North of Happenstance: Chapter Forty-Three

Kate squirmed quietly in her seat. She was damn near bursting at the seams to talk to M.T. and Penny. Mostly Penny. Kate had big news; news that would end her and the psychic’s stupid feud. News both of these women would really, really want to hear…at least, she hoped so.

And what better time to share-all (and clear the air) than tonight, when they were already together, enjoying one of their infamous Girl’s Night Dinners. Though, to be fair, Kate wasn’t sure if ‘enjoying’ was quite the right word….

But, clearly M.T. needed the spotlight right now. Kate nodded her head. So she would wait. And she would help M.T. Kate was an adult, after all. She could put her big news on hold until they’d reached a conclusive answer to M.T.’’s current predicament. Of course she could. And, after that, she would talk.

So—how did a pastor go about consummating a marriage-less relationship?

Penny’s voice intruded Kate’s thoughts: “…but could you potentially get fired for this?”

M.T. tried to look casual. “Well—I’m sure it wouldn’t come to that…”

“Do you need to tell everyone?” Kate asked quietly.

M.T. looked confused. “I’m not sure what you mean?”

“It’s just, when you say you’re going to tell the people of Good Shepherd do you mean… all of them?”

“Yes. All of them.”

“Yeah.” Kate swallowed hard. “It’s just—isn’t that a bit risky, throwing it out to the entire congregation, giving them authority over something so, uh…ambiguous.”

“That’s what I’ve been saying all along,” Penny said under her breath.

“Actually,” Kate returned smartly. “You’ve been saying they don’t have a right to know period. I’m saying—”

Penny smacked a hand over her forehead. “Oh Good God…who cares?!”

Back straight, and chin tilted at a haughty angle, Kate turned back to M.T. “It’s just, does it need to be such a public affair? That’s wrought for emotional and reactive responses. And what if they don’t support it? What would you do then?”

M.T. looked panicky again.

But Kate wasn’t done with her scare tactics. “And, if all that happened, what about the church? Would they be forced to make an issue out of this?—I mean, what is your denominations technical stance on this anyway?”

M.T. fidgeted with a lock of hair—twining it around her ear, letting it loose and then repeat. “Listen, I know it’s risky but it’s also real and genuine—”

Kate cut off her defense. “Okay, but what about if you started smaller? Say the board of directors—see what they have to say about it. I mean, these are the people who quote the by-laws chapter and verse, right? They’ll know how to advise you going forward.”

Now it was M.T. who squirmed in her seat. “I’m not sure—they’re kind of a stodgy bunch. They’ve never been exactly welcoming to me.”

“What about the church staff then—?” Kate offered, but her quiet suggestion was both cut-short and drowned-out.

“And?” Penny boomed loudly, leaning forward to join the conversation again: “They’re just as much a part of Good Shepherd’s as all those countless other strict traditionalists. If you can’t stomach squaring if with only a handful of them how do you propose a whole sanctuary full? Or are you planning on only revealing your intentions with the more liberal church-goers?”

“I’ve just never been the kind of pastor who…” M.T. pushed her plate away as though it had offended her. “I don’t want to feel as though there are parts of my life I can’t talk about to the parishioners. I don’t want to feel like I’m keeping secrets, or hiding things. That feels wrong. And if I can’t be honest and open, how can I ask them to be—”

“All right but, how does Hank feel about it?” Kate asked, praying for a Hail Mary. “About his private life being talked about in such a well, public setting? Because it’s not about just you anymore.”

“Oh.” M.T. looked taken aback.

“Never considered that one, huh?” Penny jeered.

“We never talked about it…”

“You may want to,” Penny cautioned. “Because, according to this conversation, it’s something he’d have to get used to.”
“Well, I mean, I don’t know if I’d put it that way—”

Penny frowned. “You’re asking for the church’s permission to date a guy…I’d say so.”

M.T. made a face. “You’re putting words into my mouth.”
“No. I’m just clarifying. You can’t make a decision—a very personal decision—without their unequivocal say-so.”

“Penny, that’s enough,” M.T. replied curtly.

“Have you told Hank about your reservations—about why you haven’t, well, you knowed with him?” Kate asked meaningfully.

M.T. shook her head. “No. I—”

“Why not?”
M.T. shrugged. “Because when you say it out loud it sounds kind of…” She shrugged uncomfortably.

Penny. “Big Brother-ish?”

“No,” M.T. snapped. “No. Because I’m afraid he wouldn’t understand.”

“You’re afraid it would scare him away,” Penny answered firmly. “Admit it.”

Maggie sputtered. “No, it’s just…there are certain allowances…I’m not sure he’s…it’s a big thing to ask someone—”

“Hey,” Kate soothed, reaching forward to touch the back of M.T.’s hand. Her voice was gentle where Penny’s had been hard, forceful. She smiled at the scared pastor sitting opposite her. “If Hank isn’t willing to do that, then why are we even having this discussion?”

M.T. sighed. “Okay. Yeah. You’re right. I’ll talk to him.”

Penny nodded. “Yeah, it’s—”

The sudden piercing jingle of Kate’s cell-phone rang out, interrupting whatever Penny had been about to say. Reaching apologetically into her back pocket, Kate retrieved the device, which she’d forgotten to silence earlier. Checking the screen, she saw it was a text message. Blushing, Kate was pretty sure she knew who it was from. After all, she was with the only other people who regularly contacted her already.

Penny, staring pointedly at the thing clutched in Kate’s hands, seemed to be waiting. Looking up to see those prying eyes, Kate quickly dropped the phone down onto the seat beside her. “Sorry,” she mumbled.

“Tonight,” Penny said decisively. “After we leave. Call him.”

“Yes, okay—”

Kate’s phone buzzed again. This time, all three pairs of eyes turned to look at it.

“Have somewhere you need to be?” Penny asked.

“No—no,” Kate assured them. “I’m sure it’s just someone from work.” The fib came easily to her lips. “Probably looking to drop a shift or something.”

“Do you need to check it?” M.T. asked, without censure. “It may be important.”

“No, I’m sure—”

“Go ahead,” Penny invited, waving toward the condemned thing. “Otherwise, it may go off all night at this rate…”

“Fine,” Kate replied tightly and, goaded by the words, snatched up the phone with impatient fingers. Opening up the text—now two text messages—Kate saw that she’d been right all along. They were from him. Reading them silently, she couldn’t help the small smile that played out over her mouth as she read the missive.

“Ah. Judging by the look on her face,  if it is from Kate’s work, I have a pretty good guess of who it is that’s trying so hard to get a hold of her,” Penny whispered loudly to M.T. Kate’s head snapped up at the ominous words, her smile freezing uncertainly on her face.

Maggie sent her sister a speaking look. “Don’t,” she mouthed.

Penny pursed her lips. “No actually, I should speak,” and turning to stare at Kate, who bit the inside of her cheeks nervously, added: “Because, the thing is…”

Kate felt her heartbeat kick up a notch. Not again…

“The thing is,” Penny said. “Jake’s a good guy—”

Kate blinked. Wait. What? Jake—? That wasn’t what she’d expected to hear.

“He’s a great guy actually,” Penny continued. “But I think you already know that.”

Kate shook her head. “Penny…”

“No, let me finish,” she insisted. “I shouldn’t have—you’ve been pressured your entire life on who to like and who not to, and—well, I’m sorry if I was doing that too. I’m sorry that I acted like you needed my approval to validate your feelings…and that there was only one way to gain it, by liking what I liked.”

“You weren’t—”

“Yes, I was,” Penny admitted. “And it didn’t even make any sense, because Jake would be perfect for you.” At this impassioned speech, M.T. stared thoughtfully at her sister. And a bit confusedly. (This went double for Kate, who was openly gaping at Penny.) “I-I think I just wanted to be right so badly about you and Jackson that I refused to—that I…”

“Penny, that’s the thing…” but again, Kate’s words were ignored.

“I didn’t want to see what was happening with you and Jake,” Penny made a fleeting gesture with her hand, “I didn’t want to see what I saw down in M.T.’s basement. But, I did see it. And it made sense…at least, once I got over myself, it did.”

Kate felt herself shrinking in her chair. What the hell was happening? Penny wanted Kate to get with Jake? Now? Finally? That was rich. Of all the times to switch sides…

And to think she’d been so excited to talk to Penny tonight, to tell her what had happened yesterday afternoon, when she’d been over at Jackson’s house, rehearsing for the play. She’d been itching to talk to Penny… and most certainly not about Jake. It was a good story, only now she wasn’t sure she had the right audience to hear it.

 

 

 

Because, barring the clumsy, gawkish entrance at Jackson’s front door, it might have been one of the most romantic nights of Kate’s life. The evening started out as most historic evenings go—normal, uneventful even. They’d just been sitting in his living room, scripts in hand, going over scenes for the play…

“…okay,” Jackson announced tirelessly, after the better part of an hour’s rehearsing: “Try that last line again.”

Kate scratched the side of her neck. “Yeah, it sounded a bit cartoonish when I said it, didn’t it?”
“More like an after-school special,” Jackson replied.

Kate laughed. “Yeah. All right.” And so she read the line again—Jackson standing back and watching her movements, her inflection, her facial expressions.

It took three more read-through’s and then…

“That’s it,” he said, with a definitive clap of his hands. “Right there.”

“Oh thank God,” Kate teased playfully, dropping her script down at her side. “I thought I’d be here all night!”

Jackson grinned. “Hey, you’re working with a professional here. No sloppy acting allowed.”

“Because, surely, if that part wasn’t just perfect, I was going to get tomatoed for sure!”

Jackson smiled gamely. “Ready to run through it one more time? From the top?”

“Slave driver!” Kate cried with a wink.

“All right,” Jackson relented. “How about a five minute break?”

“That sounds like a dream.”

Jackson nodded. “Water?”
Kate nodded. “Even better.”

“Be right back,” he said before leaving the room, his steps taking him quietly toward the back of the house, where the kitchen was located.

It was as she was standing there, idly gazing about the room, waiting for him to return that Kate noticed it, a picture frame sitting on the wood-hewn mantle, its gilded border nestled on either side by floral vases, each one overflowing with fresh, wild flowers. The photo was of a blonde woman. A very lovely, and very young blonde woman. A glimpse of the lake could just be seen in the background. She was smiling with such happiness.

“Kate?”
Jumping at the sound of Jackson’s voice, coming from close behind her, Kate turned quickly around. She hadn’t heard him come back in, but it was clear from the look on his face he’d been there for a bit…and that he’d seen her looking at the photograph.

So she decided not to pretend otherwise. Talking softly, as though her words were delicate, Kate nodded toward the picture: “Was this…?”
“Yes.”

“Emily.”

Jackson’s throat bobbed in response. Carefully, he set both glasses of water down on the coffee table before advancing toward the fireplace.

“She was…very beautiful,” Kate whispered.

“Yes.”

“I’m sorry,” Kate offered belatedly. “I wasn’t meaning to snoop.”

“Of course not,” Jackson said, waving her words away. He turned to look down at Kate then and that’s when she realized how close to one another they were suddenly. “In fact, I’m kind of glad you saw it.”

Kate stared at him, one eyebrow slightly raised.

“I wasn’t sure how I’d feel…having you here. This was her home.”

Kate’s teeth rasped lightly over her lips. “I don’t understand…?”

Jackson took another half-step forward, until he was almost touching her. “I needed to be sure.”

“Sure?”
In answer, Jackson’s right hand lifted, settling against the side of her cheek, his thumb absently caressing the underside of her chin as his face slowly lowered, his breath rustling across her cheek. “And now I am,” he whispered seconds before he fitted his mouth to her own.

And for once in twenty-eight years, Kate didn’t over-think her response; she didn’t question the practicality, or doubt what was right or wrong. She didn’t analysis the moment right out of her life. For once, she acted upon instinct. And, on that, she raised her arms to his face, her hands cupping either side of his jaw as she opened her mouth up to the invading pressure of his tongue….

Long minutes later, Jackson lifted his head and, staring down at Kate’s bemused expression, he smiled. “I have to confess,” he whispered in a mock-serious tone. “I asked you over here today with an ulterior motive.”

Kate nodded. “I see. So all this talk of ‘practice,’ was just a ruse, huh?”
Jackson grinned. “Well, only partly. The rehearsal was real enough—your acting did need some help…”

Kate swatted him on the shoulder. “Yeah? Well so does your flattery.”

Jackson’s grinned slipped from his face. “Hopefully what I have to say next will make up for it.”

Kate held her breath.

“Kate McDonald,” Jackson said, “would you go out on a date with me?”

And, for the second time in her life, Kate didn’t stop to consider her answer, she didn’t weigh the pros and cons, and she didn’t let herself wonder what Penny would do, how M.T. should would advise, or if her mother would approve. No, this time, she said the first word that came to her mind, the one that felt right sitting on her tongue.

“Yes.”

 

 

 

But now, staring soulfully at Penny, Kate, who’d dreamed of retelling this story, found herself ironically unable to do so.

“…look, all I’m saying is, I overreacted the other day, seeing you with Jake,” Penny said now. “And I took it out on you which wasn’t fair, because I think we all know I wouldn’t have been anywhere near as upset if it had been you and Jackson down there. What I said, it wasn’t… I was wrong, okay? On all accounts.”

“But Penny…”

“But that’s over now.”

Kate felt her brows furrow. “So you want me to end up with Jake? Not Jackson? I’m confused.”

“Me too,” M.T. muttered under her breath.

“No.” Penny took a deep breath. “I’m saying that perhaps I didn’t give Jake a fair shake. And if that’s the case, then perhaps I stopped you from—just, disregard everything I ever said about him.”

Kate felt a lump forming in her throat.

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Forty-Two

M.T. felt sick to her stomach as she exited the church. Pocketing the building’s keys, she walked briskly to her small car. Swallowing hard, she just managed to keep the tears threatening to spill down her cheeks, at bay. Her shaking fingers gripped the steering wheel hard as she pulled out of the parking lot…only at the last second, instead of turning left which would take her back home, M.T. flicked her right blinker on, turning into the mid-afternoon traffic.

It wasn’t quite two-thirty in the afternoon, which meant that Penny was probably still at her shop. And suddenly, M.T. needed to talk to her sister. Squinting hard, she tried not to look at the LitLiber bookstore as she passed, but it didn’t help. She thought of Kate. Because she really needed to talk to her, as well.

Pulling up outside the florist’s shop that also marked the home of Penny’s tiny House of Intuition, M.T. stepped purposefully out of her car. She wasn’t sure what she planned to say to her sister when she went inside, she only knew one thing: she needed this feud between her and Kate to come to an end. She needed her friends back. Like right now.

Quickly gaining the entrance to Penny’s side of the store, M.T. let herself in, the soles of her shoes making almost no noise as she came upon the thick brocade curtain marking Penny’s doorway. Knocking once, M.T. barely waited for Penny’s breathy: “Come in,” before throwing the curtain aside and stepping into sight.

“Oh!” Penny said at the sight, and instantly she dropped the wispy tone of voice she was using. “It’s you. I was expecting…”
“I’m sorry,” M.T. rushed to say. “I don’t mean to interrupt…but I have something to say.”

“Okay,” Penny acknowledged. “But I—I do have an appointment starting—,” Penny looked down at the watch on her wrist; it was masked by the obscene amount of bangles also occupying space there. “In about two minutes. Can you make it fast?”

M.T. nodded hard, her blonde bob swinging sharply about her face. “Of course.”

“And?” Penny prompted when M.T. remained silent.

“I want to have another dinner—with us girls.”
“…okay…”
“You. Me. And Kate.”

Penny stilled for a moment. Then: “Okay.”
“And I want to have it tonight. Five o’clock. My house.”

“Is everything all right?” Penny asked then.

M.T.’s hand fidgeted with the sleeve of her blouse, her eyes looking down at the frilly cuff there. “You’ll come? You won’t fight with Kate?”
“Yes.”

