North of Happenstance: Chapter Fifty-Seven

The air in Kate’s kitchen was thick. Edgy. Sitting around her table, the morning sun shining through the bay window there, Kate’s eyes were trained determinedly on Maggie, who was busy moving around the counters, grabbing mugs and spoons and pouring out coffee for Kate and Penny…and them.

For a moment no one spoke.

Calida McDonald and Phil Sheller were in her house. After finding them on her doorstep, Kate had remained motionless, immobile. It was only after Calida’s scathing: “Won’t you invite us in, Kate? Or do you prefer to have private conversations outside of doors? Is that how news travels in small towns?” that Kate had begrudgingly allowed them entrance. Besides, her legs were shaking so badly, she knew she’d require a chair sooner than later.

So now here they sat, huddled uncomfortably together.

“Your kitchen looks—” Calida sniffed delicately, bringing Kate’s eyes back around to her mother’s inscrutable face. “Homey.”

“You traveled all this way to make small talk?” Kate asked, mildly surprised at her own daring.

Calida’s gaze narrowed on her daughter’s mocking stare. Her chin lifted up to a haughty angle. “No,” she told her quietly, coldly. “I told you—”

“Yeah, I heard what you said,” Kate interrupted. “I just don’t have a damned clue what you’re talking about.” Sitting on the opposite side of the table, two chairs down of Calida, Penny was busy giving Kate a winning smile and a thumbs-up gesture, clearly proud of the younger woman’s bravado.

Calida smiled but it wasn’t a nice smile. “You weren’t the only person who’d had their feelings hurt, Kate. And that is why you’d run away like a petulant child, isn’t it? Because we’d somehow hurt your feelings?” The distain was only too evident in her question.

Kate felt her face heating up. “I wouldn’t have put it like that…” but she might as well have saved her breath; Calida wasn’t through.

“What you did, up-and-leaving like that—twice, I might add!—you hurt a lot of people, yourself,” Calida told her with a meaningful look.

“I wonder why I had to stoop to such drastic measures,” Kate murmured half under her breath. “You hired a private detective; you tricked me into talking to you, into confiding in you and for what? So you could do what you wanted, my feelings be damned.”

Calida stiffened. “A mother has a right to know where her child is, I should think.”

“I needed space,” Kate clarified. “But you refused me that. Though why should I be surprised? Since when has what I wanted ever counted for anything?”

“Oh, don’t be so melodramatic.”

Kate’s fist slammed against the tabletop. “This is exactly what I’m talking about!” She yelled. “You don’t listen to me—you don’t listen to what I’m saying. It just doesn’t matter to you. Whenever I try to explain myself I’m never allowed to get even one word out! So yes,” Kate seethed. “I ran away from you. I ran away from being ignored—from being told what it was I meant to say, what it was that you actually heard, despite it all.”

A stunned sort of silence met Kate’s outburst. With the timing of a saint, Maggie appeared at the edge of the table, steaming hot coffee held in her hands as she deftly doled out the cups. Wrapping her hands around the warm mug, Kate took comfort from its enveloping warmth.

“It doesn’t seem to be stopping you now,” Calida spoke softly, quietly.

“What doesn’t?”

“The ability to speak up.”

Kate smiled wanly. “I’ve had help in that department,” she admitted with a wry glance at Penny and M.T.

“Is there anything else?” Calida asked and, at Kate’s questioning look, continued: “That you’d like to say? Anything else you’d like to tell me—I promise, the floor is yours.” She opened her arms up expressively.

Kate felt her body tense, unsure if she was walking into a trap or not. With Calida, one could never been sure… “No. That’s, ah, that’s it.”

“Good. Then please allow us to have our turn.”

Yup. Definitely a trap.

“You’re right. I tricked you this summer up in Minnesota when I took you out to my club,” Calida admitted ruefully. “I piled you with alcohol and proceeded to get you relaxed—because I’d hoped you’d let something slip. And you did.”

Penny snorted into her cup.

“But it wasn’t—” Calida shook her head. “It wasn’t what you’re thinking.”

“Oh, you mean it wasn’t so you could ambush on my own front steps.”

Calida sighed softly. “Not originally, no. But then, when you were back home—”

This is my home. Whestleigh is my home,” Kate insisted.

Calida flicked her wrist dismissively. “Fine. Whatever. Back when you were in Minnesota, we’d planned to…
“Oh, I know what you’d planned,” Kate interrupted.

“We saw your car pulling up to the driveway,” Penny intoned with a quiet look at Phil, who sat silently, watching mother and daughter.

“And that’s why I left the way I did,” Kate claimed. “You just couldn’t help yourself, could you? And there I was, ready to believe everything you’d been saying—how you’d missed you, the regrets you had, and it was all a ruse.”

