North of Happenstance: Chapter Fifty-Three

With a weary sigh, Kate shut and locked her outside door. Hefting the overnight bag over her shoulder, she made her way out to the curb, where a nervous looking M.T. stood, beside an equally unsure Penny.

Or maybe they just appeared tense to Kate, who was feeling a little, well, panicky herself.

“Tell me one more time,” Kate said, shoving her bag in the backseat of the car. “That I’m doing the right thing here.”

M.T.’s face gave nothing away. “Kate…”

“She’d go and see him anyway,” Penny intruded, leaning up against the trunk of Kate’s car. “You know Janessa. It’s much better that she’ll have you there.”

M.T. nodded. “That’s true.”

“But—shouldn’t her mother be involved in this?” Kate whined, all her second-thoughts springing hurriedly to the surface. It had been three days since Janessa had turned up at her door, asking her to go to Coventon, to help her track down her father. “Shouldn’t she be the one taking her…?”

And though Kate was honored—truly, honored—to have been the one asked to take the girl, she was worried, scared. There were so many pitfalls facing them. And she had a terrible feeling about the outcome of an impromptu, unannounced visit to the man who’d abandoned his daughter thirteen years ago….

“What if it turns out badly?”

Maggie smiled sadly, as if she too shared Kate’s thoughts on the matter. “Then she’ll have you to lean on.”

Penny nodded eagerly. “You’ll be there to help sweep her back in the car…”

“But we’re talking about Janessa here,” Kate cried, shoving her hands through her hair. “There’s an equally good chance that she’ll just run away from me—”

Maggie bit her lip. She wouldn’t say it out loud, but Kate could see it on her face: the pastor was worried.

“I doubt she’d do that,” Penny improvised drily. “After all, she’ll need you to take her back home.”

“But she may very well shut down,” Maggie countered, despite the glowering look Penny sent her. “Forewarned is forearmed, Kate. Brace yourself for that. Let her react the way she’s going to react.”

Kate nodded.

“Though it may sting at the time, she’ll need to know that you won’t turn away from her—no matter what she says or does,” M.T. finished. “What Janessa needs to know most of all is that you’ll still be there to love her. She hasn’t had a lot of that in her life.”

Kate felt her stomach pinch, restricting her breathing for a second. “You know, I really do love her,” she whispered. It was the first time she’d said it out loud.

Maggie reached out her hand, placing it comfortingly on Kate’s shoulder. “What you’re doing for her—she won’t forget it, even if she doesn’t yet know how to show her appreciation, just know that it means the world to her.”

“Yeah,” Penny murmured. “I was there when she got the news, you know. It was earth-shattering for her. The fact that she asked you, that she trusts you enough—don’t underestimate your value to her in all this.”

Kate opened her mouth to speak but whatever she was going to say was cut short by the sudden appearance of a shadow against the walkway. Turning her head, Kate quickly caught a glimpse of Janessa walking toward them from the street, her shoulders hunched in her typical pose, a ratted backpack riding low on her shoulders.

“Showtime,” Penny muttered. Stepping forward, she gave Kate a quick hug. “You’ll do great,” she whispered in her ear before stepping back.

Then it was Maggie’s turn for an embrace. “I’m so proud of you Kate.”

“Thanks guys,” Kate said, her voice quiet so it wouldn’t carry over to the surly teenager.

And then all three of the women shifted their attention, each smiling tremulously as they turned to watch Janessa beat a grudging trail up to Kate’s car.

“All set?” Penny asked when Janessa was close enough to hear.

Stopping dead at the sound, she looked up, a horrified expression playing out on her face. Her eyes took an accusing expression when they landed on Kate. “I thought it would just be us going?”

“It is,” Penny assured her. “Mags and I are only here to wish you both well.”

“God,” Janessa said, throwing open the back door of Kate’s car to chuck her bag inside. Slamming the door shut again, she rolled her eyes. “We’re only going to be gone for like two days—chill out.”

Penny’s mouth thinned, but before she could open her stiff lips in retort, Kate rushed forward, speaking over her.

“Did you talk to your mother?” she asked.

Janessa shrugged. “Yeah.”

“And?” Kate raised an eyebrow. “What did she say? Is she okay with this?”

Janessa shrugged. “She didn’t really care. Told me good luck tracking the bastard—” M.T.’s eyelids flinched at the vulgar term, “—down and, if I did happen to trip over his body, I should get back the money she’s owed.”

Kate gulped.

“Oh,” Janessa added darkly, as if she couldn’t resist poking at Kate. “And she laughed. A good, long laugh. Told me I was headed for heart-ache but if I was stupid enough to invite it upon myself, she felt it wasn’t worth the effort to change my mind.”

Kate swallowed. She wasn’t sure how she was supposed to respond to that.

“She also gave me some money for the motel we’re staying at,” Janessa admitted, dipping her fingers into her jean pockets to produce two crumpled-up fifty dollar bills. Thrusting them toward Kate, she said: “Mom insisted. Said it was more than fair, since you were the poor sucker being dragged to Coventon in the first place. She said there was no reason you should pay for it, too.”

Kate was oddly touched—she guessed. She’d still never really met Janessa’s mother. Except for that one time earlier this summer when Kate had driven Janessa home after the church’s talent show and Ms. Cooper had just been walking up the porch steps herself, clearly just getting in for the night… But other than  a nondescript wave, she hadn’t seemed inclined for a chat. Jumping out of the car, Janessa had practically begged Kate not to get out of the vehicle too. “She probably stopped by the bar on her way home from work,” Janessa had stated tonelessly. “No point talking to her now.”

And that had been that.

Janessa’s mom (Cathy, Kate believed was her name) had never shown up to any of the church functions Kate more-or-less drug Janessa to. She had never been in attendance at any of the school activities, either. Janessa always walked wherever she was going…

Talking the money Janessa proffered now, Kate nodded awkwardly. Though she didn’t need or want it, she had a feeling Janessa’s pride was at stake here. “Tell her I said thank you.”

Janessa shrugged. “Whatever.”

“All right then,” Kate said, clearing her throat. She nodded toward her small sedan. “Should we hit the road?”

Janessa’s only response was to walk over to the passenger side, open the door, and quickly bend herself inside its plush interior. Then she slammed the door shut, her eyes staring straight ahead.

“I guess that’s a yes,” Kate muttered to herself, sparing M.T. and Penny one last wave before getting in herself.
Still standing on the sidewalk, Penny and M.T. watched Kate’s car slowly roll away from view. Turning toward one another, they shared a knowing look.

“Think she’ll be okay?”

“Janessa?” M.T. asked.

Penny hitched one shoulder. “Her too.”

M.T. stared out toward where the car had sat only minutes ago. “As long as they stick together.”

 

 

 

The car ride to Coventon passed in a relatively boring fashion. After a couple of failed start-up attempts at conversation—particularly about Janessa’s dad and what she remembered about him—Kate had finally given up.

Janessa wasn’t in a chatting mood.

Kate had a feeling all of the girl’s energy and concentration was being consumed by her ever-increasing anxiety—there was no room left for listening, engaging. Kate could hear it in the slightly labored breathing of the passenger sitting beside her, see it in the ramrod straight way she held her body, feel it in the hard, unblinking way she stared out the windshield mirror.

And it only got worse with each mile that Kate ate up.

Bit by bit, Janessa turned into a stone.

But the third hour of this silent road trip, Kate could feel a headache beating at the base of her neck. They were less than twenty minutes outside of Coventon. Her own nerves were starting to sing now. Other than the heavy metal music that Janessa preferred, she’d had nothing but time to think:

The private investigator, after Penny called him to enquire further about what he’d found out about Janessa’s dad, had been a wealth of information. Apparently, Paul Cooper worked in a paper plant, frequently pulling the third shift. Almost every morning, when he punched out for the day, he could be found at a little diner across the street (and every evening too, when he’d stop back in for supper before ambling over for his night shift. Very exciting stuff here.)

He lived alone, in a rundown apartment in a not-so-great neighborhood. He was a lousy drunk; the investigator had found empty bottles littered across the floorboard of his truck, and even more spewed out across his living room coffee table (when he’d snuck a look in through the man’s windows). His weekends were taken up at Joe’s Bar where, according to the locals, he drank himself almost to the point of being passed out.

Rinse and repeat.

As far as the PI knew, Paul Cooper didn’t have any other children. He wasn’t currently dating anyone. He didn’t appear to have any friends. Other than the rare weekend out at the racetrack, his paychecks went to rent, beer, food, and more beer.

The untold story of Paul Cooper.

Boring. Sad. Not exactly the makings for father of the year.

Remembering this, Kate’s resolve weakened. What were they doing? This was a mistake. She should just turn the car around now…

“How are we going to find him?” Janessa asked, her voice shocking Kate out of her musings. “When we get there, how are we going to find him?”
Kate took a deep, calming breath. She couldn’t turn back now. It was important to Janessa and even though there was a part of Kate that agreed with the girl’s mother—at least the part about how Janessa was walking into heartache—she had said she would do it, and she was going to make good on that promise. Janessa needed to do this, and Kate needed to be the one there in case it didn’t end well.

“Well,” Kate said slowly. “At this rate, I figure we’ll make it to Coventon at just about six o’clock, and according to the PI Penny hired, your dad can usually be found at a little diner nearby, having dinner then.”

She winced. They were going to surprise attack him. He had no idea they were coming. He had no idea his daughter was looking forward to seeing him—none of it. When the girl’s had discussed the best way to handle the situation, the PI (who had a sort of slimy appearance, but was nonetheless expert on the subject) and told them this was the best way.

“Otherwise you take the risk he’ll run.”

“That seems a bit dramatic, doesn’t it?”

“Not in my experience,” he assured them. “Either that or they tell you they’ll meet you but never show up. Believe me, this is how it’s done.”

So that’s how they were doing it.

These thoughts took Kate the rest of the way to Coventon. Sneaking a glance at Janessa when they passed the town’s Welcome sign, Kate saw that the girl’s eyes were wide, unseeing, her breath whooshing noisily out of her mouth.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” Kate asked, as she nosed her way toward the diner’s address. She had it converted to memory by now. “It’s not too late to change your mind…?”

But Janessa only shook her head. “No. Let’s do it.”

Pulling up to the curb of the diner in question—it’s grimly, greasy exterior only matched by it’s recycled inside, the booths ripped and worn, faded, the cracked linoleum underfoot spotty with dirt and debris—Kate smiled encouragingly at Janessa before alighting from the car.

Walking slowly inside, she felt her heartbeat kick up, her forehead breaking out in sweat. Kate had been sent a picture of Paul Cooper, which made it all the easier to spot him as she and Janessa entered the dimly light café, her eyes quickly roaming over the miscellany of baseball caps, flannel shirts, and workmen’s boots.

He was sitting in the last booth off to the left, a cup of coffee resting in one beefy hand.

Now that they’d found him, Janessa didn’t seem to know what to do, how to approach him. Walking slowly toward the table, with each step Kate could actually see her nerve leaving her. They hadn’t exactly rehearsed this part. They probably should have. When she’d finally been forced to come to a stop, her body hovering over his table, eyes unable to rise much further than the floor, Janessa seemed to freeze.

Paul Cooper, sensing her shadow, glanced up, a question forming on his thick black eyebrows.

“I…erm—” Janessa’s breath came out in a squeaky blast of air, her body shifting from foot to foot as she stood there. “Um…”

Bloodshot eyes narrowed in her direction, a thin mouth pulling down at the interruption. “Yes?” He asked briskly.

“Ah…I, uh.” Janessa’s face flamed a deep red color.

Paul frowned. “You okay, kid?”

“Umm…”

“Speak up. I can’t hear you.”

Janessa swallowed. Kate wasn’t sure what to do.

“Janessa,” she finally said, her voice pitched nervously.

“What?”

“My name…” Janessa looked pleadingly at Kate. She nodded. “My name is Janessa Cooper.” The words were weak, watery, but still they had the desired effect.

She had the man’s attention now. With a rattle, he set his cup of coffee down on the table. “Janessa?” He asked softly, shaking his head. “Well, I’ll be….”

“Can we sit down, perhaps?” Kate asked, her voice intruding for the first time. Looking at Janessa’s shaking form, she was worried that if the teenager didn’t take a seat soon, she’d fall over.

“”Course,” Paul invited, but there was a certain reserve in the way he said it.

Sliding in after Janessa, Kate waited for someone to speak.

Janessa looked down at the orange tabletop; Paul seemed content to stay silent.

“Do you—do you know who I am?”

Paul grimaced. “You’re Cathy’s daughter.”

That made Janessa’s chin jut out. “I’m your daughter.”

Paul waved his hand through the air. “Sure. Sure, well…”

An uncomfortable silence descended for a moment.

“Your mom sick or something?”

Janessa eyes lifted. “What?”
Paul shrugged. “Is this about that child support? Do you need money?” He turned to Kate. “You her lawyer?”

Janessa’s eyes grew large in her pale face. “No.”

“Then what?” And, as unlikely as it would seem, Paul looked genuinely curious. “What are you doing here?”

Janessa seemed to shrink back against the vinyl upholstery “I just, I came to see you. That’s all.”

“Oh.” His face hardened ever so slightly.

“I wanted to,” Janessa’s voice shook. “I don’t know. Meet you, I guess.”

He sighed. “I see.”

“You know, mom used to tell me you were dead. It was only a few months ago that I learned the truth.”

Paul didn’t seem unduly upset by this information. “That was probably for the best.”

“To lie to me?” Janessa’s voice was ominous.

“Sometimes it’s better than the truth.”

Janessa would not cry. “I don’t understand.”

“I wasn’t nobody’s father. I’m still not,” Paul said, his words brutally cruel. “Listen, kid I left because it was the best thing for you and your mom. I wasn’t fit—”

“The best thing for me?” Janessa’s eyes flashed. “The best thing for me?”

Paul shrugged. “I couldn’t take care of myself, much less someone else. She probably thought telling you I was dead would keep you from doing exactly what you’ve gone and done….”

“What I’ve done?”

Paul made an offhand gesture. “Your mother—I knew the two of you would be just fine without me, better off actually….”

“Oh yeah, we’ve been just dandy,” Janessa returned, her face twisting over the words. “Mom’s had to work two jobs my entire life, just to pay the bills. And when she’s not doing that she’s down at whatever bar has the best special until she’s so drunk she forgets how much she resents me and everything I robbed her of…”

Paul had the grace to look ashamed. “I never meant—”

“And believe me I prefer it that way. A blacked-out mother is much better than the alternative. ‘God Janessa, I should have had an abortion, that’s what I should have done. I’d’ve spared us both this kind of life,’ or ‘Jesus Janessa, can’t you do anything right? I’ve given up everything for you: youth, beauty, money. Can’t you at least do better than C’s and B’s in school? I’ve sacrificed too much to be raising an idiot.’”

Kate could feel something unfurl itself in her chest at the words. The hateful, hurtful words. She’d known Janessa’s home-life wasn’t great but this—did her mother really say those things? Pushing back the emotions pulsing up her throat, Kate waited for Paul to speak.

But he didn’t. It was Janessa who broke the silence.

“Didn’t you ever wonder about us?” she asked plaintively. “Didn’t you ever wonder about me?”

“Well sure, of course I did,” Paul lied.

“Then why didn’t you ever call? Why didn’t you ever come back?”

“I told you, I wasn’t the fatherly type.”

“But—”

“Listen, Janessa…” Paul took a deep breath. “I’m sorry if I’m not measuring up your ideal—I know I’m not the father you were hoping to find here today. I’m not even sure how you did find me,” he added, half under his breath. “But that’s exactly why I took off. I was never going to be good for you. So I left and I never looked back. Doesn’t that tell you everything you need to know?”

Deftly, he threw money down on the table, signaling his intent to leave. Reaching for his jacket, he scooted out of the booth, but not before adding: “I’m sorry, kid. Really sorry. But you should forget about me. It’s for the best, I promise.”

And with that he gained his feet, turned and walked away. Without a backward glance.