M.T. nodded again. “Okay. Good. Then I’ll see you then.” With a turn of her heel, M.T. went to exit the building. According to her calculations, Penny still had roughly one minute and thirty seconds left until her client was set to arrive.

“Hey.” At Penny’s soft exclamation, M.T.’s head turned back around. “You still haven’t answered my question—is everything all right?”
M.T. tried for a small. It was lopsided. “It will be. See you tonight?”
“See you tonight.”

 

 

After Penny’s, M.T., still riding high on this spontaneous invitation, pulled her car into the parking lot of the LitLiber next. It was Tuesday afternoon, which meant that Kate was more-than-likely working. Without allowing herself time to talk herself out of it, M.T. walked briskly up to the Service Counter.

“Is Kate McDonald here?” She asked the girl at the counter there.

“Yes she is. Would you like to speak with her?”

“Yes, please,” M.T. replied, bouncing quickly up and down on the balls of her feet as the brunette nodded.

“Sure—let me go and find her. One moment please…”

Luckily, M.T. didn’t have long to wait. Within seconds, Kate was turning the corner of one of the long rows of bookshelves, her eyes lighting-up when she spotted M.T.

“Hey Mags…”

“Are you busy tonight?” M.T. asked briskly.

Kate balked for a second. “Uh…no?”
“Good.” And then: “I am reinstating Girl’s Night Dinner.”

“Oh.”

M.T. stared Kate down hard when the blonde didn’t say anything more than that. “So? Will you come? Tonight?”

“Tonight?” Kate squeaked. “Yeah. Okay. Um… is Penny going also?”

M.T. took that show of reticence the wrong way. “Yes. And I’m hoping the two of you can put whatever it is that’s going on between you, on hold for the evening.”
Kate nodded quickly. “Yes. I mean, of course.”

M.T. nodded, her eyes not quite meeting Kate’s searching gaze. “Good.”

 

 

 

If only Penny could have lived inside Kate’s head and vice versa, as the women were getting ready for M.T.’s impromptu party that evening. If they could have, all the anxiety and anticipation could have been put to bed quickly and quietly. The girls could have made-up before treading down at that tricky road of apologizes and explanations, defenses and accusations, of word-play and fault-finding.

Because, behind Penny’s nonchalant manner beat the broken heart of a woman who’d dearly missed her best friend, who regretted the words she’d spoken, even if she still felt they held truth and merit, who was nervous, excited, and terribly ready to see her old friend that night.

And buried underneath her cool hurt and righteous indignation, Kate was just as eager (and scared) to sit down in the same room as Penny, to resolve what had gone wrong—to atone for her selfish negligence and resume the best friendship she’d ever known. Because Kate was lonely without Penny. And Penny was almost desperately alone without Kate. But, alas, they were not in each other’s heads…

 

 

Pulling out a loose teal-colored shirt to be paired with her charcoal pants, Kate practiced a silent mantra: Wait your turn to talk. Yes, okay, you have news. Big news; news that will effectively put an end to this thing—whatever that is—between you and Penny. News that will show how seriously I took her words, show that I listened when she spoke… News that I’m changing, growing—things I couldn’t have done without her.

Smiling at the thought, Kate’s fingers absently went to rest against the base of her lips, pressing against them in memory. Penny will be proud when she founds out…

But, Kate scolded herself: You have to wait your turn. Let the other girls talk. Listen to them. Be present. M.T. was right. It’s not all about you.

So I’ll wait. I’ll wait and when it’s my turn to speak I’ll tell them.

God, Penny will be over the moon.

 

 

 

Penny, likewise, was practicing mantra’s of her own as she re-applied a thick layer of ruby red lipstick to her face, her hair spilling out of the loose bun she’d put it in, and the sleeve of her gold-and-blue striped caftan billowing out at the elbows as she leaned in closer to the vanity to inspect herself.

Be kind. Smile nicely. Don’t be weird. And be patient. She’s her own person, not the person you want her to be. And she has the prerogative to change her mind—and after all, haven’t you just done that yourself, and on this very same subject no less? So let her be. Leave her alone. It’s not about you.

Penny smiled at her reflection.

Jake, she mouthed to herself. Jake and Kate. Nodding, she reached for the eyeliner. Now that she thought about it, the two of them together…it had a nice ring to it.

Penny dropped her eyes from the mirror.

Yeah. She supposed it did.

Jake and Kate.

She’d get used to it.

She’d learn to love it.

After all, hadn’t she done that very thing for years now?

 

 

 

Penny showed up first. She was already in the kitchen, leaning up against one of the counters, a glass of wine in hand, when Kate knocked quietly on the door before letting herself in.

“Hello?” She called out hesitantly, poking her head into the entryway.

“Back here!” M.T. called from down the long hallway.
Kicking off her scandals, shutting the door firmly behind her, Kate trudged down the hallway. Walking into the kitchen, the grimy white on the walls now re-painted to their former glory, Kate’s eyes skipped nervously over Penny’s head.

Kate. “Hey.”

Penny. “Hi.”

M.T., bent at the waist, head peeking inside the oven to check on the chicken in there, only waved in greeting. “Wine is on the counter. Help yourself.”

Kate, spying the glasses near Penny, swallowed uncomfortably. Taking a step forward, Kate tried not to blush when Penny also moved—with a jerk no less, sidling quickly out of Kate’s way, moving almost to the other side of the kitchen in her apparent haste to get away.

Silence permeated the room. Kate stared down at her wine glass. Penny stared down the short walkway which led to the bathroom and master bedroom. M.T. shut the oven door, mitts still in hand, her gaze going to the vegetables lying out on the small island in the middle of the room.

“Can I help with anything?” Kate asked hurriedly.

M.T. shook her head, as she filled a bowl with salad fixings. “No—I think I’ve got everything covered.”

Kate’s head bobbed. “Okay.”
And, between the small snaps and cracks of M.T.’s chop-job, there was the melodious tick-tock of the small clock over the doorway, and the occasional sip of wine being drunk from either Penny or Kate’s glass. And nothing else.

Kate wished for the radio.

 

 

 

It wasn’t until the women were all sitting down at M.T.’s table (which, in retrospect looked like one of the plastic banquet tables the church used for their Meatball Suppers and Lenten Services) that anything nearing normal conversation took place.

Raising her glass of wine, as though she had no idea of the static silence that had accompanied the evening thus far, M.T. said: “Thank you both for coming here tonight. Our first dinner in my new home!”

“Cheers,” Kate said weakly.

“Ditto,” Penny said shyly.

And, clinking their glasses, all eyes on M.T., the woman took a healthy swallow of the rich cabernet in their hands.

“And to many more,” M.T. murmured, setting her glass done. “Now then…let’s eat!” Picking up the salad bowl, she passed it to Penny.

If M.T. was hoping that the girls would just go along with this—this pretend happy reunion, this frantically put-upon dinner that was more-or-less forced on them at the last minute, without so much as a hint of explanation, she had another think coming. After all, Penny was never one for following convention.

“Is that it?” the psychic asked, scooping a generous amount of salad on her plate before blindingly passing the bowl on to Kate.

“Is what it?” M.T. asked innocently.

“Is that why you called us here—to christen the house?”

M.T. stared back at her sister. “What?”

“You were frantic at my office this afternoon when you insisted upon this little meal,” Penny persisted, stabbing ruthlessly at a piece of chicken before carrying it over to her plate. “I thought…you seemed panicked.”

“Yeah,” Kate chimed in, though her voice was hesitant. “You did seem a little…off at the bookstore too.”

“So what’s the real reason we’re here tonight?” Penny asked, eyes narrowed.

M.T. bit her lip.

“Because there’s always something with these dinners,” Penny argued. “It used to be, you insisted upon these meals as a way to reconnect with me…at least that’s what you always claimed.”

Kate stared at Penny. Penny stared down at M.T. “This wouldn’t happen to be another version of that, would it? Only instead of you and me now it’s…” Penny waved her hand vainly, and, though her eyes would not quite meet Kate’s, still her meaning was clear.

“Here we go,” Kate muttered darkly. “Act Two. Penny attacks M.T. Wow—didn’t see that coming.”

“Excuse me?” Penny demanded. “And what’s that supposed to mean?”

Kate took a deep breath, eyes staring at the dead chicken on her plate, but her voice warbled a bit: “It means your attitude sucks.” The room grew totally quiet. “But, hey—at least we know one thing about these dinners will remain an unmoving constant.”

M.T. grimaced. “Girls…please, let’s not—”

“Are you kidding me with this? You mean to tell me you’re not the least bit curious why she had us come over tonight? That you’re not wondering where the hell the fire was this afternoon?”

“Of course I am…”

“So what’s the problem?”
“You snip at her!” Kate clarified. “All the time! For God’s sake, she asked us over for dinner. Which she cooked, by the way. That’s it! Dinner! It wasn’t like she demanded blood. But surely, what an inconvenience,” Kate mocked. “So yes, let’s make her feel terrible about it!”

Penny rolled her eyes. “Don’t be so dramatic Kate. Oh wait…” Penny smacked herself on the forehead. “I forgot who I was talking to, did I? That’s practically you’re middle name.”

“Oh, shut up Penny.”

“No, you shut up.”

“Girls,” M.T. tried again, to no avail.

“And by the way,” Penny shouted, leaning over the table. “I wasn’t sniping. I was being concerned. But then, you probably wouldn’t understand that…”

“No?” Kate asked. “Why—do I need a sixth sense for that kind of enlightened understanding?

Penny’s lip curled. “No. I just figured, I wasn’t talking about you directly. So I can see how you just weren’t paying close enough attention. After all, if it’s not about Kate, it’s…yawn.” And, to fully punctuate the point, Penny acted out that last word.

Kate sucked in a hard breath. “I can’t believe you!”

“Oh believe it, babe.”

“I think Hank is going to break up with me!” M.T. shouted over the din, her fists hitting hard against the table, her voice high, angry. “And if the two of you would both shut up for a second…!”

“What?”

“Wait. Hank?”

And then, just like that, Penny and Kate’s fight was over, their attention redirected, shifted. It would have been amusing if the situation weren’t so…well, emotionally charged.

“What are you talking about?”

“What happened?”
M.T. blew out a breath. “That’s just it—nothing’s happened.”
Penny tilted her head in question.

Kate’s brow furrowed.

“It’s different. Dating when you’re a pastor. I’m always on the job. I’m always wearing this hat. At least, according to my parishioners. They don’t understand that I’m also a woman. A single woman. Who—you know, has needs.”

“Ew.”

Kate pursed her lips.“Wait—you mean?”
M.T. shook her head. “Hank has been so patient but I can tell he’s getting frustrated.”

Penny. “Just to be clear, you’re telling us you and he haven’t…you know?”

M.T. “Had sex?”

Penny.“Yeah.”

M.T. “Yeah.”

“Have you ever…uh…” Penny made a face.
M.T. grinned. “Had sex?”
“Yeah.”

“Of course. It’s just—it’s been awhile.”

Penny scowled. “What’s a while?”

M.T. squirmed in her chair. “That’s not the point.”

“It might be,” Penny persisted.
Hank,” Kate said loudly, and with a telling look at Penny, interrupted the sister’s: “What happened with Hank, Maggie?”

M.T. ran the tips of her fingers across the table. “He called me this afternoon; asked if I wanted to have dinner with him on Saturday. And then, just as I was about to say, Yes, he added: ‘And then maybe you could spend the night afterward.’” Maggie seemed to shrink. “And there it was—right in front of me.”

“What did you say?” Kate asked softly.

“I froze,” M.T. said. “I mean, it’s one thing for me to be seen out there dating, it’s another for people to know or even assume—I’m the pastor. Sex outside of marriage? They wouldn’t…that is, it’s not exactly nothing in my profession.” She sighed. “But there’s only so long I can ask him to wait. I mean, it’s the twenty-first century! No one waits that long anymore.”

“You’ve been dating for months now,” Penny said.

“I know.”

“And all this time…?”

“All this time.”

Kate patted M.T. hands. “Okay. But, what do you want?”

M.T. sighed. “I want Hank. But as a pastor, as a spiritual leader, I’m held to a higher accountability. The Bible says it’s a sin…”

“The Bible is also a bit outdated,” Penny muttered.

“Yes, maybe so,” M.T. conceded. “But, while I like to think we live in a more progressive time, I’m not sure the church will see it the same way.” She sighed. “Besides, don’t you think it comes across a little like: do as I say, not as I do? This is an issue of trust as well as an issue of Mission Statements.”

“But you’re not just a pastor, no matter what the congregation wants to believe…sometimes you get to be a regular, fallible person, too,” Kate cried.

“Yes and no…”

“Yea…isn’t that what grace is all about anyway?” Penny argued vehemently.

M.T. sighed. “It’s not exactly the same, not when you’re dealing with members of the clergy. I’m the one who’s supposed to help guide everyone else through the temptations in life, steer them toward a higher morality.” M.T. made a funny noise. “It’s hard to put faith in someone’s ability to do that when their biting out of the apple themselves.”

“I think you’re being too hard on yourself.”

“Maybe. Maybe not.”

Kate was silent for a moment, chewing on a piece of chicken. “What if—” Kate took a breath. “What if you talked to them about it? The church, I mean.”

M.T. blinked. “What?”

“Like they should get a say,” Penny spat. “This is your private life. They shouldn’t have any rights to how you chose to live it.”

“But they do, in their own way,” Kate insisted.

“Do you—do you think that would actually work though?” M.T. asked.

“I don’t know,” Kate confessed. “But at this point what other option do you have besides sneaking around with Hank?”

“Oooh! I vote for the latter option,” Penny said, sitting upright.

“Yeah, that or get married,” M.T. joked. “Which seems a bit drastic, all things considered.”

“But that’s the whole point,” Penny exploded: “Sex today doesn’t mean what it did when old Lukey wrote his portion of the Bible—or whoever. It just doesn’t. And while you may be held to a higher standard than the rest of us mere mortals, it doesn’t mean you should be stuck in the Dark Ages, either. Besides, it’s all context anyway.”

M.T. took a sip of wine. “What do you mean?”

“It’s not like your preaching promiscuity here,” Penny argued. “It’s just—we no longer live in a world where women get married before they reach the age of twenty. We no longer live in a world where marriage is a foregone conclusion, at all—or when it is, that is lasts longer than a couple years. Sex is no longer only used as a means for the procurement of children. As such, its station in life has shifted, relegated in consequence. Our culture—the timing of things, the purpose, the expectations… they’re different now. And we, as a society, have to adapt or grow extinct. Same with religion, because what’s the point if you can’t practice in real life, what you preach on Sunday morning?”

“Wow,” Kate whispered.

A moment of silence passed. M.T. chewed on a carrot. Kate swirled her wine-glass. Penny stared after her sister.

Then, nodding, M.T. looked up. “Okay.”

“Okay?”

“Hank and I—” Maggie smiled slowly. “Should I buy some lingerie, do you think? Is that still a thing?”

Penny smiled. “Oh yeah.”

Kate giggled. “For sure.”
“But first,” Maggie swore, “I’m going to tell the people at Good Shepherd. First I just need to figure out how.”

“That’s why we’re here.”

Penny nodded. “I have nowhere to be tonight.”

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Forty-One

Penny tried to keep her facial expression neutral, but it wasn’t easy. Jake was sitting inside her too-cramped office, his body effectively cutting off whatever walkway she maintained—knees brushing up against the edge of the table, back chair legs pressed up tight to the wall. The picture of a somber, nervous man sat opposite her—and he’d come to talk about Kate.

Penny just managed not to frown.

Kate. The thing was, she and Penny weren’t exactly on speaking terms. Hadn’t spoken, in face since Penny had more-or-less come unglued on the woman, telling her she was no longer interested in…well, in this.

