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-Two

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

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

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

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

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

Save on your house loan….

Delete.

Intuitive: How to Market—

Delete.

LitLiber, Chapter Fifty-Two…

Oh. Better keep that…. Mark Unread.

Case: COOPER, FATHER FOUND

            Wait. What?

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

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

She’d found Janessa’s dad.

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

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

Breathe Penny.

Think Penny.

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

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

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

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

City: Coventon State: CT

 

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penny sighed. “Yes. I found him.”

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

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

“You did?”

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

Janessa nodded numbly. “Okay.”

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

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

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

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

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

Janessa nodded slowly.

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

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

“Uh…yes?”

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

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

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

One minute past in this fashion.

Then another.

Followed closely by a third minute…

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

“Janessa?” Penny asked tentatively in the silence.

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

“Are you okay?”

Janessa didn’t speak.

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

Janessa rolled her eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

She ran to Good Shepherd Church.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m so sorry you’re hurting—”

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

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

“Oh Janessa—oh, sweetheart….”

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

Janessa sighed a watery sigh.

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

M.T. nodded.

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

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

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

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

Janessa’s lips quivered again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh.”

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

“So?”

“What should I do?”

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

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

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

“Why?”

“I don’t know…”

“I think you do.”

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

“Janessa,” she breathed.

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

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

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

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

She tried to play it cool.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Forty-Seven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It could be anywhere in there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Me too.”

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

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

“What did she say?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah,” Penny said.

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can’t go. I can’t leave her.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

M.T.’s mouth pulled down.

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

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

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

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

And then the girls lapsed into silence once again.

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

The hospital?

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

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

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

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

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

Penny. “You had a child?”

“Yes.”

“And she…?”

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

“I-I don’t understand.”

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

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

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

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

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

Penny nodded.

“Yes. Partly.”

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

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

Penny couldn’t seem to find any words.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, I wish for that too!”

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

But Jackson wasn’t giving up.

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

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

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

“You did actually,” Kate remembered quietly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Right.”

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

“We’ll know when we find it.”

“Because I don’t think—”

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

Kate peered closer. “Which one?”

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

Kate smiled when she saw it.

 

 

 

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

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

It read:

Arabella.

                        Welcome home.

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Forty-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.