For a minute no one spoke. Kate hardly dared to breathe. Then, finally her eyes slithered bravely to the side, her gaze zeroing in on Janessa’s face: the pale, dusky color of her cheekbones, the unmistakable glaze of wet tears shining in those big blue eyes, the tense, hard way she was breathing in and out. Janessa’s lips were pulled down, a mutinous line drawn against a hard countenance. Her body seemed to be made of glass and even the tiniest movement and she’d shatter all over the floor.

She’d just been rejected by her father. Again.

Kate’s heart rocketed against her chest. Her fingers practically itched to reach out for the girl….

“Janessa?” Kate asked quietly. The girl’s eyes slowly rotated to take in her face. “Oh, honey, I’m so sorry.” And then, before she could help herself, Kate felt her arms rising, curving to either side of Janessa’s shoulders…

“Don’t touch me!” Janessa’s body jerked, convulsed.

At the sharp command, Kate’s arms dropped back down to her sides.

“I don’t need your pity Kate,” Janessa snarled. “That’s the absolutely last thing I need from you,” she insisted.

Kate breathed slowly. “Okay.” Placing her palms flat on the seat, she was just on the point of sliding out of the booth—to give Janessa her space or to take herself to the bathroom for composure, Kate wasn’t sure—when she heard it. The muffled, low sound of a sob breaking out against Janessa’s tightly closed mouth.

Head whipping around, Kate had just enough time to take in the crumbled expression on the girl’s face before Janessa suddenly threw herself at Kate, her scrawny arms snaking around Kate’s neck to hold on tight, her face pressed hotly against her shoulder.

With something akin to disbelief, Kate felt her own arms wrap themselves around Janessa’s back, her mouth making soothing noises as her arms rubbed comforting circles there. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m so, sorry.”

“No one wants me,” Janessa cried. “No one ever wants me.”

“That’s not true,” Kate returned. “I want you.”

Janessa buried her head against Kate’s collarbone. “For now, maybe.”

Kate tightened her hold. “Always Janessa.” She rested her chin over the young girl’s head. “Forever.”

“I love you, Kate.”

She took a deep, steadying breath. “I love you, too.”

North of Happenstance: Chapter Fifty-Two

With a painful flick of her wrist, Penny thrust on the light switch as she entered her shop. Grimacing at the assaulting yellow glow of the overhead bulbs, her hand instinctively coming to rest against her temple, her mouth letting out a whoosh of breath, Penny slowly steered her way toward the coffee…. God, she’d forgotten how terrible a hangover really was…

Last night had been—well, it had been one of the best nights in her life. There she’d been, sitting up in bed, fully clothed in a pair of leggings and a dark blue tunic with a splash of dark green fabric around the hem, staring out her window, wondering what in the world Jake had up his sleeve—

And then he’d shown up, and he’d snuck her out to his truck—and Stink Pig had been just as good as Penny remembered, and with the tequila flowing, they’d practically sparkled on the stage. And she’d danced: fast, slow, off-beat and everything in between. And she’d drank: cocktails, classics, hard stuff, and beer. But best of all, Jake had danced right along with her, meeting her drink for drink….

Cringing now, as she made her way gingerly toward her desk, Penny considered that perhaps there had been a wee bit too much drinking. Then again…smiling softly, she eased her computer bag open and pulled out her tablet computer. Nah. Never mind. Come to think of it: the hangover was worth it, after all. She wouldn’t have changed a single thing.

High on that thought, Penny opened up her email account, her eyes glancing absently down at the inbox, scrolling quickly through the subject headings, and rifling through the junk mail and advertisements, the email subscription posts and newsletters…yawning, her finger inched toward the delete button.

Save on your house loan….

Delete.

Intuitive: How to Market—

Delete.

LitLiber, Chapter Fifty-Two…

Oh. Better keep that…. Mark Unread.

Case: COOPER, FATHER FOUND

            Wait. What?

            Freezing at the words, typed in Courier New, typed in ALL CAPS, Penny’s eyes widened disbelievingly. Opening up the email, her fingers clumsy on the screen—from the fear and dread of it all, the rising anticipation and excitement, Penny  held her breath, unsure what she was waiting for exactly, what she expected to find within its body…

Her mouth moving frantically to silently sound out the words she read in her head, Penny’s stomach knotted up tight, her fingers shook a little—and her headache from before was lost, forgotten in the overwhelming news staring back at her.

She’d found Janessa’s dad.

Well, okay, actually the private investigator Penny had hired found him. (But really, what more could Janessa expect of the psychic? Penny hadn’t gotten any visions, any vibrations on the man. What else was there to do besides hire the assignment out?)

            Her breath coming slow, sputtering in the aftershock of what she’d just uncovered, Penny placed her tablet slowly, carefully down on the table…pushing it out of sight, her eyes shifted, taking in the busy sidewalk facing her storefront.

Breathe Penny.

Think Penny.

It was barely eight o’clock in the morning. Men and women, in all styles of clothing, from business professional to grungy, and casual, even touristy, walked past, their day only just beginning, fresh and ready to start a brand new day….

With a half wail, Penny realized that Janessa would be in school right about now, probably just sitting down to first period. It would be cruel to text her—to make her way some seven hours before coming over, to sit all day wondering, hoping, dreaming about the information (the potentially life-altering information) displayed oh-so-coolly across Penny’s computer screen.

Person: Mr. Paul D. Cooper. Age: 42 Occupation: UNKNOWN

Home Address: 13 Crabtree Way ——— (To Be Released Confidentially)

City: Coventon State: CT

 

Her eyes skimmed over the other details that the private investigator had seen able to report via electronic correspondence. It wasn’t much. Other information would be made available at another time, in a private, secured setting, if the client so-desired.

“Well,” Penny murmured to herself. “I guess that’s that.” Standing up, she moved to pour herself another cup of coffee.

 

 

 

As it happened, Penny hadn’t been able to wait until three o’clock to talk to Janessa. She’d barely been resigned to wait until lunchtime, the knowledge of what she had at her fingertips nearly splitting her in two. But, luckily, Whestleigh High offered off-campus school lunch periods, which meant that Janessa wouldn’t be breaking any rules if she stopped in at Penny’s between 12:00am and 1:00pm….

Which is exactly why she’d sent the text message at 11:55 am— Janessa, it’s Penny. I have news about your dad. We need to talk. Lunch?

The clock had no sooner ticked past 12:06 am then Penny  heard the front door click open, followed closely by the echo of heavy footsteps and slightly labored breathing before the thick curtain separating Penny’s shop from the outside hallway was thrust wide open, emitting the dark, snarly head of one Janessa Cooper.

“You found him,” Janessa wheezed, her breath coming out sticky and hot, the sound hitching unevenly out of her mouth. Her large blue eyes shined with so much feeling that Penny’s heart gave a great, hard lurch.

“Janessa, come, sit down,” Penny invited, waving the jumpy teenager towards a chair.

“Tell me,” Janessa insisted, not bothering to move so much as an inch. “You did find him, right?”

Penny sighed. “Yes. I found him.”

“Oh my God. I can’t believe it,” Janessa stated. “I can’t believe it.” The words, repeated, came out more slowly this time, as the full weight of the meaning seemed to settle down against her shoulders.

“I hired a private investigator to locate your father—”

“You did?”

Penny shrugged. “Psychic didn’t get a vision, okay? So I outsourced.”

Janessa nodded numbly. “Okay.”

“And, honey please sit down,” Penny pleaded.

With a lumbering step, as though she could no longer feel her feet, Janessa made her way to the small table in the center of Penny’s office, her body slipping untidily into the seat.

“I was sent an email with some information on your dad—”

“Do you know where he lives?” Janessa’s voice was soft, barely there, so light Penny almost couldn’t hear her.

Penny nodded. “Yes. That is…I don’t have his home address. But I can get it, if you’d like.”

Janessa nodded slowly.

“Where is he?”
“Pretty close by, actually,” Penny advised. “He’s in Coventon—which is about three and half hours from here.”

“You mean, he’s in Connecticut?” Janessa’s question was sharp, her head bobbing up quickly at the words, her blue eyes staring Penny down hard.

“Uh…yes?”

“All this time…” Janessa bit her lip. “He’s been here.”

Penny’s fingers fidgeting, she wasn’t sure how to respond. “Would you like to read the email?”

At Janessa’s slow, silent nod, Penny quickly pulled it up. Pushing her tablet into the younger girl’s hands, the email already on prominent display there, she stood back, biting her lip anxiously as Janessa’s eyes scrolled carefully, almost fearfully down the page.

One minute past in this fashion.

Then another.

Followed closely by a third minute…

Penny wasn’t sure what to say, what to do next. Janessa’s eyes still hadn’t unglued themselves from the bluish-glare of the computer screen, but Penny hardly thought the girl was still reading anything. The email was relatively short after all—a veritable bullet-list of highlights documenting Paul Cooper’s life, and it certainly wasn’t three minutes worth of reading.

“Janessa?” Penny asked tentatively in the silence.

At the sound of her name, Janessa’s head snapped up. Her eyes stared groggily up at Penny.

“Are you okay?”

Janessa didn’t speak.

“Look, I know it’s a lot to take in…” Penny said, her fingers clasped together in front of her body. “You don’t have to make any decisions today. Just—maybe just let information fully digest….”

Janessa rolled her eyes.

Penny tried to smile. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“Talk about what?” Janessa returned with a definitive tilt of her chin, an edge in her voice; anger simmered just below the question.

“About how you’re feeling? I can only imagine how…how—”

“You can’t imagine anything,” Janessa accused. “You don’t know anything.”

Penny swallowed difficultly. “No, of course you’re right. But if you want—I’m a very good listener. Maybe I can help you—”

“I don’t need your help!” Janessa screamed, her fist banging hard against the tabletop. Her mouth contorting into an ugly line, her face blossoming red, she stood up, the abrupt action shoving her chair back so hard it almost toppled over.

Wincing at the sound breaking out against her four walls, Penny held up her hands. “I’m sorry—Janessa, please…”

“God, just leave me alone,” Janessa sneered, pushing herself off the table and brushing past Penny, her shoulder hitting the psychic as she did so: “After all,” she added, reaching for the curtain. Her words were thick with tears. “I’m used to it, aren’t I?”

Watching her storm out of the office, terribly aware that her company was the last thing Janessa wanted or probably needed right now, Penny nonetheless knew what she had to do…. Reaching for her phone, she let out a momentary sigh as she punched in the well-remembered number. She’d have a lot of explaining to do, but she was willing even to withstand the lectures, the dramatic bits, everything…for Janessa.

 

 

 

Running, her feet skipping, slithering against the sidewalk, Janessa’s breath rasping harshly up her throat and out her parched mouth, the teenager let the tears she couldn’t shed in Penny’s office fall down her face.

Her stomach burned. It burned so hot she felt like she’d explode from the pressure, like she’d die if she couldn’t just let herself cool down. Running, frantic to get away, to hide away, Janessa’s body moving automatically, her steps steered her toward the only place she’d ever felt truly at home—

She ran to Good Shepherd Church.

Wrenching the door open at the side of the building, her shoulders quaking, eyes bloodshot now, and still the tears came streaming down her face—Janessa shot her body through the vestibule and out into the dim, hushed hallway.

A little after noon on a weekday, the building was silent except for the quiet hum of the fluorescent lights flicking haphazardly from the speckled ceiling tiles, and the slight click-clack echo of someone typing…

“Well, good afternoon darling,” Heather, the church secretary, called out then, looking up over her computer as Janessa came shortly into view. Guess that explained the typing noise…. “What can I do for you?”

Wiping the sleeve of her zippy under her nose, Janessa dropped her eyes. “I need Pastor Thayer.” And at the exaggerated silence that passed, Janessa added roughly, her eyes studying the flooring: “Please.”

Taking one good, hard look at the girl decided Heather’s answer. “Well, now, of course. Why don’t you just came in here and take a seat, while I go and get her.” Without another word, Heather was up on her feet, and shoeing Janessa into one of two chairs stationed just inside the office there. “Won’t be a minute,” she said, her feet taking her quickly down the hall.

Knocking quietly, Heather stuck her head inside M.T.’s outer office, taking a moment to smile demurely at the Parish Planning Council, all five of them, stationed around the oval table there, heads bent in serious discussion.

“I’m so sorry to interrupt,” Heather said, “But I’m afraid Pastor Thayer is needed out in the office.”

“Is it urgent?” Gary, the head of the council, asked, turning his head to inquire nicely of Heather. “We’re right in the middle of the education board budget line….”

“I’m afraid it is,” Heather insisted. After all, the congregation should always come first.

And at that, Pastor Thayer rose graciously to her feet and, following behind Heather, soon found herself staring down at a surly, stony-faced expression—not quite what she had expected upon absconding from the PPC meeting….

“Janessa?” M.T. asked, putting a smile on her face as she greeted the girl. “What a wonderful surprise!” Reaching out her hand, she beckoned: “Come—let’s have some lunch…”

“Now tell me, to what do I owe the pleasure of your company this fine afternoon?” M.T. asked, putting a can of soup to heat on the oven. They hadn’t spoken once on the trip from the office to the kitchen. M.T. had wisely given Janessa that time to marshal her thoughts, regain her equilibrium, brush aside the track of tears smudged against the cheeks…

But when Janessa didn’t immediately answer, M.T. started to wonder if she hadn’t made a mistake, letting her keep quiet this long. Janessa frequently needed more prodding than most… But when she turned around, Maggie found the girl standing there, shoulders arching roundly, lips vibrating as large, silent tears—heavy, noiseless sobs—racked her body.

And within seconds, Janessa found herself cocooned in the arms she’d been dreaming about since she’d read that stupid, stupid email.

“What happened?” M.T. asked, her hands caressing Janessa’s disheveled hair. “What happened?”

And, within a matter of minutes, the whole sorry tale was revealed to Maggie, in between bouts of tears and sniffs and gargled words….

“I don’t know why I even care,” Janessa said then. “It’s not like he does. I mean, he’s three and a half hours away. All this time, and I haven’t seen him—” a wail followed the words, quickly covered up. “I thought—all my life, I thought he was dead.”

“I’m so sorry you’re hurting—”

“Why did he leave? Why didn’t he ever come back to see me?” And then: “Why doesn’t he love me?”

And for the second time since she’d shown up at the church, Janessa felt M.T.’s arms wrap themselves around her shaking body.

“Oh Janessa—oh, sweetheart….”

Pushing herself out of Maggie’s grasp, Janessa shook her head. “I thought I’d be so happy. You know, once I found out that he was alive and all. I thought—once I find out where he is, it’ll all—I don’t know. I thought….”

Janessa sighed a watery sigh.

“But I was wrong. I don’t feel better. I don’t. It just hurts more.”

M.T. nodded.

“Why?” Janessa wailed. “Why didn’t he want me?”

“Oh, sweetheart, I’m sure it’s not as simple as that—”

“Then why has he never tried to contact me? Why did he let me believe he was dead?”

M.T. bit her lip. “I can’t answer that question.”

Janessa’s lips quivered again.

“But I can tell you this,” M.T. said. “He sure missed out on getting to know a wonderful, special girl.”

Janessa snorted. “Whatever. You have to say that. You’re a pastor.”

M.T. laughed. “No, it’s my pleasure to say that, because it’s the truth.”

Janessa looked down at the floor, her feet scabbing nervously at the checkered tile. “What should I do?” Then, in an instant, those blue eyes were raised, staring imploringly up at Maggie.

“Have you talked to your mother?” M.T. asked quietly. She knew Janessa and her mom had a rocky, tumultuous relationship, but still, this was important— “Does she know about this?”

“Oh yeah,” Janessa scoffed. “She told me good luck and if I found him, to tell the bastard he owed her ten years back child support.”

“Oh.”

“So?” blowing out a huge breath, Janessa carefully considered her next words.

“So?”

“What should I do?”

But the pastor was too seasoned at her job to be easily manipulated into making someone else’s decisions. “What do you want to do?”

Janessa made a disgusted face. “I knew you were going to say that.”

Maggie only smiled. “All right, well answer me this: Why did you ask Penny to find your father?”
“What?” Rearing her head back, Janessa seemed caught off guard by the question.

“Why?”

“I don’t know…”

“I think you do.”

“So you think I should do it, go and see him—”

Maggie interrupted her firmly. “I think you should ask yourself if you still want to.”