“No it wasn’t.” Calida was stiff, her voice scratchy.

“It was just a ploy to keep me there long enough. And just what were you hoping for? That I’d see Phil and—snap!” Kate clicked her fingers together, “—the prodigal daughter would return? That I’d fall right back into the same pattern. Just another control tactic….”

“No, what I was hoping for,” Calida said through her teeth, “was a little closure. For me. And for Phil. You owe us that.”

“So you thought a surprise attack was the best way?”
“It’s the only reason we’re sitting around your table right now, isn’t it?” Calida challenged. “This summer, I figured it was the last chance Phil had. Who knew when you’d ever come back hom—to Minneapolis again. And I knew if I so much as breathed his name you’d leave, that maybe you’d never return.”

“I assure you, the way you did it was much worse.”

Calida had the grace to look ashamed. “Isn’t that what hindsight is for?”

“With you? Doubtful.”

“Didn’t you surprise attack me?” Phil’s voice, its low tone accompanied by that gritty accusation, seemed to suck the remaining air out of the room. All eyes turned to take in his somber expression, which belied the angry outburst.

“Phil…”

“I woke up one morning—September 21st. It was a Monday, just any normal day, except you were gone. Gone.” Phil’s voice was sharp. “I looked all around the house, but it was empty. I tried your phone, but it went straight to voicemail. The car wasn’t in the garage, but your daily planner still lay on the small table in the entryway.” He shook his head. “You’d never believe the excuses I gave myself at first. She probably got up early for a run. She ran to the market to get eggs. Maybe she’s at the neighbors, helping Margie with one of her Junior League projects…”

“I left you a note,” Kate whispered.
“Yeah.” He shook his head. “It took me a minute to find that, stuck half under the blotter in my study. And when I did, at first I thought it was a practical joke. Then maybe even a ransom note.” His mouth thinned. “The alternative, that you’d actually written me this—this letter,” Phil spat out that last word. “I just couldn’t believe it.”

Kate opened her mouth to speak.

“We were engaged! We had plans. I just couldn’t believe—”

“But we didn’t love one another,” Kate protested weakly.

“Speak for yourself,” Phil said. “I loved you. I loved you desperately.”

Kate felt the pain in those words. It lanced at her heart, shaking her. “But Phil, you loved someone who wasn’t real,” Kate told him gently. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to—”

“But then you wouldn’t take my calls—wouldn’t reach out to any of my attempts at contact,” Phil went on staunchly. “And I was forced to face the facts. You really had left me. In the middle of the night. Without a word or a look or any indication that you were unhappy at all. Without giving me any chance to make you happy.”

Kate felt tears sting her eyes. She hadn’t known. She hadn’t realized—she’d always told herself she’d done them both a favor, running away as she had. She’d promised herself that he wouldn’t be hurt. Not really. Just embarrassed. Outraged with stung pride. Superficial wounds.

“It was a cowardly thing, what I did, the way I did it,” Kate confessed, palms raised in surrender. “I apologize for that, but you have to understand…”

Phil’s posture was stiff. “I was devastated Kate.”

“I know.”

“I was humiliated.” Phil made a sound deep in his throat. “Having to tell everyone, having to explain the unexplainable. The pitying glances, the gossip—you put me through hell.”

“Please forgive me, Phil,” Kate pleaded quietly. “I wasn’t the girl you thought I was.”

“Clearly not…”

“You have every right to hate me,” Kate realized with something of a shock. She’d never really stopped to think about his feelings at all before now. It was a sobering, sad reality. “You do. That’s the worst of it, too, that you never even knew me. The girl you met, she was a carefully programmed carbon copy of the real thing. You met a lie. You weren’t to know that I was playing a part; that the real Kate was hiding behind those perfect manners and that coifed hair.” She laughed hard. “You never knew the woman you’d planned to marry—and that was wrong. And I’m sorry about that.”

“Sorry that I was engaged to a woman I didn’t know or that I was jilted by her?”

Kate smiled ruefully. “Both, I guess.”

“You could have talked to me.”

Kate looked down at her fingers, splayed against the table. “That’s just it. I couldn’t,” she admitted. “Talk to you. I didn’t know how. Not then. I wasn’t strong enough. I wasn’t sure who I was, only who I wasn’t.” She dared to look back up. “If I’d stayed…. if I’d waited until morning, I would have never had the courage to go. I would have let you talk me out of it. And Phil, I needed to go.”

His face twisted.
“No.” Kate shook her head. “I didn’t mean it like that. It had nothing to do with you. I mean, it did but— you, you didn’t make me unhappy, and so you couldn’t make me happy either. I had to do that. But you did nothing wrong. Nothing. I had to go for me.” Kate stalled. “And I had to do it alone. But please know that you were everything a girl could have wanted in a fiancé.”

