North of Happenstance: Chapter Three

Kate figured it would be hard to get lost in Whestleigh, Connecticut. Not only was the town set up in a grid pattern formation, the Avenues numbered one through ten accordingly and the Streets arranged alphabetically, but the main shops and stores were all located in the same general area: on Gadbee Street. This was particularly nice for Kate who lived on Eveleth Street—a mere two blocks away. Besides school, she figured her car would probably spend the majority of its life in her garage from now on.

Pocketing her house keys, throwing her purse over her shoulder, Kate stepped outside. Turning left down the sidewalk she considered that it was a great day for a walk. She forcibly repeated that sentiment when, ten minutes later, she realized she’d gone the wrong way. Kate shrugged; she’d always been a bit directionally challenged. Reversing her steps, refusing to let this detour get the better of her, Kate firmly reminded herself that if nothing else this had given her the chance to see a bit more of the town. How could that be a bad thing?

Finally reaching her destination, this time Kate had no trouble identifying the cause of her trip into town: The LitLiber Bookstore. This was probably partly due to the fact that she’d been there previously, and to it’s being rather hard to miss. The structure stood proudly on the corner of 2nd street. And it looked imposing there: the red-washed brick exterior, accented here and there with white plaster molding and honey-colored stucco, seemed only too grand for its otherwise demure setting. The bridal shop next door looked downright dowdy in comparison, its vinyl siding and modest window settings sparse.

Not entirely surprising then, the bookstore was busy when Kate walked inside. Bemused she stood for a moment, watching as harried cashier’s busily rang up orders, customer service agents zipped up and down the aisles—some three customers deep—shoppers milled in small groups discussing the newest releases, some waiting to be helped, others content to search through the masses of titles alone.

Still, despite the hustle and bustle, the building remained quaint. Darkly stained pine bookshelves lined the building in myriad of patterns. Even at a quick glance, they appeared to be handmade. There must be a woodworker in town, she supposed. The wainscoted walls, half wood-paneling and half wallpaper, the latter designed in muted yellow geometric designs, created a look both airy and warm. Not to mention, it allowed for the addition of eclectic pieces of furniture smattered about—a mismatched arrangements of recliners, couches, loveseats and table ends all of different origin and décor.

As she walked further inside, toward the small café nestled in the back nearest the Customer Service Desk, Kate overheard two staff members talking, catching a snatched moment alone together:

“…we’re so understaffed right now it’s ridiculous! Look at this place. We can hardly keep up!”

The other girl snorted in agreement. “And we’re running out of everything! A lady nearly threw a temper tantrum yesterday when I told her we’d sold out of the book she was looking for—like it was personally my fault.”

“It doesn’t help any that school is starting up next week. Why does everyone wait until the last minute to buy their books?”

“Beats me.”

The first girl rolled her eyes. “And if one more person asks me ‘where do I find the Self-Help section?’ I’m going to scream! Find it yourself, isn’t that the point? ….”

Carefully circumventing this conversation, Kate reconsidered her options. Asking for help was now out of the question. Turning on her hell, she pulled her school syllabus out of her purse. Shielding it against the palm of her hand, she bent her head determinedly over the list of ‘required course readings’ while purposefully steering her feet toward the section marked Academic. She was an independent woman; surely she could find the books on her own. Plus she was far too proud to admit defeat after hearing all of that. She would not be counted amongst those self-helpless customers.

It took nearly an hour, but at length Kate made her way up to the checkout counter, all necessary purchases held and accounted for. She wasn’t sure who organized the shelves in that building but they needed a serious talking-to, because nothing about it had made sense. Her History of Art book had been sidled next to her Romantic Literature text, while The Works of Shakespeare sat, buried beneath an array of Chemistry titles.

Kate paid for her items, adding a last minute tote bag to the lot as she handed over her credit card; if she was going to walk these back to her house, she wasn’t going to trust their weigh in some paper bag. Scrawling her name across the transaction slip, Kate hastily threw her purchases inside the bag before slinging it across her shoulder and leaving her place in the line. The woman waiting impatiently behind her had been nosily tapping her foot against the floor all the while, the click-clack an angry tattoo, as though annoyed Kate had dared stand in front of her.

Pausing in the shop’s entrance hall, partly to gain her bearings and partly to readjust the tote bag’s position—it was already rubbing funny against her clavicle—Kate had a sinking suspicion that even the two blocks home were going to be tiring with this load. At least her purse was lightweight. On second thought, her car may not become as superfluous as she’d originally hoped.

Absently, her eyes landed on a large bulletin board hung up against one wall, its space filled to overflowing with advertisements, business cards, For Sale signs, and one lone picture of a lost cat. It was so cluttered she wondered how someone could possibly wade through the overload of information, how unlikely it was they’d actually find what they wanted—better luck scrolling through the yellow pages, or Google, at that rate. Chucking mindlessly at the thought, she braced her hand against the doorframe and pushed it open…

It was half a block down from LitLiber, on the left-hand side of the road, when Kate saw it. A small sign nailed just above an otherwise nondescript window. The cursive writing was hardly legible from where Kate stood but she was almost sure it read: Madame Penny’s House of Intuition. Crossing the street, Kate called herself ten times a fool, but still she couldn’t seem to stop herself from getting a closer look. Her curiosity piqued, she supposed she hadn’t actually considered Madame Penny’s business being so, well, viable…so brick-and-mortar accessible. But if that sign, and the small flicker of light illuminated from the edges of the window blinds was anything to go by, she figured wrong. Madame Penny was a professional, through-and-through.

Coming up beside the window, Kate couldn’t quite fight an urge to take a quick peep inside. She had visions of velvet covered tables, darkened walls hung with heavy drapery, shelves filled with vases and jars containing herbs, essential oils, pearls and gems, yada yada yada. Laying center mass of it all would be a book of incantations, tea leaves, maybe even a crystal ball, eerily reflected in the shadows of some gilt-framed mirror or something. Circling the perimeter of this would be candles. Fat ones, tall ones, skinny ones, half-melted ones…it didn’t matter just as long as there were copious amounts of candles.

Unfortunately, when she turned to look, all that met her eyes were shadows. The window shade was pulled almost completely shut, with only an inch separating it from the bottom sill. Squinting her eyes, tilting her head, Kate struggled to make out the surroundings. She thought she spotted a table sitting beside one of the walls, and what was that particular shadow to the left? Pressing her nose up against the glass, she peered harder but when the shadow moved suddenly, Kate’s head whipped backward so hard it jarred her teeth. A small shriek may have escaped her mouth, as well. Too late, she realized that what she’d just made out was the silhouette of Madame Penny herself.

Quickly pushing herself away from the building, Kate made to retreat. She wasn’t sure if she was more embarrassed at the possibility of being caught snooping, or just afraid Madame Penny would get the wrong idea about Kate’s intentions. Frankly, she didn’t believe in psychic visions—or whatever they called it. And, it’s not that Kate didn’t like the woman, she didn’t know her well enough to carve out an opinion, but Madame Penny came off a little strong and, well, eccentric. To say the least.

Kate had gained about two feet when the crack of a side door swinging open announced someone’s presence outside. More specifically, it announced Madame Penny’s presence, judging by the musical twinkle of bangles accompanying the matter.

“Kate?” Yup. That definitely sounded like Madame Penny.

Stalling out, Kate stopped. Her back to the other woman, she carefully rearranged her facial expression before turning in greeting. Madame Penny was almost on her by then, her hand reaching out to grab Kate’s elbow in her rush of reception. “I thought that was you peeking through the windows,” she said enthusiastically, just as Kate had feared.

“Oh, yeah, I was just looking around at the local shops,” she muttered inanely, hitching her shoulder a little over the words. “Trying to get the lay of the land, so to speak.” She wasn’t sure what else to say.