So imagine Penny’s feelings on the subject. Conflicted didn’t even scratch the surface.

“Now…what’s this about Kate?” Penny asked reluctantly, playing dumb. She really, really didn’t think she wanted to talk about this.  Not to Jake.

“I think you know already,” he returned, and it was clear he wasn’t buying her forced nonchalance.

Penny sighed, a stray ringlet of curls scattering across her cheekbones at the action. “Yes. Okay. I might, uh, have heard some things about the two of you,” she hedged.

Jake’s mouth turned-down. Penny was being far from encouraging. “Did you know I told Kate that—uh…” Jake looked distinctly uncomfortable. Still, he tried again: “It was about a month ago now, and I ran into Kate and I—”

“Oh!” Penny said, rushing to his rescue. He clearly didn’t want to finish that sentence and honestly, she didn’t want to listen to him do it, either. “The thing at Julie’s Diner, you mean?” For a euphemism, it was hardly clever, but it got the job done.

Jake laughed. “Yeah. That thing.”

Penny nodded. “And has Kate—?” Now it was Penny’s turn to look and feel haunted. “How does she feel?”

Jake frowned, his mouth pulling down hard at the corners. “That’s what I came to ask you, actually?”
“Oh.”

Leaning forward, arms crossing over the top of the oak table, Jake looked closely at Penny, his voice plaintive: “You’re friends. You talk to one another.”

“Most of the time.”

Jake gave her a level look. “Penny, you saw us at M.T.’s house.”

Oh god.

“Yeah,” Penny drawled. “I did.”

“And Kate told you what happened…?”

Penny felt her cheeks burning a little. “Well, as to that…we never did quite discuss it.”

Jake looked confused—and unless Penny was way off the mark, a little hurt too. “You didn’t?”
“Kate wanted to,” Penny started to say and then thought better of it. She wasn’t exactly, precisely on Team Jake, but admitting that straight to his face? She couldn’t do that. It would raise too many questions. “But—we got side-tracked and honestly, I haven’t talked to her in a couple of days, so….” Penny waved her hand dismissively.
“Oh. I got the impression you two were usually joined at the hip,” Jake said softly.

Penny shrugged. She hoped it looked off-hand, chill. “Usually.”

“It’s just—I don’t know what to do. She’s—” Jake seemed to be searching for the right word. “She’s a hard woman to read.”

“Yeah.”

“I just thought—maybe she would have said something to you about it? I don’t know.”

“As to that,” Penny remarked. “I’m not sure I’d be allowed to tell even if she had.”

Jake accepted this with a jerk of his chin. “Yeah. I suppose.”

“What I can do, though, is listen to your side of the story, perhaps help you gain some perspective on the situation,” Penny improvised, even though every other part of her was screaming: NO! RUN! So much for self-preservation. “So tell me, what happened down there Jake? After I left.” With a movement of resignation, Penny realized she was not going to get that lunch after all.

Jake cringed. Then sighed. “I-I pushed her away. She told me she wasn’t ready, that she needed time, but I—I asked her to make a decision, to choose me anyway. I know!” He cried, raising his hands at Penny’s stern look. “I was a jerk. It’s just…with Jackson right up stairs, I couldn’t seem to help myself.”

“Ah.” So that was it.

“That’s where she is right now, you know,” Jake said.

“What? Where?”

“At Jackson’s.”

“And you know this how?” Penny asked, trying to keep the creeped-out factor from entering her voice. Stalker much?

But Jake seemed to have sensed it all the same. “No, no, no! No,” he rushed to defend, the flat of his hand slicing thickly through the air, as if to validate his denial. “The play at the LitLiber later on this month? Jackson is directing it and he and Kate are having a private practice today to make up for one she missed last week.”

Penny nodded slowly. The fact that Jake remembered they were having that practice today, right now, spoke volumes.

Jake threw Penny a dark look. “I think he likes her. Jackson, I mean.”

Penny was no longer just conflicted. She was acutely uncomfortable.

Jake shook his head. “No, I’m sure he likes her. And—”

Penny’s hand shot up. Talking about Jackson felt like a betrayal. Not to mention, it made her feel guilty. Little did Jake know he was confiding in the one woman who was vehemently against the idea of him and Kate. “What happened downstairs Jake?” She repeated. Redirection, that’s what this conversation needed. “After I left?”

Now it was Jake’s turn to act unaffected. And it was Penny’s turn not to buy it.

“Nothing.”

“Yeah, I kind of know that isn’t true,” Penny reminded him drily.

“No, I mean—,” running a hand through his thick hair, Jake struggled for words. “You left and Kate started back-pedaling, like usual—backing away from me. I tried to stop her but—she kept saying something about not getting hurt again.” Jake stopped here for a moment, his eyes taking in Penny’s form in the gathering dusk settling outside the one window in the room. “Do you know what that means?”

“Yes.”

Jake looked impatient. “Okay?”

“No, no.” Penny laughed. She may be mad at Kate but damned if that skinny blonde wasn’t Penny’s very best friend in the world. She would never ruin that. “That’s all you’re getting out of me. Yes, I know what that means. Next question?”
Jake took the hint well. “Right. Well…she was talking in riddles—something about falling into the same old pattern, about other people getting hurt, about other people hurting her… I tried telling her: “This isn’t about anyone else….” but it didn’t seem to penetrate.”

And finally, though she’d hardly admitted it, even to herself, Penny got to hear the rest of the story about what had transpired down in that basement. Because, though she’d sworn to Kate that she wasn’t the least bit curious, Penny had been practically bursting at the seams, wanting answers. And Jake, bless him, filled them in:

They were standing in the basement, dim shadows dancing against the dark walls. Shutting the door in her quick, and angry departure, Penny had inadvertently given them even more privacy than before. Squared-off, Jake tried to assure Kate…

“You’re dodging the issue Kate… it’s not about—what did you say his name was?” Jake asked. “Phil? It’s not about Ashley either. It’s about you. What do you want?” Jake’s voice was low, barely above a whisper as he waited for her to respond.

Kate’s forehead crinkled. Her blonde hair hung damply to the sides of her face.

“That’s just it,” she cried, her arms motioning frantically now. “I don’t know! I’ve never—I’ve never been allowed to question that before now. So while it’s easy for you to make decisions, it’s all so new to me. It’s scary and unnerving to walk down a road without a map.”

Jake was sure there was a story to be found in that cryptic remark: she’d never been allowed to ask herself questions like what did she want? But those were avenues to be traversed another day. Instead, he took a step toward her. A protective step. A step of intent. “Okay,” he told her. “Then start small. Do you want me to kiss you again? Don’t over-think it. Just tell me what you want.”

Jake stared down at Kate, who in turn, stared up at the spot on the stairs that moments ago had held Penny’s weight. Her mouth opened…

Jake felt his stomach twist.

Then Kate’s lips moved…but no sounds came out. Her eyes still hadn’t strayed from the top of the stairwell. Her body was held tight, taut, as if she might come lose if she allowed her muscles to relax even half an inch.

“Kate?”

At her name, Kate’s head snapped back around, her eyes large when they connected with his. Then her arms were up, warding him off, pushing him back. And her lips were compressed now, tight. “Stop.” And she didn’t sound like Kate anymore. “I told you,” she hissed, “I need time. Space. And you just won’t give it to me.”

Quickly, wincing at the rough sound of her voice, Jake heeded her command, his feet almost tripping in his haste to create some distance between them. “I know,” he confessed. “I’m sorry.”

“Yeah. So you keep saying,” she reminded him. “You tell me you understand, that you won’t pressure me and yet—here you are!” Kate cried, her arms hugging her body tightly again, her voice an pitchy squeak. “And I just—I can’t. I told you that. Not now.”

“I know, I know.” Arms raised up in defense, Jake thought it best to move yet another step away from Kate. “You’re right. You’re absolutely right. I shouldn’t have—.”

“No, you shouldn’t.” Kate’s face crumpled for a second. “You said—I told you…and you said that was fine. Said you didn’t need me to be ready. Remember?”
Jake nodded. The accusation in her voice, the anger: it told him all he needed to know.     “Then you need to be fine with it,” Kate told him firmly, though her voice cracked just a little.

“I am.”

“Then act like it.”

“Okay.”

Kate looked down at her shoes. And suddenly, all that steam from before seemed to seep right out of her, leaving her listless, fragile once more. “Listen, I understand that this isn’t what you want, and if you, um, you know, if you don’t want to wait for me–to uh, figure out my life and all that, I get it. You have to do what’s right for you,” she stressed. “But so do I. Which is why I can’t—I can’t be there yet. Not where you want me to be.”

Jake nodded silently.

“Do I want you to kiss me again?” Kate asked on a laugh. (Correction: she asked this on a slightly hysterical laugh.) “Absolutely. Yes. And, at the same time: I don’t know. Maybe?” She smiled sadly, shaking her head. “Which probably means No. At least, for now. Not until I’m sure…”

“Shh,” Jake insisted then, his cheeks ruddy with color. “Don’t. I—you don’t need to explain yourself to me.”

“That’s just it: yes I do. Only I don’t know how—”

“Yeah, I noticed,” Jake joked.

Kate laughed. “Stop being so nice to me. I don’t deserve it.”

“Yes you do.”

A soft beat of silence flooded between them. Jake looked at Kate whose down-bent head watched as her fingers fiddled with a ring on her right index finger. Glancing up at him, she fought to look in his eyes. She nodded with a jerk.  “Okay then.”
And there it was.

“Okay then,” Jake consented.
And, turning toward the stairs, her shoulders hunched, pallor off-color, Kate made to leave. After all, what more was there to say? Only, at the foot of the stairs, she stopped, and half-turned back to where Jake still stood, stock-still, rooted in spot. “I’m sorry.” she said then, softly. “I’m sorry I couldn’t do what you did.”
“Yeah? What’s that?” Jake asked. There was note of self-depreciation there he hadn’t meant to include.

“Be brave. You know who you are and you’re not afraid of that person.”

Jake smiled. “I know who you are too.”

Kate smiled back. “I don’t think that counts.”

Jake. “No. Probably not.”

“…and then she left the room,” Jake told a rapt Penny. “So I sat down there for a few minutes, telling myself what an idiot I was before making for the kitchen sink. And—” he shrugged. “That was that.”
“Have you talked since?” Penny asked breathlessly.

Jake pulled a face. “No. I rearranged the schedule at work so we wouldn’t have the same shifts….”

Penny grinned.

“I know,” Jake said, disgusted. “I’m actively avoiding her. And to think she called me brave.”

“And so you are,” Penny argued. “Leaving her alone, giving her time and space to think—unclouded and undistracted. Even when it’s probably the last thing you want to do.” Jake’s gaze flickered up to hers impulsively. “That has nothing to do with being brave. It’s noble.” Penny took a hateful breath. “And it’s exactly what she needs right now.”

“I hope so,” Jake said.

Penny smiled tightly, unnaturally.

“I really like her Penny.”

Yeah. She got that. Loud and clear, thank you very much.

Clearing her throat, Penny tried for words of encouragement, but they didn’t come. She just didn’t have it in her.

 

 

 

Kate pressed the doorbell nervously. Then, feeling guilty—and then angry about feeling guilty, because it was none of anyone else’s business anyway—she watched her eyes skip back over her shoulder, looking for any lights on at Penny’s, any movements marking her presence in the small house just across the way.

But the house remained as pitch dark as when Kate had carefully, hesitantly brought her car down the dead-end lane. Penny wasn’t home. And, though she despised herself for owning the weakness, Kate was glad about it. She didn’t need to fuel the psychics flaming accusations with any more ammo than necessary. And seeing Kate, dressed in tight fitting jeans and a stretchy pink tank-top, her face carefully made-up, and her hair pinned back at her best advantage, right outside the door of Jackson’s house, would hardly help the cause.

Then, eyes careering back around, Kate could just make out the muffled sound of footsteps coming from inside the house…and just like that, all thoughts of Penny fled. And, just like that, Kate felt her stomach pinch painfully on itself. And, just like that, it was all-Jackson.

“Coming!” Kate heard seconds before he was standing before her, the heavy door swung open to reveal his lazy smile of greeting. Jackson’s hair, always cut neatly short, shown almost brandy in color, and his shirt, a tan polo (perfectly pressed of course) fit almost as close as a second skin, showing off those beautifully sculpted arms, the by-product of living on a lake, and those impossible-not-to-notice shoulders. A swimmer’s physique. Pair that with fitted khakis pants, and Jackson looked pretty much the same as usual: a well-groomed city boy with the most country-boy muscles Kate had ever seen.

Phil 2.0.

Except, besides fashion and physical appearance, Jackson wasn’t really all the much like Phil. Right? For one thing, Jackson had a wicked sense of humor.

“Kate,” he said now, his voice interrupting her musings, which was probably for the best.

“Hi-hey Jackson.” Kate cringed. That came out breathy. Awkward. Rushed.

Eh.

“I see you brought your script,” he said, seeming unfazed by her gawky speech, staring instead down at the strangled papers she held in her hand. All business.

“What?” Looking down, Kate flushed. “Oh. Yeah.”

“Good. Well, come in, come in,” Jackson invited, moving back to allow Kate entrance into the rather grand foyer there—replete with black-and-white checkered tiles on the floor. Maybe he and Phil weren’t so dissimilar after all. Kate frowned.

Quickly banishing that thought, however, she clung tighter to the script in her hand and, holding it up triumphantly, strutted across the threshold. Play it cool, Kate. Be confident. Funny. Act natural.

“Wouldn’t be much of a practice if I left it at home, would it?” As far as jokes went, it was pretty lame (though it was a definite improvement of the former: ‘hi-hey’ debacle). Kate cringed for the second time in as many seconds. Be casual. Breezy. Relaxed…

Which, it turns out was terrible advice.

For, no sooner had Kate landed upon these adjectives then her less than graceful gait found itself pitching forward…her foot skipping roughly, unevenly over the rug through down in the center of the hallway, causing her to trip. The fine material bunching together underfoot, Kate felt a moment’s terror grip her stomach as her upper body flayed forward, her arms outstretched, hips swaying, overbalancing, trying to force her body back in the upright position.

Or…wait. Had she really erred, at all?

For, no sooner had her body begun it’s forward dissent, accompanied by some unfortunate squeaks and squeals from Kate’s surprised mouth, then that pair of ridiculously strong arms she’d been so admiring seconds earlier, wrapped themselves around her midriff, bringing her to an ungainly stop halfway to the floor. (Picture this: Kate, bent, hunched forward at the waist, her arms out, hoping to break the fall, her face crumpled in expectation of the pain, stuck in mid-air, suspended in this humiliating pose by the strength of Jackson’s arms.)

Despite this, Kate wasn’t worried about how she looked. She wasn’t mortified by this show of gracelessness. She wasn’t thinking about herself, at all. She was however, breathing quickly—and not just as a result of that near-miss. Her heart was beating, shaking in its awareness of the man behind her: his aftershave, the spicy, smoky scent wafting between their bodies, making her nose crinkle appreciatively. The tingle of her skin, especially where it was pressed up close, held captured by his forearms, and those long-tapered fingers, sizzled, diverting her attentions. She held her breath, afraid that even the tiniest movement on her part and it would all disappear.

And, in the space of time it took her to take all this in, Kate was suddenly, inexplicably swamped with a feeling of enveloping guilt.

A feeling of guilt owed entirely to Penny.

“Are you okay?” Jackson asked, breaking the moment, his breath whispering down Kate’s neck and across her shoulder’s; nodding, she allowed him to slowly pull her up to her feet.

Brushing unnecessarily at her knees, hair curtained in front of her flaming face, Kate took a jerky breath. Was she okay? No of course she wasn’t okay! Twenty-five seconds ago she’d been wrapped in his arms (albeit, not exactly romantically but still…) and she’d liked it! She’d more than liked it, she’d savored the sensations coursing through her body at his touch, been damn near hypnotized by it.