“Just not what you wanted.”

“No.”

He nodded.

“And I’ll forever regret that weakness, that cowardice that had me sprinting away in the dead of night. Believe me when I say that. But it was the only way. At the time, it was the only way!” She took a deep breath. “And Phil, I know I don’t deserve your forgiveness, but I hope someday—”

“I forgive you, Kate.”

Kate’s heart lifted. “You do?”

Phil made an empty gesture, a half smile forming momentarily on his lips. “I’m getting married.” He gave her a dry look. “For real this time.”

Kate blinked. “You are? Oh. Oh! Ah, congratulations—” she stuttered. “I’m so glad for you.” And she was.

“Her name is Lucy, and she’s—well, she’s everything.” Throwing out a wry smile, Phil added: “And, I suppose I wouldn’t have met her if you hadn’t done what you did. So in that regard, I should probably thank you.”

“Your welcome, I guess?” Kate laughed quietly. Phil’s lips twitched. Sobering, she said then: “But seriously, Phil, you deserve nothing less than everything you want.”

Phil nodded in seeming agreement. “I was angry at you for a long time, Kate.”

“I know.”

“But I’m not anymore.” Phil told her. “I’m happy. I’m—” He shrugged again. “I came here today to put the past to bed, to end it, all the questions, the hurt and betrayal. All of it. I came to say a proper goodbye this time. I needed to do that before I married Lucy.”

Kate nodded.

“And now I have.”

“Thank you,” Kate said quietly. “For your persistence, for coming here.” And she meant it. She hadn’t known until just this moment how long she’d been waiting for this moment. Resolution. Restitution. Atonement.

Slowly, Phil rose to his feet. “Be happy Kate. I know I am.”

Gaining her own legs, Kate smiled tremulously. “I will be,” she promised him.

Edging back from the table, he came around to her side, and bending down, brushed a soft kiss against her cheek. “Goodbye Kate.”

“Goodbye Phil,” she whispered.

With a speaking look at Calida, he moved toward the door. “I’ll meet you back at the hotel then, shall I?” he asked politely, expectantly, just as though his leave-taking had been a carefully staged exit.

Then again, knowing Calida, it probably had been.

That woman nodded slowly. “Yes, that will be fine.”

And with that Phil was gone, slipping out the door, his departure as quiet as his entrance had been thunderous.

When Calida remained firmly in her seat, Kate sank despondently back into her own chair. It was only too clear that Calida, unlike Phil, was not leaving. Not yet anyway. Kate’s eyes skittered over to Penny and M.T. who sat silently at the far side of the table. Neither woman had spoken throughout the exchange. But Kate doubted they’d missed so much as a word. They’d dissect the conversation later, in private.

Calida cleared her throat. “So I suppose it’s my fault then,” she said to the quiet room. “What you said to Phil: that you weren’t allowed to be you before, well, before your little defection. I suppose I did that, made you someone else?”

Kate swallowed difficultly. “I don’t know what you want me to say…”

Calida laughed. “And wasn’t that the whole problem, Kate? That you were always waiting for me to tell you what to say?” Her voice was harsh, waspish.

“Mom…”

“No. Don’t.” Calida shook her head vigorously. “I was only ever trying to do right by you.”

“I know that,” Kate insisted. “I do.”

“But you still hate me.”

“I don’t hate you.”

“You don’t?” Calida sounded honestly surprised. “That’s not the way I’ve understood it this past year.”

“I don’t know…”

“I didn’t know where you were!” Calida cried. “I wasn’t even allowed to know that much!”

Kate cringed. “You would have just—”

“Found you?” Calida laughed weakly. “Yes and God forbid that!”

Kate looked down at her coffee. It was cold now.

“You have no idea the stress, the pain you put your father and me through. We were upset and confused and—”

“I’ve never been any match against you,” Kate cried. “Growing up, you have no idea how hard it was for me. You pushed and pushed and pushed me to be the little girl, and then the young woman, you always wanted. And for awhile I thought I wanted that too—I thought if I could just make you proud, I’d be willing to do just about anything…”

“So you disappeared?”

Kate sighed tiredly. “Somewhere along the way I lost sight of what mattered most: finding out what made me proud, finding out what I wanted.”

“I see.”

“I was so desperate for you to love me mom, but I couldn’t, not at the expense of—”

“Of your own happiness,” Calida said. “Yes. I heard you.”

