North of Happenstance: Chapter Fifty-Nine (THE END)

Jackson stared unblinkingly at Kate.

“I love you, Jackson,” she repeated again, her voice barely a whisper of sound. Her teeth gnawed against the side of her lip at his extended silence. “I hope that’s okay?”

Because suddenly she was terrified. She’d said those words before, of course, but never to Jackson (and he’d certainly never said them to her). Only, she’d never really meant them. Not until just now.

But then Jackson smiled and some of her fear melted away. “Yeah Kate,” he said, his voice low, husky. “It’s okay. It’s more than okay.” With a half step, he made to move toward her, his eyes soft as he neared….

Calida cleared her throat pointedly. She’d clearly been forgotten. Her interruption had the desired effect. Jerking at the sound, Jackson ceased in his movement toward Kate. His eyes shifted, swiveling to take in Calida’s expectant expression.

He smiled charmingly.

“Excuse me, Mrs. McDonald.” Shifting gears, he didn’t skip a beat; to Kate’s quiet dismay, his attention was lost now, transferred instead to the elegant woman beside her. Whatever he’d been about to say next—whatever his response to Kate’s exclamation would have to wait. “It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

Dammit.

“How kind,” Calida purred, holding out a hand, which was quickly taken in his own.

“Please, won’t you come inside?” he asked, stepping back to allow them entrance.

Calida smiled, but it held little warmth. “I’d be delighted, I’m sure.”

“No, the delight is all mine,” Jackson assured her as she stepped daintily into the foyer, Kate bringing up the silent rear. “I can’t tell you how long I’ve wanted to make your acquaintance.”

Jackson had impeccable manners.

“I only wish I could say the same,” Calida said, her eyes quick to take in everything around her. Opulent surroundings. “But as it happens, I’ve only just heard about you.” Her laugh was a tinkle of social merriment.

Jackson had to bite his lip to keep from pointing out the obvious: that until just recently, she and her daughter hadn’t been speaking at all.

Likewise, Kate shot her mother a speaking look; but Calida was too busy inspecting Jackson’s home he led them down the arched hallway off the entrance and into the main living area, to pay any notice to her daughter. As her sharp eyes gazed around the room, her usually pinched features took on an even harder look. Her long patrician nose quivered as she glanced over the gilded mirror hanging above the fireplace, the authentic Oriental rug underneath the sofa—the tasteful throw pillows and blankets, the classic sconces on the papered walls, all the trinkets and baubles scattered about. The room screamed of money and high taste.

It was abundantly clear that Jackson came from wealthy stock.

And Calida couldn’t find one damn thing wrong with the place.

Clearly it rankled. Kate smiled.

“Well,” she said sharply. Too sharply. “You have a beautiful house. What is it your family does?”

How like Calida to get right to the matter at hand. Before Kate could throw out a reproached, Jackson was answering her.

“Well, if I have my history correct, I believe the earliest Fischer’s were with the railroad industry.” He grinned openly. “But other than that, in the last fifty years or so the family has, er, rather diversified our interests.”

Calida cocked her head. “Meaning what, exactly?”

To his credit, Jackson didn’t look unnerved by her tone. “Meaning…”

“Jackson teaches English at the high school,” Kate cut in, her voice loud and deviant. Her eyes sparkled from a suddenly hot face, her very stance—arms crossed and chin raised— practically begged her mother to mock his profession, to make comment. “And he’s absolutely brilliant at it. The kids love him.”

Jackson shot Kate a quick wink.

“Oh.” Calida smiled. “How…noble of you.” The exaggeration of her pause, the stress she placed on that one word made the hairs on Kate’s neck stand at end.

She let out a huff of breath. “I should certainly say so, mother.”

Calida made a dismissive motion, “Oh don’t be so sensitive Kate, I was merely complimenting the man.” With her hands clasped behind her back, she shifted, her eyes taken with some glass ornaments placed inside a crystal bowl on the mantelpiece. Gone now was the picture of Emily that used to rest so lovingly on its rough-hewn wood. “After all, much like some must invent while others assemble, so too must one educate so another can achieve greatness…” She touched one of the glass-blown bulbs.

Turning helplessly to Jackson, Kate raised her arms impotently. “I am so sorry,” she mouthed. She could actually feel the blood drain form her face. Rude didn’t even begin to cover it…

But Jackson only shrugged, not looking the least put out by Calida’s words.

“I’ve always thought that knowledge is the best kind of power,” he said in quiet agreement.

Kate wanted to throw something. Preferably her mother, right out the door!

It wasn’t until sometime later, after Calida had swallowed her second cup of coffee that, placing the empty cup back on its saucer, she asked politely where she might find the washroom—and Kate found herself alone with Jackson for the first time. Finally.

Waiting until Calida was safely out of earshot, Kate threw Jackson a tremulous look. “Jackson. I don’t even know what to say. I’m so sorry. Really—”

“Nah,” he said, waving her words aside. “Don’t worry about it.”

“It’s just, I know she can be, ah, tough sometimes, and I’m sorry that I just thrust her on you like that….” Maybe bringing her mother over hadn’t been such a good idea after all. Calida was always going to be Calida.

Jackson moved closer to her. “Hey,” he said. “Stop apologizing. It’s okay, Kate.”

But she couldn’t seem to stop: “But surprising you this way? I mean, what was I thinking? She is not an easy woman and I should know. Only I wanted to—” the rest of Kate’s flustered words were cut short when Jackson’s head bent, his lips silencing hers in a hard kiss.

It was both unexpected and exactly what she needed.

But all too quickly, it was over and Jackson was lifting his head to stare down at her. His eyes were tender, the pads of his thumbs coming to brush away the hair at the sides of her face.  “I love you, Kathryn.”

She smiled gloriously. “Yeah. I know.”

Jacksons looked momentarily thrown. “You do?”

She nodded impishly.

He grinned then, one eyebrow raised             devilishly. “Confident, weren’t you?”

“For the last forty minutes, you’ve not only put with my mother and her rudeness and her sundry inquisitions,” Kate informed him, “but you’ve also been kind to her.”

“Ah.”

Kate smiled. “And, I figured, there could only be one explanation for that.”

“Gave myself away, huh,” he teased, rocking her gently from side to side within the circle of his arms.

Kate wrinkled her nose. “Big time.”

Jackson’s smile disappeared, and his voice, when he spoke next was somber, solemn. “Thank you,” he said, and at Kate’s quizzical look: “For bringing her here. To see me.”

“Thank you for opening the door.”

“For you? Always.”

“I’m all in, Jackson” she told assured him earnestly. “I need you to know that.”

Jackson nodded toward the hallway. “After this, how could I think anything else?”

Kate followed his line of sight. Her lips twisted. “Now perhaps you can appreciate why I ran away from home.”

“Oh, yeah. Big time.”

 

 

 

Penny was so mad she could have spit. Yanking hard on the door of the LitLiber, she crossed quickly inside the bookstore. It had taken two minutes of sitting on her cold office floor, tears flowing easily tracks down her cheeks, before it all started to make sense.

Her conversation with Jake, circling through her consciousness, snatches of his angry words splicing at random across her memories:

“Because I was surprised to not see you…this morning. My bed. You were supposed to be there when I woke up.” Jake had been so angry, so upset. And with a snap, it pulled itself into place.

He’d wanted her there. In his bed, when he woke up.

She could still see his face, twisted, distorted in fury. “Am I to take it that last night is to be forgotten? Never spoken of again?”

            His scorn and derision were nothing but a mask to hide the truth.

… “I’m done pretending.”

            “Pretending?”

            “To be your friend.”

Over and over, the past two months washed over her, pricking and poking at her:

Jake taking her to the concert.