 

 

 

At the sound of knocking at her front door, Kate jumped to her feet, her steps haphazard, frantic as she slipped from her living room, and slid past her kitchen, practically falling into the parlor room, her voice ringing out urgently as she went: “I’m coming, I’m coming—hold on!”

Throwing the door open, a big, tremulous smile etched across her face, Kate started down at the person she’d feared would never show up, the person she wanted to see most in the world right now.

“Janessa,” she breathed.

The teenager was pulling nervously at a loose string on the sleeve of her shirt. “Hey Kate.”

Stepping back, Kate tried to wave the girl forward. “Hey—won’t you come inside?”

“Nah,” Janessa said, shaking her head. “I’d better stay here.”

“Oh, okay,” Kate said slowly, nervously. Resting her shoulder against the door jamb, she waited, but when Janessa only stood there, Kate said: “What’s up?”

She tried to play it cool.

“I-uh,” Janessa’s mouth opened, but the words seemed to get stuck, lodged somewhere inside her throat.

“Is everything okay?” Kate probed, though she already knew the answer to that question. Still, she wanted Janessa to feel like she could talk—she wanted Janessa to talk.

“Have you ever been to a place called Coventon?”

Kate only just managed to keep a blank face. Of course, she knew what was going on here—Penny  had called her a few hours ago, guiltily filing her in on everything that had been going on between her and the young teenager these past few weeks or so; and after that, M.T. had called, wanting to give Kate the news that Janessa was fine. She was upset, but she was fine. And so Kate had waited. And she’d prayed that, after all, Janessa would finally come to her. That she’d finally want Kate.

“No, I’ve never been there. I’ve heard of it though…”

Janessa’s eyes were trained on the floor, where her feet were fidgeting restlessly, kicking at the air. “Do you want to go there—with me?”

Closing her eyes on a rush of love, and relief, and answered hopes, at first all Kate could do was nod her head in acceptance. “Yes,” she finally said, her voice barely above a whisper. “I’d love to.”

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Fifty-One

With something akin to panic, Jake stared down at the concert tickets sitting on his kitchen counter. They were for her favorite band—when he’d found out they were playing in town, he’d rushed out to buy them. It was going to be a surprise.

Grimacing, he pushed them out of his sight.

Kate had the absolute worst timing.

Pushing himself up, Jake paced from his kitchen counter to his living room windows and back again. That would all end now; they would go back to the way things had been before. Because—because, he and Penny’s relationship was a farce, built on the fabric of something false, something that turned out to be, ironically, only in the way….

Because Jake didn’t want Kate anymore.

He wasn’t entirely sure when it had started, but somewhere along the way she’d just become the excuse, the reason to keep hanging out with his old friend, his friend that he’d forgotten how much he missed; his friend that had somehow become more important than the girl.

But he wouldn’t have that excuse anymore.

Jake shook his head, his mind rewinding back to half an hour ago, when he’d heard that unexpected knock at his door…

“Kate,” he’d announced, surprise etching across his features when he found her on the other side of his doorstep.

“Jake.” She’d tried to smile. “I-uh—are you busy right now?”

“No…”

She’d looked momentarily relieved, and at the same time sharply uncomfortable. Nodding with a jerk, she’d taken in a noisy breath. “I was hoping, erm, can we talk?”
And Jake had known already what she’d come to say. Stepping back, he’d waved her inside. “Of course,” he’d inviting, a pit forming in his stomach.

Fidgeting, she’d moved into his living room.

“Can I get you anything to drink?” he’d asked automatically, hoping to dispel some of the nervous energy practically oozing out of her pores.

“No, no, that’s okay,” she’d said. Then, squaring her shoulders, she’d looked him dead in the eyes. “I’m not really sure how to say this, so I’ll just start…”
“Kate,” Jake had interrupted then, holding up a hand. “It’s okay.”

But she’d gone on anyway. “I asked you for time. I asked that you wait for me to figure out what I wanted…which was selfish of me, unfair of me. But you did it anyway.” She’d sighed. “You did that for me—and I’ll always thank you for your patience and kindness. Really, truly. The least I can do is be honest with you now.”

Jake smiled gently, hoping to ease her way. “Okay.”

“You have been such a good friend to me,” Kate said.

“And you’ve been a good friend to me.”

“And I don’t want that to change, but—” Kate bit her lip. “But that’s all we can be. Friends, I mean.” Her eyes stared down at her feet. “I don’t—I wish I could say, ‘I just don’t feel that way about you,’ but we both know that wouldn’t be entirely true,” Kate said with a half-laugh. “Only…. I don’t think I feel it enough. And that’s not fair to either of us.”

Jake reached forward to cup her elbow. “I know,” he told her then, silencing her. “I think I knew it all along.”

Kate’s eyes filled with tears. “I’m so sorry.”

“No, don’t be.”

“Jake, I would never deliberately hurt you. And I’m so sorry if I led you to believe—”

“Kate,” Jake had insisted, “the only thing you led me to believe was exactly what you just said: that you weren’t sure what you wanted. That you were confused….and  now, now you’ve decided. You’ve done nothing wrong. Nothing. I made all the moves, not you.”

“Stop being so nice to me…”

“No, I’ll never do that—”

Kate gave a watery snort.

“And Kate,” at this, she chanced to look up at his face, her eyes finding a gentle, compassionate response there. “Thank you for telling me—that is, how you feel. Thank you for talking to me about it, and in such a graceful way.”

“I know it’s terrible to say, but I don’t want to lose you.”

“You won’t,” Jake told her. “We’ll be fine. I’ll be fine.” And oddly, he’d meant it.

 

 

 

Jake pursed his lips. The irony was, it wasn’t Kate he was mourning right now, it wasn’t Kate who was making his muscles cramp, his throat feel too tight; it wasn’t Kate who he feared losing. It was Penny. Because somewhere along the way, she’d stolen the show, pushing Kate to the backseat, and making a convenient excuse of the blonde—and all in the name of continuing this ruse.

Only, he hadn’t been willing to admit that, even to himself, not until Kate had walked into his apartment, not until she’d started talking, saying words that should have crushed him, words that should have broken his heart. But all he’d felt was relief. That it was over. That Kate wasn’t in love with him. Because…because he wasn’t in love with her.

There was just one small hitch. Without Kate there was no Penny. And without Penny—Jake swallowed hard—without Penny, his life seemed a little duller, a little less humorous. Without Penny….

Walking back to his kitchen, he stared down at those concert tickets again. It had been a week ago: Penny had called, asking if he wanted to have dinner at her house—she was trying out a new dish and she needed a guinea pig. Maggie was out at Hanks and Jake was the only other person she knew desperate enough to be a taste-tester….

“I see,” he’d teased on the phone. “I’m nothing more than a science experiment.”

“Did I mention that I also have a six-pack sitting on ice?” She’d offered laughingly.

“Be there in five minutes.”

“I thought so,” she’d laughed.

Pocketing his phone, Jake had been true to his word. Wasting two of those minutes to rip out of the sweats and into a clean pair of jeans and a fresh button-up, splash on a little cologne, and work his fingers through his hair, he’d been quickly out the door, whistling as he’d locked up.

The topic of conversation had happened naturally enough. They’d just sat down at the table, and Jake had begun talking to her about the idea of booking a concert for the LitLiber’s Anniversary Party when she’d offered up her favorite band as a possibility:

“…I saw them for the first time in Hiltbolt. I was seventeen, and it was the first time I’d ever snuck out to a bar…” Penny had informed him. Her face was pink with the memory. “And, I don’t know, I guess it was love at first sight.”

Jake had grinned. “You were forever resigned to be the number one fan of a group called Stink Pig?”

Penny had wrinkled her nose. “Yeah, they could have picked a better name…”

“Are they actually any good?”

Penny had shrugged. “Who knows—but every time I listen to them, I’m seventeen again….”

“Drinking your first illegal beer…”

“…and having the absolute time of my life!”

Jake had teased her then: “I never knew you were such a wild child.”

Penny had laughed. “That’s just it. I wasn’t. I believe that night went down in history as my one and only experience breaking curfew.”

“Really?” And that had piqued his interest. The most popular guy in school, he’d barely bothered to remember that he even had a curfew…there was always a party to go to, a girl to see.

Penny had scoffed then at his show of curiosity. “Can you really pretend that much surprise? You know what I was like.”

And, unfortunately, he had. Penny hadn’t grown up with much money. Her clothes had always been old, second-hand, and frequently carrying the unmistakable odor of stale cigarette smoke and booze. Her hair had been bushy, frizzy back then—add that to her eccentric personality and odd sense of humor, and Penny had pretty much been the laughing stock of the school.

 

 

 

Which was how he’d come up the idea to hunt down Stink Pig, and find out where they were playing next. He had it all planned out. He was going to sneak Penny out of her bedroom window and take her to watch them. He was going to help her be seventeen again.

And as luck would have it, he’d found Stink Pig easily enough. Their website stated that they were playing out at the Wild Oak Bar and Grill that very weekend. Barely a twenty minute drive away, Jake had snatched up the tickets without a second thought. It would be perfect.

The show wasn’t set to start until midnight. Jake would be locking up at LitLiber a little after ten. After going home for a quick change, he was going to drive over to Penny’s and throw rocks at her bedroom window or something like that—very old-school, traditional stuff. He was going to tell her to get dressed and that he had a surprise for her….

He stared down at the tickets once more, his mouth setting in a grim line. He hadn’t realized it until right now, how much he’d been looking forward to it. He hadn’t realized until right now, how much he wanted to do that for Penny…and how much he wanted to do it for himself.

But everything would change now. Their reason for getting together, the underlining theme to it all, the only thing that had drawn them back together and kept them that way (namely Kate)…it was dead in the water. And Jake couldn’t care less about that. Only, he didn’t want to lose Penny alongside Kate.

Only, how did he keep her? They didn’t have the same friends. They didn’t go to the same places. Hell, they didn’t even like the same music.

The tickets stared up at him mockingly.

And in a split second decision, Jake reached for his phone. Scrolling quickly through his contacts list, he quickly dialed the number he actually knew by heart.

“Good afternoon, Madame Penny’s House of Intuition—”

“Penny, its Jake…”

The air on the other side of the line changed. Jake could practically feel it. “So—you heard?”

“Heard?” Jake held his breath, playing dumb. Penny knew already?! Dammit.

She cleared her throat. “Oh, ah, I thought…that is, have you seen Kate today?”

Yup. She knew all right. Which meant there was only one thing to do. Closing his eyes tightly, Jake did something he’d never done before to Penny. He lied. “No. Why?”

He wasn’t ready to explain himself. He wasn’t ready to risk losing Penny….because, bottom line: he wasn’t sure she’d still be his friend without the added incentive of helping out Kate. After all, that’s the reason she was talking to him, hanging out with him, wasn’t it? Because of Kate. Because she was Kate’s best friend. Kate, Kate Kate….

What if—what if he wasn’t enough to keep her interest alone? What if…

So Jake lied.

If he didn’t know about Kate, then maybe they things could remain the same…even if it was just for a little bit longer.

“Nothing,” Penny rushed to say, “No reason. What’s up?”

Jake grinned. “What are you doing tonight?”

“No plans,” Penny said.

“The night you went to Hillbolt, when you were seventeen to watch Stink Pigs—do you remember what you were wearing?”

Penny laughed. There was a husky note in her voice. “Yeah, I guess.”

“Could you replicate it?”

“What?”

“Tonight, before you go to bed, put on something like what you wore that night.”

“Before I go to bed?”
“Yeah.”

“Okay,” Penny said, her voice accurately portraying her confusion.

“Oh, and Penny…”

“Yeah?”

“Make sure the window to your room is closed.”

“The window…?”
“I’ll see you later.”

Penny laughed again. “See you later.”

Putting down the phone, Jake grinned. Staring up at the clock, he mentally counted down time. It was almost four hours until he’d start work. Ten hours until he’d lock up for the night. It was almost twelve hours until he’d see Penny.

His heart kicked up a little. Twelve hours.

Walking toward his shower, whistling some old country and western song, Jake stole a look at himself in the bathroom mirror. There was flush on his cheeks that had nothing to do with the room’s temperature. Turning on the water, he stopped to let his mind wander for a second.

He wondered what outfit Penny was going to wear.

His grin only widened.

Twelve hours.

Time couldn’t pass soon enough.

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Fifty

The echo of the dial tone from her call with Jackson still ringing in her ears, Kate knew immediately what she had to do. Grabbing for the phone again, she quickly punched in a number she knew by memory….

“Hello, Madame Penny’s House of Intuition—”

“Penny,” Kate said breathlessly, “I need to talk to you.”

“Sure.”

“But not on the phone,” Kate insisted. “I need to talk to you in person.”

“This sounds serious.”

“It is,” Kate stumbled. “Well. I mean, it’s not like an emergency or anything. At least, I don’t think so—”

“Kate, what’s going on?”

“Can I come by the shop? Are you available at all today?”

Penny took a moment in answering. “Uh. Sure. I have a client coming at noon, but—”

Kate glanced up needlessly at the microwave clock in her kitchen. She knew what time it was. 9:06 a.m.

“Great. I’ll be there in ten minutes.”

 

 

 

“I had a feeling you’d be early,” Penny said dryly, seven minutes later, when the curtain marking the entrance to her store was pushed hurriedly aside. Kate hadn’t bothered to knock or announce her presence—which was just as well, because two cups of coffee were already set out expectantly upon the oak tabletop taking over the majority of Penny’s space.

Hair falling anyhow down her back in her rush, Kate’s appearance left something to be desire. A pair of tattered jeans and a loose-fitting green shirt thrown anyhow over her person, she nodded in greeting, before quickly taking a seat.

Penny, on the other hand, looked cool and composed, a blue patterned caftan draped elegantly over her person—smoky gray eye-shadow expertly applied to give her that ‘mysterious’ look.

“Now, to what do I owe the pleasure?”

Kate didn’t mince her words. “I need to talk to you.”

“Yeah, I kind of got that impression,” Penny returned, seemingly unperturbed by Kate’s briskness. “Please, drink. You look like you could use it.” With a wave of her hand, Penny took in the cup and saucer, a creamer of milk and a basket of sugar.

“Look Penny, you’re my best friend—”

Slightly taken aback by the boldness of this statement, Penny nonetheless glowed at this. “And you’re mine.”

Kate nodded impatiently. “And, well, we tell each other everything.”

“Yeah…”

“At least, we used to.”

Penny frowned. “Used to?”

Kate swallowed, pushing the offended mug of coffee out of her way. “I want to tell you everything.”

“Okay.”

“No secrets.”

“Kate, you’re starting to scare me here.”

“It’s just—there’s something I haven’t told you. Something I really should have, and believe me, I wanted to tell you. I did! Please, don’t think—”

Penny pursed her lips. “You’re getting a bit muddled here, dear.”

“I know.” Kate bit her lip. “It’s just, I’ve never had I friend like you. I don’t ever want to lose you. Only, I thought I had and,” Kate paused. There it was, that thing they weren’t talking about. That stupid fight—the one Kate still wasn’t completely sure was resolved between them.

“Kate, you’re never going to lose me,” Penny assured her.

“But—but I thought… you said you were done with me…”  Kate blurted out.

“Oh Kate, I didn’t mean I was done with you—I was just mad, and….and I said things that I regret.”

“You said there were things I couldn’t talk to you about anymore…” Kate hated the whine that invaded her voice.

“That was wrong of me,” Penny admitted. “I’m sorry. But Kate, I will always be your friend. Please, never doubt that. I may get mad at you, and you’ll undoubtedly get mad at me…”

“We didn’t talk to one another,” Kate clarified.

Penny nodded. “I know. And that was my fault.”

“No, not entirely. You were right, too,” Kate confessed. “I was unwilling to make a decision—spinning in circles between Jake and Jackson. And I’m sorry, because that must have been aggravating…”

Penny smiled. “Friends are honest with one another—even when it hurts. That’s what makes them so powerful, so amazing—and precious.”

“I just don’t want you to be mad at me anymore.”

“I’m not.”

“Well, you may want to table your answer until you hear what I have to say…
“Okay.” Penny waited.

Kate opened her mouth, but the words just wouldn’t come out. “The thing is, something happened—umm, something big. And, it has to do with…ah, with what we were fighting about…”

“I’m with you.”