“I’m sorry,” Kate said, the words sticking to the back of her throat. “I-you’re right. I was selfish. Running off like that, hiding away. I hurt people. I hurt you.” Kate licked her lips nervously. “I was so focused on me, on what I was feeling, that I never stopped to think of how my actions would affect anyone else.” She took a deep breath. “And honestly, at the time, I don’t think I really cared anyway.

“I was so frantic to get away, to find myself that I took all the resentment that had been building in me for years and…”

“I meant what I said in Minneapolis.”

Kate stopped.

Calida’s eyes were steady on Kate. “That I had regrets. That I’d missed you. That I would jump in mud-puddles with you, if only you’d let me.” Calida’s body was tense, her voice wooden, unnatural.

Kate shifted. “It’s hard to trust you.”

“I’ll admit that I made mistakes, but so did you.” Calida insisted.

But Kate wouldn’t budge an inch. “Keeping tally?”

“Dammit Kate, don’t be so obstinate!”

“Like mother, like daughter.” Kate’s lip snarled. “Guess we’re alike in some ways, after all.”

Calida’s eyes closed momentarily. “Well…” Pushing herself up from the chair, she made a face. “I can see this is getting us nowhere…”

“Don’t blame me,” Kate defended. “I didn’t ask you over.”

And suddenly Calida looked tired. “No, you didn’t.” Grabbing her coffee-cup off the table, Calida walked over to the sink.

“You don’t have to do that—” Kate protested, half-rising from her own seat.

“And you didn’t have to earn it,” Calida said gruffly as she set the porcelain cup inside the stain-less steel surround. Spinning back around then, she returned to the table, her steps sharp and quick as she grabbed her purse off the back of the chair there. Her eyes glared down at her daughter. “My love. You never had to earn that. You always had it,” she muttered as she slung it over her shoulder, before marching toward the door.

When her hand closed over the doorknob, she paused, but didn’t turn back around, to say: “So please—I’ll go. I promise I’ll leave you alone, never see you again if that’s what you really want, but at least let me know where you are. Give me that, if nothing else!”

Kate felt her throat convulse as she watched her mother turn the knob in her hand and glide through the door, and out of her life.

And then Kate was catapulting to her feet, racing after her. “Wait!” she cried, throwing the door back open wildly. Calida stopped mid-step, her neck craning over her shoulder to gaze up at Kate’s frantic features. “That’s not-that’s not what I want.”

Calida raised a quizzical eyebrow.

“Don’t. Don’t go,” Kate managed through trembling lips.

 

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-Five

Groaning quietly, Penny woke up slowly. Agonized. Eyes tightly closed, her brain felt like it was ricocheting madly around her head—even just breathing seemed to be sending the thing unraveling, bouncing painfully from left to right, unhinged. Parched. That’s how she felt. Her mouth was dry. Impossibly dry. Smacking her lips together, she tried to get some moisture inside the dessert coating her teeth, her tongue…

Stretching, Penny let her eyes slowly slip open.

Wait. Her arms raised up over her head, Penny felt confused, disorientated.

This wasn’t her duvet.

This wasn’t her bed.

This wasn’t her house.

It was only by sheer will that Penny kept herself from shrieking—alarm bells jangled unerringly in her bleating brain.

What happened last night—?!

Then, almost as quickly as the question popped into her head, Penny remembered, the night before slapping itself across her memories.

She and Jake had gone out for drinks, one round quickly following another. She wasn’t even sure how many beers—urgh, how many shots?—she’d consumed. Five? Six? God…

She’d told him about how lonely she’d been feeling lately, how insecure—. “…I mean, what is it about me? The everyman friend.” She’d laughed humorlessly.

Jake had jerked his head back. “Don’t say that…”

“Why not? It’s true. No one looks at me. Well,” Penny considered with a wicked grin. “Not unless their pointing at the freak show down the road.”

“Penny—” Jake growled warningly.

“I want to be look at,” Penny pleaded. “Really looked at, you know? Desired. Sought-after. I want to be the fantasy.” Flapping her hands dramatically, she said: “I want what comes so naturally for other women.” Women like Kate, she thought, but she didn’t speak that last bit out loud.

“Well, from where I’m sitting, the view across the way doesn’t look to bad,” Jake joked with a wink in her direction.

Penny made a face. “I’m being serious here.”

“So am I.”

Confused, flustered, Penny hadn’t been sure how to interpret that. So she laughed, took it for the light-hearted comment it was most likely supposed to be. “Okay. Whatever.”

Jake sighed. Reaching forward, his hand hovering over hers, he said: “Penny, you have to know—”

She shook her head. “I mean, what do you look for in a woman?”

Jake reared back, his chair scraping against the tiled floor. “What?”

Penny persisted. “What makes a woman attractive to you? What’s your type?”

Jake looked uncomfortable. Taken aback.