The fact that he’d hidden knowledge of Kate and Jackson’s relationship; he’d continued on with the ruse even though he’d known it was pointless. He’ done that to be with Penny. There was no other reason.

“Well, from where I’m sitting, the view across the way doesn’t look too bad.”

            “Brunettes….. I like brunettes.”

            “—someone who’ll wait up for me when I ask, who’ll climb out windows for me without a second thought…”

“Oh my God,” Penny had cried out weakly, her head snapping upright as the thunderbolt flashed across her startled mind. “Jake has feelings for me.” Tasting the words on her lips, for a moment, Penny had smiled in dawning realization, her body curling into itself, savoring the statement as it hung in the air, her body warm, safe—

And in the next, she was swearing. “That goddamn—and he had the nerve to call me a coward!” Scrambling unsteadily to her feet, Penny’s eyes had narrowed in a pale face. “Well, we’ll see who’s cowering now.” Straightening her skirt, she’d turned toward her door. Stopping only long enough to lock up, and stick a sign on the front saying that she’d gone to lunch, Penny’s feet had taken her quickly, clipping hurriedly up the block, until she’d reached LitLiber.

Now, striding across the moderately busy store, she only just kept her lips from snarling at the passersby, only just kept her arms from pushing the oblivious customers out of her way as she blazed a trail toward his office door. Once she reached it, Penny allowed herself only enough time to anticipate the look on his face before she stormed in, throwing the door open with a bang.

Jake was bent over his desk, busily writing something down when her shadow fell across the hardwood floor, when his office door crashed angrily against the wall. Looking up sharply, the frown marring his forehead at this extravagant entrance disappeared immediately at the sight of her standing before him.

For a moment, he seemed too shocked to react at all.

At last, he seemed to find his voice. “Penny?” Rising quickly to his feet, his body held defensively, guardedly, he watched her advance into the cramped space.

“Surprised to see me?” She mocked him.

Jake didn’t comment.

Reaching the opposite side of his desk now, Penny leaned across it until her finger, the one she had pointing at him, jabbed into his chest. “You—you…” Her lips twitched, curling. She took a deep breath.

Jake, on the other hand, looked almost bored. “I, what?”

Penny’s mouth thinned. “You want me!”

Jake’s eyes widened. He hadn’t been expecting her to say that. Well good.

“Hah!” With a decided punch, she drilled her finger into his shoulder again. “You do! You want me. All this time—!”

But Jake only shook his head. He looked defeated. Tired suddenly. “What do you want, Penny?”
“I want some answers!”

“To what questions? You seem to have it all figured out.” His tone couldn’t be drier.

“So that’s it then?” Penny asked incredulously. “You’re just done. It’s over. Just like that?” She snapped her fingers. “There’s nothing left to discuss—”

“Penny…”

“You weren’t even going to tell me, were you?”

He sighed. “Please don’t do this—”

“Why not? Don’t I deserve that much at least?”

“What do you want me to say?”

“You’re just going to walk away?” Penny pleaded.

Jake raised his hands, furious now. “How could I walk away? You left first.”

“That’s not fair!”

“No? Then you didn’t slip out of my apartment this morning?”

“Yes, only…”

“I had to find you, Penny. And when I did, you had nothing to say.”
“You’re twisting things…”

“How so?”

“I needed time to think!”

“About what?”

“About what happened?”
“But I thought it didn’t mean anything to you?”

“When did I say that?”

Jake paused, nonplussed.

“Would I be here right now, fighting for you if it had meant nothing to me?”

Jake’s lips curved in quiet amusement. “Is that what you’re doing? Fighting for me?”

“Well duh!” Penny spat. There was no denying Jake’s smile now. “Which, by the way, is more than I can say for you!”

His eyes gleamed. “My savior.”

“Oh shove it, Farrow.”

His grin only widened.

“Don’t be cute. I’m not in the mood.”

He wiped the smirk off his face. “Okay. What do you want?”

“To make myself emphatically clear,” she said. “Because clearly you haven’t been paying close enough attention these last fifteen odd years.”

Jake stilled.

“I’m here to tell you—” She made a rough sound. “That I want you right back, you stupid idiot!” She pulled herself straight, her eyes narrowed on his face.

Jake whistled. “Took you long enough to admit it.”

Penny shot back. “Excuse me?”

Instead of answering her, Jake rounded the side of his desk. He took a predatory step closer to her. “Anything else?”

“Anything—? What?” Penny stuttered, at a loss.

“Anything else you’d like to make emphatically clear?” he asked innocently enough. He was almost beside her now.

“N-no.”

“Good,” he said, reaching for her…

 

 

 

A week later, smiling across the table at Penny and Maggie, Kate reached for the bottle of newly opened wine. With precision, she poured out three glasses of Chardonnay. The smell of fried catfish wafted through the room, adding to the festive scene.

“Okay, Kate I can’t take it any longer,” Penny said, taking the proffered glass from Kate’s outstretched hand.

“What?”

Penny waved around them. “Girl’s Night Dinner?” She looked at Maggie for support. “I mean, the suspense is killing me!”

M.T. nodded. “It usually means only one thing….”

“Something’s up.”

Kate laughed.

“So?” Penny persisted. “What’s the occasion?”

Kate smiled. “Do you know what today is?”

Penny rolled her eyes. “Obviously not.”

“It’s my one year anniversary in Whestleigh.”

Penny sucked in a breath. She looked over at Maggie. Then back to Kate. “No way. It can’t be.”

“On this very day last year.” Kate said softly.

“No kidding.” Penny shook her head. “So much as happened. And yet, it doesn’t seem possible it’s been a whole year.”

“We’ve come a long way,” Kate agreed.

“Well. I think this calls for a toast,” Penny said, raising her glass. Maggie and Kate quickly followed suit.

“To new homes,” Kate called.

“Here, here,” Maggie murmured, clinking glasses.

“To friendship,” Penny added, her gaze taking in the three of them.

“And love,” Kate said, blushing.

“And the muddied waters we waded to find it,” Penny echoed. To think: Kate could have fallen for Jake. Penny might have succeeded in stealing Hank from Maggie. And everyone would have been the poorer.

“To finally putting ghosts to rest,” Maggie murmured, her finger going to massage the necklace hanging round her neck.

“In more ways than one,” Kate said, thinking of her mother. She and Calida would never be close, but at least they were speaking to one another. It was a start.

“Ah yes. Ghosts. My bread and butter,” Penny chimed in, making everyone laugh.

“To the next year and what it has in store for us,” Kate shouted.

Penny smiled, her gaze switching from Kate to Maggie. “Side-by-side-by-side.”

“Amen to that!”

And for a moment, Kate’s kitchen was infused in giggles before the women took their drink of wine.

“Oh, did I tell you,” Penny said then, setting her goblet down on the table. “About my client Madeleine?”

“Is she the one who wanted a reading done on her house plant?”

“That’s the one.” Penny looked at Maggie. “She swears it’s the reincarnate of her late sister.”

“Oh goodness!”

“What’d she want you to do this time?” Kate asked, getting up from the table to check on the fish.

“Oh, get this….

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Fifty-Six

Breathing heavily, the collar of her coat pulled up high, half obscuring her face, Penny rushed through the throng of people milling around the copious displays of books scattered around the entrance to the LitLiber. Her eyes twitched uneasily from left to right and back again. But she didn’t see anyone.

And, by anyone she meant Calida McDonald, of course.

When her fingers closed around the doorknob to Jake’s office, Penny felt her stomach pinch tightly, ears pressed momentarily against the wood gain of his door, waiting for any noise. What if they’d found her already, what if they were in their now, cornering Kate…

But silence met her probing scrutiny, and quickly checking around her, to make sure no one was watching, she slipped inside the door. The lights were off in the office when she stepped over the threshold. With only one small window up high, the room was cast in pitchy grey shadows.