“Well, in that case come inside, let me give you the grand tour,” Penny said, gesturing toward the door she’d just exited.

Kate shook her head ‘no’ even while she felt her body pulled in that direction. “Oh, no. I don’t want to bother you….”

“It’s no bother at all. Come inside. I’ve got coffee on. Or tea, if you’d rather,” she insisted, all but pushing Kate’s reluctant body through the narrow entrance.

“Well, all right. But I can only stay for a minute,” Kate heard herself concede. There was really nothing else to say. She was already inside the building, and besides Madame Penny’s bulk was blocking the way out anyway. Plus, a small voice in her head chimed in, you wanted to see what her shop looked like so here’s your chance.

“Sure, sure,” Madame Penny said soothingly, as if quieting the younger woman’s fears. They were standing in a cramped hallway barricaded on every side by doorways. The one directly facing them led to the bathroom, or so the sign overhead said. Oddly enough, it was the door on the left that primarily confused Kate. It was made of glass and it looked out into rows upon rows of potted plants, sorted bouquet arrangements and lawn furniture. A florists shop?”

As if on cue, Madame Penny confessed, “I rent the space from Massie’s Flower Shop. It’s just over here, on the right.” Kate’s eyes followed the words. A curtain, hung up where a door might have been, met her look. This was presumably the opening to Madame Penny’s workspace? A curtain?

Either undaunted or unaware of Kate’s inner musings, Madame Penny swung the curtain to the side with a flourish, its plastic rings jingling against the rod support at the action. “Welcome,” she breathed.

Kate’s first impression of the setup was certainly surprising, just not in the way she expected. The room was kind of boring looking. And, truth be told, she wasn’t entirely sure if it could really be called a room. It felt more like a utility closet.

A small icebox was wedged against the back wall, the top holding a service tray with a carafe of coffee, a sugar caddy and a container of creamer resting atop it. She watched as Madame Penny opened one of its side doors to pull a saucer and a cup. Directly before it, so close it barely allowed for a walkway, was a small oval table, big enough for two, maybe three people. It was wooden. Oak and bare.

A space heater was kicked underneath the street-side window, and pushed out of the way. But it was actually the placement of a braided rug underfoot, colored with soft pinks, greens, and blues, which kept the floor from appearing hard and cold. The only other form of adornment came from the two paintings hung up on the walls: one, a picture of the night sky, stars blazing out at the spectator, the other an orchestra of flowers blossoming beside one another in a wild field; Kate found it a little amateurish. Winter Jasmine and Sunflowers would never bloom simultaneously.

“It’s small, but it’s mine,” Madame Penny said, the words tearing Kate’s inspection short, reminding her that she wasn’t alone.

Turning to smile at the other woman, Kate found she couldn’t imagine what that felt like. “You must be very proud of yourself.”

Penny shrugged this off as though it were of no consequence. “This is my life’s purpose. I’m just lucky enough to have stumbled upon it early enough to be useful,” she said, as though it were that simple. Kate felt a pang of envy at those words, at the easy acquiesce, even as they came from a person dressed in caricature.

“Listen, since you’re here why don’t I do a reading on you?” Madame Penny suggested then, her hand sweeping Kate toward a seat at the table.

“That’s okay. I don’t—,” Kate stopped, unsure how to proceed.

As it happened, Madame Penny seemed to know exactly what it was she couldn’t quite say. “You can tell me you aren’t interested in this all you like, but I’ve got eyes in my head. I saw your pert little nose pressed up against my window, your eyes searching out for answers. You weren’t just looking at the shops in town. You were looking at my shop. Because, whether you like it or not, you are… intrigued, curious,” she said, testing out the words.

“Might as well indulge yourself. And me,” she finished bluntly.

The words rankled a bit, but Kate found she couldn’t necessarily disagree with Madame Penny. It wasn’t so much what she said. Kate still didn’t buy into her profession and she wasn’t about to change on that, but she was lonely and maybe, just maybe a small part of her had been counting on Madame Penny noticing that when she’d been thrust up against the window outside.   It wasn’t that Kate was intrigued by Madame Penny, rather that Madame Penny seemed intrigued by her. Kate couldn’t remember the last time she’d been that to someone. Intriguing. And it was either sit here and play pretend or go home. All alone. The taste of that now familiar fear filled Kate’s tongue once again.

Without further ado, she took the proffered seat, dropping her heavy book bag and purse on the floor beside her feet. Within seconds, a cup of coffee was placed discreetly by her elbow, replete with a packet of sugar and creamer beside it. Stirring the contents together, Kate noticed that Penny had not poured any refreshments for herself. On the verge of questioning this, Kate was forestalled when she spied Penny reach into a filing cabinet shoe-horned in beside the icebox and retrieve from within a pack of cards. Kate swallowed back her disquiet. Apparently the psychic wasn’t thirsty.

“If you don’t have a preference, I think I’ll do a tarot card reading on you,” Madame Penny said, wasting no time. “There are many different formats available in psychic readings but I frequently find tarot cards, with their more specific instructions, easier to digest for those a bit more, shall we say, skeptical of the craft,” she said, adding half under her breath, “and of course, sometimes they aren’t! But I felt my hand tugged in their direction and I took that as a sign. Signs mean everything to me,” she told Kate deadpan.

Kate nodded, unsure what to say in response. Her stomach muscles tightening, she watched as Penny claimed her seat, the pack held loosely in her hands. They looked like cartoon trading cards. Kate wasn’t sure how seriously she could be expected to take ‘the craft’ when its supposed messengers looked as though they’d just stepped off a medieval comic strip. She kept that thought to herself however.

“Finish your coffee,” Madame Penny instructed, shuffling the deck. Kate did as she was told, swallowing most of liquid whole. She could hardly believe it herself but she was kind of, maybe, sort of excited to—

“Let’s begin, shall we?” Penny asked rhetorically, her voice cutting off Kate’s rambling thoughts, which was probably for the best. The less she confessed to herself the better.

Kate felt her head nod in response.

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

“There’s more?” Kate asked incredulously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh. Yes?”

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

Phil. Phil. Phil.

Phil!

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She would meet it head-on.

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter One

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

Welcome to Whestleigh, Connecticut.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Huh?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m Kate McDonald.”

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

“Who’s Jenny?” Kate asked.

“The barista,” Penny said.

“How’d she know my name?” Kate asked.

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kate smiled, remaining stubbornly silent.

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

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

“Life is unpredictable,” Kate said simply.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With a sigh of defeat, Kate matched her steps.

Carnival Lights: Chapter Twenty-Six

Staring pointedly at her reflection in her bathroom mirror, Christina carefully applied a nude shade of lipstick to her pouting lips. Standing back, she surveyed the finished product. Her nerves jumped uncomfortably in her neck as she squinted back at her herself.

She looked fine.

Casual, but not too casual.

“God, get a grip,” she muttered, popping the lid back on her lipstick with a decided snap. She’d changed three times, spent over half an hour scouring her wardrobe –the pantsuit had been far too professional, and the sundress was choking on its own femininity…until she’d finally settled on a milky white sweatshirt with Jason’s high school mascot splashed across it’s front, which she’d purchased from Mary last year for some fundraiser or another, and a pair of tightly slimming designer jeans.

That was it: jeans and a sweatshirt. Rocket science, really.

She was more than a little disgusted with herself (especially the way her eyes kept traveling back to the mirror, as if trying to reassure herself she looked fine. Good.)

Her hair was up in a deliberately messing ponytail, with soft tendrils falling against her temples and whispering across her cheekbones—and to complete the ensemble, she’d rubbed on a tiny bit of blusher and just a hint of eyeliner.

And the lipstick, of course.