And that, in some twisted sort of way, made her think of Jake. And how she’d kissed him the other day. And what Penny had said: what if it had been Jackson who’d walked down the stairs that day at M.T.’s house, Jackson who’d seen her entwined in Jake’s embrace? What would Kate have done? How would she have explained herself?

But most importantly: how could she have liked being in Jackson’s arms just now when, only earlier this morning, she’d found herself daydreaming about another man—when she’d allowed that other man to kiss her, and whom she’d kissed back? It made everything feel cheap and wrong. Which made Kate feel guilty because she was the catalyst. And what was she doing about it: falling from one pair of strong arms into another pair of sweet-tasting lips!

And really, what kind of woman found herself attracted to two very different men at the same exact time? If she wanted Jackson then that should be that. End of story. End of Jake. But it wasn’t quite that easy. And if that was the case, how much stock could she really expect to put in either relationship’s stability, or…or worth or likelihood of being the real thing? If she could like both of them at once when, for all intents and purposes, she should only like the one over the other, then how much substance was there in her feelings toward them, anyway? How much sustenance? Was it all just superficial, on the surface? And, if not, how did she possibly decide between the men? (Because isn’t this supposed to be a glaringly obvious choice—the right one is the right one and you know it when you’re around them, and all that?) The one diminished the other.

And, in that moment of clarity, Kate knew: this guilt wasn’t going away. Not until she could answer those questions, until she could look one of them in the face and say definitively, exactly as Penny had insisted: I pick you and no one else. And I’m sure.

With a resolution she was far from feeling, Kate took a nervous step forward, out of Jackson’s reach, her arms hugging the sides at her waist, her chin jutting out. “Anyway…” she laughed coolly, breaking the silence. “Shall we get started?”

No more flirting. No more maybes.

But, if Jackson was taken aback by the sudden distance in her tone, he did well to disguise it. With a measured gesture, he motioned her to the room just off to the left. “By all means.”

 

 

Carnival Lights: Chapter Thirty-Six

Adjusting the headrest of her seat back, Christina wasn’t sure what was biting at her stomach harder—the simple feeling of travel anxiety or the dawning realization that, after almost a week in South Carolina, she was minutes away from liftoff—which meant she was mere hours away from Minneapolis.

Which meant Matthew and Mary.

Jason.

“God,” she whispered painfully, her eyes closing at the onslaught of fear, nerves, utter anticipation which kicked through her bloodstream at the thought. Again, she wasn’t entirely sure which emotion gripped her harder.

She was desperate to see them. To apologize, to look into their faces and know that they forgave her and that everything would be all right again…

“You old sap,” she muttered, buckling herself snugly into the place. To the wide-set man stuck beside her in seat 8B, she probably looked like a totally buffoon. She wasn’t in a frame of mind to care.

She was desperate to see the Gordman’s…and absolutely terrified. What is she was wrong? What if, like her mother, they couldn’t get past their disappointment? What if they were wrong, and they didn’t love her as much as they claimed? What if she was just deluding herself that they were different than Natalie? What if she was setting herself up for failure?

And then there was Jason.

“I wouldn’t blame him if he laughed right in my face,” she told herself, her fingers flipping angrily through the pages of the in-flight magazine. He’d accused her of playing it hot-and-cold. Wasn’t she about to prove him right? She’d all but sworn that she couldn’t have a relationship with him and…and know she was getting ready to throw herself at him. Total spaz move.

“God, you’re an idiot,” she realized, tossing the magazine down on her lap in disgust. “Why do you think he’d even care?”

A week spent with Natalie DeLuca had done something miraculous to Christina. It had opened her eyes to history. Or maybe it hadn’t been so miraculous after all. Maybe she’d always known, but this had just put it all into a tangible sort of expression. Sitting at the dinner table four of the last seven nights had forced her to see what her teenaged self had been unwilling to accept—

Natalie DeLuca loved no one as much as she loved herself.

She was a selfish woman—whereas most parents wanted their children to have better lives then they had, Natalie couldn’t have stomached the thought.

It’s not that she wanted Christina to have a bad life, but there was a limit to where her goodwill ended and her jealous began.

“Which is why she married dad,” Christina muttered to herself, but there was no anger in the accusation, no hurt or bruising.

Christina no longer wanted to fight for her mother’s affection. She no longer felt like she needed to. Natalie would always be Natalie—Christina couldn’t morph her into someone she wasn’t anymore than Natalie had been able to do with her daughter.

But that had never been a problem for Christina’s father, who lived to come home to his wife, who could always be found at dinner leaning eagerly across the dining room table, waiting for his beloved to tell some drawn-out story of her afternoon at the country club or latest fashion trip or whatnot.

He truly treasured her.

“He was happier to see her each evening than me,” Christina surmised, completely ignoring the stranger beside her. He, however, was staring with his jowl-jaw across the way at her. Any minute now, he’d be flagging down a flight attendant, asking politely to be transferred to another section of the plane. “And he hadn’t seen me in four years.”

Granted, John DeLuca had sounded absolutely bemused, stunned—half expecting a stranger’s voice, when he’d called her that first evening, after Natalie had informed him of their daughter’s unexpected return home. In fact, he’d been almost pathetically eager to see his daughter.

That had healed a lot of hurt.

But, much like Natalie, John didn’t love Christina most. As much as he glorified in seeing his daughter (how many times had he just reached out to touch her? To hug her in some way?) John had never counted the cost of losing her to Natalie.

He loved Natalie best.

He wanted Natalie to be happy (which, as it happened, was all that Natalie wanted to, so their marriage remained blissful after all these years…)

“It’s a strange thing, isn’t it?” Christina asked, turning abruptly now, to stare at the balding man squirming so blatantly beside her.

“Huh?” His voice squeaked in surprise.

Christina didn’t bother to explain. “It’s like, I don’t know, you hold all of these terrible memories in your mind. These things that happened and you can’t get over them until, I don’t know, until one day you go back in time, so to speak, and you realize,” she spread her arms out rather majestically. “You realize, there’s no point in being angry anymore. There’s no point replaying all that old shit. You can’t change people. You can’t change things. You can only accept ‘em and move on and…” Her voice petered out, her thoughts scrambling to make sense of all the emotions stemming through her body.

“And?”

Christina was vaguely surprised to see he was even bothering to listen to her. “And you finally understand that you can be worth more and still be willing to take less at the same time.”

Because that’s how she felt.

The stranger nodded slowly. “But why would you settle for less?”

She inclined her head a little to one side. “You wouldn’t, not unless you were getting all the rest from someplace else.”

Which brought her straight back to Matthew and Mary.

“And Jason,” she whispered.

“Who?”
Smiling half-apologetically, Christina waved her hand dismissively. “Oh, nothing. I’m sorry. I’m just babbling.” She threw him a long look. “It’s been one of those weeks. I’m still trying to process it all.”

He smiled encouragingly. “Well, it’s a long trip, if you need someone to talk to…”

And that, apparently, is all it took for Christina to turn toward her plane companion and tell him everything. Absolutely everything. From her affair with Bill to her anxiety with Jason to her blowup with Mary and Matthew.

Her travel companion—whose name she later learned was Gary—sat patiently while she let the story tremble loose and jumbled from her mouth. Her hands waved frenzied throughout the long, drawn-out tale. But alas, she came to an end.

Shrugging, she said: “…so, that’s why I decided to come back home.”

Gary nodded thoughtfully. “And it was successful?”

Christina started to speak and then stopped. She took a moment to consider before responding: “Yeah. I guess. I mean, my mom is always going to be who she is but…”

He waited.

“I think I’ve finally learned to accept that. I’ve learned to accept who she is. And she’s learned to accept me, too.”

“Ah.” He leaned back in his chair in a satisfied sort of way. Christina wished she could feel half so contented.

She shrugged impatiently. “So, yeah, I’ve gotten one thing accomplished at least.”

“And what’s next?” But she had a feeling he already knew what she’d say…

Christina half-laughed, her glance exasperated when it met his. “Pray Jason hasn’t given up on me.”

“You still doubt them?”
“Not Mary and Matthew.” She looked down at her lap. “But—Jason is different.”

“I see.”

“That is, I want Jason to love me differently. Oh, I know he’d always be there for me, if I needed him. But…”

“But you want more than that?”

She nodded. “And you know what? I think I may have had it. Once.”

He smiled, but there was something slightly sad about it. With a flick of his wrist, he looked down at the watch he wore. “Well, we land in less than twenty minutes.” There was something so pointed in those words, especially when he looked over at her, his eyebrows rising.

She stared back, nonplussed. “Yeah?”

He whistled, not bothering to answer her directly. “You can only delay the inevitable for so long.”

“That’s what I’m terrified of.”

He patted her hand. “I assure you, it’s more scary not knowing.”

She nodded. “I suppose…” and then, it hit her. A niggling notion at the back of her mind. Jerking herself upright, she blinked across the way at Gary. “Wait. What day is it?”

“Friday?”

“No, no,” she said, batting at the words as the thought morphed into a full-fledged idea. She was already hatching plans as she pulled up her phone’s calendar. “Hah!” Her fingernail tapped against the screen. Looking over at Gary, she shot him a dazzlingly smile. “Do you know what Monday is?”

“The 4th?”

“It’s Labor day.”

“Right.” But he didn’t look like he was following her.

“The Gordman’s never miss an opportunity to celebrate a holiday.”

“I see.” But clearly he didn’t.

“And I’ve never been allowed to miss spending it with them.”

Then his face cleared. “I see.”

Her face lightened. “Now I just need a reason.”

“Excuse me?”

“For showing up.” Her exasperation was perhaps a bit excessive, all things considered.

His wide forehead crinkled. “But I thought you just said…”

But Christina was busy scanning her work calendar, looking for any possible excuse for turning by their house unexpectedly. But there was nothing unusual on the schedule—no business trips or tax appointments, no budget meetings…. Her breath sagged out of her with defeat.

Then she felt Gary’s hand coming to rest against her forearm. Glancing up in surprise, she met a patient smile.

“Can I offer one piece of advice?”

She nodded slowly.

“As a man who’s been married almost fifteen years—don’t get distracted by flimsy excuses.”

“No, I won’t—”

“Because usually that’s when the greatest of intentions fall apart.”

Christina laughed softly at his knowing response. “You know this from experience?”

He winked. “You don’t stay married for long if you don’t pick up a few tips along the way.”

Just then the pilot’s fuzzy, disembodied voice came over the loudspeakers, informing the passengers of the approximate time, temperature, and estimation of arrival as they approached their destination.

Christina’s face cleared. Her fingertips reached forward, just brushing over Gary’s shoulder. “I—thank you, Gary. I’m sorry you got stuck with me,” she said amusedly, “but I’m so thankful you had nowhere else to go.”

He chuckled. “Now don’t go apologizing. I rather enjoyed the company.”

She inclined her head. “Thank you for saying that—even if you’re lying.” She wrinkled her nose. “You know, I never even asked your reason for flying?”

“Work conference.”

“God,” Christina made a face. “Now I feel like a complete ass.”

He raised one eyebrow.

“I didn’t even ask what you do for a living.”

He smirked. “I’m a psychologist.”

Her smile slipped. “You’re joking.”

“’Fraid not.”

She closed her eyes. “Please tell me I’m not going to be some case study?”
He really laughed then. “No, no. Nothing like that.”

She blew out a breath. “Well,” she said, with a sideways grin. “No wonder you’re such a good listener….”

 

Carnival Lights: Chapter Thirty-Five

At first, Christina wasn’t sure she could have heard her mother correctly. But as the seconds ticked past with a sickening sort of silence, she felt lighthearted as the weight of what Natalie said finally sank through. Reaching the front door, she pressed against it for a moment, gathering her equilibrium. Twisting her neck, she stared across the kitchen, her eyes pleading for answers as they found her mother’s gaze.

“What?” she whispered.
But Natalie DeLuca wasn’t about to fall apart. Other than a simple shrug of her shoulders, she went on as though nothing explosive had been said. “Your phone—you switched providers or something.”

“You called me?”

Natalie made a face. “Well, don’t be childish! Of course I called you.”

Pushing off the door, Christina felt first one ankle and then another rotate toward her mother. “There’s no of course about it. I waited. For four months, I waited for you to reach out to me. You never did.”

Natalie’s eyes shimmied a little to Christina’s left. “It took me some time.”

“Time?”
“To come to grips with what you did.”

Christina’s breathing was harsh, so loud in her ears that she held up a hand to silence her mom. “When?”

Natalie sighed impatiently. “When what?”

“When did you call me mother!” Christina’s voice was insistent, her face pinching impatiently.

Natalie’s shoulders hitched up a little, her eyes still straying away from her daughter. One hand came down to play with a ring on her right hand. “It must have been sometime near December.”

Christina felt her chest constrict. Her heart pick up. “Nine months.”

“Give or take.”

“You waited nine months—nine months to contact me, to see if I was okay?” At the words, a little of Christian’s strength flooded back. Her shoulders straightened. “You waited nine months to decide I was worth a phone call—a measly phone call! Nine months.” The words tripped spasmodically out of her mouth. “Do you have any idea what it was like for me—out there all alone, terrified?”

Natalie’s hands clenched into fists. “You did that to yourself.”

Christina scoffed. “Of course I did. But still…”

Natalie’s voice hardened. “I need that time, Christina. To process what you’d done, to come to terms with the daughter I thought I knew, the daughter that had betrayed everything I believed in.”

Christina heard those words through a distance. Surprisingly, they no longer possessed the strength of that one long ago night.

Natalie’s voice continued. “I wasn’t in a frame of mind to, to—” her hands flapped about the air wildly as she fought to find the right words.

“To care about what happened to me.” There was no accusation in Christina’s voice, only a matter-of-fact answer.

Natalie’s eyelids flinched at the words. “Say what you want, but I did try.”

Christina nodded. “Only it was too late. I’d already changed phones.” Christina waited for a split second before adding: “Yeah, you tried. Only, you didn’t try that hard.”

Natalie stiffened noticeably. Her eyes narrowed to slits, her voice hissing in defense. “I did the best I could with what information I had.”

Christina smiled faintly. “Yeah? Well, it wasn’t enough. You didn’t love me enough.”

Natalie’s eyes narrowed. “I’m not sure what you—”

But Christina wasn’t finished talking. Her voice rose, cutting her mother off. “I know that now.” And suddenly, she did know it. There was something about coming back home, staring into the eyes of the mother she’d mourned for years that solidified it all for her.

She smiled whimsically. “For years, I thought I didn’t deserve to be loved. Because of what I did, because of what you and dad did to me. So I pushed people away. I kept them from getting too close.” Christina took a deep breath, her words quivering. “But then I met this family.”

Absently, she brushed aside a stray tear, her fingers cold against her skin there. “I met this family, and they wouldn’t stop pushing and prying until I let them in.” She smiled softly. “But even then, I would only allow so far. I never truly believed in their love. And I was just so damned afraid of losing them, like I’d lost you and dad. I refused to let them get close enough to hurt me.”

Natalie’s tan paled a little over the words.

“So I started pushing them back, pushing them away,” she realized. Her lips trembled. “But still they loved me.” Everything looked clearer from a distance somehow. Christina could see that now, how much Mary and Matthew loved her. How desperately they’d hurt for her. “Despite everything I said and did, no matter how much I fought it, they still only wanted to protect me. Me.”

After the things she’d said to them, the way she’d spoken, Mary’s first call had been to Jason, to tell him she was worried about Christina. And, according to a message left by Jackie that very afternoon, when she’d walked into Mr. Gordman’s office to deliver news of Christina’s absence, he’d only sighed at her bumbling explanation. “Tell her,” he’d said quietly. “Tell Christina she can take all the time she needs. We’ll be here when she gets back.”

She had almost missed it. All that love.