“Shut the door!” The squeak of sound, which seemed to be coming from somewhere behind Jake’s desk was urgent, forceful.

With a slam, Penny did as she was bidden. “Kate?”

“Over here.”

Navigating by touch, Penny eased herself around the chairs in front of his desk. “I can’t see anything in here.”

“Don’t turn on the light! Someone might notice!”

“Okay, okay,” Penny promised, her fingers sliding against the edges of Jake’s desk. Rounding the back of it, she found Kate, huddled on the floor underneath the massive structure. By now her eyes had begun to adjust to the lack of lighting, and the image which met her gaze was pathetic. “Oh Kate…”

“Penny?” Kate croaked, staring disconcertingly up at the woman standing before her. “What are you wearing?”

Penny had almost forgotten her incognito appearance: a curly blonde wig covered her head, the short, zany cut reminiscent of a childish witch; a long, tan trench coat hid her person from chin to heel. “Oh, this? Didn’t want to be recognized.”

“No chance of that,” Kate whispered.

Penny flicked her wrist impatiently, stepping back. “Come out of there,” she insisted.

Slowly, Kate unfurled her person, slipping up from behind the desk. “Did you see them? Are they still out there?”

Penny shook her head slowly. “I didn’t see anyone, but I was kind of in a hurry…”

Kate looked hopeful. “Maybe—do you think they could’ve gone?”

Penny doubted it. “I don’t know. Want to tell me what happened?”

Kate sighed. Throwing a hand through her unusually disheveled hair, she plopped down on one side of Jake’s desk. Watching her, Penny felt a flurry of activity explode in her stomach. Jake’s chair. She couldn’t help seeing him in her mind’s eyes, leaning back against the plush piece of furniture, his brow furrowed in concentration, his eyes intent as he studied business models—or whatever he did here. This was his space. She could practically feel his presence here, dominating this space. For a moment, she was glad for the darkness. Now wasn’t the time for distracting thoughts….

“I don’t know,” Kate said with a sigh, bringing Penny’s attention back to the task at hand. “I was just standing in the Romance section, stocking some new arrivals when I heard her.”

“Your mother?”

Kate’s voice was dry. “Nothing makes the hairs on my arms stand up quick like the sound of her voice.”

Penny could hardly disagree with that. Calida did have a way about her. Overwhelming. Terrifying. “Okay?
“It was loud, chilling,” Kate remembered, her voice eerie in the dark room. “She didn’t see me, thank God, but I heard her asking Delia if I was there…”

“I’m looking for Kate McDonald,” Calida had said, her voice carrying, determined. “Could you please tell me where I can find her? It’s rather urgent.”

Delia, bless her heart, hadn’t known exactly where Kate was; unfortunately, she had also been eager to help, assuring Calida that Kate was, indeed, definitely there—she’d go and find her, just one moment please.

“Then what happened?” Penny asked breathlessly.

“I panicked,” Kate admitted, looking down at her fingers, which were fused together, her knuckles aching in the tight grip. “Dropping the books back in the delivery box, I moved to the end of the bookshelf. Hiding behind its bulk, I went to peer around the side of it, hoping to catch sight of her…only it wasn’t my mother who I saw. It was the back of Phil’s head!”

Penny nodded wordlessly. That must have been a shock.

“I couldn’t,” Kate shook her head. “I mean, how did they even find me?”

“I don’t know…”

“So I did the only thing I could think of,” Kate murmured. “I ran.” Closing her eyes in mortification, Kate remembered how her heart had beat, thump-thump-thumping erratically in her chest.

She couldn’t breathe. Her body felt limp with fatigue. Crouched low, trying to keep her body out of sight, she’d leap-fogged from one aisle to another, her eyes ever-vigilant to shadows, sound, approaching footsteps. But she’d seen no one. When she’d reached the end of the line, she’d crawled (literally crawled, on her hands and knees) down the length of the last row there, until she’d found herself at an impassive: an open stretch of space between where she remained and Jake’s office stood. Straightening, she’d stopped, tossing her head from left to right, judging her next move. A group of teenagers was coming at her from the left, a mom and her two toddlers from the right. Jumping out in front of them, murmured “Sorry, sorry’s!” peppering the air, she’d wrestled herself between the gaggle of approaching, colliding bodies, hoping the crowd would conceal her until she’d cleared the area. Then, her body safely plastered up against the far wall, she’d tip-toed the rest of the way, her arms splayed out at her sides, her fingers stretching toward the door handle just out of reach…

“Oh Kate, you didn’t,” Penny breathed upon hearing this tale. “You poor thing.”

“Now I’m stuck,” Kate cried. “I wasn’t thinking clearly. I just knew I had to get away. But now—outside of escaping through that window,” she said, pointing to the dinky thing up high on the wall, which would hardly fit a grown woman, even one of Kate’s tiny size—“I’m a sitting duck.”

Penny smiled. “Not so fast,” she advised, and with a quick motion, whipped open her trench coat to reveal a backpack strapped to her front. Zipping it open, she quickly pulled out a long black wig, a floppy straw hat and a long maxi dress. “Here. Put these on.”

“What?” Kate looked at them dumbly. “Where did you get this stuff?”

Penny shrugged. “I keep them at the shop.”

“Why?”

Penny gave her a look. “Do you really think this is the time for questions?”

“Right.” Without further ado, Kate pulled on the dress, followed shortly after by the wig. Tucking the last of her hair inside its massive proportions, she looked at Penny. “Well? Will I do?”

“For a quick getaway,” Penny considered, “I think you’ll pass muster.”

Kate nodded. Straightening her shoulders, she asked: “So, what next?”

“We walk out the front door.”

“Just like that?”
“Just like that.”

Kate took a deep breath. “If you say so.” With more conviction then she felt, she marched toward the office door…

“Oh wait,” Penny said at the last moment. Rustling around in her handbag, she came up with a pair of ridiculously large sunglasses. “Put these on.”

Slipping them on, Kate took a deep breath.

“Ready?” Penny asked.

“Ready,” Kate assured her. She reached for the doorknob and then, with a smothered wail, snatched her hand back. “Wait. My car!” Kate cried, turning back to stare at Penny. Though her eyes were concealed behind the frames of her glasses, the psychic could easily picture their wide, frantic glance.

“Yeah? What about it?”

“They would have seen it by now,” Kate reasoned. “What if they’re watching it? Waiting for me to leave—!”

Penny refrained from commenting on Kate’s melodrama. It wasn’t the time. Still, she couldn’t quite keep the impatience out of her voice when she answered. “It’s fine. Maggie’s meeting us out front anyway.”

“You brought along a getaway car?” Kate asked, eyebrows raised.

Penny shrugged. “I figured we could use one. Plus, I didn’t think you’re nerves would be much for driving anyway. And my car…” Penny paused. Well, her car was back at her house but explaining that to Kate seemed—like too much, frankly. Shaking her head, she insisted. “Anyway, I called Maggie. Now let’s go!” With a waving motion, she shooed Kate out the door.

 

 

 

“I can’t believe that worked!” Kate screeched excitedly minutes later, once she was safely tucked inside Maggie’s SUV. Shaking off the itchy wig, she smiled hugely up at Penny, who was sitting beside Maggie in the front seat.

“I can,” Maggie muttered drily, sparing both of their outfits a quick look before pulling out onto the road. “Where’d you get those getups, anyway?”

“Apparently, we aren’t supposed to ask,” Kate chimed in, lips pursed amusedly.
“If you must know—” Penny sighed dramatically. “Sometimes, my clients feel more comfortable if I prescribe to a certain—well, image during our sessions.”

“So you dress in costume?”

“If that’s what the client wants.”