Taking a deep, uneven breath, she stumbled out of the bathroom and checking her watch, she took herself stiffly into her dimly lit livingroom. With a huff, she sat down in the arm chair, her fingers drumming against the cushioned rest. Jason had said he’d pick her up at 6:30—and if she were being completely honest with herself, Christina had been slightly let down that he hadn’t offered to take her to dinner first. She resisted the urge to check her watch again. It was 6:25 p.m.

With a decidedly edgy leap, Christina shot back up to her feet again, her boots pacing up and down the length of the floor. She was nervous. Understandably so. Excited and—dammit! Where the hell was Jason?

Almost as if on cue, a knock sounded at the back door, interrupting her thoughts. Spinning clumsily, Christina gaped behind her.

“Jason,” she whispered inanely, her cheeks taking on a dusty glow as she stumbled forward, jerking the door open a bit abruptly in her haste.

And there he was, standing on the other side of her threshold. At the sight of him, Christina knew she’d made the right choice in her outfit. He was wearing a pair of faded blue jeans and a red and white plaid button-down shirt.

For a split second, no one spoke. Christina felt tongue-tied, gauche—feelings she was entirely unaccustomed to feeling; but then again, she’d also never changed three times for a date before, either.

“Uh, hi,” she finally said, leaning self-consciously against the door frame. The pose felt forced, like that of a woman trying to be playful. She pulled herself upright.

“Hey yourself,” Jason offered with a tiny grin.

There it was again—that split second of stilted silence…

Christina remained where she was, watchful, waiting—

“Uh,” with a nod, Jason cleared his throat, gesturing toward his waiting truck. “Ready to go?”

“What? Oh.” Christina’s head jerked. “Yes. Well, Um, let me just check….” Her feet were already pedaling backward, her words babbling nonsensically out of her mouth in retreat: “Just need to lock up. I’ll be—right back. I’ll be right back.”

She didn’t wait to hear his response. Turning on her heel, she quickly disappeared down the hallway. Once she was out of sight, she made a quick getaway back to the bathroom where she quickly reassessed her appearance one last time. When she reemerged at the front door moments later, purse slung over her shoulder and keys in hand, she could only hope she looked the part.

It was a still evening, and warm for Minnesota temperatures at that time of year. Pushing her sleeves up her arms, Christina quickly turned the deadbolt in place and, with a half-glance at Jason indicated she would follow after him. If she felt tense and weird—like her skin was too tight and her limbs uneven sudden as she trudged down the short flight of steps to the sidewalk where his truck sad idling, Jason’s parting shot as she scrambled inside, shutting the door behind her, did not help matters anyway.

Giving her a quick grin as he buckled his seatbelt, Jason chuckled: “I hope you’re ready for this.”

“Ready for what?” Christina asked suspiciously.

“Oh, you’ll see” was all he said, turning the key over in the ignition. With a quick check in his side-mirror, he pulled out onto the street. His eyes were set on the road before them. “By the way, in case I don’t get the chance to say it later, you look beautiful tonight, Christina.”

Pressing her lips together reflexively, Christina squirmed under the glow of his compliment. “Thank you.”

“But then, you always do.”

“Oh no… I mean, it’s just a sweatshirt.” But she was pleased, beyond pleased, to downplay her attractions.
He grinned, his eyes still looking out at the road. “Yeah? Doesn’t that say it all.”

Christina ducked her head demurely. “Well, you don’t look too shabby yourself.”

In response, Jason chuckled, his fingers drumming loosely against the steering wheel as he drove out into the evening traffic. The rest of the ride passed in a blur of occasional small talk between patches of silence and radio songs. Christina had almost started to relax when he pulled into the school’s parking lot.

Climbing out, she’d no sooner felt both her feet touch the ground than Jason was there, circling the front of the vehicle, his hand reaching out for hers as he steered them toward the admittance stand.

Her stomach flopped at the contact, his fingers entwining with her own. A sense of pride rose in her as they stopped to purchase their tickets. Families milled in a semi-circle behind them, watching them….

But it wasn’t until they’d entered into the field that Christina really became aware of it: the eyes. They were being watched. By damn near everyone.

“Hey Mr. Gordman…” packs of girls would throw out, giggling behind their hands as they skirted past.

“Looking good Mr. G!” young teenaged boys, very cocky in their team jerseys and free from the hallways of the school, would shout at them from across the field.

There were even a couple not-so-subtle winks tossed his way.

“I take it this is what you meant in the truck,” Christina stated, nodding after a pack of kids, who’d been wondering loudly (almost too loudly to be strictly innocent) amongst themselves who the ‘lady’ was with Mr. Gordman.

Jason didn’t need her to explain that statement. He chuckled. “Yeah. Sorry. It’s always weird for kids, seeing their teachers outside of the classroom, being regular human beings.”

“Hmmm.” Christina’s eyes narrowed as they walked further out. “Then what’s your excuse for the adults?”

“Huh?”
Christina nodded toward a group of forty-something adults, all huddled together with questioning smiles on their face and arched eyebrows leveled their way. “They seem rather intrigued by your human status, too.”

Jason laughed. “Colleagues,” he offered by way of explanation.

“Yes, thank you. I sort of gathered that on my own,” Christina replied smartly.

“They’re just curious,” Jason commented.

“You don’t bring your woman to the games often then?”
He looked down at her. She couldn’t quite describe the look on his face. “You’re the first.”

“Ah. That explains it.”

“Explains what?”

“Why I’m feeling decidedly like a mid-term report right about now,” Christina informed him. “Graded.”

He laughed again. “Believe me, you’ve got nothing to worry about on that score.”

“Except for that one,” Christina said, nodding at one particular woman who was standing a little to one side of the crowd. She was younger than the rest of the staff, her age nearer to Christina’s own. She was wearing a beige fisherman’s sweater and black slacks, and her straight-straight black hair was falling limply to the tips of her shoulders.

Unlike everyone else, she wasn’t smiling.

Her eyes were narrowed on Christina’s person.

“She doesn’t look impressed,” Christina said.

Jason made a funny face, shrugging a little stiffly. “Yeah, well…” His free hand went up to rub the back of his neck.

And that’s when Christina knew—

“You two dated.”

He frowned, his steps leading them more quickly now to the stands. “Briefly.”

“And you ended it,” Christina continued as they walked on. Was it her imagination, or were the woman’s eyes following after them even still?

He sighed. “Yeah. I guess” His short answers told her quite clearly that he didn’t want to talk about it.

Christina pushed anyway. It was stupid really, but she found herself oddly…jealous. Jealous that another woman had tried to stake her claim; jealous at the notion that she could so easily lose him too; terrified to swap positions with that pour woman standing there, her eyes pitifully following after them…

And that’s at what time the thought occurred to her. “When?”
“Huh?”

“When did you break things off with her?” Christina had a sinking feeling she knew what his answer would be.

“Ah…” His hand was back again, rubbing against the side of his neck. His other hand tightened reflexively against hers as they reached the bleachers, their feet taking them higher and higher into the stands.

“When Jason?”
Sliding into a section, he paused to look back at her. His eyes were reluctant when they met hers. “A couple of weeks ago.”

She nodded robotically. It was, after all, the response she’d been expecting. That black-haired waif down on the sidelines looked too freshly hurt to be an old lover. “So, right after Easter?”

“Come on,” he said in response, tugging her forward to an opening in the seats. It wasn’t until they’d both sat down on the cool metal bench that he spoke again:“Don’t back away from me. Please.”

She felt her shoulders tense. “I won’t.”

He sighed. “Maybe not physically.”

 

Carnival Lights: Chapter Twenty-Five

Christina’s eyes stared fixedly out the front of the windshield. She didn’t blink. She wasn’t sure she could remember how. How many seconds had ticked by: Four? Five? Two? Her heart was beating so hard in her chest she was actually worried that she might be having a panic attack.