“You remember that play I did for the LitLiber?”
“Sure. Of course.”

“Well, it was during one of the rehearsals—”

“Yes?”

“And things sort of came to ahead.”

“With the play?”

“No with me and—” Kate blew out a hard breath. “You told me I needed to start making my own decisions. To stop being so wishy-washy, and I heard you. And so I acted. Well, actually it wasn’t me who made the first move, but I did make the second one.” Kate smiled tremulously. “I made the second move and, and that’s what I wanted to talk to you about.”

“About you and Jackson, you mean?” Penny asked innocently.

Kate’s mouth dropped open. “You know about us?”

Penny grinned. “Well, I do now.”
Kate’s mouth snapped back shut. “Oh.”

Penny reached over and grabbed Kate’s closed fingers. “I had my suspicions, I’ll grant you that….”

Kate’s face crumpled. “I’m so sorry I didn’t tell you.”

Penny shrugged. “I understand.”

“No, you don’t!” Kate cried earnestly. “I wanted to tell you. Penny, I was going out of my mind with wanting to tell you.”

“Then why didn’t you?” Penny asked, and for just a second, Kate saw a glimmer of hurt underlining the words.

Kate sighed. “I didn’t know how. It was right after you and me and—and everything that happened at Maggie’s—I was practicing with Jackson and then, suddenly…we kissed.”

“You kissed?”

Kate smiled. “And all I wanted to do was call you and tell you. I knew it would make it all right between us again.”

“Well, I certainly hope that wasn’t why you kissed him…”

“No! No, I kissed him because,” Kate’s voice dropped, taking on a girlish quality. “Because—I had to kiss him. You know what I mean?”

Penny cocked her head to the side. “I think so.”

“…like—every nerve in my body reacted on instinct and I leaned into him.”

Penny grinned. “Yeah?”

“And it was perfect.”

Kate rushed on ahead, her words bubbling up her throat and out of her mouth at tremendous speed. “Only then, just when I was going to tell you about it—we were both going to Maggie’s for dinner and I thought—Now. Say it now. Only…”

“I brought up Jake,” Penny remembered. In retrospect, she could have kicked herself.

Kate sighed. “Yeah.”

“And you thought—”

“Things were so tense between us. I didn’t know how to tell you…”

“That you’d already made your choice,” Penny said. “And it was Jackson.”

Kate ducked her head. “Yeah.”

“Oh Kate,” Penny squeezed her hand. “I’m sorry.”

Kate’s head bobbed up quickly. “For what?”

“For making you feel like you couldn’t tell me everything.”

“I knew you were only trying to be supportive, that you were only encouraging me to make the right decision for me, by giving me permission to have options….”

Penny nodded, careful to keep her face neutral. It wasn’t like she hadn’t seen this coming. She’d had a feeling something was going on with Kate and Jackson. Yesterday’s excursion in the water—she’d seen the way he’d looked at her, the way she’d desperately kept herself from looking at him. She’d added it up and she’d reached the correct number.

Still…before now, she’d been able to pretend. She’d been free to call up Jake with a new scheme or machination, even while some part of her already guessed it was a dead end. She’d been able to push that to the back of her mind—after all it had only been a hunch then, nothing concrete or real— she’d been able to focus instead on finding ways, making up avenues, to keep Jake and Kate close. Hell, she’d faked a sprained ankle for the damned triathlon, knowing all along that she’d have Jake pinch hit for her.

It had been fun, hanging out with her old friend again. Having a reason to call him up, shoot the breeze, meet up for dinner or coffee. It wasn’t like Kate was the only thing they’d talked about, either. In fact, other than those first couple meetings, after Jake had shown up so randomly at Penny’s store, conversation had drifted…. After all, there was only so long someone could talk about Kate’s tone of voice when she mentioned work at LitLiber, or whether she’d brought him up in conversation or whatnot. Pretty soon they’d been talking about their shared experiences as entrepreneurs; they’d reminisced about high school; Jake had regaled Penny with stories about his college days; she’d told him funny stories about psychic work; they’d laughed.

But that would end now. There was no reason to get together anymore. The thread that had brought them together was about to unravel. Jake was bound to know soon enough. And then, what would be the point? It wasn’t like Penny belonged in his circle of friends. No, she’d been on borrowed time with Jake. Always had been

“…Jake was your way of letting me know that no matter what choice I made, it was the right one. Only, at the time, I didn’t understand that. I thought—” Kate laughed, the sound of it bringing Penny back to the present conversation. “Well, it doesn’t matter what I thought. I’m just sorry it took me this long to figure it all out.”

Penny frowned. Kate was making her out to be someone she wasn’t: Altruistic. Selfless. Above reproach. It wasn’t quite true. “Hey,” she said, holding up a hand. “Don’t give me too much praise over here.”

“Why not?” Kate demanded. “You deserve it. You’re a great friend. The best.”

The knot in Penny’s stomach tightened uncomfortably.

“Well, I don’t know about that…”

“You’re not mad? That I didn’t tell you sooner about Jackson?”

Penny considered the question for a moment. “No. I’m not mad. I wish you felt you could have—”

“I do now.”

“I’m really happy for you, Kate.”

Kate blushed, her eyes skirting down demurely. “Thank you.”

“Jackson is one of the kindest, sweetest, most amazing people I know.”

“I’m starting to see that myself.”

A smug sort of smile started to bead across Penny’s features. Leaning back in her chair, she couldn’t stop herself from asking: “So what you’re saying is, I was right all along?”

“I knew you were going to say that!”

“Well, who’s psychic now!”

Kate laughed. “Yes, Penny, you were right.”

Nodding importantly, Penny crossed her arms. “You know, I never tire of hearing that.”

“I’m sure.”

“So perhaps next time, you’ll more seriously heed the advice of a woman with insights into the future?”

Kate glowered playfully. “Are you telling me that you knew I’d end up with Jackson all along? That you had a premonition from the beginning?”

“Would you believe me if I did?”

But Kate only shook her head. “All right, then, tell me this: is Jackson ever going to speak to me again?”

Penny’s smirk dropped off her face. “Come again?”

Kate sighed, and all the playfulness of the last minute melted off her person. With a weary note of self-deprecation, she told Penny about the conversation she’d had with Jackson earlier that morning.

“I thought he’d understand. That he, you know, would at least let me explain,” Kate said in conclusion. “I mean, usually he’s so level-headed, and, and compassionate.”

“Well, is anyone really level-headed when it comes to matters of the heart?” Penny asked.

“He made me out to be some sort of child—slinking around, keeping secrets. He basically accused me of not being one hundred percent committed to this relationship. ”

“Are you? One hundred percent committed?”

“Yes!” Kate paused as the answer popped out of her mouth. Tasting the sound of that one word her tongue, she found it to be absolutely true. “I want to be with him.”

“Maybe it’s time you showed him that.”

Kate snapped backward. “Show him? Wait… are you on his side?”

“Now Kate,” Penny soothed. “It’s not about sides.”

Kate pouted. “It sure feels like it.”

“I’m just repeating what he told you: action over words. That’s what he needs right now. And if the question is, how do you get him to realize you are committed, that you aren’t slinking around, then give the man what he wants. Show Jackson that you’re in this for the long haul, because I don’t think telling him that alone is going to do it.”

Kate slumped in her chair. “I really messed up, didn’t I?”

“Well, Kate put yourself in his position? Would you trust him at his word after yesterday?”

“No. I guess not.”

“Yeah.”

Kate sniffled. “I didn’t mean to hurt him. I didn’t—I didn’t think how it would look. I thought I’d have time to explain myself.”

“I know that.”

Wiping impatiently at her eyes, she asked: “So what do I do?”

“What they always do in a rom-com.”

“And that is?”
“Make a big romantic gesture.”

Kate blew out a breath. “Yeah? You think that will work?”

Penny winked. “Honey, he won’t stand a chance. Believe me, he wouldn’t be so upset with you if he didn’t care a whole lot.”

“Okay. Where do I start?”

Penny smiled. “Oh, I think I may have an idea or two on that…”

 

 

 

Forty minutes later, walking out of Penny’s shop, Kate’s feet took her in the direction of LitLiber; however, she didn’t walk inside the store. No, her feet carried her determinedly beyond its massive double-doors and down the side of building.

For Penny’s plan to work, Kate had to make one quick stop first.

She needed to talk to Jake.

Slowing to a stop halfway past the storefront, Kate looked up. Jake’s apartment was located directly above the bookstore, and accessed by an outside, wrought-iron staircase.

Squinting against the sun, she looked for any glint of light emanating from inside.

Wait. There—a shadow passed in front of one of the windows. He was home.

Good.

Grabbing on to the hand-rail, Kate took a deep breath before propelling her body upward….

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Forty-Nine

So Kate and Penny headed back outside to try it again. Swim Lesson 2.0

Grabbing up their towels, they walked determinedly toward the water’s edge. Staring out at the expanse of water, the tips of their toes lying against the last inches of grass there, Kate heard Penny take a deep breath, and then another. But this time, she wasn’t the only person nervous of wading inside those cool depths. Kate’s stomach clinched.

Because now she knew. She knew just how terrifying a step this all would be for Penny: letting her feet fall against the wet sand, feeling their weight sink against the surface there, letting her body break against the waves, the semi-suffocating texture of water encircling her, touching her—

Kate reached for Penny’s hand again, only this time she didn’t follow the action with a quick step forward. In fact, her fingers entwined tightly with Penny’s, this time she didn’t move at all. So instead, they just stood there, staring out ahead of them, watching the still water, neither moving.

A minute passed. And then another. Tick-tick-ticking…Kate could feel the panic stealing over her person. The confidence she’d felt earlier that afternoon, when she’d shown up like some heroic savior, was absent now, shadowed by the reality of what her presence meant. She didn’t want to screw this up again. She was no longer certain she had the capacity to help Penny…

The sound of feet crunching against the gravel driveway next door, the echo of movement where moments ago there had been only silence, caused Kate’s head to shift reflectively.

Jackson was home. Lost in her own thoughts Kate hadn’t heard the sound of his car approaching, hadn’t listened for the answering hum of an engine dying, a door opening and closing again.

Not until now…

But it was only too obvious that he’d seen them.

“Hey girls,” he called out then, his arm lifted in greet as he walked over to where they were stoically standing. “Doing a little sunbathing?” he asked, that easy smile on his face, his eyes taking in their outfits.

Sidling up to Kate’s left, the side not holding Penny’s hand, Jackson was suddenly much too close—and another kind of panic settled over Kate’s distraught nerves. Dropping Penny’s grip, she quickly skirted to stand in front of her friend. Her eyes avoided Jackson’s entirely. Instead, Kate focused on Penny, whose face seemed to be carved from stone…or ice.

“Actually,” Kate said in answer of his question, though her gaze never once left Penny, her arms folded stiffly in front of her body, “we’re thinking about going for a swim.”

That got Jackson’s attention. Slowly, his head turned to take in Penny; his eyes were soft, compassionate when the psychic slowly tilted her head in his direction.

“Is that true, Pen?” he asked, an odd note in his voice.

Penny nodded. “Yeah. Maybe. I—,” she cleared her throat. Then, with a decisive word, she amended. “Yes.”

And Jackson smiled. A big, sincere, honest-to-goodness grin split across his face. “Atta girl,” he said, his arm coming up to give her a half-hug.

“Well, don’t get too excited yet,” Penny murmured drily. “We haven’t made much progress yet.”

“That’s not true,” Kate countered. “We got in the water earlier…”

“But it didn’t end well,” Penny finished in a self-deprecating manner.

Jackson gave Penny’s shoulder squeeze. “No? What happened?”

“I ran out screaming bloody murder.”

Kate ducked her head in shame.

But Jackson didn’t miss a beat. “But you’re back here, ready to try it again anyway?” he asked, that soft note still there in his voice.

Kate bit her lip. The way he was talking—in that protective, loving way—it made him almost irresistible. She wished he’d knock it off.

“I guess.”

“Well then,” he said slowly, “I’m not just excited. I’m proud of you, too.”

Then Kate could feel Jackson looking at her next, and she’d just bet that look was in his eyes—the one that said he thought she was amazing and beautiful, and that he was proud of her too, that she was a good friend for doing this, yada, yada, yada. She’d seen that particular look before (he’d worn it two nights ago when they’d gone fishing after dark; and the day prior, when she’d made that corny joke; and the time they’d kissed under that tree before the triathlon, it had been out in full wattage then….)—the one he personally seemed to specialize in, that chased all the butterflies loose in her stomach.

That look made her knees weak. That look made her want to throw her arms around him…it made it difficult for her to breathe properly. Suddenly, she wished there was more fabric to her bathing suit. She wished she could shield her body inside that towel lying down by her feet.

If Penny got a hold of that look on his face, if she got even a hint of Kate’s answering response…well, hell, it didn’t dare thinking about.

Staring determinedly at the ground, Kate hunched her shoulders against a pretend chill in the air. “Well I guess—”

“Got any advice?” Penny asked then, cutting over whatever Kate had been about to say.

Jackson seemed to consider this carefully. “I’ve got a couple actually…”

“Shoot.”

“Number one: we should get you a life jacket.”

Kate wanted to smack her hand against her forehead at the words. Well, duh. Of course! She should have thought of that.

“It’ll make you feel safer and that’s a big part of getting comfortable, gaining confidence…”

“Oh.” Penny’s face fell for a moment. “I’m not sure I have any—we used to, but I think I threw them away a few summers ago. They were pretty tattered.”

Jackson dropped his arm from around her shoulders. “No worries. I have a spare. Let me go and get it.”

And once that was done, and Penny was safely suited up, Jackson offered his second piece of advice. “Well, actually, it’s not so much advice as it is a request…?”

“And what’s that?” Penny asked eagerly. Kate hated herself for the smidge of resentment and jealous creeping over her person. Penny hadn’t sounded or looked anywhere near as calm and unaffected as she did now, with Jackson.

Kate was failing miserably.

“Let me help.”

Kate’s head snapped back at the quiet plea. Penny, too, looked startled. “You already have—”

Jackson waved her words away. “I want to be here, I want to watch you beat this. I know how hard it is for you, just being close to the water. And I know why.” He stops to let the intimacy of this statement resonant. I suppose he has a point. “And…I’d really like to help you get this back.”

Penny’s head rotated slowly. “Kate?” she asked quietly, nervously, waiting for permission.

Kate smiled at her friend, and she swallowed her pride. “I think that sounds like a great idea.” Then, rising her eyes to Jackson, she smiled flatly, in what she hoped was a casual, friendly sort of way. “Thank you. I’m sure we’d appreciate all the help we could get.”

And then, they were each holding on to one of Penny’s hands, with an absolute promise from each they’d let go it she asked, or panicked, or felt like she needed to run away. Slowly, with Jackson talking the quiet lead, they walked out into the water, just up to their ankles. After each step Jackson would stop, tell Penny to breathe, let her body relax, absorb the water—the feel of it playing against her skin. He’d wait until she felt fully in control before moving forward. It took a long time, but finally he had Penny in as far as mid-thigh…

“Well, how do you feel?”

Penny considered the question for a moment. “I feel fine. But that probably has a lot to do with you and Kate being beside me.”

Jackson chuckled. “Fair enough. But what about if Kate and I let go?”

Penny’s face whitened, her fingers tightening….

“No, no, no—” Jackson said, as though he’d read her thoughts. “I’m not talking about you going out on your own. I’m saying, right here, right where we are now, can you stand on your own and feel okay? It’s absolutely fine if the answer is no Penny. This isn’t a test, I’m just trying to gauge your reaction…”

Penny wiggled her toes against the sandy bottom. “We won’t go any further out?”

“No. Not unless you want to.”

“And you’ll give me your hand back if I want it?”

“Without question.”

Then, slowly, inch by inch, she let go of Jackson and Kate’s grip. Her arms stayed out, angled at her sides, as though to keep her equilibrium. For a second no one spoke, and then Penny lowered her arms.

“Yes.”

Kate breathed a sigh of relief.

Penny lit up like a Christmas tree. Or a firework.