Kate giggled. Letting out some of the nervous energy, she grinned up at Penny. “Do the spirits ever confuse you for someone else?”

“Oh shut it,” Penny grumbled as Maggie turned the car down Kate’s quiet street.

Nosing the vehicle into her driveway, the pastor turned off the ignition. Turning back to look at Kate, she smiled fleetingly. “So we should probably talk…”

“Yeah—”

“Talk?” Kate asked guilelessly. “About what?”

“About what you’re going to do?”

“What do you mean, what I’m going to do?” Kate was defensive.

“Kate, they aren’t just going to go away,” Maggie said softly. “You can’t avoid them forever.”

“They’ve come all this way,” Penny added. “I don’t think they’re just going to leave…”

“Not until they get what they want,” Kate finished. “Story of my life.”

Maggie smiled tightly.

“Well tough,” Kate decided, arms crossed. “I don’t want to talk to them. I don’t want to be ambushed.”

“I know, and they shouldn’t have handled it this way,” Maggie agreed. “But Kate, don’t you want to end this feud once and for all? Put it behind you?”

“Don’t you want to stop running, stop hiding?” Penny chimed in. “You’re stronger than that. Prove it to them.”

Kate bit down on her lip. Then, with a jerk, she nodded. “Okay,” she said. “You’re right. I don’t—I don’t want to runaway anymore.”

With a contented sigh, Maggie opened her car door. “Good. Now, why don’t I make us a pot of tea and we’ll sit down and figure this out—sort out your thoughts, figure out your next move.”

“That’s right,” Penny said, nodding firmly. “This time, you get to be the one in control.”

“That’s right,” Maggie agreed. “And this time, you get to have a say.”

“I like the sound of that,” Kate agreed.

“And remember, we’re here for you girl,” Penny said, as they walked up the short drive to her front door. Little did the psychic know just how prophetic those words would turn out to be…!

“Katie?” The soft entreaty, coming from the shadows of the covered porch had all three women freezing on the front step, their heads rotating in synch as they turned to lock gazes with the voice belonging to that soft question.

“Mother.”

“Calida.”

“Mrs. McDonald.”

Holding up her hand, a soft laugh pulsating out of her mouth, Calida forestalled any further talk. Brushing back her perfectly styled hair, she turned to look at Kate. “I was hoping to talk to you…?”

“How—where?” Kate sputtered nervously, staring helplessly at her artlessly turned-out mother.

“How did I find you?” Calida asked, with a perfectly raised eyebrow. She laughed hollowly. “I assure you, it wasn’t easy.”

“It wasn’t supposed to be,” Penny retorted.

“Phillip!” Calida called out suddenly, her head shifting to the left, her body leaning backward over the railing to yell down the side of the house. “Phillip, up at the front…”

“He’s here, too?”

“Well, surely you knew that?” Calida chided. “You saw us at the bookstore, after all.”

Kate’s face blanched. And, waiting, she soon watched Phil’s form come slowly into view. Walking up the narrow bath from the backyard, it was clear he and Calida had intended a trap, staking out the place at both ends.

They were good.

“You followed us?” Kate asked.

“Of course not,” Calida said, flicking off a piece of imaginary dirt from her shirt sleeve.

“Then how—?”

Calida smiled. “It’s a friendly place, this Whestleigh. Almost too friendly. When I stopped at the coffee shop in town, the barista was only too eager for a little gossip. When I mentioned that I was in the area to surprise you, she was only too glad to fill in the blanks.”

Kate bit her lip.

“That’s when I found out about the LitLiber. The girl figured you’d probably be there, it being a Tuesday and all,” Calida said mockingly. “I guess it’s true what they say: small towns know everything about everyone’s business, huh?”

Penny held up her hand. “Okay, but how did you know about Whestleigh, at all? How did you know about Connecticut?”

Phil, standing at the base of the front steps, remained silent throughout this whole exchange, his gaze intent upon soaking up Kate’s stiff posture. Her eyes, however, hadn’t dared to come within two feet of where he stood. Besides, she seemed too consumed by her mother’s presence anyway—

Calida smiled. It wasn’t very nice. “Actually Penny, Kate told me.”

Kate goggled. “Me?”

“Do you remember that day I took you ladies to my club?” Calida asked. “We went to the spa?”

Penny had a sinking feeling about that.

“Well, a few mimosas and loose lips and all that…”

“What did I say?” Kate whispered.

“That you were back in college,” Calida told them gleefully.

Kate blinked. “That’s it?”

“Well,” Calida smiled triumphantly. “Then Penny had told me about one of her clients.” She turned to the psychic. “And you used a very particular phrase in describing her—an old nutmegger if you’d ever met one, right down to her roots.”

Penny cringed.

“After that,” Calida shrugged. “It was simple game of connecting the dots. And in a few short weeks, the private detective I hired had pinpointed your general whereabouts.” She smiled amusedly at Phil. “Though to be fair, it still took a little time to find you here. We searched high and low in Hiltbolt looking for you.”

Of course. Hiltbolt; the town where her college was located.

“But you found me anyway.” Kate’s voice was resigned. She’d gotten over her shock now.

“We found you.”

“And?” Kate asked wearily. “What do you want?”

Calida blinked. “What do we want?” She shot a look at Phil. “We want an explanation, Kate. Closure.” She took a deep breath, pulling her shoulders straight. “We want an apology. And we mean to have it.”

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Fifty

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

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

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

“Sure.”

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

“This sounds serious.”

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

“Kate, what’s going on?”

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

“Now, to what do I owe the pleasure?”

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

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

“Look Penny, you’re my best friend—”

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

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

“Yeah…”

“At least, we used to.”

Penny frowned. “Used to?”

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

“Okay.”

“No secrets.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m not.”

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

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

“I’m with you.”

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

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

“Yes?”

“And things sort of came to ahead.”

“With the play?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penny shrugged. “I understand.”

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

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

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

“You kissed?”

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

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

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

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

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

Penny grinned. “Yeah?”

“And it was perfect.”

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

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

Kate sighed. “Yeah.”

“And you thought—”

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

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

Kate ducked her head. “Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The knot in Penny’s stomach tightened uncomfortably.

“Well, I don’t know about that…”

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

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

“I do now.”

“I’m really happy for you, Kate.”

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

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

“I’m starting to see that myself.”

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

“I knew you were going to say that!”

“Well, who’s psychic now!”

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

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

“I’m sure.”

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

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

“Would you believe me if I did?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you? One hundred percent committed?”

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

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

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

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

Kate pouted. “It sure feels like it.”

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

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

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

“No. I guess not.”

“Yeah.”

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

“I know that.”

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

“What they always do in a rom-com.”

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

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

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

“Okay. Where do I start?”

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

 

 

 

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

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

She needed to talk to Jake.

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

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

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

Good.

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

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Forty-Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes. All of them.”

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

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

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

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

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

M.T. looked panicky again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh.” M.T. looked taken aback.

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

“We never talked about it…”

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

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

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

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

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

M.T. shook her head. “No. I—”

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

Penny. “Big Brother-ish?”

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

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

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

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

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

Penny nodded. “Yeah, it’s—”

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

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

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

“Yes, okay—”

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

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

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

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

“No, I’m sure—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kate shook her head. “Penny…”

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

“You weren’t—”

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Slave driver!” Kate cried with a wink.

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

“That sounds like a dream.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Emily.”

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

“She was…very beautiful,” Kate whispered.

“Yes.”

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

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

Kate stared at him, one eyebrow slightly raised.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kate held her breath.

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

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

“Yes.”

 

 

 

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

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

“But Penny…”

“But that’s over now.”

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

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

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

Kate felt a lump forming in her throat.

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Thirty-Three

“So Penny, tell me, what do you do for a living?”