Natalie’s voice ripped Christina out of her revelations. “So I’m the monster—because I didn’t coddle you enough, I didn’t shield you from the consequences of your actions?” She nodded primly. “I see.”

“No,” Christina countered. “No, I didn’t say that.”

“Then what are you saying?”

“I’m saying that you were wrong. You and dad. You were wrong to cast me aside at the first sign of fault, as though I weren’t still your daughter, as though I weren’t hurting and scared; I’m saying you were wrong to wash your hands of me when I failed you—”

“You turned our world upside down!”

“Mine too,” Christian admitted. “And I paid for it. I paid for it for so long. Too long. Believing myself unworthy, measuring others’ love by the standards that you had set by me.” She sniffed. “I don’t know mom, maybe it’s too late for us, maybe the hurt here can never be healed….”

Christina took a deep breath, her voice shaking in the suffocating silence reverberating off her parent. “Because I look at you and all I see is your disappointment. Still. After all this time. I’m standing here in front of you, a half-forgotten child and that’s all I can read on your expression.”

Natalie’s eyebrows lifted.

“But I hope it’s not too late for them. For Mary and Matthew.” And Jason. God, she prayed it wasn’t too late for Jason. “I hope I didn’t ruin my chances with the only real family I’ve ever known—and all because I couldn’t reconcile the differences between them and my past.”

At last, Christina ran out of breath. Hell, she hardly knew what she was saying anymore, what the point of it all was. She only knew a feeling of cathartic joy as she heard the words, felt them pass through her lips, and knew the truth in their depth and heaviness. She wanted to keep repeating them.

She wasn’t afraid anymore. Mary and Matthew would be there when she got back home. They’d be there waiting for her. Despite her words, she knew she wasn’t too late. At least, not for them. Now, it only waited on Jason.

Her stomach pinched. Had his patience worn out? Had his interest waned in the midst of her self-prophesied drama? He’d waited a long time for her, what if the reality of her brokenness proved to be too muc—

Mentally throttling the thought, Christina gathered what little composure she had left. Jason would have to wait. She couldn’t afford the lack of dignity it would cost her to break down in front of her mother. Not now. Not after all she’d said.

Hefting her chin up to a haughty angle, she smiled not unkindly. “I won’t keep you any longer, mom. I know you have things to do yet tonight.” With a tremulous smile, she edged back toward the door yet again. But she was amazed at the strength she felt her legs, the grace she felt crawling its way up her spine. On that knowledge, she stopped halfway and with a zip of her finger, opened her purse. Digging through the contents, she pulled out a small business card. Two sidesteps took her to the kitchen table, where she laid it down with a pat of her hand.

Still, her mother didn’t speak. Pausing as she straightened back up, Christina glanced over her shoulder. Her mother still hadn’t moved—the only sign of change lay in the creases curving down her cheeks.

“It’s got my phone number on it,” Christina said, nodding toward the card. She was back at the door again. “For what it’s worth,” she added, her voice soft now, “it was nice to see you, mom.”

Pushing open the screen door, she was halfway over the threshold when she heard it. The words were so small, she almost missed them. “You look just like me. I’d always forgotten how much.”

Christina bit her lip, her legs stilling—that was as close to any capitulation as Natalie was bound to get. Tossing her head, she saw with some surprise that her mother had moved at last. Standing at head of the table, she held that business card in her tight grip. Her right index finger skimmed across the edges of it. “You won’t change it again?”

Christina didn’t have to ask what she meant. “You’ll call?”
Natalie didn’t lift her eyes from the stylish font on the cardstock. “I’m sure your father would love to see you.”

There was a short pause.

“I won’t change it.”

 

Carnival Lights: Chapter Thirty-Four

It all looked the same. Parking her rental car safely to one side of the residential street, for a moment Christina didn’t get out of the car. Her eyes focused on the two-story brick home to her right. The same blossoming bushes adorned either side of the paved walkway leading up to the covered porch. She was pretty sure those were even the same cushions on the patio furniture, only slightly aged by the sun. The only thing different was the car parked in the driveway. Same manufacturer, new model.

It was only when she started to feel like an intruder—was that a neighbor’s blinds twitching just across the street?—that Christina slowly levered herself out of the car. Her hands clutched the sides of her purse as she looked up and down the empty roadway before crossing the street. Her legs trembled when she reached the short driveway, but her eyes never betrayed her trepidation. Instead, they stared straight ahead.

She hadn’t bothered to call and warn them. Hell, she wasn’t even sure what either of their phone numbers were anymore. And honestly, she’d been too afraid to find out they’d changed them—this would have somehow put to bed any half-smothered hope that they still cared, even a little bit.

More than that, she had been paralyzed by the fear that they’d tell her not to bother coming at all.

These thoughts took her to the front door; she was vaguely shocked she’d made it that far without being seen. Natalie DeLuca was not one to be taken by surprise. It would have suited her just fine to meet an unexpected visitor halfway up the drive, but when Christina gained the doorway, she was forced to ring the doorbell.

Oddly, that hurt worst of all. That this was no longer a home she could just enter without thought of her welcome.

Standing there, feeling the heat of the late afternoon sun, Christina counted slowly in her head, anything to distract her nerves. She was at four when she heard the sound of shuffling footsteps. At seven, the door before her swung open.

If Christina had hoped to surprise a look of amazement on her mother’s face, she was doomed to be disappointed. Other than a quickly stifled quiver over her harsh features that woman didn’t so much as blink at the sight of a daughter she hadn’t seen for almost five years—a daughter she’d all but given up on ever seeing again.

“Christina,” she said primly, her lips spreading out in a thin line.

Registering this lack of greeting, Christina tried to hold her temper. She really should have known better, anyway. What had she expected? That perhaps her mother had missed her as much as she’d been missed; that perhaps she’d regretted her daughter’s exile all these years—had she expected tears?

“Mother.”

At the terse exchange, neither of them spoke for a moment—the screen door still standing closed between them. Christina’s eyes were hidden behind her sunglasses, silently imploring Natalie to do something. To make a sound, to bite her lip, to burst through the doorway…but nothing happened.

After a few moments, Natalie’s only change in expression was that of a pointedly raised eyebrow. “Is that it?”

Christina blinked. “Excuse me?”

“Well? I assume you came here for a reason—or do you just intend to stand here all day? I’ve got things to do,” she said, waving absently behind her.

Despite herself, Christina heard a gurgled sob escape her tight throat. Clamping down hard, she swallowed past the rest of it. “You haven’t changed, I see.”

At the words, Natalie DeLuca crossed her arms over her chest. “I wasn’t the one who needed to.”

Christina nodded slowly. “Of course not.”

Natalie heaved a great sigh. “What do you want, Christina?”

Christina laughed humorlessly. “Honestly, I don’t know.” She sighed, one hand cradling her hairline. “I’m not sure why I came here. I thought—” She raised her arms impotently and then she let them fall again.

Natalie inclined her head. “You thought what?”
“I guess I thought you’d invite me in.”

“Oh for goodness’ sake…” With a long suffering sigh, Natalie pushed the door open. Stepping out the way, Christina watched her mother begrudgingly wave her forward. “But I don’t have all day. We’ve got plans tonight…”

Stepping inside the bright kitchen—same floral curtains at the windows, same oak cupboards with that same hideous ceramic cookie jar shaped like an apple on the counter—the laugh that burst out of Christina was filled with resentment, self-loathing. “And Natalie DeLuca doesn’t break her commitments.”

Her mother’s lip thinned. “Jokes, Christina?”

“No mom, just a long-lost daughter. Hardly of importance.”

Natalie’s back straightened at the words. “It was your choice to drop in like this.”

A sputtered laugh. “God! Of course—”

“You will not take the Lord’s name in vain in this house!”

But Christina didn’t hear her. Turning away, her arms crossing down at her hips, she took in the spotless countertops, the unadorned refrigerator door, anything to keep from staring at her mother. “I don’t know what the hell I expected coming here, anyway. I guess, that my presence would actually mean something to you. That it would be enough.”

“Ah,” Natalie said slowly, her tongue clicking against her teeth. “So now I’ve disappointed you?”

Christina shook her head. “I should be used to your indifference.”

“I see. So I was a terrible mother, then? Is that it? You threw dirt on our family name, forced your father to work alongside a man he learned to loathe, and all because, what? Because I didn’t hug you enough?”

“You never even checked in on me!” Christina said, hurtling the words at her mother and hating the hurt threading through them. With an impatient flick, she brushed back threatening tears. “In all these years—I could have been dead for all you knew, but that was hardly a concern. Not to you. After you threw me out, that was it.” Closing her eyes, Christina snapped her fingers. Then she said the words she’d dared to never say: “You never even called.”

With a sigh, she made a half turn, heading back the way she’d come. Her fingertips were just reaching for the door handle when she heard a small voice say: “Well, it would have been hard to do, when I didn’t have your number anymore.”

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Forty

“Okay Janessa, close your eyes,” Penny commanded quietly, her voice in perfect modulated control. Reaching out, she patted down the backs of Janessa hands, in a comforting sort of way. The lights were dimmed in the small room Penny occupied as her office. Two fat candles burned on the table either side of Penny and Janessa, and one small lamp, a mock Victorian-era piece, shown limply, its shade casting a pink hue across the walls.

Penny took a deep breath. Be calm. Be confident. You can do this. Don’t sweat. Don’t frown. Don’t show fear. She took another deep breath.

“It may help for you to close your eyes. Think of your father. Picture him in your mind. It will help to call his spirit. The strength of that memory…it will build a stronger bridge, a deeper connection for him to find.”

“Okay,” Janessa whispered. Her face was screwed up tightly, the bridge of her nose winkled in thought and concentration.

Penny, heeding her own advice, also allowed her eye lids to shut. Behind them she saw nothing but inky, scratchy blankness. Deep breathe in. Deep breathe out.

Blackness.

The bangles on one hand dig into the skin around her wrist as Penny pressed down against the tabletop. Technicolor dots formed through the darkness blanketing her eyes. But it wasn’t because she was getting a vision…she was trying too hard.

Relax your mind, Penny. Relax. You can do this…

“I call upon the spirit of Adam Cooper,” Penny called out; Adam, of course, was the name of Janessa’s father. Loosening her shoulders, Penny’s voice raised out again: “I call upon the spirit of Adam Cooper.”

Then, she repeated this phrase one more time.

Nothing.

Squinting through the enveloping blackness of her closed eyes, Penny searched furtively. She saw nothing. Her ears were stretch, pointed for the whispered sound of his arrival, as they had been for each of the other three failed sessions she’d had with Janessa. She picked up on the small, cracking sound of the candle wick, and the slight humming of the air-conditioner stationed on the back window.

And nothing else.

Dammit.

Popping her eyes open, Penny swallowed back the invading panic. “Janessa…” Penny sighed.

“Nothing, huh?” Janessa asked knowingly, and her eyes were open too now, staring straight into Penny’s distressed face.

“No. I don’t…I’m not getting any activity on my end,” Penny confessed. She could feel the clammy sweat of failure sweeping over her body. “This has never happened to me before.”

“It’s okay,” Janessa said, but there was no mistaking the defeat in her tone.

Penny reached forward, grabbing the young girls hands. “Maybe—maybe if you can give a little more information on your father: did he pass recently, how did he die? Sometimes spirits get confused when they cross over…”

Penny hated the desperation in her voice. She hated the leading questions she was asking….they made her sound like a fraud. They made her feel like a fraud. She didn’t usually need clients to provoke her senses.

“Die?” Janessa queried. “What do you mean? He’s not dead.”

Penny reared back, her hands falling away from Janessa’s closed fists, her back hitting against her chair abruptly. “He’s…he’s not?”

What?
Now, for the first time in the four sessions in which Penny had been unable to contact her father, Janessa looked suspicious. “No.”

“Oh.”

“Why did you think he was dead?” Now she sounded defensive. Attacking.

And Penny’s unease built higher. Shaking her head, she tried to back-paddle. “It was…I just assumed…”

“Assumed?” Janessa voice was razor sharp. “Assumed? I thought you were supposed to know….”

“Yes, but…”

“So, like, what, you’ve just been guessing? All along? Is that what you actually do here?” Janessa parried aggressively. “You’re a scam, aren’t you? Everyone said, when I read my essay to the class: she’s not the real thing—and it’s true, isn’t it?” Now Janessa’s blue eyes were like ice around her halo of snarled hair.

“No. Of course not,” Penny returned hotly. “If that were the case, do you think I would have so readily admitted I couldn’t make contact?”

Janessa didn’t say anything.

Penny tried again. “You spoke about him in the past tense and I just figured…If he was alive, why would you need my help—?”

“But couldn’t you tell, when you were, like, calling for him or whatever? You didn’t get the feeling that he was still alive?”

Penny shrugged. It was a fair question. “Probably because I never got a read on him, at all. If I had…”

“Yeah, sure,” Janessa barked. “If you had. But you didn’t. How convenient.” Betrayal. Distrust. The feelings all but oozed out of Janessa’s pores.

Penny fought back. “Look: I’m sorry. You’re right, I should have made sure—”

“I trusted you,” Janessa snarled, pushing back her chair. “I thought you’d be able to help.”

“I’m not a mind-reader,” Penny tried to explain. “At least, not in the way you’re wanting me to be. I communicate with spirits, with the universe, and yes, with the human psyche, but it’s not as simple as what you’re asking.”

“Yeah? What about the physics used by the police to help find missing people. How come they can do it, then? If you’re the real thing, that is.”

Penny fought back. “My line of work has always been called into skepticism for the very fact that it’s not a switch that can just be flipped on or off. I can’t make my extra Sight see things just because I want it to. Predictions, messages, communication…all of it, they come to me—not the other way around. They’re random, unbidden, unannounced, unreliable; and I am merely a conduit, a vessel for them to be realized. So yes, I see things, I know things, I hear things from a different plane, but I can’t, there are serious limitations to that.

“And the reason that psychics are good with missing persons’ cases is because those people want to be found. Their energy is on high alert, and the sensitivity of my Sight picks up on that. If your dad doesn’t want to be found…” Penny let the sentence dangle uneasily in the air around them. “Then there isn’t much I can do, as far as my clairvoyance is concerned.”

Janessa snorted, but she’d stopped her headfirst race toward the door. That was something, at least.

Penny continued: “I can only receive and send messages. I am merely a vehicle for their voice and presence—but only if both channels are open, willing. I can’t control or manipulate the spirits. I can’t imitate them. It just doesn’t work that way.”

Janessa rolled her eyes.

“What you’re asking for is a cold reading. And, in my experience, they don’t work. I need to have consent, I have to be invited, feel connected.”

“I just want to know where he is,” Janessa spoke then, pleaded really. Her eyes were large in her face. Tears were not far from the surface. “That’s all I want to know. I thought, I guess it was stupid. I thought, if I could find him then maybe…” The teenager trailed off uncomfortably. “I don’t know.”

The air seemed too thick, too sickly scented in the room suddenly. Penny’s heart beat hard and fast against her chest. “It wasn’t stupid.”

Janessa nodded sharply.

“Tell me about him.”

Janessa looked at Penny.

“Not as your psychic,” the older woman rushed to explain, “but as your friend.”

 

 

 

Half an hour later, as Penny watched Janessa exit out of her office, the psychic allowed her body to slump tiredly in her chair. Her body felt weary after listening to Janessa’s story, her neck muscles tight and raw. Janessa’s life had been far from easy, her path littered with rejection, abandonment, and a lack of love and support. Penny’s own childhood came to mind; she could relate. And that was probably why she found herself so determined to help the young teenager, to do exactly as asked: locate Janessa’s missing father.

Of course, it was looking like that would require more on-the-ground detective work than other-worldly intervention, but Penny loved a good challenge.

