanks to my thoughtless husband?” Mary asked, turning to look at Christina then.

“Ah no. No, no,” Christina assured her. “I hadn’t had anything planned anyway, so it didn’t matter…” Which, in retrospect, had been exactly what Mary had been hoping she’d say.

“Well then that settles it,” Mary informed her. “You’ll have dinner with us.”

Christina blanched. Her foot took a step backward almost before she knew it. Her gaze went shyly towards Mr. Gordman’s less-than-surprised countenance. “Thank you. But, ah, no. That’s, that’s not necessary.”

Mr. Gordman only shrugged, as though it was a lost cause to fight.

“It most certainly is,” Mary informed her staunchly. “In fact, it’s the very least we can do.” She shot her husband a dark look. “I mean, really Matthew? Asking her to come all this way?”

“She insisted!”

“I really did.”

“Then you’ll appreciate that I insist now. You’ll stay for dinner. I won’t take no for an answer. We have more than enough food.”

“You’ll be helping us out, I assure you.” This tidbit of teasing had come from Jason. Groaning at the soft elbowing his mother sent at the words he smirked, rubbing his side. “Mother has a tendency to overfeed.”

“Besides,” Mary argued. “I would feel terribly guilty if you missed a proper meal because of my louse of a husband.”

“Easy Mar.”

“You hush.”

“Yes ma’am.”

Christina could have almost been amused at this small, rather intimidating woman. Except she was too unnerved to do anything but stand there.

“I don’t want to impose…”

“Impose?” Mary smiled. Christina had learned never to trust that particular smile. “What do you call asking an employee to run business errands after work? If anyone here has been imposed upon, it’s you my dear.”

“No. Not, not at all.” Christina had shaken her head so hard her teeth had clenched together instinctively.

“Look, you can fight her on this all night,” Matthew interrupted finally with something akin to a long-suffering glance. “But in the end you’ll eat dinner here. The question is, do you want to it now while it’s still hot, or in an hour when it’s cooled considerably?”

“Jason, take her coat.”

And, with three pair of eyes on her, Christina found herself doing exactly as expected. With a glance to beat defeat, she brought her hands up to her coat buttons popping them free.

“Though it really isn’t necessary,” she continued to say—but then Jason’s hands had skimmed across the tops of her shoulders, and her breath had frozen in her throat. That strange sensation spread out over her skin again as his fingers caught hold of her jacket.

But then, it wasn’t such a strange sensation, was it? She’d felt it before. She knew the pitfalls. Gritting her teeth, she’d felt the silky inner-lining of her coat fall from her arms, hardly daring to move.

And then, at last and really far too soon, his hands had been gone.

Afraid they’d noticed her sudden stillness, Christina threw out a hasty smile. “Well,” she admitted shyly, anything to cover her unease: “I guess I am hungry.”

“Good girl,” Mary encouraged.

That had been the first night he’d called her by that name.

They’d just sat down at the table and he’d looked across the expanse separating them and remarked: “So Chrissy…”

“It’s Christina.”

He tilted his head. “Are you sure? Chrissy seems to suit you.”

Her smile tightened. “It’s Christina.”

He only shrugged. “If you insist.” This, somehow, managed to make her out to be the ass.

Her eyes turned to slits. “Oh, I do.’

“So Christina,” Mary continued loudly, but her face had betrayed her curiosity. “Matthew says you’re not from around here originally?”

“No. I was raised in South Carolina.”

“Long way from home.”

“Sometimes.”

“What brought you to Minnesota?”

Christina took a drink of her glass of water. “I saw a picture of the city on the back of a postcard…”

Jason snorted.

Christina sent him a lowering glance. “Yes?”

He lifted innocent eyes. “Hmmm?”

“Was there something you wanted to say?” she challenged him.

Jason shook his head. “No. Not me.” But his eyes twinkled.

“Ignore him,” Mr. Gordman had said then, sending his son a speaking glance.

Christina smiled devilishly. “Only since I got here.” She’d been trying to, at least.

Jason grinned all the harder. “Not with much success I see.”

She’d felt those words all the way to the base of her spine. They made her stomach zip, tingle. He was right, of course, but she’d be damned if she’d let on.

Her eyes slipped helplessly towards his gaze. She’d had no recourse left but to glare. She only ever hoped it was enough.