Kate almost choked on her piece of bacon. Looking nervously from Penny—in her flowing, multi-colored caftan, to her mother, she squirmed a little in her seat. It wasn’t like she hadn’t expected the question, she’d worried about it all night, as she’d lain in bed. (The bed she’d grown up in; the bed she’d thought to never sleep upon again.)

She’d known her mother would ask questions, indeed she’d been mildly surprised that she hadn’t pounced on them the moment Kate had agreed to come home. But Calida had been relatively silent yesterday as the girls had unpacked for their stay, as they’d been slowly taken throughout the house—she’d been watchful, undemanding during the evening meal.

But that was yesterday. And this was a new day. Holding her breath, she wondered if it hadn’t been a terrible mistake…bringing her friends here.

Penny, on the other hand, didn’t look the least taken aback by Calida’s abrupt question. Taking a deliberate drink of her orange juice, she smiled demurely. Kate wondered about that smile.

“I am a psychic.”

Calida’s knife rattled against the side of her plate. “Excuse me?” One perfectly plucked eyebrow rose up half an inch in surprise.

Kate’s stomach revolted. Pushing her plate away from her body, she waited….

“I’m a psychic. You know: visions, spirits, seeing the unseen—” Penny waved an arm about the table dramatically.

M.T. narrowed her eyes disapprovingly.

“Well…how” Calida looked lost for words, “I’m not familiar with that type of thing, of course, but—”

“If you’d like a consultation, I’d be more than happy to sit down with you.”

“No. No, that’s all right.”

Kate swallowed—waiting….

Calida switched her gaze to M.T. “And now, Maggie you’re a pastor, correct?”

M.T. smiled. “Yes.”

“It’s interesting, that’s all, you being sisters, and yet each bound to a vocation of entirely different beliefs?” Calida mused out loud. Then she laughed. A tinkle of sound. “Next thing you’ll be telling me you grew up Catholic!”

M.T. grinned.

Penny looked oddly disappointed.

Kate felt like she’d been hit over the head.

Calida directed her next question to Kate: “Now, my love, what is it you’re going to do today?”

Kate’s eyes rounded. That was it? Calida was just going to accept Penny’s profession without so much as a demure? No criticism? No heavily veiled insults and sarcasm? No demands given or explanations needed? That was it?

Where was the mother Kate had grown up with? This certainly wasn’t her.

“Kate?”

“What? Oh,” shaking her head, Kate brought herself back to the moment. “Right. Well, visit with Nanny Moore, I suppose.”

Calida waved this away. “Of course my dear, but you can’t expect to spend all day at the hospital. You’ll wear Agatha out if you do.”

Aha! This was familiar footing. Here it came: Calida, neatly planning and organizing the entirety of Kate’s stay. Sure, she’d ask Kate what she was planning to do but, no matter the answer, she’d cleverly alter first one thing and then another…there would be some important client in town; perhaps Kate could drop by and pay them a visit? Undoubtedly some particularly trendy exhibit would be in town, with hard-to-come-by tickets that Calida just happened to have laying around—Kate really ought to take in a proper show while she was there….

Jutting her chin out, Kate was determined to forestall her mother. “After that, I thought

I’d play tour guide for Penny and Maggie. Take them anywhere they want to go. Show them the sights.” Kate knew her mother. Calida would detest such a lowly, kitschy occupation—that is, if it wasn’t in aid of procuring the confidence of some important dignitary or whatnot. Maggie and Penny would fall far short on that category.

But Calida only smiled, her gaze shifting back and forth from Penny to Maggie. “We live in such a culturally rich metropolis. I’m sure you’ll be charmed. And who better than Kate to show you around—she knows everything about our beloved twin cities.”

Kate’s mouth gaped open. Her eyes stared suspiciously at her mother’s averted gaze. Just what was her end-goal here? But the chorus of excited echoes streaming from Penny and Maggie’s lips stopped Kate’s scrutiny short. Stabbing her fork into her runny eggs, Kate consigned herself to wait her mother out. She’d find out soon enough what Calida had up her sleeve.

Little did Kate know how very true that statement would turn out to be….

 

 

 

Getting ready for bed that evening, after a whirlwind of all the best sightseeing highlights, Maggie yawned. “I’m exhausted.”

“Yeah,” Penny agreed. She was sitting cross-legged on M.T.’s bed. “Kate was definitely on a mission today—” She’d drug them from one place to the next: parks to museums, shopping boutiques to art centers, zigzagging up and down the streets relentlessly. It wasn’t until Penny had finally protested in complaint that Kate had agreed to some much as hail a taxi. “My feet are barking!”

M.T. nodded. “It is beautiful here, though, isn’t it? Mrs. McDonald was right, Kate sure showed it off well.”

Penny’s mouth set at the mention of Calida. “I don’t trust that woman. There’s something about her.”

“What? Who?”

Penny rolled her eyes. “Mrs. McDonald.”

“Oh Penny, get off it already, would you?”

Holding up her hands, Penny demanded: “But you see how uncomfortable she makes Kate. Even when she’s being nice—especially when she’s being nice—Kate gets all fidgety, edgy.”

M.T. nodded reluctantly. “Yes, there are still wounds that need to be healed there.”

“That’s putting it mildly,” Penny said, warming up to the subject now, “one day with her mother and Kate turned all weird—running around half-ragged trying to play the perfect host…I mean what was that?”

“It wasn’t that bad.”

“Come on Maggie!” Penny cried. “Did that girl today seem like the Kate we know and love? ‘And this is a particularly beloved piece of city art depicts the celebration of blah, blah, blah,’ Penny mimicked, impersonating Kate’s voice; there had been an uppity, pompousness to it, missing at Whestleigh.

“All right, I admit, she was acting a bit strangely.”

Penny just shook her head. Clambering off the bed, she shrugged. “A bit? Oh Maggie, don’t be fooled by Calida’s show of warmth. That woman’s a viper. I can see it.”

“The same goes to you,” Maggie argued. “Don’t be so quick to judge her based on rumors of the past. People change. You have to give them the chance to show it.”

Walking out into the hallway moments later, Penny turned toward her own bedroom.  Seeing Regina, busily stacking folded linens in a tucked-away supply closet there, Penny watched her for a moment.

“Ms. Penny—is there something I can get you?”

Penny smiled. “No Regina. Thank you. Goodnight.”

“’night miss.”

 

 

 

The next day followed a similar pattern as the one before, only this time Calida accompanied the girls on their visit to Nanny Moore, insisting afterward on taking them to the family’s country club.

“I think a few drinks around the pool are in order, don’t you darling?” she asked her daughter.

Kate smiled tightly. “If Penny and Maggie would like that…”

M.T. looked at Penny, who shrugged. “I’ve never been to one before—”

“You’ll love it. Maybe we can even sneak in a reservation at the spa.”

And that’s exactly what they’d done. Even Penny, who looked for it closely, could find nothing to complain about. The staff was friendly and prompt, the drinks ever-flowing, and Mrs. McDonald set out to be the perfect companion—even stooping so beneath her position as to enquire further about Penny’s professed occupation.

“I must confess, I’m rather intrigued…”

Kate, against her better judgment, allowed herself to relax, sitting back against the bamboo lounge chair as they women’s talk flowed gently overheard. Maybe Nanny was right. Maybe it was time to bury the hatchet, to let her mother in. Though she hadn’t said so much out loud, Kate knew her mother was dying to know where Kate lived, what she was doing in her “new life.”

Maybe Calida wasn’t the only one who needed to remake an acquaintance. Had Kate let her hidden resentments color her perceptions all these years? Had she missed out on the woman her mother actually was?

“I’m back in college.” The words popped out of Kate’s mouth before she had time to fully consider them.

Calida almost dropped her martini. “What?”