Penny had waved her hand dismissively. “I’m looking for a little perspective here, and who better to ask than a man? You know what it is that makes one woman cute and another gorgeous; what makes one woman a good friend as opposed to a good…well, bedmate?”

“Bedmate?” Jake grinned.

Penny made a gesture. “You know what I mean.”

“Okay.” Jake took a deep breath, his hand dropping back down to the table. His eyes watched Penny’s hands as they ripped and shred the paper coaster before her. “I like a woman who has a great sense of humor.”

Penny stuck out her tongue. “Everyone says that.”

Jake shrugged. “It’s true. If she makes me laugh…that’s huge. Bantering back and forth. Wit. It’s so important.”

“Okay?”

“And someone who’s kind. Considerate. Someone who can be a good friend as well as a good, what was it you said?” Jake teased. “Oh, yeah. Bedmate.”

Penny gave him a look. “Really?”

“What?”
“Vague character traits? That’s what you’re giving me here? Sweet and funny? Really. What’s next: intelligent and driven? Adventurous and daring?” Penny shook her head vehemently. “No. I want specifics. What makes you tick?” Penny leaned in close.

Jaw swallowed hard.

Penny raised an expectant eyebrow.

A second passed in silence. Then another.

“Jake?”

“Brunettes.” He cleared his throat. “I like brunettes.”

“Since when?” Penny asked with a pfft of sound. “Pretty much every girl you’ve ever dated was blonde.”

“Preferences change.”

Penny considered this for a moment. “Okay. Well. What else?”

Jake held her gaze. “Dark eyes,” he offered softly. “Mysterious, exotic eyes.”

Penny nodded eagerly. “Go on.”

“A woman who isn’t afraid to take risks. Someone who believes in what she believes and who isn’t afraid to be herself, even if that makes her different from everyone else.”

“Different how—?”

But Jake was on a roll by then:

“…a woman who I know I can always go to for advice; who I want to go to for advice. Even when it’s zany or crazy. Especially then.”

Penny’s head tilted to one side. That sounded suspiciously like—

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

“Jake?”

He rushed on ahead: “…a woman who is strong and independent but who I want to protect anyway, who I can’t help trying to protect.”

Penny’s voice was thin. “But-but, you’ve always done that for me,” she pointed out hesitantly. “Shielded me from a world of ugly gossips and rumors….”

Jake smiled sadly. “And I always will. That’s my point.”

Penny looked down nervously. She wasn’t sure what was happening, but something definitely was— it was there in his voice, in the gaze he leveled her way. Frantically, she tore a new chunk off her coaster.

“Penny.”

“Yeah?”

“Look at me.”

Slowly, she raised her eyes.

“Do you know what else I like?”

Penny shook her head slowly. “No.”

“Curly hair. Bangles and scarves and flowing skirts.” Jake dropped his eyes down to her mouth. “And red lipstick.”

Penny’s hands flittered up to her lips. “Oh.”

Reaching forward, his hand came to rest over hers, stopping her fingers mid-motion from their shredding. “Penny. Don’t you know?”

“Know?” Her voice came out like a squeak.

“How beautiful you are?”

“Don’t,” she whispered, shaking her head hard. “Don’t say stuff you don’t mean.”

Jake grinned. It was lopsided. “Why are you so sure I don’t mean it?”

Penny throat convulsed. “I don’t want to be your charity case, Jake,” she insisted. “Saying stuff just because—well, it’s almost worse, you know. People telling you the things they think you want to hear, regardless of whether or not they’re true. It’s so clichéd and humiliating.” She made a face. “The comforting friend telling the ugly, fat one she’s actually gorgeous and skinny—or what have you.”

Jake had whistled then. Long and low. “You’re way off. That’s not it at all.”

“No?”

“No.”

Penny hardly dared to breathe. There it was again—that note in his voice that she wasn’t quite sure how to read. Intense. Emotional. Heated. Breathy, pitchy, she risked her pride: “Then why are you saying it?”

He’d given her a meaningful look. “I think you know why. At least, I hope you do. That you feel the same.”

As the previous evening’s conversation floated over Penny’s consciousness she felt her stomach getting tight, her palms sweating…

They’d paid out after that. Neither of them had brought the conversation back up again, but it remained there, between them …

Closing her eyes, Penny watched the rest of the night through her mind’s eye, the events parading past like the reels on a feature movie presentation.

They’d stood up to leave, Jake helping Penny shrug into her light jean coat.

Jake reaching for her hand as they walked outside.

“Don’t worry,” He’d assured her as they marched up to the curb. “I had the bartender call us a cab. They should be here any minute.”

Then she was sliding inside the crummy, unclean vehicle, sitting demurely beside Jake as he raddled off the address.