Jackson took a couple careful steps backward, making sure to keep himself perfectly parallel to Kate and Penny. “Okay,” he called. “Can you walk from Kate to me? It’s a straight line, and I promise you’re not going any deeper in the lake.”

Penny took a deep breath. “Okay,” she said. Slowly she moved toward Jackson.

“You did great!” he cried, once she’d reached him. “Do it a couple more times, Penny. Get comfortable. Let your body adjust to the feel of water on your legs. Don’t worry about your arms right now,” he rushed to say, when the words began trembling out of Penny’s mouth. “We’ll save that for another day.”

“Another day?” Penny blinked.

Jackson smiled. “Yeah. I think we’ve gone in far enough for today. Don’t you, Kate?” He asked, calling the question down the line.

And Kate knew when she’d been licked. As much as she wanted to let Jackson’s take-charge attitude sting her pride, she was also humbled by his approach, grateful for his appearance this afternoon. He was better at this than she was. He was doing it right. And so her pride could go hang.

“Oh yeah. Another day.” She smiled over at Penny, who was making her clumsy way back toward Kate. “Penny, you’re doing so well. So well!”

And so, for the next twenty minutes,  Penny did as Jackson instructed: she moved in the water—back and forth, from side-to-side, her toes curling against the swaying sand, her legs building confidence in the heavy, buffeted water as she circled this small stretch of lake…and she laughed (laughed!) and smiled.

Afterward, Penny insisted that she walk out of the water all by herself (after all, it only got shallower from there on in). Hanging back to watch, Kate felt Jackson cozy up beside her in the water. Out of her peripheral vision, she watched, horror-struck, as his arm came sweeping up, ready to land against her shoulders.

Ducking quickly out of reach, Kate made a shivering motion, her arms quickly going to imprison her body. “Brr!” she called out suddenly, and, rubbing her hands up and down her arms ruthlessly, she scooted out after Penny, who was just then gaining solid ground, her fingers already reaching for the towel ready on the grass there. “Grab mine too, will you Penny?” Kate shouted, her voice breaking out loudly, frantically.

Wrapping the sun-warmed material around her body, Kate kept her voice carefully light. “You did amazing out there today, Penny. Truly amazing.”

Penny blushed. “It wasn’t anything a five year old couldn’t have done.”

“Not true—”

The sudden re-emergence of Jackson, his great strong arms reaching around Penny to engulf her in a gigantic hug, his body lifting hers off the ground in his exuberance, stopped Kate in her tracks.

Penny giggled.

“You! I’m so damned proud…you did it! Look at what you accomplished…” He told a still laughing Penny, whose hands were futilely swatting at Jackson’s shoulders as she pleaded with him to put her back down.

“Stop it, the both of you,” Penny insisted, but there was no denying the sparkle in her eyes, the pride in her smile. “It wasn’t all that much.”

“Yes it was.”

“Don’t be so modest…”

Penny pursed her lips. “Okay,” she relented. “It was kind of huge.”

And Jackson hugged her again, but this time, when he released her, before Kate had time to react, those impossibly strong, masculine arms had engulfed her in a hug.

“We did it, coach!” He said moments before he brought her into his body.

Mumbling incoherently, her arms going slack at her sides, her back poker straight in protest, Kate held her breath, trying not to breath in the scent of his wet skin, not to act on the pull of attraction between their scantily clad bodies…

Training her eyes to some far-off distance, Kate waited stiffly, until finally, she felt his arms drop away. And even though she could sense his eyes on her, could almost feel the insistent magnetism of them drawing her gaze, Kate refused to meet that look. She knew he would be confused, hurt…probably even a little angry at her rejection.

But she wasn’t rejecting him. Not really. It’s just…it was complicated, what with Penny and everything that had gone on with them recently. She and Kate were finally talking again.

They were almost there, back to where they’d been before…they were so close. Too close to muck it all up now.

And if Kate did what she really wanted to do, throw her arms around Jackson’s shoulders and kiss him passionate gratitude, well, muck it up would be too timid a phrase…. She and Penny would be finished. Over.

Because Kate still hadn’t told Penny about Jackson. It wasn’t like she’d meant to keep it a secret. At first, they’d been fighting; and then Penny had started in on her not-so-subtle hints about Jake; add to that Maggie’s lost necklace and…well, the longer Kate went without talking to her, the harder it was to start.

So, backing hurriedly away from Jackson, Kate kept her eyes downcast. A wooden smile etched over her face. And all the while, she wished he’d go away.

Apparently, Jackson read minds, because that’s what he did.

“All right,” he said, taking in Penny’s beaming face. “I’ll leave you two to celebrate this major victory. I’m guessing champagne is in order—”

“Leave us?” Penny asked, clearly oblivious to the tension radiating between Jackson and Kate. “Don’t you want a glass yourself? You were a pretty big factor in all this?”
Jackson smiled. “Another time. Unfortunately, I’ve got a meeting at school this evening.”

“It’s summer…”

Jackson grinned. “Only for a few more weeks. I’ve got a syllabus to get ready, a classroom to prepare, the school calendar to consult….”

Penny sighed dramatically. “Okay. Fine. But I’m holding you to your promise. We’ll celebrate another time. My treat.”

“Deal.”

And then he was gone.

 

 

 

She’d explain everything. He’d understand. She’d explain everything. He’d understand.

This had become Kate’s overnight mantra, as she’d tossed and turned, guilt churning away at her stomach…. What if she’d managed to save her friendship with Penny only to ruin her relationship with Jackson?

A pain so hard it caused her to sit bolt-upright in bed, clenched in Kate’s stomach.

No, no. Jackson would understand.

She’d call him and explain everything. He’d understand.

The next morning, blue smudges under her eyes attesting to her lack of sleep, Kate reached for her phone… Of course he’d understand, this was Jackson, after all.

But when he answered, Kate knew she’d been kidding herself.

“Kate. What’s up?” he asked, no preamble, no welcome. His voice was curt. It was unlike any greeting he’d ever given her before.

Kate straightened her shoulders. Okay, so she’d ruffled his feathers more than she’d thought. That was fine. She could handle this. “Hey…listen, I wanted to talk to you about yesterday—”

“What about it?”

“Uh, well…first of all, I wanted to thank you for helping me with Penny.”

Silence met her words.

Kate cleared her throat. “Right. Well, I-I just, you were really great with her.”

Jackson sighed loudly. “You don’t need to thank me. I’d do anything for Penny.”

“No, I know,” Kate amended quickly. “Of course. I just…”

“Kate, I’m kind of in the middle of something here…” Taking the phone off her ear, Kate stared at the device as though it had sprouted wings. Where was the compassion and softness of yesterday? “Was there anything else—?”

She screwed up the last of her courage. “Yes, actually there was. I wanted to apologize.”

A beat of silence and then, “Okay.”

“It’s just, I’m sorry if I can across a little…” Kate struggled to find the word.

“Cold? Unfriendly? Distant?” Jackson, however, didn’t seem to be having any troubles in that area.

“I don’t know if I’d said that…”

“I would.”

“Oh.”

Jackson sucked in a breath. “Why then?”

“Why?”

“Were you were being so…whatever?” Kate had never heard that particular emotion seep into Jackson’s voice. Hard mockery.

Kate decided on the truth. “Because I haven’t told Penny about us yet, and I didn’t want her to find out that way.”

“Wait—you haven’t told her? Why? I mean, I thought she was your best friend?”

“She is…”

“And?” Jackson’s voice was tight, suspicious.

Kate winced. “It’s sort of difficult to explain…”

“It’s difficult to explain that we’re dating?”

“No, not that—”

“Then what?”

Kate felt her teeth clench. “I—the thing is, Penny and I…”

Jackson made a sound. “Look Kate, I know we haven’t been seeing each other for very long—”

“It’s not what you’re—”

“But I thought we were on the same page,” Jackson said. “We talked about being exclusive, and we spend almost everything evening together—”

“Yes, I know…”

Jackson sighed wearily. “I’m looking for something serious, Kate. I thought you were too.”

“I am.”

“It doesn’t sound like it. And it certainly didn’t seem like it yesterday. I have no interest in juvenile theatrics—hot one day, cold the next…”

“That’s not fair!”

“No? Then why haven’t you told Penny?”

The phone pressed hot against Kate’s ear.

Jackson tried again. “How about Jake? Does he know you’re taken?”

Kate’s mouth went dry. She knew Jake was a sore spot for Jackson.

“I see.”

“I don’t think you do?”

“Then tell me, why the secrecy? If you’re not holding back Kate, then what’s going on?”

“Nothing! That’s what I’m trying to explain,” Kate cried desperately.

“Yeah,” Jackson said quietly. “I’m just not sure I want to listen to you try.”

“Jackson.”

“Actions over words, Kate.”

“Wait—”

She could practically see him shaking his head. “I’ve got to go.”

“Jackson, just wait a minute!

But he’d already hung up.

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Forty-Eight

It wasn’t until Maggie lost her necklace that Kate really realized it; in a way, she supposed she’d always known. She’d seen it, she’d just never thought about it. She’d never considered how bad it was until that day….

The way she’d forced Kate to stay back with M.T. when everyone else was scavenging for the lost piece of jewelry, to sit there next to Maggie holding her hand while everyone else dove in the cool waters…watching, waiting; they hadn’t both needed to be there, one would have sufficed…

But Penny had felt guilty. She’d felt impotent with helplessness. To have Kate go out there, to have Kate do what Penny could not—no, that could not happen. That did not happen. It was hard enough, succumbing so fully to her fears, she couldn’t be bested by Kate’s heroics, too.

It should have been so obvious. Even before the necklace, Kate had noticed things, like how Penny loved to look out and view it, but she kept herself at a good distance from its edge. How there’d always been this expression on her face whenever she got too close—of whispered reverence and total, abject revulsion and distrust.

Except.

Except, on the other hand, Penny lived on water. She should, in theory, by an avid swimmer. Or, at the very least, she should be able to swim.

But Penny did not swim. She could not swim. She was terrified of swimming.

“And I’d always been fine with that,” Penny had confided to Kate. They’d been sitting out on the patio of Margarita Joe’s, and Penny had probably more than enough tequila for the evening…. “But then, when Mags lost her necklace and I-I…I couldn’t help. I wanted to Kate, I really wanted to rush into that water, but I couldn’t.” Penny shook her head soulfully. “I despised myself for that fear. I hated the fact that it was going to keep me from helping one of the people I love most in the world.”

Kate silently wondered if that wasn’t the reason for the new necklace, the one Penny had bought for M.T. She wondered if Penny’s obsessive, manic urge to replace the lost one, replicate it, hadn’t stemmed from her longing to just do something, anything, to help in whatever way she could—and maybe avail herself of the failure she felt over not being able to swim out to find the old one. It was as though Penny thought that it was because she couldn’t swim that it hadn’t been found, as though some part of its missing were her fault.

“It’s not your fault, you know,” Kate had tried to reassure her. “That it hasn’t been found. We’ve been diving for days now and no one’s seen heads or tails of it.” Kate licked the salt off the rim of her glass. “What I’m saying is, whether you could swim or not, it’d still be lost.”

Penny shrugged, her lips pursed. “I know. I know, but it doesn’t make me feel any less pathetic.”

“I know what will make you feel better,” Kate said before ordering them another round of margaritas.

“Yes, because alcohol is usually such a pick-me-up.” Penny chuckled.

“No, not that,” Kate returned, batting her hands at the words. Smiling hazily in Penny’s direction, she offered the psychic a big, toothy grin. Now she came to think of it, Kate may have had one too many drinks, as well. “No. This.”

“This what?”

Kate cleared her throat. “I’ll teach you how to swim.”

Penny’s eyes shone bright in the neon-lighting shining over the outside seating. “Really?” she breathed.

“I’m a great swimmer,” Kate assured her. “In fact, it’s kind of a requirement, where I’m from.”

Penny laughed.

“Right?” Kate snickered. “Because I come from the land of 10,000 lakes…” Another guffaw.

Penny stopped, a quizzical look on her face. “Oh! Wait—” she sounded out, in dawning realization. She pointed a knowing finger in Kate’s direction. “I get it. The land of ten thousand lakes.”

And then they fell into peals of laughter yet again.

 

 

 

The rest of the night was kind of a blur, but when Kate woke up the next morning three things remained perfectly clear:
1. Penny telling Kate that M.T. was one of the people she loved most in the world.

  1. Kate promising Penny she’d teach her how to swim.
  2. The girls deciding that the first lesson would commence that afternoon, at three pm.

 

 

 

“What are you doing here?” Penny asked uneasily, opening the front door to her house at Kate’s insistent knock. Her eyes darted out nervously toward the water’s edge.

“Swimming lessons,” Kate told her.

Penny’s mouth pulled down…

“You do remember agreeing to this, don’t you?” Kate teased.

“Oh—well, yeah, I guess….”

“Then let’s get to it.”

“I thought we were just talking though,” Penny stuttered, her cheeks getting uncomfortably red. “You know how people do…”

Kate tilted her head to the side. “Just talking? But we made a schedule, Penny.”

“Yeah,” Penny ran her teeth over her lower lip. “But, you know, there was a lot of alcohol involved.”

Kate waved away the words dismissively. “So what?”

Penny fidgeted, her fingers playing frantically with the doorknob she still had in her grasp. “I’m not too sure about this…”

“Did you mean what you said yesterday?” Kate asked stubbornly. Her head ached and her body felt like garbage, but she’d drug herself out of bed, and underneath her icepack, to help Penny. She would not be turned away now. “Regardless of the alcohol, did you mean it when you said you hated not being able to jump in that water and help Maggie—that you despised yourself for giving into your fear? That you felt like a coward and worse than that, you felt ashamed—everything Maggie has done for you and you couldn’t get over one small phobia…”

“Okay!” Penny shouted. “Yes. I meant it. Okay. Stop.”

Kate nodded grimly. “Then put on your bathing suit and let’s go out there.”

“Kate…”

The blonde shook her head determinedly. “Penny, I’m not going to let anything happen to you. I promise.”

Penny sucked in her lip.

“I know you’re scared,” Kate continued. “But I will be with you the entire time. I will hold your hand the entire time. I won’t let you go.”

Penny blew out a deep, hard breath. Then, with a quick jerk of her head, she turned on her heel, and made for her bedroom.

Kate smiled in quiet triumph. She wanted to do this for the psychic. It was important. Kate and Penny still hadn’t really talked about the incident… and it was still there, between them, that fizzle of angry words and hurt feelings. Jake and Jackson. And Kate and Penny.

Kate sighed. They hadn’t really talked about it—this topic they consciously ignored, but it weighed down on their friendship all the same; there, between them, laying unsaid in the midst of conversation, was that fight. That fight they were determined not to bring up. To forget. To pretend  never happened.

Only it did happen and no one had forgotten anything.

It’s not that Kate wanted a rematch. She didn’t want to argue at all. She just wanted her friend back. She’d missed Penny. And so she was going to teach her how to swim.

She was going to do for her what Penny had frequently done for Kate. Help her heal, help her find her strength. It was time Kate gave back. It was time she followed Maggie’s heed: this time, it was Penny who would come first. Penny, whose feelings and upsets would take first priority. It was past time that Kate showed Penny she could be a good friend, too.

“Ready?” Kate called when Penny reemerged some minutes later, a brightly colored towel tied tightly around her waist, her face a few shades too pale.

Penny nodded sharply. Speech seemed to be beyond the psychic as the women let themselves out of the house and walked the short distance down to the water’s edge.

Clutching the towel tighter around her person, Penny stared down at the wet sandy shore, staring as if mesmerized at the water lapping gently there. Her knuckles were white, her breathing not quite controlled.

“Penny?” Kate asked. “Here, let me take your towel.” Carefully, she took hold of the microfiber material, pulling it free from Penny’s hold.

Throwing the thing down on the grass, she grabbed for Penny’s hand. It was ice cold in her grip. “Ready?” Kate asked, with a sideways smile. She squeezed reassuringly before taking one step and then another forward.

Penny came along reluctantly, her eyes wide, unnerved.

“Remember, I’ll be with you the whole time,” Kate counseled. Penny looked strange. “Just hold on tight and take one more step forward and…there!” Kate squealed. “You’re officially in the water now.”