He knew.

Fuck.

Well, he didn’t exactly know…

“I’ll take your patently uncomfortable silence as a yes,” Jason said at that exact moment, speaking over her thoughts. Bless him, he was no longer looking directly at her, having sensed how much she needed even that resemblance of privacy. His gaze was focused on the road ahead of them.

She didn’t bother answering him.

“You know,” he said into the static silence, his tone conversational in the utmost, almost as though the past two minutes hadn’t happened at all: “Maybe this is why I wanted to take you out for a drive.”

Slowly, suspicion written in the lines marring her features, Christina turned towards him in question. Still, she didn’t say anything. She wasn’t sure where to begin, what to avoid, how to defend—

She saw his lips twitch a little in amusement, but he kept his eyes fixedly straight ahead. “You have a way of bolting when things get a little too, ah, real.”

Despite herself, Christina felt her lips pulling open on a scrap of a laugh. “Yeah? Well,” she made a point of looking out her passenger door window where tall grass could be seen springing up out of the ditches. “Don’t be too sure I won’t pull a tuck and roll…”

Jason chuckled at the words. She loved that sound—a rich, low, almost lazy kind of rumble. She always thought it suited him rather perfectly. Affectionate and sexy.

But even as she was thinking this, his expression changed—the amusement swapped for a quiet countenance. His timbre lowered slightly when he spoke: “Do you want to talk about it?”

She didn’t pretend to misunderstand him. In fact, she didn’t have the peace of mind to consider it before her arms were curling protectively across her body—how many times had she done that now in that short car ride?

“No.”

He nodded silently. They drove a little further on. “Some time?”

Christina hesitated, her teeth worrying her bottom lip as he slowly turned the vehicle left, down another side street. “Yeah. Maybe.”

Silence infused the small space of the front cab again. Without appearing to do so, Christina watched Jason confidently wheel the vehicle down yet another street, and then, almost before she was aware of it, she realized they were back on the main road again—the one which would take them back to the school.

Choking on the reality of the situation, Christina couldn’t help but wonder if he hadn’t turned around so quickly because…well, because of her obvious emotional hang-ups.

She told him she didn’t want to talk about the affair, after all. And she didn’t. So really, what did she expect him to do? Just pretend that it wasn’t a big deal—when she’d more or less just admitted that it was what had caused her to push him away all these years?

No, he’d more likely decided that nothing could happen between them.

Christina didn’t want him to take her back, which was possibly the most confusing of all. There had been scant minutes since she’d entered his car that Christina had felt comfortable, confident—most of the ride had seen her conspicuously tongue-tied, defensive, or just damn scared. But she didn’t know when she’d next get the chance to be so close to him. Alone. Unguarded.

She wasn’t ready to give it up just yet.

“…any plans Friday night?”

Startled by the sound of Jason’s voice, Christina jerked at the question, half of which she hadn’t heard anyway. “I’m sorry?” She asked, turning toward him guiltily.

He smiled. “I said, do you have plans Friday night?” Was it just her imagination or did he sound unsure of himself?

Christina felt her eyes widened in disbelief. “What?”

“You’re going to make me work for it, huh?” Jason asked good-naturedly, but Christina watched his right hand streak through his hair—which was something he usually only did as a nervous habit. “The high school lacrosse team has a game on Friday night—”

Christina could help the gurgled chuckle that erupted from her throat. “Wait. Are you asking me out on a date?”

He frowned then. “You sound surprised?”
“I am,” she confessed. When he didn’t immediately comment, she added: “I mean, I figured one you knew a little more about my past—”

“I hardly know anything about your past,” Jason corrected her.

“Well, no…”

“And you’ve really got to stop hiding there,” he continued.

“I’m not hiding anywhere!”

“Besides,” he added drily. “It hasn’t really worked, has it?”

“Excuse me?”

“Throwing your past between us,” Jason informed her. “It hasn’t exactly worked.”

“A few lapses,” she returned hotly.

“And I’m aiming for more of them,” Jason assured her with a wink.

“So?” He asked her when she remained stubbornly silent.

“So?” And that time she really was baiting him.

“Do you want to go to the lacrosse game with me?”

She frowned. “Yes.” It sounded more like an accusation than an acquiescence.

But Jason only smiled, slowing down now as the school’s building came in sight. “That’s my girl.”

She grinned. She couldn’t help it. Only Jason could take her from the depths of annoyance to the heights of sentiment in a matter of seconds.

“A high school lacrosse game,” she muttered teasingly then as he pulled into the parking lot. “You sure know how to romance a lady.”

“That’s actually the whole point,” Jason returned easily. “I’ll be Mr. Goodman there, surrounded by students and faculty members…so there’s no chance for things to get out of hand.”

“Scared of me?” Christina asked. It was the second time he’d mentioned the need to keep things chaste.

He didn’t even hesitate. “Absolutely terrified.”

 

 

 

The next morning, Christina had only just taken off her jacket and logged into her computer when her intercom sounded. She was so startled by it, she let out a muffled yelp.

“Christina? Christina, when you have a minute would you come into my office?”

“Mr. Gordman?” She asked tentatively, but she needn’t have bothered. She knew it was him. It was just…in all the years she’d worked for him, he’d never once beaten her into the office. “Yes, of course,” she rushed to say, pushing her chair back even as she spoke the words. “I’ll be right in.”

Something was wrong. Something had to be wrong. He’d lost a big client. They were closing down a department. He had to lay someone off. Maybe her….

Reaching for the door, she slowly turned the knob in her damp palm, poking her head into the office with a determined smile. “Morning,” she said, the rest of her body quickly following after as she tripped inside. Closing the door, she started for one of the two chairs sitting before his desk. “You’re here awfully early.” She heard the edge in her voice.

Mr. Gordman didn’t look good. Sitting in his leather chair, his finger steepled together on his desk, deep gashes of exhaustion cutting through the lines of his cheeks, Mr. Gordman looked…well, damn, he looked bad.

“I needed a quiet place to think.” He sighed. “It didn’t work.”

She raised an inquiring eyebrow, crossing her legs demurely in what she hoped was the picture of cool composure. “What’s going on?”

“We’ve got a problem here,” Mr. Gordman assured her, wagging a finger between himself and her.

“The company?” she asked, but she had a feeling…

“No, not the company,” he growled. “You and me.”

She feigned surprise, but she had a feeling she wasn’t succeeding very well. “You and me?”

“And Mary.”

“Oh.”

“You won’t talk to her.”

Christina opened her mouth to speak—

Mr. Gordman spread his hands wide. “You certainly won’t talk to me. Not unless it’s business related.”

“Mr. Gordman…”

“Hell, this is a personal conversation,” he said impatiently. “Might as well call me Matthew.”

Christina took a deep breath. “Fine. Matthew,” she stressed. “I really don’t think this is the time or place to be discussing such matters…”

“Oh hell,” he said, cursing for the second time. “You’re right.”

She felt able to breathe again. She needed time to think, to sort out her thoughts.

“So have dinner with us instead,” Matthew invited. “How about Friday night?”

“Friday?” Christina echoed.

Matthew saw the conflict cross her features. “Please,” he added. “Mary misses you. I do, too.”

“I would love to,” Christina insisted, holding out a hand. “Really, I would. It’s just,” she shrugged helplessly. “I-I can’t.”

Disappointed silence meet her words, followed by: “I see.”

“I’m actually going out with Jason on Friday.” Christina wasn’t sure why she told him that, except this time she was determined to keep no secrets.

Matthew’s body rocked backward a little at the words. “You are?”

“I mean, I hope that won’t be an issue for you, as my boss…”

“Nonsense,” Matthew assured her. “I’m pleased to hear it, in fact.”

Christina bit the side of her lip “You are?”
“I am. Mary will be too.”