They were huddled together at the steps leading up to Jake’s apartment. It was misty outside. Penny was snuggled in her jacket, teetering unsteadily on her four inch heels, the faint sound of the taxi pulling away echoing in her ears—and then he was kissing her. Just as she’d expected him to do. Just as she’d been hoping he’d do. (After all, with a telling look sent her way, he’d only proffered his address to the cabbie, hadn’t he? It wasn’t like she was so drunk she hadn’t understood that look in his eyes when he’d done it, the unspoken question mark hanging in the air, her subtle but unmistakable answer. She hadn’t offered up a second address.)

Right there, at the base of the steps, his arms winding themselves around her back, hauling her body up close to his, Jake kissed Penny.

The feel of his belt digging against her stomach; the graze of his fingers at her waist, pulling her impossibly closer; the scent of his aftershave wafting up in the still night air; the taste of whiskey where his lips clung to hers…

Penny didn’t remember going upstairs but then, somehow they were, his arms steering her toward the bedroom, her shirt falling off one shoulder as the back of her knee bumped up against the living room end table, upending her balance…his hands guiding her as she walked backward, her thoughts too consumed by his lips, his hands, those roaming fingers, to be bothered overmuch with walking. Then she felt the world dip, her body being pushed backward, her shoulders falling softly against his mattress….

Feeling her heart picking up double-time in her chest as what happened next transfixed itself upon her gaze, Penny slowly felt her head turn to the left.

And there, not five inches away from her was Jake, his black hair spiking out against his white pillow, his face expressionless in sleep, those impossibly long eyelashes resting against his high cheekbones, the beginnings of a beard shadowing across his jawline.

Oh God he was gorgeous.

Her chest shaking, quaking as the full realization of what happened settled upon her person, Penny could feel the onslaught of a panic attack take form. She was in bed with Jake. Jake.

Dammit, what had she been thinking?

What had he been thinking?

Penny felt tears crowding against her throat. Jake. And it had been glorious. Everything she’d dreamed it could be and more (and dammit, she had dreamt about this. About him and her; and, if she were honest, she’d dreamt about it pretty much since high school.)

But she and Jake were never supposed to actually happen. He was supposed to be a fantasy. Someone she could curl up to in her imagination, all the while knowing that reality would never bend so far as to allow for something so—unnatural. The cool guy and the weirdo? Yeah right. No thanks.

There is only so much disbelief the mind can handle.

Biting her lip, Penny let her eyes wander down his sleeping form. Better soak it in now, it wasn’t likely to repeat itself.

He’d been lonely; she’d been lonely. The perfect recipe for just this kind of thing. (And the copious amounts of beer probably hadn’t helped much.) More than likely, she’d been little more than his rebound from Kate.

God.

Penny closed her eyes tightly on the pain of that thought. Still, she knew she was right. Because there was absolutely no other earthly reason Jake would have jumped into bed with—well, with her.

It’s not like he loved her. It’s not like he was even interested in her that way. No. Nu-uh. No way. He’d been lonely. She’d been lonely. This had been a means to an end. A forgone conclusion to a temporary salve.

“You stupid fool,” Penny whispered harshly to herself, her arms gripping the bed sheet tightly as she quietly tiptoed out of bed. “You stupid, stupid fool.”

Tears forming at the back of her throat, Penny made it soundlessly out of the bedroom, her arms snatching up scattered bits of clothing along the way. Fumbling toward the bathroom, she felt the smothered hysteria trying to claw its way up her stomach…

Quickly throwing on the clothes from the day before, Penny kept her eyes determinedly trained to the ground, refusing to meet her face in the mirror overhead. Refusing to see the red-rims of grief engulfing her as the broad light of day beat down; refusing to see the hurt and humiliation bearing down on her.

She’d slept with Jake.

The moment she’d been waiting for—

And now it was over.

Closing her eyes as the first tears fell, Penny chocked back the accompany cries scratching against her vocal chords. Well, she’d finally gotten her wish, hadn’t she? She knew what it was like to fall in love.

(It wasn’t like she hadn’t known it before. She’d been a little in love with Jake since that first day in the cafeteria when he’d sat down next to her. But she’d never had to admit it to herself, she’d never had to take those feelings seriously, because what would have been the point? He was so far out of her league, she was so far removed from his kind of girl—it’d always been safe before. Loving him. An illusion. Something to cling in the quiet of her mind. But not anymore.)

Now she knew: knew what it was to fall in love; to be in love.

Just in time to learn what it was like to have her heart broken.

Poetic.