Riding close on that thought, Penny tried not to acknowledge, was guilt at what she’d uncovered, at what she’d found out…because she had no plans of filling Kate in on this new-found information. And Kate would feel betrayed by that. She would claim a right to have known. After all, she was the girl’s mentor and had, for all Janessa’s resistance, really stepped up to that role, committed to helping the surly teenager, advising her, generally being there for her. Kate cared about Janessa. She wanted to help the young girl succeed.

And here was Penny, with intelligence Kate probably needed in aide of that endeavor, and she wasn’t sharing. It felt wrong. And yet, Penny wasn’t sure that going behind Janessa’s back would be right, either. The teenager had trusted her. She’d confided. Penny just couldn’t condone exposing that, exploiting it. Janessa’s story was hers to tell. Period.  Kate would have to figure this out on her own, just like Penny had.

(The fact that Penny knew, without having to be told, that Kate would be more than willing, more than eager to be part of unearthing Janessa’s father, that she’d feel unduly hurt at being left out, the psychic refused to admit. If Kate was going to help, it had to be on Janessa’s terms.)

Straightening up the small table Janessa had only moments ago vacated, Penny walked over to her icebox. She needed a cup of coffee after that session. And a sandwich. Glancing up at the clock hanging overhead, she noted the time: 12:13 p.m.

Good, that left her just under two hours until her next appointment. Rummaging underneath the oval table that doubled as Penny’s desk, she was on the verge of grabbing for her wallet and making a quick lunch run, when a small knock on the wall outside her office, caught her up in surprise.

“Hello?” A deeply male voice asked. An oddly familiar male voice asked, seconds before a hand come into sight, pushing back the heavy brocade curtain she used for a door.

Stumbling upright, Penny’s eyes widened at the face that came into sights seconds later. Of all the people Penny might have expected to drop be unannounced—namely Janessa, coming for something she’d forgotten, or M.T. offering to take her sister to lunch, or her damned landlord, coming to enquire after her little ‘project’ on the ruse of checking she’d cover the rent this month (with a degree of resignation when she answered ‘yes’)—the one which greeted her now stole Penny’s breath, her ability to speak.

Standing there, silhouetted in the light off the narrow hallway, was Jake Farrow. As in, the owner of the LitLiber bookstore. As in, Part B of Kate’s current love triangle. As in, the boy who used to seat two rows behind her in high school geography….

“Jake?” Penny couldn’t quite keep the incredulity out of her voice. In as long as she’d been operating as a psychic, Jake had never before graced the doorway of her shop.

“Hey Penny,” he said, smiling slightly.

“Uh…what are you doing here—I mean, not that you’re not welcome,” Penny rambled at his amused raised eyebrow. “It’s just…I wasn’t expecting you.”

“Yeah. Sorry to just drop by—”

“No, no,” Penny rushed to say. With a wave of her hand, she motioned him forward. “Please, come inside.”

Jake didn’t need further encouragement. Quickly, he slipped past the heavy curtain, to take a seat in the chair opposite Penny. Then, belatedly, he waved around the room. (Afraid, perhaps, she was in the middle of some ghostly chat or something?) “I’m not, uh, interrupting anything right now, am I?”

“No. I’m taking my lunch break, actually. Good timing for you.”

“Oh. Okay. I won’t keep you.”

Forehead crinkling, Penny waited for him to speak again. Jake looked uneasy.

“So what can I do for you? Call it intuition, but I’m not getting the sensation you’re here to have your future foretold,” Penny hedged amusedly.

Jake laughed softly. It came out more like a cough. “Uh, no. Not…” absently, his hand came up to rub against the stubble settling across his jaw line. “Um, not that.”

Penny nodded knowingly. “Well, since the last time we shared a table at lunchtime, it was in the ninth grade…” and she’d been sitting at one of the cafeteria tables all alone, her eyes steady on the sandwich in her hands, shoulders hunched inward, ears picking up the sounds of voices coming from three rows behind her:

“Look at what she’s wearing…seriously, she looks ready for a flood in those pants.”

Twittering laugher. “A flood might do her some good. I bet she doesn’t even bathe.”

“So you’d rather she look like a drowned rat?”

“Anything’s better than that.”

And on and on the insults flew, the girls gossiping loudly, enjoying her mortification, and enjoying the notoriety they were gaining from the student body, most of which couldn’t help but overhear the waspish sentiments.

And of course, because it wouldn’t have been a truly clichéd moment if it hadn’t been coming from the most popular girls in school. If these terrible words hadn’t been frothing from the mouths of cheerleaders.

“Hey…mind if I sit here?” a male voice asked, breaking through Penny’s determined resolve to ignore the chatter going on over her head.

Looking up quickly, on the verge of warning this unsuspecting visitor that sitting next to her was the closest thing to status suicide—that is, sitting next to the most made-fun of girl in school—when her eyes met the kindest green eyes she’d ever seen. The most adored green eyes in school. The eyes of Whestleigh football star, Jake Farrow.

Penny’s eyes thinned into slits. Now what. “Just haven’t had quite enough of a laugh yet, huh?” she asked venomously. Painfully shy, it was probably the longest sentence she’d ever spoken to the boy who’d shared the same school schedule with her for the past eleven years running. Only, she was past her limit today. She was over being the subject of everyone’s ridicule. And this was just too much, anyway.

Why did they have to pick on her? Penny had never done anything to them. She was quiet. Kind. She’d never pretended to be cool, tried to fit in. She’d never vied for their attention. So why wouldn’t they just leave her alone? She’d tried the old adage: kill them with kindness. It hadn’t worked. She’d tried not to react, to appear bored with their little games, hoping it would eventually ruin them of their fun. If anything, it had only spurred them on more.

“Excuse me?” Jake asked, and for his part, he looked genuinely baffled.

“What, you’ve come over here on some dare to sit beside the freak show, what her in her natural habitat, telling everyone just how weird she is—what, that she speaks in tongues or wipes her mouth on the sleeve of her filthy shirt? Or…oh, wait, I know: that she can’t chew without drooling? Anything to please the masses, huh?”

Jake’s mouth turned down. “No…”

And suddenly, Penny knew why she was so particularly upset now. Because, through all the harassment, all the hurtful things her peers had slung at her, Jake had never partook himself. Granted, he hadn’t stopped them either. But he’d never been outright rude to her. He’d never joined in their mockery and jeers.

But it seemed at last, he’d stepped over to the dark side.

Staring up at his face, which was rigid above the red plastic food tray, Penny had a new terrible horrible sensation. “Oh God…”

“What?”
“You’re going to dump your food on my head, aren’t you? Claim you tripped.”

“No. What?” With a plop, Jake dropped the rectangular tray carefully, upright, on to the table. “Why would you…” and with a sigh to beat all sighs, he shook his head. “Never mind. I know why.”

Silent now, Penny watched him take a seat on the bench chair opposite her. “Is it a social experiment then? See how it feels: to be the most un-liked person in school?” Penny didn’t know where the nerve was coming from. She’d never spoken to anyone this way before, and certainly not the most popular guy in school. Only, once she’d started she couldn’t seem to stop.

“No. I came over to say I’m sorry.”

Penny blinked. “Excuse me?”

“For everything we’ve done to you. I’m sorry.”

“Well, you actually never did anything,” Penny felt obligated to mention.

Jake gave her a look. “Maybe not. But that changes today.”

Penny cleared her throat, bringing herself back to the present, hearing her voice carry over the quiet office: “Well, since the last time we shared a table at lunchtime, it was in the ninth grade…I can only assume this isn’t a social visit?”
Jake laughed softly. “That wasn’t the last time we shared a table at lunchtime,” he seemed compelled to say. “We shared that table every lunch for the rest of that year.”

Penny smiled. “And the year after that.”

“Yeah.”

“Fair enough. But, since high school ended, you’ll allow that they rather came to an abrupt end?”
Jake shrugged. “I went always to college.”

“And I didn’t.”

“And when I came back…”

“I was a full-fledged freak,” Penny teased. “One that even you couldn’t save.”

“Don’t.” Jake didn’t smile in return. “I always hated it when you called yourself that.”

Penny nodded sharply. “Okay.” She cleared her throat uncomfortably, her shoulders jerking with the sound. “Well, anyway…I think we’re getting a little off track here.”

“How do you know?” Jake challenged, and there it was, that note of amusement threaded in his voice again. “After all, I’m the one who came to see you.”

Penny stared at him levelly. “And this is what you came to talk to me about?”

Jake grinned. “No.”

“I didn’t think so.”
“Actually, I came to talk about Kate.”
As if she hadn’t seen that one coming.

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Thirty-Nine

Penny unlocked the back door to her office with more force than necessary, her wrist cranking hard against the metallic key in her hand. Moving inside, she dropped her purse down on the filing cabinet before plopping down in a seat.

It was almost four o’clock and she didn’t have any clients set up for the day. In fact, she’d posted a sign on her door earlier this morning, informing any passersby, that the shop was closed that afternoon.

Only, after spending all day at Maggie’s, tearing up carpet and carefully avoiding Kate, Penny hadn’t felt up to going back home. Not just yet. She didn’t want to be found, and with that sign on her office door, who would think to look for her here?

(Translation: Penny didn’t want to talk to Kate. She didn’t want to hear any more explanations. And she didn’t want to have to apologize for what she’d said earlier. Kate would assume Penny had gone home after M.T’s, hence her strong inclination to be anywhere but there.)

Penny knew what she’d said to Kate…. Closing her eyes, Penny shook her head. She’d been mean. Awful. Hurtful. And even knowing that, even running from the remembrance of that look on Kate’s face when she’d told her to leave Penny out of her love triangle…even with all of that, Penny wasn’t sorry for what she’d said.

She’d meant it. In fact, she hadn’t realized how much she’d meant it until all those words had come flying out of her mouth. She’d just stood there, and listened to a whole slew of truth as she’d spoken to Kate. Sure, it could have been worded better. And yeah, it could have been presented more calmly. Penny knew this. She regretted that it hadn’t been.

Still….

If she was sorry at all, it was only about that lack of diplomacy, not the message itself. She was tired of Kate’s attention-seeking indecisiveness. Kate just wanted to talk about herself…and to hear others talk about her too.  Rinse and repeat. Penny was done being Kate’s lackey, patiently hanging by in the sidelines, apparently only good for her part in Kate’s daily saga of one dramatic episode after another.

The problem was: everything was always about Kate. Kate. Kate. Kate.

Perhaps Penny had enabled this behavior. When Kate had first moved to town she’d seemed so fragile, so unsure of herself. Penny had wanted to help her. She’d wanted to know what had happened to Kate to make her so terrified of…well, everything. So Penny had coddled her, and she’d encouraged her, and she’d checked-in…

Only now, it would seem she’d created a monster. Everything being about Kate had become a habit. When Kate had a question, it was an emergency and everyone around her was expected to drop everything and come to her aid. When Kate was uncertain about something, she considered it a crisis—and honestly expected everyone to do so, as well.

Which wasn’t so bad expect, lately, Penny had felt a keen lack of reciprocation in that department….  It had been weeks since Kate had so much as enquired about anything going on in Penny’s life. No: ‘Hey, how’s business?’ No: ‘Did you see that cute guy at Bean Tamptations, earlier? I think he was looking at you…’ and certainly no: ‘Hey, how have you been? Want to spend a relaxing evening just hanging out, you and me, with no agenda?’

No, instead Kate just barreled—

Penny’s musings were cut short by the sudden, expected knock coming from outside her office door. Closing her eyes tiredly, Penny realized she’d forgotten to lock the outside door when she’d come inside.

Damnit…

Maybe if she didn’t say anything, the person on the other end of the wall (namely Kate) would give up and go home.

“Hello?” A young, girlish voice asked through the thick curtains doubling as Penny’s door. That voice did not belong to Kate. Or Maggie.

Furrowing her brows, Penny tried to give a face to the small, nervous question. That voice sounded oddly familiar. “Hello,” Penny answered back. Standing up she moved to the curtain, and with a flourish pulled it back. “I’m sorry. We’re actually closed for the—Janessa?” At the sight of the teenager, Penny’s earlier sentence went into eclipse.

“What are you doing here? Is everything okay? Do you need Kate?”

Janessa pulled her signature eye-roll. “No, I don’t need Kate. I came here, didn’t I?”

“To see me?” Penny couldn’t keep the incredulous tone out of her voice.

“Yeah, well…I was outside when I saw you pull up and I thought…” Janessa’s words petered out.

Penny pulled a face. That had cleared up nothing for her. “Okay… is this about that job-shadowing essay? Do you have more questions for that?” she hedged.

“Hardly . I turned that paper in a week ago.”

“Okay…then?”

“I thought you were supposed to be psychic? Shouldn’t you know why I’m here?” Janessa asked belligerently.

“It doesn’t work that way.”

“But you are a psychic, right?”
“Right.”
“Well, that’s why I’m here.”

“Okay…”

Janessa shrugged. “Can I come in?”

“Oh…Oh!” With a flourish, Penny stepped back, allowing Janessa room to advance into her small, cramped quarters. “Sure. So, what’s up? You looking for a reading or something?”

“Or something,” Janessa returned.  Now that she was inside the room, the youngster looked uncertain, her mascara laced eyes looking down at her hands, which were fidgeting down at her sides. She shrugged again. “That is, I was wondering, um, you said you can communicate with people’s spirits, right?”

Penny motioned for the girl to take a seat. “Yes, as long as the spirit is willing.”

“Oh.”

Penny tried again. “Is there someone you’d like to speak with?”

Janessa picked at her nail. Then, as if the thought just then occurred, she looked up: “First, I want you to promise me you won’t call Kate, and tell her, you know, that I was here or anything.”
Penny wasn’t sure she liked the sounds of that. “Why not?”

“Because she’ll just turn this into some kind of after-school special….”

“Turn what into an after-school special?” Penny asked patiently.

“I want you to promise first,” Janessa insisted. “I mean, isn’t there like some kind of client confidentiality thing with stuff like this?”

“I suppose so…” Penny had never given it much thought before, but it sounded right.

“So, do you promise?”

“No. Not until I know you aren’t in some kind of trouble.”

“I’m not in trouble.”

“Then what?”

Janessa looked up at the psychic, her shoulder’s squared. “I want you to help me contact my father.” And, while Penny sat there, mouth a gap, staring at her, Janessa pulled out her wallet. “That is what you do, isn’t it? I can pay you.”

Penny swallowed, overcoming her surprise. She hadn’t realized that Janessa’s father had died. She knew he wasn’t in the picture, but Kate had never mentioned this fact before. Perhaps she didn’t know it herself. Janessa, Penny had heard often enough, wasn’t one for opening up.

“Yes. That is what I do. And—does your mother know you’re here?”

Janessa bit her lip. “No, not exactly. But—she wouldn’t mind. I know she wouldn’t. She’s always saying how she wished she could talk to him too…”

Reacting on instinct, Penny didn’t comment on that. “All right, when would you like to make the appointment?”

“What about right now?”

Penny nodded stupidly. “Okay…” In hindsight, perhaps she should have just gone home.

Firmly thrusting the niggling worry at the back of her mind that Kate would be far from pleased—would probably throw a major freak-out—when she found out about this little private session (if she found out, that is), Penny reached for her stack of cards. There really was no reason for her to call Kate. Janessa had a right to her privacy. And the teenager was probably right, if she learned what they were up to, Kate was bound to blow things all out of proportion. And wasn’t that, Kate’s tendency to embellish ever little thing to it’s utmost capacity, at the root of all Penny’s resent resentments toward? Wasn’t that (Kate’s almost too-predicable reaction) just the kind of thing Penny so sorely wanted to avoid right now?