Christina nodded. Then she peeked up at him shyly. “What about Saturday? Could we do dinner then?”
He smiled slowly. “Actually, Saturday’s better for us.”

 

Carnival Lights: Chapter Twenty-Four

Though she wouldn’t dream of admitting to anything so frivolous, Christina felt those words to the very soles of her feet, right through those layers of icy cynicism to the romantic young girl she’d been, once upon a time. Still, though she wanted him to do just that—to really get to know her, and to like her despite it all—years of sarcasm wouldn’t be turned off at the drop of a few delightful minutes.

“God,” she moaned as Jason went to open her door. She rolled her eyes so hard over the word, she almost winced. “You are so corny sometimes, Jason.”

“Ah,” he laughed, holding the door open for her as she eased herself down into the seat. “So you’ve got me all figured out, then?”

“I don’t think I said that…” she cautioned, her eyes furrowing as he quickly closed her door and rounded the front of the vehicle before getting in on his side.

“Buckle up,” he said, giving her a quick sideways glance.

“Oh.” Flustered, and annoyed with herself for being so obvious about it, Christina reached behind her. No sooner had she clicked her belt into place than Jason was backing out of his spot. She was trying to work up something to say as he turned left out of the parking lot, driving quickly past the school grounds and out past the small set of lights hinting at the hustle of city life just out of sight—a gas station and a small ice-cream booth beside a yellow-brick pizzeria halfway down one block, followed on the other side by the black patio table umbrellas of some local brewery. Jason didn’t even slow down as these sites, instead, he just kept driving straight North.

“So…where are we going?” Christina asked. As far as conversation starters went, it was far from original, and hardly meaty in substance, but she figured it was a starting place. And, irritatingly contrary creature that he was, Jason hadn’t seemed to be in any rush to break into speech. For a guy who wanted to get to know her, he didn’t seem in any great hurry.

He shrugged his wide shoulders good-naturedly, flicking her an easy glance. “Honestly,” he laughed, “I have no idea.”

She nodded, but she wasn’t sure what she was acknowledging.

“Do you live near here?” She tried again and immediately could have bitten her tongue off. At the merriment she saw illuminating Jason’s eyes, she rushed on to explain: “Not that, um, not that I was expecting you to take me to your—” she cleared her throat, “—I was only asking for the commute. And I suppose, whether or not you even knew where you’re going.”

“Relax Christina,” he said, but he was laughing at her as he said it. “I knew you weren’t asking for an invitation to my house.”

She could have smacked that winning little grin right off his face.

“But, to answer your question, no I don’t live in town. At least, I’m about fifteen minutes from here, just outside Apple Valley.”

“Oh.”

Jason smiled earnestly. “And to answer your sort-of second question, no, I don’t really know where we’re going. Does it matter?”

“No, no…” she blustered hotly.

He rubbed a hand against his chin. “Are you sure? You seem oddly preoccupied with it.”

She sat up a little taller, a quick reflex she was hardly aware of doing. “Only because—”

“Because you don’t know what to say?” He asked her then, turning to throw her a devilish little grin.

Christina felt her neck muscles stiffen as she drew her back straight, her arms zipping across her stomach tightly. “You know, come to think of it, I’m not sure I’m all that interested in getting to know you better…”

“Okay, okay. I’m sorry.” Shifting to give her another quick glance, he smiled gamely. Her countenance, however, did not change. His tone sobered immediately. “Hey. I was just teasing…I didn’t mean to upset you.”

She felt her lips pout just the tiniest bit. “I know. It’s just, you’re right. I don’t know what to say to you.”

“Why not?” At least the question sounded genuine. “I’ve always thought I was a pretty easy-going guy.”

“Maybe.”

He laughed again.

“It’s just, things are different now.”

“You mean since you stopped giving me the cold shoulder?”

She shot him a dark look but Jason, being so very Jason-like, only grinned in response.

“You’re really enjoying this, aren’t you?”
“Enjoying what?”

“Having my feelings at your mercy?”

“Oh, come on. Not this again…”

“Don’t get conceited,” she hissed, and her arms were back around her stomach again.

“No ma’am, not me,” Jason assured her as he slowed down to a four-way stop where he decided to turn left onto a small patch of road. Staring out at the scenery, Christina felt her legs, pressed close together, trembling with a kind of untold excitement…or anticipation. Even slightly annoyed with him, she felt an unknown kind of thrill at being there, in that car, alone, with him. Where anything could happen.

“Fact is,” Jason said then, and there was a different note in his voice as the car rumbled down the quiet side street that didn’t look to be very populated. “Mom frequently used you as a carrot to get me over to the house.”

“What?” Christina turned her head slowly, suspiciously toward him.

Jason stared straight ahead, seemingly unfazed by this admission—his hands light on the steering wheel, his features relaxed as he watched the road ahead. “Yeah. I mean, she never said as much,” Jason admitted. “That would have hardly been her style.”

“Your mom knew…?”

“How I felt about you?” For a moment, Jason seemed to consider this. “No. I don’t think so. But she knew I’d come if you were there.”

Christina thought about admitting that Mary had all but come to the same conclusion about Christina’s feelings for Jason, but at the last minute, she decided to keep that her secret. Trust came hard.

“Why did you think my parents wouldn’t approve of the two of us?” The question was as starkly put as it was abruptly spoken.

Christina’s body jerked a little in reaction. Her fingers fidgeting with the hem of her shirt, she shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know…”

“Yes, you do.”

“I told you—”

“You told me a bunch of silly excuses,” Jason informed her. “My family isn’t snobs; I’m not also an employee of my father’s, nor an employer of yours; and clichéd or otherwise, no one would have thought much of a romance between us.”

“Your family is rich,” Christina muttered.

Jason’s eyes widened so much so that Christina was oddly comforted by his sheer incredulity. “And you were afraid people would peg you as a, what, gold digger?”

She shrugged a little uncomfortably. Truthfully, she’d only just thought if it then. She’d never once entertained the notion beforehand. But sometimes subterfuge was a necessary evil. “Well…”

“God, am I so ugly that my own charms wouldn’t even come into play?” Jason teased her.

“Oh shut up,” Christina muttered.

“You may want to take your own council on that,” Jason retorted.

Christina felt an almost uncontrollable, and yes she was aware it was also uncalled for, frustration build up inside her person. He had no idea what he was talking about. He had absolutely no idea what kind of person he’d uncover in her if he kept poking his head into things.

And so maybe that’s why she said it. So she could be the one in control. If he never spoke to her again, at least it would have been on her terms. “You’re right,” she told him, her voice cold in the stillness of the car’s interior. Her lips twitched in pure self-contempt. “Everything I’ve said up to now is bullshit.” Well, most everything she’d said was bullshit.

It was perhaps at this time that Jason realized that something wasn’t right, that something had changed in the very atmosphere between them. It was perhaps that this time that he realized he’d pushed her too far…

“Christina…”

But it was too late. “I didn’t want you to know because, well, because I knew it wouldn’t work out.”

“What?” Jason’s voice was tentative now, quiet.

Christina laughed. “Fool me once, and all that jazz.”

“Fool you—?”

But she wasn’t listening to him. “I wasn’t lying when I told you I have this weird affliction, wanting men I can’t, or shouldn’t want.”

“And why can’t, or shouldn’t you want me?” Jason challenged her.

“Besides the obvious conflict of interest for your father?”

“Yes,” he answered her drily. “Besides that.”

“Because your mom and dad…they’re all I have for family.” She tucked her chin a little lower in her chest as she said these next words.

“I don’t…”

“My parents won’t speak to me. Not after what happened—”

“The affair, you mean?” Jason asked quietly. It was a shot in the dark, but then, he’d always been good at math.