And Penny was. At least, the bottoms of her feet were in the water. But it was a start. And slowly, Kate walked Penny onward. Further. Further, until the girls were in the water up past their knees. Penny still hadn’t spoken, her jaw seeming permanently clenched as she allowed herself to be persuaded deeper and deeper.

Everything had been going just fine until that sixth step… when the sand dropped away unexpectedly by a foot or so. One minute the girls were standing mid-thigh and the next thing Kate knew, they were waist-deep in the cool, calm lake.

That’s when Penny panicked. And it wasn’t just a howl of surprise at the abrupt submergence, either. It was a flat-out freak-out.

“No, no, no, no, no…!” Shaking her head frantically, Penny’s voice came out hoarse and high-pitched. Throwing off Kate’s hold, she scrambled backward, her arms splashing frantically against the surface of the water, her feet almost tripping in her haste to get away. Tears filled her eyes as great heaving huffs off air exploded out of her lungs.

“No, no, no, no, no!” she kept saying, her voice rising louder and louder, more frantic and frenzied.  Then, at last, her feet found grass. But Penny was in such a state, she didn’t seem to realize she was safe, free… She just kept screaming, her legs propelling, pushing in retreat.

“Penny—wait,” Kate called, running after her. Her long legs were on Penny in a second. Reaching out Kate’s fingers just brushed the back of her swimsuit.

“No!” Whipping around, Penny railed on her. “I told you—I said I didn’t want to do this! Why didn’t you just listen to me!”

“No, you said you weren’t sure—”

“Shut up Kate! Just shut up.”

Kate’s head snapped back at the words.

“You pushed me to do this. But I’m not—I don’t want to do this, okay?”

“Okay,” Kate relented, stunned by the accusation in Penny’s voice, hurt beyond consideration. Blinking back her own tears, Kate apologized. “I’m sorry—I didn’t mean…”

“Just leave it,” Penny barked, throwing her arms out wide to encompass the lake before them. “Just leave it alone. I’m not—” Whipping furtively against the tears streaming down her face, Penny just shook her head. Picking up her towel, she started back up for her house.

The broken, half-suppressed sob that accompanied Penny’s scurry, however, was what cut Kate the deepest.

 

 

 

Kate cracked open the front door. “Penny?” she called, rapping her knuckle softly against its sturdy frame.

She received no answer. Straightening her shoulders, even when every part of her body insisted that she turn around, shut the door behind her and leave Penny alone, Kate walked inside the psychic’s dimly lit living room.

“Penny?” She called again. Listening, stretching her ears for sound, Kate prayed for an answer, any answer…

And then, suddenly, Penny was standing there in front of Kate, having emerged from the kitchen; a caftan was draped comfortingly across her body, a ceramic mug in her hands. For a moment, Kate and Penny stared at one another. Then, holding up the steaming cup, Penny asked gruffly. “Want a cup?”
Kate smiled tremendously, letting out the breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. “I would love one.”

Silence descended as the girls made their way into the peach-hued room, Penny busy taking down a mug from the cupboard, Kate struggling with what to say…

“I’m sorry,” Penny breathed then, breaking the silence. Her back was to Kate as she reached for the carafe, pouring out a cup of coffee.

“You’re sorry?” Kate blinked. “No, I’m sorry!”

“I freaked out,” Penny said, turning then, her eyes wet. “I—I told you to shut up! I can’t believe I said that…”  Penny handed over the steaming cup. Kate took it gratefully.

“You probably had every right too,” Kate conceded. “I was pushing you. And I should have listened when you expressed doubts.”

“No, you were trying to help. I know that. I just…I lashed out.”

“It’s okay.”

Penny nodded, bringing her coffee up to her mouth. Kate mirrored her. For a second neither of them spoke, each busy drinking the beverage in their hands, neither knowing exactly where to go from here…

“I used to swim,” Penny said. “When I was a little girl; I’d go out with Maggie. I was never very good, but I could float.”

“What happened?” Kate asked softly, because clearly something had.

“My mother was a drunk.” The words slapped hard against the air, as unexpected as they were harsh. “Did you know that?” Penny asked, her voice oddly conversational. “It didn’t really start to show until after Maggie’s dad died, until after she’d left…”

Kate swallowed difficultly.

“And one day, after she’d had too many, she decided she wanted to lie out in the sun on the dock,” Penny murmured. “I guess she passed out because when I found her, she was face down in the water, unconscious.”

Kate’s hand went up to cover her mouth involuntarily. Oh God.

Penny laughed without mirth. “I remember it so well. I was up in my bedroom, watching TV and suddenly this strange feeling came over me—like when you get water up your nose and it burns! And I heard this voice whispering in my head: The lake! The lake! Get to the lake! And I knew. I just knew what had happened.”

Penny hitched a shoulder.

“I ran outside, my feet slipping, smacking against the dock. I remember that sound so well. And when I saw her—I just screamed.” Penny shook her head. “I screamed and screamed and screamed. And next thing I remember, Jackson and his grandfather came running outside, and then they were in the water, lifting her out. And then Jackson was calling an ambulance while Mr. Fischer was giving my mother mouth-to-mouth…”

“Oh Penny, that must have been so terrifying.”

Penny scratched at something on her nose. “She almost died, Kate. If I hadn’t listened to that voice…If I hadn’t gone out there when I did…”

Kate stroked a hand down Penny’s arm. “I know.”

Penny smiled. “It was the first time I realized I had the gift.” She laughed bitterly. “What a way to find out, huh?”

Kate bit down hard. “I’m so sorry.”

“I never went back in the water again.”

“Of course,” Kate nodded. “I understand.”

“…I tried, but I couldn’t. Every time I—, well, you saw what happens.”

Kate blinked back tears.

“I loved my mother,” Penny said, “but she took so much away from me. She took my childhood away from me. And all she left in its place was scars and fears, lots of them—would she kill herself today? Would I make it home in time to save her? Would she remember my name…?”

“I-I,” but Kate didn’t know what to say.

With an abrupt start, Penny put down her mug. “And you know, I’m sick of it.” She spoke so softly, Kate wasn’t sure if Penny was talking to her or to herself. “I’m sick of being afraid.”

Kate stared at her uncertainly.

Penny lifted a steely gaze to Kate. “I meant what I said yesterday. I want to swim. I do. Can we—can we try again?”

 

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Forty-Seven

“My necklace—I can’t find my necklace!”

This sentence, M.T.’s terrible shrill voice echoing off in the air… that was the first thing Kate became aware of after crossing the finish line. Her shirt was sticking uncomfortably to the skin on her back, right between her shoulders blades, as she advanced toward where the rest of her team was huddled. The smile of victory on her face vanished at the somber expression on Jake’s face, the fearful one of Penny, and the absolute terror flashing across the pastor’s pale countenance.

This was far from the welcome she’d expected to receive at the end of their race.

“What’s going on?” Kate asked, jogging up to them.

“My necklace,” M.T. warbled, her hand scratching futilely against her bare collarbone, tears cascading down her cheeks. “I can’t find my necklace!”

“Shh—Mags,” Penny hushed. She had both her arms around M.T.’s quaking shoulders. “Maggie it’s okay.”

“No—!” M.T. ripped herself out of Penny’s embrace, her eyes wild. “I have to find it. I have to—” Maggie made to move forward.

“Stop! Maggie, just stop,” Penny repeated, halting her sister’s mad motions. “Jackson told you to stay put, remember?”

“Keep an eye on her Penny,” he’d warned, adding in no uncertain terms. “And don’t let her get in that water. It’s too dangerous. She’s too upset!”
Kate didn’t know any of this though. Staring blankly ahead, trying to piece together what was unraveling before her that’s when she noticed them—the bodies swarming the sides of the lake, people free diving in and out of the shallow water, combing the sand by the shore and, a little further out, a boat, anchored out in the middle of the lake. Squinting she could make out a few men loaded down with scuba equipment spilling out into the deeper waters.

“I should be out there!” M.T. cried her arms pointing recklessly ahead.

“Jackson’s out there. He’s an experienced diver. So are Mark and John…” Penny was saying in a soothing voice. “If anyone can find your necklace, it’s them. You need to stay here Maggie—you’re no help to anyone in this condition!”

That’s when it all clicked together for Kate. Gasping as the full realization of the situation spelled itself out, she locked eyes with Penny. Maggie had lost her necklace while swimming her portion of the triathlon. Her small, heart-shaped locked was lost somewhere out in the expanse of all that muddy, murky water.

It could be anywhere in there.

“I have to get it back,” M.T. wailed plaintively, her voice thin, quivering.

“And you’re absolutely positive you had it on this morning, before the race started?” Penny asked. Kate could tell by the tone of her voice, it wasn’t the first time she’d presented the question. “You’re one hundred percent sure it’s not at home…on your bedroom dresser or something?”

M.T. made a small gurgling sound. “I’m sure. I never take it off…never!” At the word fresh tears made their way from her eyes.

Kate was stunned. Scared. She’d never seen M.T. so…off balance. So emotional. Her eyes latched on to Penny as if searching for answers but she didn’t find any there. Penny looked just as confused by M.T’s behavior…just as shocked.

In the ensuing minutes, as Penny worked to calm M.T. and managing to only half-succeed in this venture, Kate was able to piece together the rest of the story.

Everything had started out fine. The race had started perfectly, with M.T. stationed right beside Jackson, meeting him stroke for stroke. (Their close proximity throughout would be something of a godsend later, since Jackson remembered their location fairy well, thus narrowing down the search effort.) She’d finished well, close behind him. It was after sending Jake on his way that she realized something was missing.

Panicked, she’d scrubbed frantically at the sandy edge of the lake, hoping, desperate to believe that it had only just fallen off, that it would peek up at her in the glinting sun, nestled against some pebble or driftwood…refusing to believe it had sunk down there…down there in the depths of a formidable watery bottom. When she hadn’t found it, she’d only scrubbed harder. It had to be here. It couldn’t have fallen off anywhere else. It just couldn’t have. Because, if it had—if it had, she’d never see it again.

That’s when Jackson had found her, clambering around on her hands and knees, great hiccups of breath heaving out of her mouth. Through gasping sobs, she’d told him what had happened. And that’s when he’d started up the recovery party….

“I don’t understand,” Kate whispered to Penny some time later, as the girls stood by helplessly, watching, waiting…praying for a hand to rise up out of the wet depths in triumph, a gold chain held in one fist; M.T., quiet now, was huddled on a park bench nearby, just out of earshot. Her eyes were red and puffy, her sobs silent now. “What is it about this necklace? Why is it so important to her?”

Because obviously it was. Someone didn’t react quite so—violently, when it was nothing more than a shiny bauble.

But Penny only shrugged. “I have no idea.”

“I mean, I’ve seen her wear it before…”

“Me too.”

“Actually, she wears it all the time, doesn’t she?” Kate said in wonder.

Penny nodded. “I asked her about it once—teased her actually that she needed to expand on her jewelry selection.” The psychic frowned.

“What did she say?”

Penny sighed. “Nothing really. She just smiled and told me something like, ‘with logic like that, women would have to buy new wedding rings every few months!’”

Kate bite her lip. Her eyes zeroed in on the divers out in the distance. “Do you think they’ll find it?”

Penny blew out a hard breath. “No.” Her voice was soft.

Kate felt her own set of tears closing in. “Me neither.”

“But I know Jackson. And I know he won’t give up until he does.”

Kate felt a jerk of pride at the words, especially because they were true. “At least we have that.”

“Yeah,” Penny said.

 

 

 

But by dusk that evening, the necklace still remained a mystery. Most of the search crew—and the curious stragglers who’d stayed for the excitement of it—had long since packed up and gone home, tired and weary from the lack of discovery. Even Jackson had surrendered, finally coming in out of the water.

“I’m so sorry, Pastor Thayer.” Jackson’s voice was soft, earnest as he bent down to where she still sat on that bench.

Maggie’s body jerked. “Thank you for trying Jackson. I appreciate it. I really do.”

“I won’t give up,” he told her cryptically, a tiny muscle in his jaw ticking at the words. “I’ll go back out tomorrow.”

Maggie had tried to smile, but there was no spark of hope or expectations in her eyes; it was eerie, seeing a woman of religion so…disbelieving.

“I’ll go back out tomorrow,” Jackson had repeated. “We’ll try again.” Then, as if sensing that she needed to be alone, he stood back up and quietly left.

“I don’t know what we would have done without him,” Penny said to no one in particular. Kate agreed silently. Jackson had been a lifesaver. And he hadn’t been the only one, either.

Jake had been equally amazing. Not long after Kate had arrived, he’d gone down to the water to help organize the search—setting up markers and buoys, sectioning off parcels of the lake to streamline the hunt, obtaining food and water, towels and equipment. And then he’d gone out into the lake to look himself, still wearing his cycling outfit.

Kate, too, had wanted to race into that cool body of water and take her turn dredging up whatever lay below its surface. She had experience scuba diving. She knew what to do. But one look and M.T.’s crumpled expression, mixed with Penny’s whispered plea: “Please. Stay. She needs us here,” had decided Kate’s fate.

So she’d stayed behind. She’d stayed behind and held Maggie’s hand, she and Penny, huddled around her, sheltering her from the blow of reality. The necklace was gone.

Kate only wished she could have done more. She only wished it had worked.

“It’s time to go home,” Penny was saying now to M.T. But the pastor only shook her head.

“I can’t go. I can’t leave her.”

Kate’s forehead crinkled. Her? But, once again, when she looked at Penny, she found no forthcoming information. The psychic looked just as startled as Kate felt.

“It’s getting dark,” Penny tried to reason. “It’ll be cold soon.”

M.T. shook her head harder. “I can’t go.”

“Then we’ll stay,” Kate said. She looked at Penny for confirmation.

“I’ll get us some blankets,” the older woman returned ruefully.

And that’s how they found themselves, hours later: huddled on that cold bench seat, wrapped in blankets that Penny had somehow acquired, sitting around a small campfire, staring out despondently at the shimmering water before him.

As night descended fully around them, M.T.’s sniffles and occasional wails turned to whimpers and then to nothing at all. Her eyes took on a glassy, numbed expression. No one spoke. It hadn’t seemed right, somehow, filling the air with inane chatter, pretending as though M.T.’s heart wasn’t breaking. So they’d just sat there instead, looking out and watching. Waiting some more.

“Maggie?” Penny said now, breaking the cone of silence which had accompanied their stakeout.

In response, the pastor merely turned her head a little.

“Can you tell us about it? About the necklace?”

M.T.’s mouth pulled down.

But Penny pushed forward anyway. “Who gave it to you? They must be someone special?”

M.T. turned to look back at the lake.

“It’s okay,” Kate said, silently pleading with Penny to shut up. “You don’t have to talk about it.”

Penny’s hand reached out for M.T.’s “No, of course not,” she rushed to say in agreement, back-paddling now. “I apologize. I didn’t mean to pry. I just—,” Penny sighed. It had a watery quality to it. “I’m so sorry you’re hurting.”

And then the girls lapsed into silence once again.

“I don’t know the woman’s name,” M.T. said, her voice ghostly thin. “The woman who gave me the necklace. She was an orderly at the hospital. That’s all I know.”

The hospital?

Penny and Kate shared a look over M.T’s head. This was getting weirder and weirder by the minute.

She said, she said she gave them to all the mothers’ who’d lost a child,” M.T. said. “She said it was her way of reminding them that, even though their babies weren’t meant to live on this earth, they still carried them over their heart.”

Penny’s eyes were hard, wide. “I don’t understan—”

Maggie’s head turned so sharply she almost butted it against Penny’s. “I was going to name her Arabella.” And just as quickly, M.T. turned back to the water. “And she was going to be mine. And for two days, she was.”

Kate’s throat felt scratchy, tight. “Oh Maggie…” she breathed.

Penny. “You had a child?”

“Yes.”

“And she…?”

“Died.” M.T’s voice was mechanical, cold.

“I-I don’t understand.”

M.T. shrugged. “She was premature.” Then she laughed. “Hell, I was premature.”

Kate wasn’t sure who needed comforting more. Maggie or Penny.

“When?” Penny demanded then, her voice high. “When did you have her?”

M.T. closed her eyes. “When I was eighteen.”