Kate shrugged. “College. I’ve reenrolled. I never really like finance.”

For a moment, silence hung overhead as Calida digested this newest revelation. “What-what are you studying?” For a first question, Calida handled her surprise rather well.

Kate felt her shoulders relax. “Art.”

It was a first step. A baby step, but a first step all the same.

The rest of the afternoon passed in a blissful haze of high, good feelings. After a luxuriating mud-bath, Calida took her leave of the girls, but only after extending her wish that they’d all sit down to dinner at the McDonald residence that evening.

“I have a special meal in mind for tonight,” she hinted. Smiling apologetically, she looked pleadingly at the others: “I don’t mean to monopolize your time, Kate. Only, I don’t want to waste a single opportunity to spend with you.”

“It’s fine,” Kate stammered, blushing a little. She wasn’t used to this kind of attention from her mother. “I’m sure we’d love to join you and father.” She looked enquiringly at M.T. and Penny, both of whom, taking their cue, nodded in vigorous agreement.

Calida clapped her hands together. “That’s settled then.”

 

 

 

 

M.T. was just putting the finishing touches on her outfit when the door to her bedroom was unceremoniously thrust open. Tilting her head a little to the side, she watched her sister enter the room.

Only, Penny didn’t look quite like her usual self. The headscarf was gone. Her long, curly hair was set loose, the dark masses spilling over her shoulders and down her back. There was no billowing skirt of patchwork quilt, no peasant top or tie-dye shirt. Penny had swapped out her usual garb for a plain black dress with a square neckline and capped sleeves. The only jewelry she wore was a plain gold ring on one finger and a pair of dangling earrings.

This was a Penny M.T. had never witnessed before. “Ruthie,” she breathed, “you look stunning.”

Penny pulled at the material of her dress. “I don’t know…”

M.T. stilled her wrist. “Really. You look beautiful.”

Penny pulled a face. “Yeah well, I figured dinners around here are probably pretty fancy.”

M.T. gestured toward her own ensemble: a conservative, powder blue shirt with a beige skirt and stockings. “I got that impression myself.”

“Listen,” Penny said, leaning in closer to M.T. “Don’t tell Kate this but—well, I don’t exactly, entirely hate her mother.”

M.T. winked. “Me either.”

The sister’s shared a private look.

But just at that moment, with something of a crash, Kate burst through the open doorway, a blaze of legs and arms. Gazes clashing, M.T. and Penny stared at each other open-mouthed, before two sets of eyes swiveled, taking in that of the newest arrival to M.T.’s room.

Her fingers grasping against the doorframe, Kate pulled herself to a halt. Eyes wide in an unnaturally pale face, in her haste, her carefully coiffed hair had come loose, her camisole ruffled….

“Kate—whatever is the matter?” M.T. asked.

But Kate only shook her head frantically. “Shh!” she breathed. “They’ll hear you.”

“Who will hear us?” Penny asked.

“We need to leave,” Kate insisted. Then, as if her legs simply couldn’t carry her any longer, she slumped against the wall, her body sliding slowly to the floor.

“Leave? What are you talking about?” Penny asked, hands on her hips.

Kate’s head swing viciously from side-to-side, a mirthless laugh erupting from tight lips: “I knew it. I knew she’d do something like this.”

“Kate, sweetheart, you aren’t making any sense,” M.T. said, kneeling down on the floor in front of her. “Talk to us. What’s happened?”

“The table—it’s set for six people.”

It took Penny and Maggie a second to piece together the relevancy of that statement. “You’re mother invited someone over,” M.T. said slowly, as a sinking sensation grew in the pit of her stomach.

Penny seemed to have reached the same conclusion. Smacking a hand over her mouth, she gasped. “She didn’t invite—”

“Phil.” Kate nodded.

“Are you sure?” M.T. asked, a last ditch hope.

Kate nodded jerkily. Raising her arms, she pointed toward the window. “I saw him pull up. That’s when I noticed the extra seat at the table.”

“Oh Kate—”

“I can’t believe it.”

“They were going to ambush me—if I hadn’t been in father’s study….”

It had been the first opportunity Kate had had alone with her father. Knocking quietly on the door, she’d poked her head inside the dark paneled room that was so clearly her father’s domain. Bent over a pile of papers scattered across his desk, he’d nonetheless looked up cheerfully at her disruption.

“Katie Kat.” He smiled wide. “Come in, come in! You have impeccable timing, love. I could use a break. Have a scotch with your old man?”
Kate smiled girlishly. “Okay.”

He waved toward the built-in shelving unit to her right. “Pour, will you? You know how I like mine.”

“Straight up.” Moving automatically, sunlight from the tall sash windows of an adjacent wall illuminating her progress, Kate reached for the glass decanter.

“I’ve miss this Kate. I’ve missed you.”

Kate smiled softly as she poured the first glass. “I’ve missed you too Dad.”

“You’re leaving like that, it was hard on us…most especially for your mother.” There was the slightest note of censure in his words.

Kate’s shoulder jerked defensively. “I’m sorry—”

“Oh, I know the woman can be difficult. Tough even, but she loves you, Kate. She just wants what’s best for you. We both do.” Kate heard her father sigh. “Remember that, okay?”

A prickle of unease shot up Kate’s spine at the words. Holding the glasses in her hands, Kate was on the point of turning around when she saw it—the flashy black tint of a foreign car pulling onto the street. She knew that car. Doubtless would never forget it. How many times had she driven in it—how many lectures had she received while riding within its plush interior? Too many to count.

With unbelieving eyes, she watched it get steadily nearer. Peering closer, she gasped as it turned into the driveway, coming to a graceful stop. The engine turned over, dead.

Stumbling, she half-turned, lifting questioning eyes to her father’s face.

He blanched, his arms opening wide. He’d obviously seen what she had. “Now Katie…”

“What did you do?” she whispered.

He didn’t bother pretending ignorance: “If you’ll just listen…let me explain—”

“What is he doing here?”
“Your mother thought it would be best. Ah, to give you two some closure, and talk through some stuff…”

With a crack, Kate snapped the glasses down hard on the window sill; her hands were shaking, her head tingling. “I’m sure she did, but that’s always been the problem, hasn’t it? She thinks she knows best.”

“Katie…”

“You weren’t even going to tell me—!” She shook her head in smug disapproval. “I should have seen this coming. She was just lying in wait, wasn’t she? Buttering me up!”

“Your mother thought that if….”

But Kate was done listening to what Calida thought; so she ran, her body propelling headlong out of her father’s office, eyes frantic for the sound of a door opening, for the sight of that long-ago face…but she’d seen no one in her mad dash up to M.T.’s room.

“We need to get out of here. I can’t—I can’t face him. I’m ready for that.”

“Oh Kate,” M.T. whispered, “I’m so sorry. I can’t believe Calida would do something so underhanded.”

“Well I can,” Penny interrupted, conveniently forgetting her earlier words with M.T., uttered not five minutes ago. “You said we need to leave? I’ve got a way out.”

Kate stared up at her sluggishly. “What?”

“You do?”

Penny shrugged. “I figured an escape route might come in handy… Follow me.”

Slinking silently, the women snuck from M.T.’s bedroom down to Penny’s. There, against the set of windows taking up the whole of one wall, was a stack of sheets, which had been neatly tied together, end-to-end.

Taking them in with a look, Penny smiled. “Ever rappelled down a building before?”

“Is this a joke?” M.T. asked. “Sheets? You expect us to climb down the window with sheets? I thought that was only done in sitcoms?”

“Where did you get them?” Kate asked, momentarily distracted.

“The linen closet.”

“Penny, I don’t know about this,” M.T. tried to counsel, but her sister only shook her head.

“It’s this or walk out the front door—and that’s not really an option is it?”