 

 

 

With a weary sigh, Kate closed the front door of Maggie’s house behind the retreating figures of Jake and Jackson. It was almost five and, walking slowly back to the kitchen, Kate couldn’t help but feel proud, even if incredibly tired, at what had been accomplished that afternoon. Besides just the kitchen sink and the guestroom carpet, the five of them had managed to re-paint the living room, re-caulk the tub in the master bathroom, fix the storm-door out back, and re-hang all the curtains. And, after Penny had left, on some lame excuse about getting her dinner ready (Kate made a face), the remaining four had even chipped away the backsplash in Maggie’s kitchen. There was still a lot to be done, but the house was starting to take shape under all that construction.

“Kate, I can’t thank you enough…” Maggie started to say the moment Kate’s person came into view.

Laughing, Kate waved her off. “Stop. Really, M.T. after the five-hundredth thank-you, I can honestly say, I believe you’ve shown more than enough gratitude.”

Maggie blushed. Then, nodding toward the coffee maker, she asked: “Want a cup?”

“God yes.” Pouring herself a generous mug-full, Kate turned to face the pastor, her hip leaning back against the countertop.

“Maggie…can I ask you a question?”

The pastor, who was bending inside an open cardboard box, a spatula in one hand and an old-fashioned cheese grater in the other, looked up at Kate’s plea. “Of course,” she said, carefully putting these items in the drawers earmarked for them.

“Well…Penny seemed kind of upset with me today.” Reaching inside the box, her eyes carefully dodging Maggie’s gaze, Kate retrieved a whisk and a thermometer, before handing them off to the pastor.

When Kate didn’t expand on this, M.T. nodded slowly. “Yeah. I guess I noticed she was a little snippy with you earlier.”

“It wasn’t just that,” Kate admitted. “When she was ripping out the carpet, I went to talk to her and she—she seemed really mad. And I got the impression she’s been that way for a while. Has she said anything to you? Have I done something?”

Maggie moved on to the next box, pulling out more mugs and coffee cups. Moving methodically, she seemed to be carefully deliberating her next words. “I don’t think it’s really about you…”

“I’m not so sure. She said some things—” Kate shrugged.

“Kate,” M.T. shook her head. Her tone was insistent, persuasive: “It’s not…the thing with Penny that you have to understand is that her whole life has been spent in the shadows.”

Kate tilted her head to one side questioning.
M.T. shrugged. “Growing up, I was my father’s pet. He adored me. Lavished me with attention and love. And when he married Penny’s mother, while he was fond of Penny, it wasn’t the same. She didn’t fill his world the way I did and, kids notice things like that.” M.T. made a movement with her shoulder. “And, well, her mother wasn’t very…ah, maternal. Or particularly demonstrative.”

“So you got most of the affection.”

“And Penny got what was left over.”

Kate took a sip of coffee. “But you loved Penny.”

“Oh, yes I did. But I was also a teenager and there were times I viewed her more as a pest than a wanted companion. So she really only ever had me, and even than it was only part-time. When I left,” Maggie pulled her lips tight. “She was very much alone.”

Kate nodded. She’d heard this story before. Only, she’d never really considered….

The pastor grimaced. “And it’s easy to overlook—or just not see—how desperately Penny’s always craved that attention she never got as a child. It’s probably why she’s so faithfully followed the path of an intuitive…and why she’s so flamboyant in the expression of that work.”

“Because it would get her noticed,” Kate mused meaningfully.

Maggie smiled. “But in a weird sort of way, that’s actually alienated her from the town more than anything. Made her ever the outsider. She got attention, but not the right kind. Not the kind that cares about you.”

Kate stared down at her coffee. “I never knew…”

Maggie smiled. “Of course not. Because, for all that her profession involves in-depth communication and contact with people, and for all her persistent delving into the intimate, personal moments of other people’s lives, Penny is actually a very private person, herself.”

“I guess you know a lot about her though,” Kate whispered.

“And so do you,” M.T. said to surprise the other girl. “Penny talks to you, Kate. And while it may not seem like she’s saying all that much, know that, to her, it’s everything.”

Kate swallowed the hot liquid. “But I wasn’t paying close enough attention. Just like everyone else.”

Maggie smiled. “Don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s been a tough couple of months for you. Penny knows that. Between your nanny getting sick, traveling to Minnesota, and all that transpired with your mother…”

Kate made a self-depreciating noise, feeling compelled to add when Maggie didn’t: “And then there’s the whole Jackson-or-Jake debate.”

Maggie grinned ruefully. “Well, yes, there’s that too.”

“That’s what she was mad about this afternoon,” Kate confessed. “She thinks I need to make a decision between them. Jackson and Jake, that is—and to stop stringing everyone along.” Kate grimaced. “But it’s not as easy as snapping my fingers, you know?” Her pleading eyes landed on M.T. “I have feelings for both men, and…” Kate waved her hand fruitlessly, adding glibly: “And she’s completely biased anyway. Penny just wants me to chose Jackson—”

“Kate.”

At M.T.’s prompting, the younger woman stopped talking.

“You asked me what was wrong with Penny—why she was upset?”

Kate nodded.

Maggie gave her a direct look. “You wanted to know, you asked me about her.”

“Yes.”

“And yet, here you are, talking about what’s wrong with you.”

Kate put her cup down on the counter. “No, I was just saying—”

“And so am I,” M.T. persisted. “So am I.”

“I didn’t mean to—”

M.T. smiled. “I know you didn’t. And she does too. But it doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. Just remember her, Kate. That’s all. Remember everyone else, too.”

 

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Thirty-Eight

Jake’s lips were cool where they pressed against Kate’s, his hands roaming up and down her back, drawing her steadily closer, until her legs were pushed up tight to his, until she could feel his chest moving with the force of his breathing. And, curling against him, Kate kissed him back.

That is, until a crash of noise invaded her senses. Pulling back at the sound, Kate’s eyes popped open, her head shifting to the side, to watch an empty plastic bin tumble loudly down the stairs.

“Oops, clumsy me,” Penny called out. She was standing on the third step down from the top of the stairwell, a tight, almost hateful smile on her face. From her vantage point, she would have had a clear picture of Kate and Jake’s little…moment.

And judging be the very non-apologetic lift of her eyebrows, the very non-approving line of her mouth, she had seen them…and she hadn’t liked it.

Cringing inside, Kate backed out of Jake’s arms. Jake, too, took a hurried step backward, his legs colliding with a stack of old cardboard boxes lined up against the wall. Running a hand through his thick mane of hair, he looked guiltily from Kate to Penny and back again.

Penny, however, never took her eyes off Kate, who was standing with her shoulders hunched now, her eyes pinioned to the cold, hard concrete at her feet.

“Please, don’t let me interrupt—” Penny said coolly. Her voice was just as hard as her features. Turning, one hand held tightly to the rail, she put one foot on the tread above her, ready to depart. “I’ll just come back…”

“No, no!” Kate’s plea was loud, forceful. “Wait—” but her words fell on deaf ears. Without so much as a backward glance, Penny ascended the rest of the way until she was once again on the main floor. And then, with a deliberate click, she shut the door behind her.

Jake sighed into the empty stillness around them. “Kate…”

“No.” Shaking her head, Kate repeated: “No. I can’t do this right now!” She held her arms out in front of her defensively. Her legs continued to back up until she was at the far side of the basement, her movements steadily putting as much space as possible between the two of them.  “I’m just—I’m not ready. Okay?”

“Ready for what?” Jake asked.

“I told you—”

“No you haven’t. I don’t understand. What aren’t you ready for?”

But Kate just looked at him silently.

“We just kissed Kate!”

“I know,” she said. “I know and—”

“You keep saying that—‘I’m not ready’” Jake said. “But what does that mean?”

Kate lifted her shoulders with a jerk. “It means…I was engaged to be married this time last year.”

If Jake’s sudden inhaled breath was anything to go by, her statement had taken him by surprise.

“I was engaged to be married to the wrong man,” she added. “And I’m—not ready to start something new yet. It’s not something you get over in a day.”

“Okay…”

“I’m terrified to make that mistake again.”

Jake laughed roughly. “I’m not asking you to marry me.”

“No, I know that.” Kate’s face pinkened. “But you have to understand…”

“No. I understand,” Jake insisted. “You’re scared. Unsure of yourself. And me. And what I represent.”

“Yes.”

“But Kate, that fear won’t go away all by itself. You can’t know if something is right or wrong if you don’t even try.”

Kate’s lower lip pulled out. “Maybe you can jump quickly from one relationship to the next, but I can’t.”

“Whoa—hey…”

“You just broke up with your girlfriend. If I’m not ready to date, and it’s been almost a year, how are you?”

Jake took a deep breath. His answer was slow in coming. “I guess because I’ve liked you for a long time. Longer than I should have while I was dating another woman…and now, I don’t want to miss the chance.”

Kate nodded sharply. “It feels wrong.  You’re my boss.”

“I know.” Jake sighed.

“I don’t want to be your rebound.”

“No Kate. You’re not that. Never that.”

She shrugged. “And Ashley… she works with us. She’s your employee! How would that work?”

Jake smiled sadly. “You’re dodging the issue Kate. This isn’t about Ashley—”

“I like her. I don’t want to hurt her.”

Jake shifted. “No, I know. I don’t want to hurt her either.”

“And I don’t want to get hurt again,” Kate admitted.

“And you think I would hurt you.” It wasn’t a question.

“No. I think I would. What if—what if I haven’t learned anything since Phil? What if I just fall into the same pattern: letting someone else tell me what I like and don’t like, who I love and don’t love?”

It was clear from the expression Jake’s face that he no longer understood Kate. “Same pattern? Letting someone else…? Kate, this isn’t about anyone else. It’s not about—what did you say his  name was? Phil? It’s not about Ashley either. It’s about you. What do you want?”

“That’s just it,” Kate cried, her arms motioning frantically now. “I don’t know. I’ve never—I’ve never been allowed to question that before now. So while it’s easy for you to make decisions, it’s all so new to me. It’s scary and unnerving to walk down a road without a map.”

Jake took a step toward her. “Okay. Then start small. Do you want me to kiss you again? Don’t over think it. Just tell me what you want.”

….

 

 

 

“Jackson, will you grab Maggie—” Penny asked, turning to look up at him. Her eyes, however, didn’t quit meet his. They hadn’t since she’d returned from the basement. Luckily, he hadn’t seemed to notice. “I’m not sure if she wants us to take up the carpet in the closet, as well.”

“Yeah, sure.” Jackson said, rising up from his haunches. They’d been working in the guestroom for over twenty minutes now. Scraps of carpet were piled up anyhow around them. Setting his pliers carefully on a window sill, he moved out in the hallway.

It took him a minute to find her, but when Jackson entered into the living room, there she was, standing quietly looking out one of the windows. Her fingers were playing absently with a heart-shaped locket strung around her neck. She hadn’t seemed to hear him come in, her thoughts entirely taken up by the view outside.

“We’re home. It took a long time,” she whispered, her fingers rubbing against the gold-plated chain. “But we’re home. I’m so sorry you weren’t able to see it—to play out in the yard, to bake in the kitchen with me…”

Feeling like he was intruding on something private, Jackson was on the point of slipping quietly back out in the hallway when Maggie, catching sight of him out of her peripheral vision, turned around.

Dropping her hands quickly down to her sides, Maggie gave a start. “Oh! Jackson. I didn’t see you—”

“Sorry!” He rushed in to say, “I didn’t mean to—that is, Penny asked me to come and find you…” He took in her watery eyes, her stiff posture. “Hey, are you okay?”

With a wave of her hand, Maggie cut his scrutiny short. She laughed shortly, dismissively. “Of course. You just caught me daydreaming. That’s all.”

Jackson smiled, coming further into the room to stand beside her. “Admiring the view?”

“Picturing the memories I’ll make here.”

“And the ones you won’t?” Jackson asked meaningfully.

Maggie made a strangled sound in her throat

Jackson slid his gaze sideways. “You know, I thought about moving when Emily died. The old memories…they were so hard to live with during those first few months.”

M.T.’s hand reached out and squeezed his. “I know.”

“I’d wondered if a fresh start wouldn’t have helped me move on.”

M.T. didn’t say anything, her look steady on the outside window. “But then I realized,” Jackson said, his voice soft, barely there soft. “I would have carried her with me anywhere. So it didn’t matter. Any home of mine, and a part of her would have been there. And I would have wondered: how would she have planted the garden? Would she have approved this color of paint or that style of cabinetry? How would her laugh have sounded, echoing off these walls?”

Maggie nodded roughly.

“It’s the worst and best part about loving. You can’t take it back. And you can never let it go.”

A stray tear rolled silently down Maggie’s cheek, highlighted by the dim rays of light shining weakly into the room. “I’m so sorry for your loss, Jackson.”

Jackson looked pointedly at the locket hanging discreetly off her neck. “And I’m sorry for yours.”

Maggie closed her eyes. “That feeling of betrayal… moving on, trying to be happy again. It’s so hard. Part of you thinks you should mourn forever….”

“While the other part is already seeking peace and happiness,” Jackson finished for her.

“And once it finds it…”

“It’s a vicious cycle,” Jackson said softly, his arm curving around the pastor’s shoulders, bringing her in closer to his side. “Survivor’s guilt isn’t just for the war-torn.”

A moment of silence passed.

Maggie sniffed. “It’s a beautiful house. I’m filled with joy at owning it.”

“And it’s okay to be a little sad, as well, that someone won’t be able to enjoy it too.”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah.”

Another beat of silence.

“Thank you.”

“Anytime.”

Maggie laughed then, shifting in Jackson’s arms. “Goodness, listen to us! All this heavy talk…well, that’s enough of that. Today is about celebrating! And I mean to do that.”

Jackson smiled, hugging her close one last time before letting her go. “All right. You’re right. But…I meant what I said. Anytime you want, I’ll be here for the rest of that story.”

Maggie smiled tightly. “And someday I may take you up on that offer.” She cleared her throat. “Now, what was it that Penny needed me for?”

 

 

 

“Knock, knock,” Kate called softly, her knuckle rapping softly against the door leading to the guest room. Having spied Jackson walking out of the room not moments before, she knew Penny would be alone. And judging by the scene she’d made in the basement not ten minutes ago, Kate felt obligated to talk to her. To explain herself.

“What do you want, Kate?” Penny asked from somewhere inside the room. Without waiting for admittance, Kate walked inside. The psychic was kneeling on the floor, compiling the bits of carpet into a semblance of order.

“Penny—listen, about what happened downstairs…”

But Penny only held up her hand. “No need to explain yourself. I was at the optimists only a week ago. My eyesight is perfect.”

Kate took a deep breath. Okay, she was even more pissed than Kate had expected.

“Penny, it wasn’t what it looked like.”
Penny snorted.

“Jake kissed me. I—it was a planned thing. He just, he just…” Kate’s gestured wildly.

“And you kissed him right back.”

Kate felt the first licks of her temper flaring. Just where the hell did Penny get off with that tone of voice?

“Yes I did.”

“And what if it had been Jackson who’d be at the head of the stairs?” Penny asked. “What if I’d asked him to go down there instead? What if he’d seen you with Jake? What then?”

Kate sucked in a hard breath. “Did you tell him?”

Penny twisted at the waist now, her eyes staring leveling up at Kate’s. “Oh, so suddenly he matters again? Huh?”

“Penny don’t be like that.”

“You know, what it doesn’t matter. I don’t care anymore,” Penny said, turning back to the pile of green carpet in her hands.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Kate asked, hating the little girl wine that accompanied the question.

Penny shrugged. “Look. You’ve clearly made your choice. It’s Jake. There’s no reason for you to explain yourself.”

Kate felt trapped. “I didn’t say—”

Penny’s voice railroaded her. “And in a way, I guess I’m glad.”

“You’re glad?”

Penny made a face. “At least the wondering is over. Maggie and I won’t have to sit on the teeter-tooter that is your romantic liaisons anymore. Jake or Jackson? Jackson or Jake? You’ve picked. It’s done.”

“Teeter tooter?” Kate snapped. “Is that how you view my life?”