“When you were eighteen?” Penny echoed. “Eighteen? Eighteen!” Penny seemed to be choking on the word. “Is that why…?”
“I left?”

Penny nodded.

“Yes. Partly.”

“You never told me—you never told me!” Penny’s voice broke over the words. Kate winced.

M.T.’s voice was the same. Detached. Clinical. “Dad had just died and I, I went a little crazy. Drinking and partying and…and then I got pregnant.”

Penny couldn’t seem to find any words.

“Your mother and I, we weren’t close,” M.T. said, but there was no accusation in her voice. “I couldn’t go to her. I couldn’t tell her. I was so lost Penny, you have to understand that!” M.T. pleaded, just a hint of emotion finally breaking through her self-imposed monotone. “I was confused and scared and I did what so many scared, confused kids do. I left. I just…ran.”

“Oh Maggie!” Penny wept loudly. “I’m so sorry! All those years I hated you and I never knew. I never knew! You must have felt so alone—”

And M.T. cried. Her shoulders hunching in her pain, she cried all over again. “I wanted to come home after…after everything happened but I didn’t know how. I—I didn’t know where home was anymore. Without dad. Without Arabella. I was angry and hurt and I—I just wanted her so bad! I wanted to be her mom. She was my home, and she was gone!”

Kate, her arms wrapped tightly around M.T’s shaking form, kissed the pastor on the side of ash blonde hair. “Shhh! It’s okay…it’s okay…”

“I didn’t want to share her,” M.T. said, her words becoming as jumbled as her thoughts. “What little time I got to spend holding her, kissing her…even the memory of it, I didn’t want to share that with anyone. And when I put that necklace on, I felt her—”M.T. jabbed a finger against her heart. “Here. With me. And I couldn’t…I couldn’t leave her. And I couldn’t talk about her.”

Penny’s voice was thick. “So you stayed away.”

“I stayed away.  Started a new life. The one I should have had with her.”

“I wish could have met her,” Penny said tentatively. “I would have loved her.”

“Oh, I wish for that too!”

Penny swallowed hard, a new resolve in her eyes when she said: “We’ll find that necklace, Maggie.”

“Oh Penny,” Maggie sobbed hard. “No, we won’t.”

 

 

 

And a week later it seemed like Maggie was right. Jackson had gone diving every day that week looking for Maggie’s locket, and each evening he’d come up empty-handed. A few other swimmers in the community had offered to pitch in but after a couple days of fruitless searching, one by one they’d given up the fight.

“I don’t know how much longer Jackson can hold out hope,” Penny said to Kate one afternoon, while the girls were out shopping.

“Do you think he knows?” Kate asked. She’d wondered about it a couple of times, how Jackson had seemed to grasp, without being told, just how valuable that necklace was to M.T. He had to know, otherwise he wouldn’t still be out there, as he was right now, on a Saturday afternoon, for the fifth day in a row, with the last scuba buddy he could get to accompany him, looking, looking, looking! Everyone else had called it for what it was: a lost cause. She could have lost the necklace anywhere. The lake was too big, the necklace too small.

But Jackson wasn’t giving up.

“I doubt it,” Penny said, her face pressed up against a glass display case. “I can’t imagine M.T. telling him. It’s not like they’re super close.”

That was true enough. Besides which, Kate had the strong impression M.T. had never told anyone about Arabella. Not before that night, anyway. Not beside Kate and Penny. Even after all those years, the pain had been too fresh, too rich….

“But…well, Jackson lost Emily’s gardening spade soon after she died,” Penny said nex to surprise Kate. “I’m not sure if I ever told you, but she had the most beautiful flower beds.”

“You did actually,” Kate remembered quietly.

“Anyway,” Penny waved her hand, her eyes peering down at the items on the velvet-covered racks. “Jackson was distraught. I’d never seen him like that before—he went crazy looking for that stupid thing. It took us two days of going through that entire house before I found it in a box of her clothes, tucked away in the attic. Probably some family friend had stashed it away in there hoping to spare him the pain of seeing it.”

Kate listened raptly. This was a side of Jackson she was both terrified of and deeply curious to know more about.

“When I gave it to Jackson he took it and hung it back up on the rack in their mudroom. That was it. He just wanted to put it back where she would have left it. He was frantic for days, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat…and the whole time, all he wanted was to put it back on the wall in its rightful place.”

“Because he felt closer to her that way,” Kate said, remembering what M.T. had said.

Penny nodded. “He’s never used it that I’ve noticed. I bet it’s still resting there.”

Kate digested this slowly. “So he knows, he just doesn’t know.”

“Right.”

Kate sighed, her eyes turning to take in the store surround them. Wall-to-wall cabinets and display cases. “And what is it we’re looking for again?”

“We’ll know when we find it.”

“Because I don’t think—”

“There!” Penny squealed, her fingers pointing down through the glass. “There!”

Kate peered closer. “Which one?”

“On the right. Third row. The right, Kate, the right!”

Kate smiled when she saw it.

 

 

 

“And you’re sure about this?” Kate asked as the sales woman bundled up their package five minutes later. “Maggie won’t be upset?”

“I was an aunt, Kate. Aunt’s get to spoil their nieces.” Kate’s eyes traveled back to the jewelry box, inside which lay a gold-plated heart, an almost exact replica of the one M.T. used to wear. Only this time the inscription was different.

It read:

Arabella.

                        Welcome home.

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Forty-Six

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.

Ten feet…

Seven feet…

God, she was so close.

Two feet.

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.”

“In fact…”

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.”

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Forty-Five

Kate looked at herself carefully in the mirror. Her blonde hair was brushed carefully off her face, the meticulously curled tendrils falling softly down her shoulders. Her lips were painted a becoming pink to match the dusting of blush covering her high cheekbones. Other than her eye-shadow—a golden hue smudged at the edges with the lighted dabs of grey—which she was seriously starting to doubt, she looked fine. Good. Maybe she should leave off the smokey accents?

With a resigned sigh, Kate wiped off the offending make-up. Her hands shook. Jackson was picking her up in less than half an hour. For their first date. Jackson.

Kate smiled tremendously. At least her outfit was ready: black tights underneath a peach-and-black knee-length accordion skirt and a black-and-white striped full-sleeved shirt (which hugged her curves in all the right places). The lacey scarf tied artlessly over her neck was just enough jewelry. She’d decided to forgo her silver watch in case that sent across the wrong message.

Painstakingly applying a more neutral honey-toned shadow to her eyes, Kate tried to breathe normally. Her stomach was a bundle of nerves. She hadn’t eaten all day. Correction: she hadn’t been able to eat all day. She just hoped it wouldn’t pick an inopportune time to start rumbling. She had a date with Jackson! It had consumed her thoughts all day. And, since she hadn’t been able to talk to Penny about it; and yes, Kate knew what sort of chicken that made her, she’d found herself unable to relax, unable to enjoy the anticipation building in her body, humming throughout her nerves.

Setting her make-up brush down on the bathroom vanity, Kate took a step back to once again view the finished product. Better. Much better. She looked bright and breezy. Retreating into her living room, before she had a chance to change her mind yet again, Kate looked anxiously at the clock.

5:46 p.m.

Jackson would be there in less than fifteen minutes. Oh god! She hadn’t picked out which pair of shoes she was going to wear…!

As it happened, Kate had only just landed on a pair of patent leather sling-backs when she heard the unmistakable breaking of a car right outside her drive, followed closely by the opening and closing of a car door and then the muffled sound of footsteps walking up her drive. And, even if her ears hadn’t already been on a ridiculous high-alert, Danger’s unmistakable bark, following closely by his nose pressed up anxiously against the parlor room window, his doggy breath foggy up the pane there, would’ve tipped her off.

Shushing him ineffectively, whipping the shoes anyhow on her feet, Kate hurried to the door, her fingers patting furtively against her already perfect hair-do as she came upon the door.

Breathe Kate. Just breathe.

Throwing a smile on her face, Kate opened the door with something of a flourish, which in retrospect, was a bit premature since Jackson hadn’t yet knocked on its solid frame. In fact, he hadn’t even reached the doorway yet. Jeez. Could you look any more desperate, she silently ridiculed herself? Good God, at least pretend at being unaffected by his presence.

“Jackson,” she breathed hurriedly, her hand batting at the air. “I thought I heard you drive-up.” Great opening Kate, she berated herself. Very original. Why don’t you just out-right state that you’ve been pacing up and down, anxiously awaiting his arrival!

But if Jackson thought this was a funny way to say hello, he didn’t let on. He merely smiled. “The perks of having a guard dog, huh?” he joked, coming forward to stand before her. Obviously, he’d heard Danger’s mad woofing.

Kate nodded. “Yeah, sorry about that…” and, as if on cue, Danger took that moment to lunge himself toward the door, his nose working overtime in his attempt to sniff out Jackson’s intentions. Only Kate’s quick movements blocked what would have undoubtedly been a full-on pounce.

“Lay down Danger,” she instructed gruffly, pointing the mammoth dog back where he’d come. Whimpering quietly, he did as told, but the button eyes he leveled at Kate told her just how the animal felt about the dismissal.

Turning back to Jackson, Kate smiled shyly, her eyes not quite meeting his. “We’re working on his manners still. Sorry about that.”

“No problem.”

And then, for a moment, a tense sort of silence fell between them. Kate looked down at her fingers, which were busy fiddling together, her nails scraping against one another.

“Would you like to come in—?”

“You look lovely,” Jackson said, speaking at the same time as Kate.

“Oh…” Kate blushed, her hands having turned their attention to splaying nervously down the sides of her shirt. “Thank you,” she mumbled. Then, her eyes peeking up, Kate took stock of Jackson’s appearance. Black slacks. Light brown pullover—very form-fitting, but then again, weren’t all of Jackson’s clothing? After all, the man had an impeccable body.

“You look lovely too.” Closing her eyes, Kate felt heat suffusing her face. “No-not lovely,” she corrected then. “You look Nice. Very…nice.”

Jackson laughed quietly. “Thanks.”

“I’m nervous.” The words blurted out of her mouth before Kate knew she was even saying them. And then, as if she were totally without command of her senses, Kate just kept on talking, making it worse and worse. “I haven’t been on a date, a real date, that is, in a long time.”

She could feel her face scrunching up. “God…please, don’t listen to me. I don’t know why I just said that…”

“Hey,” Jackson said, thankfully shutting her up. “If it helps, I’m nervous too.”

Clearing her throat, Kate nodded jerkily. “Can we start over?”
“Of course.”

 

 

And, miraculously, they did start over, Kate gaining some much-needed composure as Jackson walked her out to the car. And from there, the date went…well, it was perfectly. Jackson had made reservations at a restaurant just outside of town—a fancy place with linen tablecloths, and bow-tied waiters. It was the vicinity, rather than the grand atmosphere, which most pleased Kate.

Because she hadn’t talked to Jake yet; and to have him stumble upon her and Jackson out on what was clearly a date would have been tantamount to cruelty. She was going to talk to him…she was, only Kate wanted to do it right. And yes, okay, she knew she needed to do that sooner than later…. She was being a coward—what else was new?

It was just, Kate had meant what she’d said to M.T. the other day. She didn’t want anything to detract from her excitement over this date. And talking to Jake would have certainly put a damper on things. And—a very, very small voice at the back of her mind had kept insisting—was she ready to fully, firmly close that door yet?

But, by the time desserts were being delivered that evening, Kate knew the answer to that last, lingering question.

Not only was she ready to close the door between her and Jake, she was ready to dead-bolt the thing shut. Tomorrow she’d talk to him. Let him down nicely. Because, smiling across at Jackson, Kate’s stomached pinched tightly at her waist. She was done being wishy-washy on this issue. She liked Jackson.

And she wanted to see where this led.

She was in. Fully in.

“…and then I told her, ‘Hey, calm down. It’s only a book,’” Jackson said, drawing Kate’s attention back to the conversation at hand.

Laughing, she nodded quickly. “I know what you mean. Jake and I had to explain that to a customer the other day, who thought we were racist for shelving Adventures of Huckleberry…” but, at the quick frown that covered Jackson’s face at the start of this tale, Kate’s voice petered out.

“What’s wrong?” she asked quickly. Had she said something?

“Do all your stories include Jake in some form or another?”

Kate blanched at the question. Had she been talking about the other man too much? Mentally she counted off the list: she’d talked about last week’s bookseller conference—but of course Jake would have been there; and there’d been the one about how, between the two them, Kate and Jake had rearranged the entire store a couple weeks ago; and…well, she had told Jackson about the time she’d twisted her ankle, though she’d left out how Jake had literally had to carry her to the hospital.

Maybe she had been talking about him a lot. But-but, it wasn’t like that!

“Oh. I-I’m sorry…” Kate said, staring down at the dessert spoon clenched between her fingers. She didn’t want to give off the wrong impression!

“No,” Jackson insisted, his lips compressed in a tight line. “No, Kate, I’m the one who’s sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.” He tried to smile. “It was completely uncalled for.”

Kate smiled back wobbly. “It’s okay.”

“It’s just—he likes you. You know that right?” And there it was, that edge back in Jackson’s voice again.

Kate reeled. “I—oh…”

Jackson sighed. It was world-weary. “Dammit. Kate…I didn’t mean—”

“Oh, I think you did,” Kate muttered. What was happening here? The evening had been going so well…

“No. Forgive me Kate.” Jackson sighed. “It’s been a long time since I’ve found myself jealous of another man. I’m not handling it well.”

“Jealous? Over me?” Kate hedged.

Jackson gave her a dry look. “I know, I should be above such juvenile antics…”

Though she’d never admit it out loud, though she shouldn’t even admit it to herself, Kate found Jackson’s antagonism toward Jake oddly…endearing. Though feminists all over the world would despise the notion, Kate found herself more than a little complimented by his words, his attitude. Worse, she found herself more than a little heady of the power she obviously welded.

Of course, it also spelled trouble….

“Can I take a page out of your book, and ask for a redo?” Jackson pleaded then. “—and forget everything I just said?”
But Kate shook her head. “No.”

“No?” Jackson looked worried.

“Look, Jake and I work together. I see him almost every day. And I’m going to talk about him. Probably a lot. I don’t want to have to censor myself around you. Because that would make me feel guilty or, or whatever.”

“I don’t want you to do that either…”

But Kate wasn’t listening to Jackson. “But it’s not—,” she shrugged. “It doesn’t mean anything. Jake and I. The stories, they don’t mean anything.”

“Of course,” Jackson agreed. “I’ll stop acting like a jerk now and retrieve my foot from my mouth.”

“You weren’t,” Kate contradicted. And at Jackson’s confused look: “Acting like a jerk, that is. Not entirely,” Kate felt compelled to say.

“I wasn’t?”

Kate sat up a little straighter in the plush velvet chair. “Jake and I…there was som—”

“Kate you don’t have to tell me this.”

“You’re right,” Kate informed him stanchly, “but I want to.”

And when Jackson looked like he was going to say something else, Kate rushed to add: “This is probably heavy talk for a first date, but…” Kate tried not to blush at her forwardness: “But I want to get it out of the way for our second date—or third or fourth…that is, if you ask me out again.”

“Oh, I’ll ask.”

Kate smiled. “Okay, then.” After all that build-up, Kate wasn’t sure what she even wanted to say, so she just started talking. “Your jealousy isn’t completely unfounded. There is history between me and Jake. But it’s just that, history. And his feelings for me, whatever they are, are private, personal, and they have nothing to do with you. His feelings for me are none of your business.”

Jackson had the grace to look ashamed.

“What is your business, however, is this.” Kate paused to gather her nerves. “I have feelings for you. And, just to be clear, not for him.”

A slow, sweet smile curved up the sides of Jackson’s mouth, making fine lines crinkle in the corners there. However, “We’d better get the check,” was all he said in response to this.

“We’re leaving?” Kate asked unnerved.

“Oh, we’re leaving,” Jackson told her. “Because what I want to do now is better left done without an audience.”

And Kate grinned. Then she giggled.

 

 

 

Penny frowned deeply as she locked up her store that evening. She hadn’t been able to get it out off her mind lately. Because, it turned out those text messages from the other night, the ones Kate got at M.T.’s Girl’s Night Dinner, they hadn’t been from Jake.