Because that’s exactly where Calida and Phil would be. Waiting….

With a resigned sigh, Maggie made her way over to the window. Sticking her head out it, she looked down nervously. It was rather a long way down. “All right. So what’s the plan?”

Coming to stand beside her, heads close together, Penny pointed: “Shimmy down the sheets until you reach the rose trellis—two steps down from that will bring you within reaching distance of that tree limb and from there it’s a small jump to the ground.”

Maggie looked back at Kate. “Are you sure this is what you want to do?”

Kate nodded. “I’m sure.”

M.T. sighed again. “All right. Penny—lead on.”

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Twenty-Six

“He said what?” Penny asked incredulously.

“And he didn’t know you were there?” M.T. countered, over her mouthful of cheeseburger.

Kate shrugged, but her nonchalant guise didn’t fool the other women. They knew better by now. Exchanging surreptitious glances with one another, they waited patiently for Kate to break. She was hurt, but her pride wouldn’t admit to it. Not just yet.

The three of them were huddled over the kitchen table at Kate’s house, having yet another of their dinner parties. This time, however, it was Kate who’d brought the heavy conversation; in fact, she was so upset she hardly noted just how well the sisters were getting along, almost as though they were…well, friends. The girls had decided on take-out that evening, evidenced by the white Styrofoam boxes littering the kitchen counter. Kate had volunteered to pick up the food, knowing she would swing by Julie’s Diner on her way back home from school anyway.

That’s when she’d heard Jake. He’d been sitting at the bar when she’d walked into collect her order, but he hadn’t seen her. He’d been too busy, a beer in one hand, a fistful of bar peanuts in the other, making conversation with his friends—conversation that had everything to do with Kate.

“…no, no—,” he insisted, cutting off one of his friends, “my employee Kate is worse. She just talks and talks and talks! To everyone, about everything. It takes her twice as long to ring in customers, to clean out the bathrooms, to stock books…! I’d tell her this, but I can’t get a word in edgewise…”

That had set him and his cronies off, guffawing at the lame joke, guffawing at her expense. Kate, listening to this incredible piece of news, her mouth hanging limply open, nevertheless crept steadily nearer. She couldn’t believe what she’d just overheard. She couldn’t believe Jake had just said that. Against her better judgment, Kate wanted to know what else he had to say. A self-inflicted sickness, she felt compelled to stay, to stick around. She didn’t want to, and yet she couldn’t make herself move away, either.

“Yeah, but she’s hot,” the imbecile on Jake’s right returned.

Jake shrugged. “I guess,” he threw out flippantly, as though it had never occurred to him to notice.

He guessed? Kate pulled herself up to her full height. There was no guessing necessary. She wasn’t a conceited woman, but Kate knew she looked nice—at least, according to societal standards. And, she was always beautifully turned out at work. She took great pride in her appearance.

“It’s hard to find a woman who doesn’t flap her gums in excess,” the baboon on Jake’s left said.

“Problem is, she’s not an easy person to talk to,” Jake stressed. “You know, for someone who supposedly worked in the cut-throat corporate world, she’s, I don’t know, fragile or something; I’m not sure how she would’ve survived it there,” he continued, warming up to the subject now.

Kate’s breath caught on a hiss.  So what, now she was not only an annoyingly chatty woman, she was weak too? The nerve!

“Maybe that’s why she left,” the goon on his left tossed out indifferently.

“Yeah, maybe,” Jake said, chewing on the idea. “I mean, she always acts so nervous around me…her hands are always shaking, and her eyes look anywhere but at my face…it makes me anxious!” Jake teased lightly and even to Kate’s sensitive ears, it sounded affectionate.

“Maybe someone’s got a crush on the boss?”

Kate actually felt her eyes bug out of her head at the not-incorrect guess. Perhaps she’d misjudged Jake’s friends. They weren’t complete idiots after all.

But thankfully, Jake had only laughed at the notion. “I doubt it, besides…”

Kate hadn’t been given the chance to hear the rest of whatever it was Jake said just then, her attention diverted by the presence of the restaurant host, coming up to her, to-go bag in hand. Paying the bill, her body slanted awkwardly, concealing her view from Jake, Kate made a hasty retreat. Her face burning, her eyes misting, she’d never felt so low in her life.

And now, looking into the anxious eyes of her best friends, Kate was forced to remember it all over again.

“Yes, he really said that and no, he didn’t know I was there,” she answered them. “The fact is, Jake can barely tolerate my company.”

 

That wasn’t true. In fact, Jake hadn’t meant any of the things he’d said about Kate. Certainly, she did talk a lot, but he found it charming. And yes, she worked slowly, but she was methodical, precise. He hated that she was nervous around him. He wanted to get to know her better. He wanted to be around her more.

In fact, he couldn’t stop thinking about Kate. It made him feel terrible. He should have been thinking about Ashley, his girlfriend. They’d been dating for a little over six months and he should’ve been enamored with her. But he wasn’t. He just kept thinking about Kate. She was an enigma he couldn’t figure out. Jake had known Ashley almost all his life. She’d graduated two years behind him, and they’d more-or-less grown up together. She was a wonderful person, a great girlfriend, but…then he met Kate.

That’s why he’d been talking about her. Not because he didn’t like, but because he liked her all together too much. He couldn’t admit that out loud though, hell, he could barely admit it to himself. Still, it was like a force beyond his control, to bring her name up in conversation whenever he could, however he could. He just—she had this laugh, a mere tinkle of sound, that he found himself craving when she wasn’t around. He went out of his way to bring it about when she was.

But he wasn’t supposed to like her, so he told himself—and anyone willing to listen—that he didn’t. If he said it enough, he might learn to believe it himself. At the very least, Ashley deserved that much.

Nice, sweet, predictable Ashley who loved him.

 

“So, what are you going to do with this information?” Penny asked some minutes later, after she and M.T. had tried, and failed, to convince Kate that of course Jake hadn’t meant to imply any real dislike toward her person. Kate wasn’t buying it. “Are you going to tell Jake—that you know?” she went on meaningfully.

Kate pushed herself up from the chair, her hands busy as she grabbed up the empty food containers, bringing them to the trash can. “I can just imagine how well that would go,” she said dejectedly. “I’d probably have to quit if I did that.”

“And you don’t want to quit?” M.T. asked, sounding surprised.

Kate shifted, listlessly throwing the contents away. “I mean, not really. I like that job.” And, though she knew she shouldn’t, she also liked Jake. Regardless of what he’d said, she liked him. Attraction like that didn’t just go away with a hurtful word or gesture. And, though he shouldn’t have been talking about Kate behind her back, she couldn’t exactly deny he had a right to some of his accusations. She was weird around him. She did blabber, especially in his presence, searching desperately for something to talk about, something to fill the silence. She trembled around him. What he said may not have been nice, but it wasn’t technically slanderous either.

“Is this going to be another whole, let’s just pretend it didn’t happen, scenarios? Because, last time I checked, that wasn’t working out well with you and him,” Penny said bluntly.

“And face his rejection face-to-face?” Kate considered. “No way….”

 

 

 

Walking out to their respective vehicles at the evening’s close, Penny sent M.T. a knowing look. “If Kate thought her relationship with Jake was strained after the Halloween disaster, what does she think will happen now?”

M.T. shook her head perceptively. “I know. My heart breaks for her. The thing is, I think she likes that man.”

“Me too.”

“And, though she put on a brave face, I think Kate was more hurt than she let on; she relies on others’ acceptance of herself.”

Penny whistled. “You can say that again. Kate doesn’t know how to like herself otherwise.”

Coming up on M.T’s car, both women came to a stop then, staring into the night helplessly. “So what do we do?” Penny asked her sister.

“We just be here for her. We accept her, regardless of the decision that she makes.”