“You deserve it,” she told herself as she slipped out of Jake’s apartment, her steps intent as she slunk down the stairs, down the sidewalk, her body pressed up tight to the building’s she passed, her feet making quick work of the distance between there and the sanctuary of her shop. Only fifteen feet…ten….five…

Bursting through the back door, her legs wobbly and unsure, Penny reached desperately for her curtained doorway, barely making it two steps inside before the sobs she’d held back finally broke loose. Sliding down to the floor, her back pressed up against her filing cabinet, knees bent up to her chin, Penny let her head fall forward, the tears spilling across yesterday’s outfit…

“You knew he could never love you back. People like Jake don’t fall for people like you.” Her lips trembled over that last word. “They just don’t.”

At last, the sobs came to a close, dwindling down to the occasional sniffle and heavily in-drawn breath. The pit in her stomach was empty now, replaced with the hollowed-out sensation that always followed a good cry.

Looking at the dark, wet patches smearing the long folds of her skirt, Penny shook her head. “Pathetic, Penny. That’s what you—”

The sudden ringing of her cell phone brought her derision up short. Heart skidding across her chest, Penny quickly fumbled the vibrating thing out of her purse. Fingers shaking, she slowly bright it up to her face, checking to see who was calling.

Please!

Please—

But it was only Kate.

Wiping away at the tracks of tears, Penny hit the ANSWER button quickly. She could actually use the distraction right now.

“Hello?” Her voice came out soft, uneven. But it didn’t matter. The woman on the other end of the line was far too preoccupied to notice the quavering tone of voice anyway.

“Penny—Oh my god…” A scratching sound muffled Kate’s words, making them garbled.

“Hello? Kate?”

“Penny? Penny! Are you there?”

“Yes. Yeah. What’s up?”

“Where are you?”

Penny’s brow furrowed.  “Uh. I’m at my office. Why? What’s—?”

“Can you get away?”

“Now?”

“Yes now!”

Penny’s hand went up to touch her puffy eyes. “Uh. Well—”

“Please Penny!” Kate’s voice shifted, lined with panic. “I need you…”

That decided it. “Yes. Okay. Just tell me where—” Penny heard a thunk on the other end of the line, followed by a quiet groan. “Kate, what’s going on?” Penny demanded again, straightening from her position on the floor. She’d been right. Kate was proving a mighty good distraction. “You sound weird.”

A slight pause. “They found me.”

“Who found you?”

“My parents. Phil.”

“What?!” Penny jack-knifed to her feet. “Where are you?”

“The LitLiber. In Jake’s office. Hiding.”

“I’ll be there in two minutes.”

“Hurry Penny.”

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Fifty

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

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

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

“Sure.”

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

“This sounds serious.”

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

“Kate, what’s going on?”

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

“Now, to what do I owe the pleasure?”

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

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

“Look Penny, you’re my best friend—”

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

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

“Yeah…”

“At least, we used to.”

Penny frowned. “Used to?”

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

“Okay.”

“No secrets.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m not.”

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

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

“I’m with you.”

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

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

“Yes?”

“And things sort of came to ahead.”

“With the play?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penny shrugged. “I understand.”

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

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

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

“You kissed?”

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

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

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

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

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

Penny grinned. “Yeah?”

“And it was perfect.”

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

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

Kate sighed. “Yeah.”

“And you thought—”

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

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

Kate ducked her head. “Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The knot in Penny’s stomach tightened uncomfortably.

“Well, I don’t know about that…”

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

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

“I do now.”

“I’m really happy for you, Kate.”

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

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

“I’m starting to see that myself.”

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

“I knew you were going to say that!”

“Well, who’s psychic now!”

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

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

“I’m sure.”

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

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

“Would you believe me if I did?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you? One hundred percent committed?”

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

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

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

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

Kate pouted. “It sure feels like it.”

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

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

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

“No. I guess not.”

“Yeah.”

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

“I know that.”

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

“What they always do in a rom-com.”

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

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

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

“Okay. Where do I start?”

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

 

 

 

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

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

She needed to talk to Jake.

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

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

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

Good.

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

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Forty-Nine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not until now…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I ran out screaming bloody murder.”

Kate ducked her head in shame.

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

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

“I guess.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shoot.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kate was failing miserably.

“Let me help.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, how do you feel?”

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

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

Penny’s face whitened, her fingers tightening….

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

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

“No. Not unless you want to.”

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

“Without question.”

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

“Yes.”

Kate breathed a sigh of relief.

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

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

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

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

“Another day?” Penny blinked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not true—”

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

Penny giggled.

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

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

“Yes it was.”

“Don’t be so modest…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s summer…”

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

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

“Deal.”

And then he was gone.

 

 

 

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

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

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

No, no. Jackson would understand.

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

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

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

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

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

“What about it?”

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

Silence met her words.

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

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

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

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

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

A beat of silence and then, “Okay.”