Penny bit back a smile. She’d been so sure that’s who’d been on the other end of those secret missives which had put Kate in such a blushing mood. She’d been so sure…but then she’d made the mistake of stopping in at the LitLiber to talk to Jake….

“Knock, knock,” she’d called smartly before pushing open the door to his private office. Jake had been bent over his desk, his writing hand flying over some form or another when he’d stopped to look up in greeting.

“Penny?” he’d asked in surprise, half-raising to his feet at the sight of her. One eyebrow had risen. “You look…different.”

Penny had made a stiff gesture. “No I don’t.”

Jake had capitulated easily. “All right. Well, what’s up?”

Penny had leaned against the door. “Nothing. I just wanted to say…I was with Kate last night when she got those texts, and I just thought you’d want to know, she seemed happy. Giddy almost. So whatever you’re doing, keep doing it.”

“Texts? What are you talking about?” Jake had asked ominously, his eyebrows slamming together.

Because Jake hadn’t sent her any such texts messages. Though he’d tried to cover it up, Jake had looked upset at the news. And why shouldn’t he have? Penny had all but told him there was someone else, hadn’t she? Someone who Kate wasn’t demanding give her space to think.

And this, in turn, had made Penny feel terrible about bringing it up in the first place.

“And why did you even go there—the LitLiber?” she muttered crossly to herself as she started walking toward her car, parked halfway down the block.

“Because I thought—whatever, because I thought it was Jake she’d been talking to and I wanted him to know…”

“Know what?” Penny asked ruthlessly, cutting herself off in mid-thought. “That she’d smiled at the sight of a text message? Wow, big news! He definitely needed to hear that—a worthy reason if there ever was one for scurrying over to his place of business at the first available chance,” she mocked harshly. “Even if it had been from him…God, Penny how pathetic, running to him like some lapdog.”

“No!” Penny denied. “It’s not that. I’m just trying to right a wrong, that’s all,” she defended loudly. “I feel guilty. So yes, I want to help him, and yes, to do that I have to spend time with him—which means I may sometimes have to make special trips in to see him, but that’s all it is.”

Looking up at that precise moment, Penny saw it—a flyer stapled to the side of the community board outside the bus stop. 16th Annual Whestleigh Triathlon Scramble. The contest comprised a three-man (or woman) team competing for the fasting times in three separate categories: running, biking, swimming. Each member of the team completes in one leg of the race before passing the veritable torch on to the next member of the team and so on…

That was it! Penny smiled brightly, her frown from earlier dying away as a new plan formed in her mind—that was how she’d make it up to Jake (especially after her accidental slip about Kate’s mysterious texter). Grinning, Penny fetched her phone quickly out of her purse before shooting off a group test message.

 

<  Recepient List: Mags; Katy Kat

—————-07/08/2015 Wed—————–

 

From Penny: Kate, M.T. get ready… I’m

       signing us up as a team for the Triathlon

       Scramble. It’s next Saturday.                                                        

       Kate, you’re running. I’m biking.

       Mags, you got swim-duty. Get training!

  • Sent 8:15 p.m.

 

From Mags: I don’t suppose we have any choice in the matter?

  • Sent 8:23 p.m.

 

From Penny: None at all.

  • Sent 8:24 p.m.

 

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Forty-Four

Hands full of dishes, Kate made her way carefully to M.T.’s sink. It was almost nine o’clock at night—and, at long last, Girl’s Night Dinner had come to a close. Penny had cried off ten minutes ago, claiming she needed to be up early for client meeting in the morning. And, though Kate was tired too, she steadfastly refused to leave M.T. to deal with this mess all by herself.

“You don’t have to do that,” M.T. said, coming up to quickly relieve Kate of the plates. “I can take care of it.”

“I insist,” Kate told her, and without another word, turned to grab the wineglasses off the dining room table. Coming back into the dimly lit room, she added: “Besides, doesn’t the saying go something like: you cook and I clean?”

Maggie laughed good-naturedly. “Yeah, not in my experiences.”

“Mine either,” Kate admitted ruefully, setting the stemware down on the counter. “At the McDonald residence, we had staff for that.”

“I sort of got that impression.” M.T. winked.

Kate smiled.

“Hey,” Maggie asked softly, as she bent down to load the dishwasher. “Can I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

M.T. stood up, staring at Kate. “Forgive me for intruding but I got the impression…”

“Yeah?”

M.T. shook her head. “Well, I got the impression there was something you wanted to say this evening. Only—perhaps someone didn’t give you the chance?”

“How did you—” chuckling, Kate smiled. “Was I that obvious?”
M.T. seemed to consider this seriously. “No. It was only when Penny started talking about Jake—”

“Yeah,” Kate said, brows furrowed. “What was up with that?”
Maggie shrugged. “If I could answer that, Penny wouldn’t be quite the mystery that she so often is, now would she?”
“Touché.”

“I don’t mean to pry but…well, for two women who just recently got into a fight about him, you seemed oddly disappointed in her sudden change of heart this evening.”

“Yeah.” Kate blew out a hard breath. “I guess.”

“And I got the feeling that, once she started in on her…I don’t what that was, campaign for Jake? You seemed uncomfortable, like she’d gotten it all wrong—because,” M.T. paused meaningfully here: “because those texts that were putting such a smile on your face, they had nothing to do with Jake, did they?”

Pulling at the hem of her shirt, Kate shook her head. “No.”

“But they were…something. Something special? Penny was right about that?”

“You would have made a good detective, you know?” Kate teased.

“So I’ve heard,” Maggie murmured drily. She waited a beat then added: “Do you want to talk about it? Whatever it is?”

Kate’s fingernail rubbed roughly against the stitching of her shirt. “They were from Jackson.”

“Ah.”
“We kissed.”

“Ah!”

Kate’s nose twitched. “We’re going out on a date. That’s what he was texting me about.”

M.T. leaned back comfortably, her hips resting beside the countertop. “And Penny kind of stole your thunder?”
Kate’s shoulders hunched. “I just—I thought she would be over the moon. I couldn’t wait to tell her. We were fighting and I thought: she’s going to be so thrilled. This will end it—this stupid fight we’re in.”

“Wait,” M.T. made a flicking gesture with her hand. “Are you telling me you’re going on a date with Jackson for Penny’s benefit?” Her tone was incredulous.
“No! No, that’s just it,” Kate wailed, “I’m going out with him because I…because I hadn’t realized until he asked that it was what I’d been waiting for all t his time—for him to finally do it, make a move.”

M.T. smiled. “Ah.”

“The thing with Penny, I just thought—” Kate hung her head. “I don’t know what I thought.”

“You thought that this date could serve as a double blessing? You get the guy, and for extra measure, make up with your friend along the way?”
“Yeah. I guess.”

M.T. came up to Kate, throwing an arm around her shoulders. “Kate, she will be pleased. Honestly. All that Penny wants is for you to be happy. That’s all.”

“Yeah, but you heard her: she doesn’t think I’ve been allowed to seriously consider Jake. She’ll think that, if I picked Jackson, it was because she’d put such a bad taste of Jake in my mouth, and that my decision was tainted or something.”

“Do you think that’s what happened?” M.T. countered. “That you picked Jackson because you felt like you couldn’t pick Jake—not and keep Penny as a friend?”

“No, of course not,” Kate proclaimed.

Maggie gave her shrewd look. “So what are you so worried about then?”

“Of being robbed the happiness I’m feeling right now. I don’t want any doubts or second-guesses to cloud that. I couldn’t stand for it—not now, not after everything that’s happened. I want to be excited…and I want everyone around me to feel the same.” Kate scrunched up her nose. “No, actually, I think I need that. I need that support.”

“Okay, then let me say this,” Maggie said, her voice soft, serious. “I am so incredibly happy for you Kate.”

“Thank you,” Kate whispered.

Opening her arms, M.T. beckoned Kate forward. “Come here,” she instructed. With a watery smile, Kate stepped forward, straight into the warm embrace.

“I think this calls for another glass of wine,” M.T. murmured.

Sniffling, Kate pulled herself back upright. “Okay.”

“And Kate,” M.T. said, as the younger girl half-turned, reaching for the remaining bottle of cabernet.

“Yeah?”

“You deserve this. Don’t forget that. So revel in your happiness, and look forward to that date. Don’t let Penny get in the way of how you feel—she wouldn’t want that.”

 

 

 

The next afternoon, M.T. found those last, prophetic words sourly tested. Begrudgingly entering the LitLiber bookstore during her lunch hour—the library society at Good Shepherd had practically coerced to splurge some of the church’s slush money on new reading material. It would seem the congregation members hardly ever checked out books there, and, as such, it was decided that the reason for this lay in the dusty, out-dated selection at hand. M.T. had her doubts about the solid logic behind this argument, but she had neither the heart nor the energy to fight them on this. So, instead, she’d resigned herself to this shopping trip.

It was as she was making her way inside when something—or rather someone—caught her eye. And, incidentally enough, it was neither Kate nor Jake.

No, it was Penny.

Penny, who, for once in her life, was sporting a pair of tight-fitting jeans and a light blue pullover—no bangles, no ruby-red lipstick, no flowing scarves or fake eyelashes; her hair was let loose down her back, its tight black spirals ending almost past her elbows. It was Penny. Only, she looked nothing like herself. And, even more intriguing, she was emerging out from behind a door at the far side of the building, a door with the word Private marked on the glass paned window there.

And, for the pièce de ré·sis·tance: as the door swung shut behind her, M.T. got a clear view of another person standing inside the room with the door marked Private on the glass paned window. Jake.

A Penny who liked nothing like Penny was coming out of Jake’s office…

Stopping dead in her tracks, M.T. watched her sister saunter forward. And she was sauntering—a sort of casual stroll with a little too much swish of the hips, with an undisguisable femininity about it. Add it all up and something wasn’t quite…it wasn’t quite—

M.T. smiled, a saucy rather knowing grin settling over her lips.

“Hey Penny,” she called out when the name’s owner came within hearing distance. Jerking hard at the greeting, Penny’s eyes dilated and it become abundantly clear that, despite the fact that M.T.  had been standing virtually right in front of her for quite some seconds now, Penny hadn’t noticed her. Which only made Maggie’s smirk widen.

“Oh…hey Mags.” Penny’s smile was tight, twitchy.

“Was that Jake’s office I saw you coming out of just now?”

“Uh…” Looking back over her shoulder, as if to verify that it was, indeed, the same door in question, Penny hesitated. “I mean…yeah, I think so.”

“You think so?”

“Yes,” Penny hissed. “It’s his office.”

“Oh.” M.T. nodded. “I didn’t realize you were such good friends.”

Penny frowned. “We aren’t. That is…” She waved one arm futilely. “We aren’t.”

“No?” M.T.’s interest piquing at Penny’s flustered look, she added: “A business thing then?”

“No.”

M.T. laughed. “You’re being awfully evasive.”

Eyes narrowing, Penny pulled herself up to her tallest height. Hands on her hip, she cocked her head to one side. “What’s with the third degree?”
Hands raised immediately, M.T. laughed. “No third degree. Just making conversation. Or, at least I’m trying to.”

Penny’s voice was sharp. “About me and Jake?”

M.T. pursed her lips. “Well, you’ve got to admit it’s a little…curious.”

“Curious?”

“Seeing you here today with hiim, especially after last night’s sudden and rather vehement defense of his—” M.T. searched for the right word, “—attributes.”

Penny sighed. Loudly.

Maggie loped her purse over her shoulder. “What?”

“Don’t.”

“Don’t what?”

“Don’t nose in on my business.”

M.T. saw with quiet despair the reddening of Penny’s cheeks, the tautening of her jaw. She was putting up walls again. “Okay,” the older sister promised. “I won’t. But—” reaching out, Maggie touched Penny’s arm. “Just so you know, I’d love an invitation sometime.”

“An invitation?”

“To hear about your business. I’m a good listener.”

“I know.”

The sisters stared at one another.

Then M.T. took a deep breath. “But I’m actually talking about Kate’s business.”

“And what’s that supposed to mean?” Penny snapped, and once again, her hands were on her hips, her big brown eyes small.

M.T. held up a hand. “Your being in Jake’s office, that doesn’t have anything to do with her, does it?”

“Okay. Here it comes…”

“Here what comes?”

“The lecture.”

“No. No lecture,” she countered. “Just…she looks up to you, Penny. She really listens to you. Be careful not to abuse that power.”

“That’s what I’m trying to do,” Penny insisted. “At least, I’m trying not to do that anymore. That’s why—”

“Jake?”
“Yeah.”

M.T. sucked in her lips. “All I’m saying is, it’s easy to accidentally…ah, over-correct.”

“I’m not doing that.”

“Right.”

“Right.”

Penny shifted uncomfortably and then, looking up quickly, as though the thought had only just occurred to her, Penny asked: “So—what are you even doing here?”
“What else?” M.T. asked. “Buying books.” Checking her watch, Maggie grimaced. “Which I should probably get to—my lunch hour is almost up.”

“Oh,” Penny said. “Yeah. Sure.”

Maggie took a step forward and somehow, without quite knowing why, and being far too anxious to ask, she found Penny half-turning to match her steps.

“So—how late did Kate stay over last night?” the psychic asked casually as Maggie led the way toward the Religion aisle.

Maggie couldn’t quite meet that look, as she turned down the appointed row of bookshelves. “Oh…a little while longer.”

“What did you talk about?”

M.T. paused, as though trying to recall. She didn’t want to lie exactly, but telling her the whole truth wasn’t an option either…

As it turned out, M.T. didn’t have to answer her at all.

Because Penny beat her to it: “I meant to ask her, but conversation being what it was…” the usually chill psychic’s voice came out fast—rushed: “She had a private rehearsal with Jackson a couple nights ago—you know, for the play the LitLiber is throwing later this month.” Penny looked at Maggie meaningfully.

But M.T. only stared back at her blankly.

“Did she mention it by any chance?” Penny asked, and this time there was no disguising the impatience in her voice. There was no mistaking her sharp glance.

“Why would she?”

Penny ground her teeth together. “I don’t know. I just figured—”

M.T. fluttered her lashes innocently. “What? Was there something in particular that thought she’d want to talk about?”

“No. I don’t know—!” Penny crossed her arms over her chest. And then, just as quickly, she sprang them loose. “It just seemed like a thing she would’ve done. You know Kate.”

Maggie pulled out two books. “Was there something in particular you were hoping she’d talk about?”

“You’re third-degreeing me again.”

“You started it.”

“Yeah? Well, clearly you’re better at it.”

“Hazards of the trade, I suspect.”

“So?”

“So what?” Maggie asked, grabbing for another book. She didn’t even bother with the title. Whatever.

“Did she?”

Maggie turned to stare up at Penny. “Did she what?”

“Talk about it!”

Hoisting the books against her shoulder, Maggie took a step backward, toward the aisle-way. “Penny, if you want to know how her rehearsal with Jackson went, then ask Kate.”

“You are so infuriating some times,” Penny grumbled.

“And it’s only going to get worse in the next twenty seconds,” M.T. replied.

“Huh?”
“What was it you said to me not five minutes ago?” M.T. asked, her voice just a shade shy of haughty.

“I said a lot of things.”

“Don’t nose into my business. That’s what you said.”

“Yeah?”

“And what did I say back.”

Penny gave a great, gutsy sigh. “I don’t remember. I can’t be expected to listen to every speech you prattle on about.”

“Never mind. That’s not—” M.T. sighed. “The point I’m trying to make here is this: take your own counsel…and stay out of Kate’s business.”

“You’re not going to tell me what she said, are you?”

Maggie turned toward the check-out counter. “I’m not even going to tell you if she said anything at all.”

“Traitor.”

“Call her,” Maggie insisted, throwing out the suggestion over her shoulder.

“I’m not so sure she’s taking my calls yet.”

“She is.”

“How do you know?”

Stopping, resigned, M.T. looked back at Penny. She lifted one eyebrow pointedly: “Are you taking hers?”

“If she ever bothered to pick up the phone and dial my number…yeah,” Penny mumbled down at her feet.

“Exactly.” Resolutely, Maggie picked up walking again. “Call her,” she threw out a second time, just for good measure.  With her back turned on Penny, the physic was unable to see the extremely satisfied look on the pastor’s face as she made her way to the register.