Turning back, looking over her shoulder at the silhouette of Kate’s body through the kitchen window, Penny nodded. Then, her eyes finding M.T’s, she said: “You know, you’re very good at this.”

“At what?” M.T. asked, fishing out car keys from within her purse.

But Penny didn’t answer, instead she just smiled softly and walked away.

 

 

 

A week later, Kate had come to the same conclusion as Penny. Things with Jake had reached an all time low. Work had become awful:

On Tuesday, the first day they’d worked together after the unintentional eavesdropping session, Kate had done her best to play it cool (while simultaneously keeping her mouth shut), but the result of this exercise had been less than stellar. Translation: it reeked of weird.

“Kate,” Jake had said, coming up to her at the customer service desk. “I’ve got a question for you.”

She’d looked up at him inquiringly, her eyebrows finely arched in question.

After waiting a beat, looking disconcerted by her prim silence, her starched expression, he’d hesitated to add: “Well, I was wondering if there’s any way you could come in early next Friday? I-uh, I forgot that it’s the start of Spring Break at Cordwyn, which may leave is a little understaffed…”

Kate’s voice, when she’d finally spoken, had been clipped. “Yes. I can come in early.”

Jake had raised his eyebrows at the chilly tone. Where was Kate’s usual readymade smile, her typical bantering retort, that superfluous something about her own plans over vacation? All he’d seen was an unwilling participant in a suddenly awkward conversation. “If you had other plans though, don’t worry about it. It’s not a big deal, I just thought I’d ask…”

“What time would you like me here?” Kate had asked instead, and despite her best intentions, the words had come out a little frosty, a little unfriendly.

Jake had cleared his throat uncomfortably. “Uh, how about ten o’clock?”

Kate had nodded sharply. “Fine.”

Wednesday hadn’t been much better, and then they’d only seen each other in passing, at shift change.

“Ready for another fun day of work?” he’d teased, meeting up with Kate outside the employee room.

“Yup.” That’s all she’d said. Yup.

For a long, clumsy moment, Jake had just stared at her, waiting for more, but Kate hadn’t been forthcoming. She was done being labeled the chatter box of the group. If Jake wanted quiet then she’d give it to him.

“Well, all right, enjoy your evening…?”

“You too.” And with that she’d spun on her heel and walked away. If she’d turned back around, if she’d glanced back over her shoulder, she may have been surprised at the look of paused confusion on his face, of self-conscious disquiet at her brisk attitude, her lack of interest. She may have been curious to see how much her words, or lack thereof, had affected him. But she didn’t turn around, she just kept walking.

Not surprisingly then, Friday and Saturday proved much the same, only on those days Kate hadn’t stuck around long enough to endure any more conversations with Jake, running from one station to the next, sorting, reorganizing, filing, dusting…all with a sense of urgency and proficiency to shame even the speediest of employees. She’d exhausted the majority of her eight hour shifts winded and sore… her eyes peeled keeping out of Jake’s path. If this created some tension, some undue attention, that was nothing compared to what happened on Sunday…

Kate had been coming back from restocking the paper towels in the girl’s bathroom when she’d seen the mess; one of the shelves in the New Age aisle had come loose, all the books having spilt untidily across the floor in consequence. Without bothering to seek assistance, or stopping to knock on Jake’s door and inform him of the issue, knowing he was busy filling out invoices or doing inventory or something of that nature, Kate had quietly taken herself to the storage closet and grabbed up the tool box kept there, having decided to fix the broken shelf all by herself.

She’d been in the process of doing just that, the electric drill buzzing in her hand as she screwed another bit into place, when Jake came up behind her. Apparently, another employee had seen what Kate was up to and felt obligated to then report the matter to Boss Man straight away.  No one, it seemed, thought she could handle even the simplest of tasks.

“Here Kate,” Jake had said loudly in greeting, gesturing toward the tool, “I can do that for you.”

With a hard snap of her finger, Kate had shut the instrument off. She’d had enough. “Why, you think I can’t figure out how to screw together two pieces of wood?” she asked roughly, rounding on him.

“Whoa,” Jake had warned softly, his hands raised in defense, “I didn’t say that.”

“Well good,” Kate had returned sharply. “Contrary to popular belief, I am not a weak woman. I can do this by myself. I don’t need your help. That’s why I didn’t ask for it. Unless, that is, you don’t think I’m up for the job?” She’d turned rebellious eyes on him then, her foot tapping impatiently against the carpet as she’d awaited his response.

“Kate, what’s going on?” He’d asked instead, taking the drill carefully out of her hands.

“Nothing,” she’d mumbled.

“Hey, I’m sorry if I offended you. I didn’t mean to imply that you can’t do this—I know you can,” he’d assured her thickly. “I was just trying to help, but, ah, have at it, if you want.”

“Thank you. I’ve got it under control.” The words had practically eked prissiness.

“Sure,” Jake had said easily, “first though, do you want to tell me what that little outburst was all about?” Steel had resided underneath the offhand comment.

Smoothing down the sleeve of her shirt, pulling out the wrinkles, the tactic a deliberate stall, Kate had kept her eyes lowered. “No, not really,” she’d admitted quietly, and then: “I just, I don’t like when people treat me like I’m—like I’m made of glass or something, too delicate to be of real use.”

“I’m sorry if I did that,” Jake had said, his very look puzzled, a caricature of bewildered confusion— like a scolded child who wasn’t sure what he’d done wrong. “There’s nothing else bothering you?”

“Should there be?” Kate had challenged.

“I don’t know, that’s why I’m asking,” Jake had said slowly. “You’ve been, I don’t know, you’ve seemed a little short lately. And what you just said now has me worried. Is it us—are you unhappy here? You can talk to me Kate.”

But just don’t prattle on and on.

“Everything’s fine,” Kate had assured him, reaching for the drill once more. “But I’m not a robot; I have feelings, you know. My moods ebb and flow accordingly.” She’d felt her shoulder hitch. “And sometimes they get the best of me, that’s all.”

“Yes, I got that just now.”

 

 

 

Now, heading home from school, two days later, Kate wondered what was to be done about that situation. By the time she’d left work on Sunday, Jake seemed to be avoiding her just as vigorously as she was him. It couldn’t go on much longer. She didn’t want to quit, but she was starting to lose hope of salvaging her working relationship there. She and Jake had been through so much—problem was, he didn’t know it!

She was still chewing on this problem as she pulled up into her driveway. Getting out of her car, throwing her backpack carelessly over one shoulder, she gradually made her way up the steps. She’d call M.T., talk it over with her. She always knew what to say in situations like this.

Kate had just reached her porch steps when she noticed it, the burnished orange coloring of a brand new basketball, sitting just a little to the left of her door. A pretty pink bow had been stuck to the top of the purchase box. And, tapped just beside it, was a small card.

Before she even opened the note, Kate knew who the present was from. Only one person knew the meaning behind such a gift. No one else would have thought of it. Bending her attention, she read the three lines of text scribbled across the white cardstock paper.

 

Kate,

            Thought it was about time you learned how to play.

            P.S. My gym has an indoor court. Take me up on a game?

            –Jackson Fischer.

 

For the first time in over two weeks, she felt the beginnings of hope blossom once again in her heart. For the first time in over a week, Kate felt the beginnings of a full-fledged smile settle across her face. Maybe Jackson wasn’t quite so broken after all. Maybe Kate wasn’t quite so pathetic.

In an instant, Jake became but a hazy memory. He was a problem for another day. Right now, Kate was too busy being happy, excited, nervous…what would she wear, should she call him now to thank him, or later? What would Penny say? They’d probably have to discuss the entire scene, analysis the note, word-for-word, in fine detail… Right now, Kate was too busy daydreaming about a man who appreciated her, flaws and all…