“Well how else am I supposed to?” Penny asked, getting to her feet now, to properly square off with Kate. “You bounce all over the place, making big dramatic moments out of everything! And you freaking love it! You revel in the waffling: ‘Jackson kissed me. Jake said he loves me. I’m not ready to date. I think Jackson was flirting with me. And, oh, I flirted back! But then I had this fantasy about Jake.’ I mean, come on Kate.”

“Wow,” Kate whispered, hurt beyond words. “Thanks for your support”

“Are you kidding me? I have done nothing but support you. I’ve listened. And I’ve sympathized. And I’ve waited. But there’s only so much back-and-forth I can take…”

“So sorry I’m not moving at your pace then,” Kate threw back.

“You’re not moving at any pace. That’s the point!”

“What are you talking about? Were you not downstairs just now? Did you not see me and Jake?”

“So, he is the one. It’s Jake.”

Kate shook her head. “No, stop—you’re putting words in my mouth.”

“Oh. So, Jake isn’t the guy? You told him you wanted to be with Jackson instead?”

“No—”

“But you did tell him something. You gave him an answer. Yes or No?”

“That’s not fair, Penny.”

“Maybe not. But either way, I’m done hearing about it. I’m done hearing about all of it.”

Kate’s head snapped backward. “What?”

“Listen, if you don’t want anything to happen with Jake or Jackson, and it doesn’t seem like you actually do, then let them go. Both of them. Or just finally make a damn decision between them. It’s really not that difficult. But either way, leave me out of it.”

“Fine,” Kate bit off. “Sorry I’ve been such a burden to you this past year.” Tripping in her haste to leave, Kate stumbled backward.

“I didn’t mean that, Kate.”

“But you said it.”

“No, what I said is that they deserve better than this. You all do.”

 

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Thirty-Seven

Kate looked down uncertainly at the slight edge of piping she could see poking out from underneath the kitchen sink. M.T. stood by the back counter, her hands busy as she rifled through a large toolbox.

“Do you even know what you’re looking for in there?” Penny asked, strolling into the room, a banana in one hand, and a bright pink bandana covering her head.

M.T. shrugged. “No, not really.” She smiled. She couldn’t seem to stop smiling. She was still stuck in homebuyer’s euphoria.

Penny chewed thoughtfully, her eyes going hesitantly toward Kate. “How about you? Do you see what the problem is over there?” She waved in the general direction of the drains.

Kate shook her head.

Penny nodded. “Yeah, I didn’t think so.”

M.T. did frown then, throwing a dark look toward her sister. “Talk like that isn’t going to help us…”

“No, you’re right. We do need help,” Penny insisted, rounding on the pastor. She flicked a glance over toward Kate and then quickly away again. “Which is why I asked Jackson to come over and give us a hand today.”

“You did what?” Kate demanded roughly.

Penny sighed. “I asked Jackson to come over today,” she said slowly, empathically. Kate’s eyes narrowed. “Oh. Don’t be so melodramatic. It’s no big deal,” Penny sighed out, her voice just barely perceptible.

But before Kate had the time (or the courage) to question Penny’s comment, M.T. was talking, her voice prattling on nervously, her eyes skittering from Penny to Kate and back again, as though she too sensed a new tension in the air.

Looking down at the sink, letting M.T.’s voice drone on overhead, Kate tried to reign in her emotions. She was not being melodramatic. Where did Penny get off saying so? And what was with all that attitude? It wasn’t that Kate couldn’t be around Jackson. It was just…

“I asked Jake to come and help us today, too,” Kate blurted out, her voice a little panicky on the delivery.

“You did what?” This time it was Penny’s whose voice shot out quickly, sharply between the women. There was no mockery in the question, either. There was, however, a whole lot of accusatory suspicion.

Kate shrugged, her finger running over a slight chip in the Formica countertop. “He saw me at the bookstore looking for information on plumbing and he…well, he sort of offered—”

“And you said yes?” Penny asked. Her voice was clearly incredulous.

“Penny…” M.T. warned softly.

“Yes,” Kate returned, hands on her hips. “I said yes. That was kind of the point of what I said just now. He’s coming over.” She sounded like a spoiled-snot, but Penny was baiting her.

“I can’t believe it,” Penny muttered, her voice low again, barely above a whisper.

And for some unknown reason, Kate felt ashamed, embarrassed…defensive. Why was Penny acting like that? Talking like that—with such a bite to her voice? And just what the hell couldn’t she believe?

“Ah, Penny—will you help me with a light bulb out in the front hallway?” M.T. said. She spoke sharply. With a meaningful look, and without waiting for a response, she proceeded to grab for a fistful of the physics shirt, half-dragging her out of the room. “Kate, will you please grab some towels and buckets and…well, whatever else you think the boys might need for down here,” the pastor threw over her shoulder as the women left.

“Yeah, sure,” Kate said on a whisper.

 

 

 

“What in earth was that all about?” M.T. hissed once she and Penny were out of earshot.

Penny pulled herself loose. “Nothing.” And then, at Maggie’s look: “I’m just getting a little sick and tired of Kate’s never-ending histrionics. There’s always something with her.” Penny rolled her eyes. “She’s a hot mess, Maggie. And she seems to like it that way. Nothing ever gets resolved. She just spins faster and faster.”

M.T. frowned but she didn’t deny what Penny said either.

“…I’m not sure if it’s that she craves the attention she never got any at home, or if she just really enjoys having something to pick apart, to analysis to death. Maybe she’s addicted to the inevitable highs and lows of the same old reoccurring conflicts. The W-curve. Moving but staying in place. Rinse and repeat. You know what I mean?”

“I think so. You got a little poetic there at the end,” M.T. admitted, “but yes, I think I followed most of that.”

“And you disagree?” Penny asked.

“No…”

“But you don’t necessary agree either.” Penny insisted. “I’ve noticed you aren’t immediately coming to my defense on this.”

Maggie hitched up one shoulder, her ash blond hair swaying slightly with the motion. Her eyes traveled toward the back of the hallway, where the sound of Kate’s footsteps could just be heard. “It’s not that….I just don’t think the solution will be found in creating yet another source of controversy in Kate’s life. Pick a fight with her and you may end up on that looping W-curve yourself.”

Penny took a deep breath. Then another. “Yeah. No, I don’t want that. It’s just…getting on my last nerve lately, that’s all.”

“And I think you made that clear to Kate just now,” Maggie said, referring to Penny’s earlier comments to the blonde woman. “So let that be enough. She heard you. I guarantee it.”

“And it’s not just her,” Penny admitted grudgingly. “It’s him. I really don’t want her to choose him.”

Maggie’s voice was dry, deadpan. “Yea. I think you’ve mentioned that before.”

 

 

 

Jake and Jackson showed up within seconds of one another. Jackson had only just been admitted inside when Jake’s fist knocked loudly against the outside door.

“Here it comes,” Kate whispered silently as M.T. swung the door open once more, and Jake’s frame fell upon the group.

Almond shaped green eyes clashed with brown.

“Jackson.” The timbre of Jake’s voice deepened.

Jackson smiled. A muscle in his jaw ticked. “Jake.”

There was no disguising the edge (that unmistakable male challenge) present in each man’s voice as they addressed one another. Jackson’s arms folded across his chest. Jake’s shoulders pulled back, his head lifting…

M.T. smiled charmingly between them. “Thank you both for coming. I’m beyond grateful.” She laughed delightedly, her gazes locking from one to the other, easily pretending not to notice the overabundance of male testosterone flashing between them.

“Anytime, pastor Thayer,” Jackson supplied, but his smile was tight, his cheeks ruddy—and they only got redder when Jake seconded this sentiment, adding his own congratulations on her purchase into the mix.

“This is going to be a great house for you,” Jake finished to a beaming Maggie.

“Thank you. It needs a bit of work still,” she said with a rueful smile.

“Right. As to that,” jerking a thumb over his shoulder, Jackson’s voice rasped out overly loud in the small landing space, “if one of you will point me toward the kitchen, I’ll be happy to take a look at that sink…”

Jake’s eyebrow’s crashed together. “You?” His head swiveled in Kate’s direction. “I thought you wanted me to do that.”

Kate looked down at her shoes. “Uh….”

Now Jackson looked confused. “Penny?”

“There was a slight mix-up,” Maggie said, inserting her voice forcefully. “Both of you, it seems, were invited here to fix my kitchen sink.”

“That’s hardly a two-man job,” Jake said.

“He’s right,” Jackson seconded. “I can do it easily by myself. Done this hallway?” He asked, half-turning to look behind him.

“Yup. Turn right at the end. Last door on—” Penny started to say.

“Right. And my uncle is a plumber—” Jake said, pushing himself forward. “He used to take me out to jobs with him.”

Jake looked at Maggie. Penny looked at Jackson. Kate was still staring down at her feet.

“Oh, well…” Maggie seemed at a loss for words.

Jackson. “And your point is?”

Jake. “That I may have a bit more experience in this department than you.”

Jackson scoffed. “Yeah, from when we were kids maybe.”

In the end, Jake got elected to fix the sink. He’d brought his own tool-belt over for goodness sake. It had specialized equipment and everything. Even Jackson had known he’d been licked.

“You know what, this may actually work out better for me,” Penny said to Jackson as Jake lumbered toward the kitchen some minutes later. “I could use some extra help in the guest bedroom; we’re ripping out the carpet there. That is, if you wouldn’t mind, Jackie…?”

Jackson looked ruffled, but he nodded all the same. “Yeah, sure.” And then, just as he was turning to follow behind Penny, Jackson paused. “Kate,” he greeted quietly, solemnly. Nodding in her general direction, he walked past.

Kate stared blankly, stupidly, ahead. “Kate, would you mind running down to the basement and grabbing a couple things,” Maggie asked. Her voice was soft, gentle. Coaxing. Tapping a finger against her nose, the pastor seemed to be thinking aloud: “Let’s see, there should be a box down there somewhere with face masks, and duct tape, electrical cords…that kind of thing.”

Kate nodded mutely. Maggie squeezed her arm. “Thanks dear.”

Opening up a small, nondescript door halfway down the entryway, Kate clambered down the rickety stairs, her nostrils breathing in the musky, dank air. Her heart thundered. Her throat scorched back unshed tears. And she sort of hated herself for it. Maybe Penny was right. Maybe she was acting a little hormonal right now. Only, nothing about today had gone right.

She’d been so excited earlier. Excited to see Jake—more so than she’d allowed herself to admit before now. And it had all come to naught. Now that he was actually here, she wasn’t sure what to feel.

Shaking her head, she ducked into the low-ceiled room. All those months (almost year now) of curiosity, anticipation…all that fantasizing about a man she couldn’t have…only now, everything had changed. He was no longer off limits, out of her reach. He was there. And, despite all her best resolutions, she’d wondered: what it would be like?

Well, she hadn’t expected it to be like this: him upstairs, and her gladly down here. Of course she hadn’t expected Jackson to be present. How could she have? He was a wrench of confusion—but then, wasn’t he always? She hadn’t expected the lines to get so blurred. Jake was her boss. There’s was a quasi-professional relationship. She really only knew him inside the bookstore. But today—this was personal. Every other intimate moment they’d shared had either been 1.) done under guise of mistaken identity 2.) done under control of alcoholic suppressants or 3.) carried out in by means of Kate’s more erotic-daydreams.

Nothing had been real… before today.

That line, that fine, fine line between fantasy and reality, had been snapped into stark focus at Jake (and Jackson’s) arrival here today. And probably it had more to do with Jackson’s being there than Jake’s. She liked Jake. That wasn’t news. But what did she want from him? What had possessed Kate to invite him over without an answer to that question first? Impulse. Drive. And then there was Jackson. How could she have so foolishly disregarded him in all this? Whatever she wanted from Jake would affect what she had with Jackson. And vice versa.

What would have happened if Penny hadn’t invited her sexy neighbor over today? What had Kate hoped would transpire between herself and Jake under Maggie’s kitchen sink? And would she have been prepared for the consequences—or was she still viewing him in the make-believe world she’d created all that time ago? The one where she could touch him, kiss him and then, as soon as her imagination was spent, erase it all clean—as though nothing had happened? Because of course, nothing ever did, not in dreams.

Sighing, Kate felt the beginnings of a tension headache beat against the walls of her head. “This was clearly a mistake,” she said, kicking at one of the boxes down at her feet. “I shouldn’t have asked him to come…it was a mistake.”

“Do you want me to leave?”

Spinning around so fast she almost lost her balance, Kate’s startled eyes flew up the stairs, where, halfway down none other than Jake stood. His hair, usually wild and unruly, looked particularly run-through now, and his shirt showed signs of the water leak. She’d been so lost in her thought she hadn’t heard his tread on the wooden steps.

“Jake… I didn’t know you were there,” Kate said idiotically. Surprise had stolen her good sense.

He smiled. Or at least he tried to, a lopsided grin splitting across his face. “Yeah. I figured that.” Then, his eyes never leaving hers, Jake made his way down the rest of the stairs. “I wasn’t meaning to eavesdrop,” he assured her. He shrugged. “I was looking for the main water line…”

“Oh.” Kate’s head bobbed. “I, listen about what I was saying. I’m sorry—I didn’t mean—”

“No. Don’t apologize. If either of us should be sorry, it’s me,” he said, reaching the bottom step and coming to stand beside her.

Kate’s forehead crinkled. “How’s that?”

Jake gave her a dry look. “Let’s stop pretending. I appreciate that you tried to let me off the hook—” and they both knew he was talking about that night at Julie’s Diner, that night he’d more or less confessed his love for Kate. “But it hasn’t worked, has it?”

Kate shook her head. “No—it hasn’t.”

“And, in a way, I’m glad.”

Kate felt the air seeping quickly out of her body. Her fingers felt numb. Her tongue felt glued to the bottom of her mouth.

“Kate—” Jake sighed. “I may have been drunk that night. And I definitely shouldn’t have said what I did…not in that condition, anyway. But I did say those things. And what happened, it happened. We can’t go back.”

Kate closed her eyes. “I know…”

“And I don’t want to,” Jake admitted. “I may be guilty of having bad timing, but that doesn’t change the fact that what I said was all true.”

“Jake. Stop. I’m not ready—”

“You’re not ready to hear this,” Jake agreed. “I know. And I’m sorry I didn’t listen to you that night. And please know, I’m not asking you to be ready now.”

Kate nodded. “Okay…”

“But I’m done pretending. I’m done pretending that night didn’t happen. I’m done pretending I don’t have feelings for you. I’m just done.”

“But where does that leave us?” Kate whispered, her eyes searching his desperately.

Jake’s hand came up to cup the side of her face. “It leaves us right here.”

Kate felt her cheek nuzzling against that hand. Or maybe his hand was caressing her cheek. “Everything will change.”

“It already has.”

“I’m not sure—”Kate’s voice petered out, her words distracted by the presence of Jake’s thumb, circling lightly over the high arch of her cheekbone. Her head tipped to one side, her eyes closing once more. Her throat bobbed. “What happens next?”

“This,” Jake breathed and in the next second his lips were covering hers, his fingers bringing her head closer, arching it backward. And Kate remembered those lips. Opening her mouth, she couldn’t help the small moan that bubbled up her mouth at the contact. The sound was swallowed down the back Jake’s throat. His tongue brushed against her teeth until she opened her mouth. Pressing up tight to him, Kate relived all over again, the sensations fighting in the pit of her stomach. The frenzied, free-fall of it all…

God she remembered those lips. And how she’d missed them.

Dismissing everything else to the back of her mind, Kate let her fingers fall, twisting into the hair at the back of his head. Her lips bent, twisting, curling frantically against his….The sound of their tangled breathing deafened them to the creak of the upstairs door. Eyes tightly shut, they were blind to the inky silhouette splayed against the stair wall, foreshadowing the presence of another person….