Christina’s eyes fly up to his face. “Your mom told you?!”

“No. But I knew there’d been a man in your past and the way this story was unraveling, it wasn’t such a difficult guess.”

 

Carnival Lights: Chapter Twenty-Three

Gaping in the sudden silence swarming around them, Christina couldn’t find any words to say.

Jason seemed to be processing too, his eyes narrowing steadily as he stared down at her upturned face. “You think I, what, did it to manipulate you in some way?” He clicked his tongue perceptively. “Or was it because I was bored and I knew you’d be an easy target?”

She felt her face twitch at the words, at their meanness.

He whistled. “Ah. I see.”

“I’d thrown myself at you once,” she muttered, but her cheeks betrayed her discomfort. She felt the toe of her foot twisting itself against the polished floor.

Jason nodded again knowingly. “And someone’s clearly done it to you in the past.”

She didn’t answer him.

“I’m surprised at you,” Jason confessed then, his voice soft.

“At me?” She notched her chin up a little defensively. There was no way whatever he had to say next would be a good thing.

“A cool, confident woman such as you are—”

“A defense mechanism surely,” she parried.

Jason laughed at her ready response.

“As you said yourself, you’d always thought I hated you,” Christina reminded him. He’d spoken those words to her that fated Easter evening when he’d first kissed her.

“Yeah. That’s true…” Jason tilted his head a little to one side. “But you don’t hate me.”

“Exactly.”

His forehead crinkled, but damn the man, he still looked mildly amused. “I’m confused.”

Feeling flustered, because she wasn’t accustomed to talking about her feelings, especially to the one man she kept making a fool of herself in front of, Christina made an impatient gesture. “I wanted you to think I hated you.”

“So I couldn’t use you.”

She reared her head back. “I didn’t say that…”

“But that’s why,” Jason confirmed, taking another, almost victorious, step towards her. In response, she stumbled backward, keeping the space carefully between them. “Because you think your only attraction is being, what was that word you used the other night?” Jason asked, but it was obvious he wasn’t actually expecting an answer. “Convenient?”

Christina felt her shoulders pull back, her ears raw with the ugliness of his accusations. “Stop it.” She held up a hand. “Just. I’ve had enough. You don’t know me so don’t stand—”

“And whose fault is that?” he taunted her and, perhaps in spite of that raised hand warning him off, Jason took another step toward her.

Christina’s eyes flickered quickly toward the door, but it was firmly shut and the lights in the hallway, just visible through the thin panel of glass on one side, cast a darkening shadow upon the lockers. No one would be coming in—no distraction would save her. Not this time.

“You want to know why I kissed you?” Jason asked, his question bringing him steadily nearer. At the words, Christina’s eyes jerked nervously back to his face. His hazel eyes were watchful, his lips pulling up into a smug sort of smile.

It was at that moment that she felt the whiteboard meet up against her back. In reaction, her hands moved out to the sides of the wall—the grass tray holding the markers bit against her lower back. Still, he didn’t stop walking, not until he was almost touching her.

“What?” she managed.

“You weren’t the only one, you know,” he whispered coming up to her now, his body leaning down just enough to promise contact, his lips hovering just above the pulse of her own. In an instant, his hands moved, grabbing both of hers around the wrist and bringing them up against the whiteboard, until they were splayed out at her sides. “You were the only one mesmerized that first afternoon, on my parent’s doorstep, when you brought my dad those documents.”

“What?” she whispered again, her body humming so loudly she could hardly take in his words. His cologne filled her nostrils.

“I thought you might have been the most gorgeous woman I’d ever seen,” he told her his head dropping forward. “I still do.”

Her intake of breath was drowned by the impact of his lips against her own. Christina’s fingers wrapped themselves tightly against his hold, her body responding almost instantly to the weight of him as Jason’s body slowly lowered over her own. His lips were cool as they pressed against hers, the slight stubble of his chin whispering over her skin as he tilted his head, his tongue already seeking entrance into her mouth.

Christina opened her lips under his quiet coaxing, her sigh of welcome whispering into his mouth. The zip of sensation that flooded through her body when his tongue slid against hers, left her buckling recklessly under the weight of his hold.

“Oh God,” Jason groaned into her mouth, his lips twisting almost frantically against hers. Christina’s back arched against the wall behind her, her hips colliding with his, her legs brushing his inner thighs.

Dazedly, Christina stared up at him through the thin slits of her eyelids. His eyes were closed—she almost wished he’d open them. She wondered what color those hazel orbs would turn when he kissed her like that.

The thought alone made her lips tremble. Then his hands were at her jaw line, his thumbs rubbing against the sensitive skin as he slowly angled her head a little farther to the right, deepening the kiss—

The grass marker tray was bruising against Christina’s back. She hardly felt it. Jason’s hands, against her wrists, tightened with the force of his desire. She didn’t fight it. Instinctively, her legs widened a little bit, taking more of his weight. At the slight movement, she heard his anguished groan and then, almost before she heard him, Jason was moving backward, breaking off the kiss.

His hand was instantly running through his hair, his head turned toward the side window, his eyes seemingly focused on the empty parking lot some one hundred yards away.

“Jesus,” he finally muttered, glancing back at her.

Christina was still half-sprawled against the wall. But as his look, she felt her body snap straight, her legs shaky as she forced them off the whiteboard. Her hands immediately went to smooth out the wrinkles of her shirt.

Jason had one hand in his pants pocket. Judging from the sound coming from within the fabric, he was jiggling a pair of car keys. “Hell,” he muttered, his eyes narrowed dangerously as they watched her. “Come on,” he said finally. He held out his hand, and with nothing more than that, she took it in her grasp.

“But—” Christina wasn’t sure what she meant to ask, her mind sluggish after that…hell…it was only as she felt herself being drug toward the classroom door that she found an appropriate sentence. “Where are we going?”

“We can’t stay here,” Jason informed her with a sideways smirk. “Not unless…no. No,” he decided. “Five more minutes in here with you—” he whistled for point, “—and I’d never have been able to teach in this room again.”

Christina felt her face flame with equal parts embarrassment and excitement. “Oh.”

He looked back at her as he led her out into the dim hallway. “But I don’t want you to leave either.”
She wasn’t quite sure what to say to that, but she was oddly terrified to say nothing at all. “Oh.”

He shrugged. “So that only leaves one other option.”

Christina felt her feet pick up their pace as she attempted to keep up with his long-legged stride, her shoes skipping down the hallway and out into the main lobby before being led unceremoniously through the front doors to the outside. The cool evening air smacked Christina in the face.

“And that is?” She asked curiously.

“A drive.”

“A what?” Christina could hardly keep the amusement out of her voice as he led her toward the faculty lot. It all felt rather juvenile.

“A drive,” Jason repeated, his eyes pinned forward toward to where his vehicle could just be seen, alone on the pavement. Then he shot her a grin. “It’s a manual. I’ll have no choice but to keep my hands occupied.”

Christina felt the first glimmer of a smile flash across her lips. “You want to talk?”

Jason only shook his head. “Leave it to you…”

“Leave it to me to what?” Christina challenged him, but there was no real heat in her voice. She was oddly—or maybe not that oddly at all—complimented by his words.

“Leave it to you to try and distract me from my purpose.”

“And what’s that?”

“To get to know you. Finally.”

Carnival Lights: Chapter Twenty-Two

At Jason’s mischievous grin, Christina felt instantly foolish. Scrambling, she shouldered her purse free and quickly produced the roll of ticket tape for him to see.

Brandishing it defensively, she held it firmly in front of her person. “I came to return this.” Her body posture was stiff and expectant.

But Jason being Jason didn’t reach for it. Instead, he raised a questioning eyebrow. “What is it?”

“It’s from the baseball tournament. It’s for, I don’t know, raffles or something,” she told him primly. “I took it home on accident.”

He smothered back his amusement. “I see.”

She felt stupider by the moment. From her peripheral vision, she watched the last of the kids empty out onto the school grounds. At least no one would be around to watch her make an utter ass out of herself. She notched her chin up. “I thought you’d want it back.”

Walking further into the room, letting the door shut quietly behind him, Jason set his cup down on one of the empty school desks. “Yeah?” he drawled out slowly, reaching up to scratch the side of his jaw.

She raised a cool eyebrow. “Yeah.”

He laughed. “Well, thanks for rushing down here to get that back to us,” he mocked her. Finally, he reached out to take the roll out of her waiting hands. Gripping it loosely in his fist, he smiled. “’Course we have about a hundred spare boxes of these…”

Christina felt her teeth gnash together.

“But I suppose it was as good an excuse as any,” he continued.

Christina felt her shoulders pull back at the taunt. “Excuse me?” With a sort of strength he couldn’t be capable of knowing, she brought her eyes level to his.

He gave her a meaningful look. “You could have dropped these off with the school secretary, Christina. Hell, you could have pitched them into a garbage bin for all they’d be missed.”

“How should I have known that?” Her voice rose to an alarming squeak—a dead giveaway.

He dropped the ticket tape down beside his still untouched cup of coffee. Then he took a step toward her. In response, she took a step backward. “Nervous Christina?”

“I think I’ve earned that right,” she returned.

He raised an eyebrow. “Do you? But I’m not the one playing hot and cold.”

“I’m not playing anything,” Christina insisted, her eyes widening at his words.

“No? Then why are you here? And what the hell was that the other night, at your apartment?”

She cleared her throat. “A misunderstanding.”

“Obviously.”

Holding out her hand palm up, she motioned for him to stop. “Look, I probably owe you an apology for the way I acted…”

“I’m not looking for an apology,” Jason assured her, his hands coming to rest lightly on his hips. His features contracted with what she supposed was consternation. Probably it was a look he’d perfected all these years with his young pupils. “I’m looking for an explanation.”

Christina’s eyes skimmed over the classroom helplessly. She was halfway to the whiteboard by now, her back pressing her ever nearer the wall with the projector. “An explanation?” She felt her defenses rising. “It was just a few kisses—”

“It was more than that.”

“Okay. Fine. Whatever,” she relented.

“That’s just it,” he argued, and to her sensitive ear, he sounded half-exasperated. “There was nothing whatever about it. You threw me for a hell of a loop.”

“Because I wanted to sleep with you?”

“Because you wanted me at all.”

“Wait.” Christina goggled at him. “You can’t honestly be telling me that right now.”

“Of course I can,” he sputtered.

“Easter?”

He shook his head. “That was different.”

“Why because you started it?”

“Yeah, and you ended it,” he reminded her. He swore softly then, half under his breath. “But before that…. In all these years, you’ve never once hinted…” his hand made an arching motion, finishing his unspoken thought.

“Really?” Christina’s voice couldn’t be drier. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she recognized that she should be embarrassed, humiliated by his brutal honesty—but instead she felt a sort of powerfulness as his mask slipped and the vulnerable man peeked through his usual conceit.

His eyebrows furrowed. “What’s that supposed to mean? Really?

She pursed her lips, almost enjoying herself. “The employee Christmas party? Just this last December?” Now it was her turn to pin her hands to her hips. “I presume you remember, after all, you were the only sober one between the two of us.”

To his credit, Jason looked dumbfounded for a moment, but all too soon his face cleared as the memory washed over them.

He’d driven her home from his father’s employee Christmas party. She’d had a little too much to drink and, though Christina had been almost desperately resentful at his instance that he chauffer her safely to her apartment, she’d gotten into his car with a minimum of fuss.

She should have fought him harder. Called a taxi cab. She should have never agreed to be driven anywhere with him. She had been too vulnerable that night. It had been too hard to hide, too dangerous.

The car ride back to her duplex had been relatively uneventful. They’d talked generalities, or just not talked at all through the twenty-minute commute. She could still remember sitting in that passenger seat, the length of her cocktail dress riding unnervingly high on her thigh, her fingers almost obsessively trying to tug it back down to a more demure length; not that it would have mattered, it had been dark by the time they’d left and the inside of Jason’s car, besides the pale yellow and blue lights on the dashboard and instruments panel, had been illuminated by only the soft glow of passing streetlights. Besides, his eyes had been focused straight ahead. The smell of his aftershave had infused the car with a sort of sophisticated manliness. It had been heady and romantic and she’d almost burned her nostrils trying to memorize the scent.

Then he’d parked the car outside her house. Without thought, he’d rounded to the passenger side of the vehicle where Christina was still struggling to her feet. Though she’d protested his help, Christina had felt the fingers of one hand sliding around her arm, while the others splayed against the small of her back as he propelled her forward.

“My hero,” she’d muttered when they’d gained the small porch outside her apartment. She’d forgotten to turn on her exterior light when she’d left so her outside lock had been shrouded in shadows.

“Here, let me,” he’d offered when she’d struggled to get the key inserted in the lock. When his fingers had brushed against hers, she’d felt her world rock. In all the years she’d known Jason she was pretty sure they’d never been so, well, so alone together.

It was intoxicating.

Drunk, standing half-hidden in the shadows of her small covered porch, Christina had felt a sort of reckless seize her person. At least that’s what she told herself the next day. It was the only thing that explained what happened next. While he was fiddling with the key, she’d reached up on her tiptoes and whispered into his ear: “I hate these parties. Everyone gets a bit tipsy and soon I find myself on the receiving end of a bunch of horny men who want to ravish me.”

Jerking in surprise at her sudden nearness, Jason’s head turned to look down at her. The movement brought them almost nose to nose. “What?” He’d more or less breathed the word into her pouting mouth.

Christina didn’t answer him. Instead, she giggled softly. “And it’s so ironic because here I stand, with the one man who’s never tried it, and all I want is to be ravished.” Her eyes had the bravery of too much alcohol, her smile loose with her feelings. “So what do you say?”

She remembered his wide hazel eyes widening with disbelief. When he spoke, his words came out slowly, questioningly: “You want—”

“I want you. Ravish me, Jason?” she asked, nodding helpfully. Dizzily, she leaned back against the side of her house, her head tilting almost bonelessly in invitation.

Turning back to the door, with a flick of his wrist, Jason managed to turn the key in the lock. He didn’t look at Christina as he quietly pushed the door open. His voice, when he did finally speak, was hoarse, low. “Christina….”

Even through her intoxication, she’d heard the rejection forming in that one long word. Springing clumsily back to her feet, she’d held up a hand as she shimmied around him for the door. “Don’t. Never mind.”

“You’re drunk.”

“Brilliant.”

Jason had laughed at her. But softly, nicely. She’d hated him for that. “I would never disrespect you in that way, Christina.”

She’d hated him a little less. “God save me from decent men,” she joked badly.

“Save yourself from lecherous tools who’d actually take you up on that incredibly tempting offer,” Jason had returned with his usual humor.

She’d laughed because it was that or cry. “Tempting?”

“You have no idea.”

“Well good,” she’d pouted. “At least I won’t be the only person miserably alone.”

“Indeed not.”

And then, with as much pride as she could, which wasn’t much by that point, Christina had entered her apartment and quietly closed the door behind her.

Watching Jason relive that night now, Christina can’t keep a sort of contempt out of her voice. “Don’t tell me you’d forgotten.”

Jason whistled. “Not likely.”

“So really, blow it out your ear,” she returned coolly. “You knew exactly how I felt.”

“Not really.”

She stared at him hard.

“Christina, you were lousy drunk the night of the party. And clearly lonely.” Jason made another empty gesture with his hands as he spared her pride nothing. “I didn’t put any stock into what you said.”

“No?” She scoffed.

“No.”

“Not even on Easter, when you were supposedly testing out your little theory?”

He cocked his head a little to one side. “Wait. Is that why you think I kissed you?”

“Well, why else?”
His face flinched. “You’ve got a bad image of men, don’t you? Who did that to you?”

 

Carnival Lights: Chapter Twenty-One

Christina didn’t call Mary back. She tried. She got as far as dialing her number a couple of times but at the last minute, she’d freeze, the phone resting uncalled in her hands. Of course, it wasn’t so easy to avoid Mr. Gordman, but that was different. They were both too professional to allow for a fissure and so, by unspoken mutual consent, the conversation changed, just like that and personal talks dwindled to an absolute minimum. Both pretended not to notice this shift—and not to be hurt by it either.

Mr. Gordman was too much of a gentleman to bring up any mention of Jason. That or he truly didn’t think it was any of his business. Or maybe he was just waiting for her to bring the subject up. Either way, they went on as though nothing had changed. Only, Jason was never brought up in one another’s company. Conspicuously so.

“Mary wanted J…she called my son to ask about that infernal—”

Christina did her best not to flinch when these stumbles happened. Mostly because she desperately wanted to hear his name spoken, because she wanted to yank the work out of Mr. Gordman’s mouth, to savor the sense the sound of it against her ears…. Because she missed him. Christina missed Jason in a way she usually didn’t allow herself to admit; but then, before she got to hear about him, got to talk about him—everyday living off crumbs that had kept her, well, in a weird sort of way, close to him. And she was tired. Because really, what the hell did her feelings for Jason matter anyway? Her relationship with the only two people she’d never wanted to change had, well, it’d changed.

Which is why she supposed driving out of the work parking lot that afternoon, she’d more or less deserved Jackie’s saucy, knowing grin when that girl had spied Christina logging out of her computer almost two hours early, getting ready to leave for the day—

It had been almost three o’clock and Jackie had been on her way to Mr. Gordman’s office to have a small meeting about a new ad campaign when she’d spied Christina reaching for her light spring jacket.

Jackie’s eyebrows had risen just slightly. “Off early today?” It was something of an office joke that Christina was the first to arrive and typically the last to leave.

Looking a little distracted and harried (which was unheard of for the calm, poised Christina DeLuca), she only nodded, reaching inside the bottom drawer for her purse.

“Dentist appointment?”

“No…” Christina’s fingers dug through the contents of the bag, searching for her keys.

“Doctor, then?”

“What?” At the question, Christina frowned. She shot Jackie a look. “No.”
“Car work?”
“Jesus Jackie, what is this?”

Jackie grinned, one finger pointing to the side of Christina’s lip. “You’ve got a smudge of lipstick here.”

With an impatient finger, Christina wiped it away, but not before unconsciously turning toward the small mirror she had hanging up on the wall beside her desk, just to double check her appearance.

“Off to see Jason then.” It was a shot in the dark.

Christina’s eyes darted frantically toward Mr. Gordman’s closed door. “Shh!” She hissed.

Jackie gasped, one hand going up to her mouth. “You are!”

Christina rolled her eyes.

Jackie glanced down at her wristwatch. “I mean, it makes sense. School’s almost out for the day….”

“Shut up, will you?” Christina grumbled.

“Finally surrendering, huh?”
“Oh stop it,” Christina insisted, one foot stomping down emphatically beside her. Digging through her purse once more, she produced the roll of ticket tape she’d accidentally stolen from the ball game last weekend. “No. I need to return this. It belongs to the school’s baseball team.” Christina had looked smug for all of five seconds after delivering this but then Jackie started to laugh—soon enough, she was laughing so hard she was bent over double, her hands slapping against her knees.

Christina’s eyes narrowed, that foot now tap-tapping an angry tattoo on the carpet. “Are you finished?”
“Seriously? That’s the most pathetic thing!” Jackie laughed hard over her words. “That. I’ve ever…heard!”

“Excuse me?”

“Oh come on!” Jackie cried, jerking her thumb back over her shoulder, indicating Mr. Gordman’s door. “You think he couldn’t have done that for you?”

Christina hefted up her chin. “It’s not his responsibility. It’s mine.”

Jackie shook her head meaningfully, a wry grin replacing her laughter now. “It’s so telling sometimes, the flimsy excuses people will try to morph into the most logical of reasons.”

“Oh shut up,” Christina grumbled, but she knew she’d lost so instead of denying it, she patted the side of her hair. “How do I look?”

Jackie’s mirth subsided almost instantly. She gave Christina a considering look. Then she smiled. “You look beautiful. You always do.”

And she did. Her blonde hair, with almost white blonde highlights, shone from her expertly styled chignon, and her makeup was flawless in a face of classical lines and large, almond-shaped eyes.

Christina nodded once, sharply. Grabbing her purse, she slung it over the crook of her elbow. “Okay,” she said, her eyes taking in the big clock. “I’d better get going.”

“Good luck.”

 

 

 

Walking into the school ten minutes later, the commons area flooding with kids exiting their last classes of the day, that the years’ old sort of celebration floating through the air at the final bell, Christina tried to look as though she belonged—her eyes searching through the throng of bodies, her nerves deserting her in this unfamiliar place.

What if she missed him? What if he was already leaving for the parking lot, getting into his car—what if he had kids staying after, waiting to ask him questions about their recent history test…

It was too late to turn back now. Carrying her forward, she walked in the muted lighting of the school’s main office. Smiling brightly, she brought herself up to the middle-aged woman sitting behind the front desk.

“Hello?” The woman asked politely, looking up expectantly as Christina entered.

“Hi,” Christina said, her voice a little breathy. “I’m looking for a Mr. Gordman? Could you tell me where I can find him? That is if he’s not busy right now?”

“Sure. He’s just down that hallway—” she pointed out the door, and down to the right “—fourth door on the right.” She cocked her head a little to one side, her gaze narrowing on Christiana’s unfamiliar face. Probably, she was trying to figure out whose kid she belonged to—or why she needed Mr. Gordman in the first place…

Without giving her the opportunity to air those questions, Christina took a quick step back and with a sharp turn of her heel and a softly worded “thank you”, she scuttled quickly back into the parade of teenagers heading for the outdoors.

Her heartbeat was shaking her so hard Christina found her breath wheezing out her nose as her feet took her down the now mostly deserted hallway. When she reached his room—number 435—Christina took a moment to compose herself, to steady her breathing before she felt her fingers twist over the doorknob.

With her right hand, she knocked on the door while simultaneously pushing it open. “Hello?” She called out softly, but when she popped her head around the door, an empty classroom met her gaze. Taking a quick step inside the room, she tried to get a better vantage point. Thirty or so desks stared back at her, unoccupied, facing a large whiteboard with a projector pushed against one wall. To the back of all of this stood a large teacher’s desk, but Jason was not seated behind it.

Feeling all of the energy ooze out of her body, Christina sighed. “Dammit.”

“Swearing is usually prohibited on school grounds.”

At the sound of Jason’s quietly amused voice coming from behind her, Christina whirled around. There, standing just inside the door to the classroom she’d entered only seconds ago herself, he stood. He was holding a cup of coffee in one hand.

He held it up as though by explanation. “Just got myself a little pick-me-up,” he said easily. “I’ve got papers to grade tonight.”

“Oh.” She wasn’t altogether sure what to do with her face.

He, on the other hand, didn’t seem the least concerned with her appearance. “This is a surprise.”

She narrowed her eyes. “You don’t look surprised.”

“Don’t I?” He asked amusedly. “Then I’m hiding it well.”

“Oh.”

His grin lengthened. Leaning up against the door jam, he seemed in no real rush, either. “What can I do for you, Christina?”