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

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

“I don’t know if I’d said that…”

“I would.”

“Oh.”

Jackson sucked in a breath. “Why then?”

“Why?”

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

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

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

“She is…”

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

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

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

“No, not that—”

“Then what?”

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

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

“It’s not what you’re—”

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

“Yes, I know…”

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

“I am.”

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

“That’s not fair!”

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

The phone pressed hot against Kate’s ear.

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

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

“I see.”

“I don’t think you do?”

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

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

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

“Jackson.”

“Actions over words, Kate.”

“Wait—”

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

“Jackson, just wait a minute!

But he’d already hung up.

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Forty-Five

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

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

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

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

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

5:46 p.m.

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

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

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

Breathe Kate. Just breathe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No problem.”

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

“Would you like to come in—?”

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

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

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

Jackson laughed quietly. “Thanks.”

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

And she wanted to see where this led.

She was in. Fully in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kate smiled back wobbly. “It’s okay.”

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

Kate reeled. “I—oh…”

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

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

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

“Jealous? Over me?” Kate hedged.

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

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

Of course, it also spelled trouble….

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

“No?” Jackson looked worried.

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

“I don’t want you to do that either…”

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

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

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

“I wasn’t?”

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

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

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

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

“Oh, I’ll ask.”

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

Jackson had the grace to look ashamed.

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

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

“We’re leaving?” Kate asked unnerved.

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

And Kate grinned. Then she giggled.

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

<  Recepient List: Mags; Katy Kat

—————-07/08/2015 Wed—————–

 

From Penny: Kate, M.T. get ready… I’m

       signing us up as a team for the Triathlon

       Scramble. It’s next Saturday.                                                        

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

       Mags, you got swim-duty. Get training!

  • Sent 8:15 p.m.

 

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

  • Sent 8:23 p.m.

 

From Penny: None at all.

  • Sent 8:24 p.m.

 

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Forty-Four

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kate smiled.

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

“Sure.”

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

“Yeah?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah.”
“We kissed.”

“Ah!”

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

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

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

M.T. smiled. “Ah.”

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

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

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

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

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

“No, of course not,” Kate proclaimed.

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

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

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

“Thank you,” Kate whispered.

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

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

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

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

“Yeah?”

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

 

 

 

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

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

No, it was Penny.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You think so?”

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

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

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

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

“Curious?”

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

Penny sighed. Loudly.

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

“Don’t.”

“Don’t what?”

“Don’t nose in on my business.”

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

“An invitation?”

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

“I know.”

The sisters stared at one another.

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

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

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

“Okay. Here it comes…”

“Here what comes?”

“The lecture.”

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

“That’s what I’m trying to do,” Penny insisted. “At least, I’m trying not to do that anymore. That’s why—”

“Jake?”
“Yeah.”

M.T. sucked in her lips. “All I’m saying is, it’s easy to accidentally…ah, over-correct.”

“I’m not doing that.”

“Right.”

“Right.”

Penny shifted uncomfortably and then, looking up quickly, as though the thought had only just occurred to her, Penny asked: “So—what are you even doing here?”
“What else?” M.T. asked. “Buying books.” Checking her watch, Maggie grimaced. “Which I should probably get to—my lunch hour is almost up.”

“Oh,” Penny said. “Yeah. Sure.”

Maggie took a step forward and somehow, without quite knowing why, and being far too anxious to ask, she found Penny half-turning to match her steps.

“So—how late did Kate stay over last night?” the psychic asked casually as Maggie led the way toward the Religion aisle.

Maggie couldn’t quite meet that look, as she turned down the appointed row of bookshelves. “Oh…a little while longer.”

“What did you talk about?”

M.T. paused, as though trying to recall. She didn’t want to lie exactly, but telling her the whole truth wasn’t an option either…

As it turned out, M.T. didn’t have to answer her at all.

Because Penny beat her to it: “I meant to ask her, but conversation being what it was…” the usually chill psychic’s voice came out fast—rushed: “She had a private rehearsal with Jackson a couple nights ago—you know, for the play the LitLiber is throwing later this month.” Penny looked at Maggie meaningfully.

But M.T. only stared back at her blankly.

“Did she mention it by any chance?” Penny asked, and this time there was no disguising the impatience in her voice. There was no mistaking her sharp glance.

“Why would she?”

Penny ground her teeth together. “I don’t know. I just figured—”

M.T. fluttered her lashes innocently. “What? Was there something in particular that thought she’d want to talk about?”

“No. I don’t know—!” Penny crossed her arms over her chest. And then, just as quickly, she sprang them loose. “It just seemed like a thing she would’ve done. You know Kate.”

Maggie pulled out two books. “Was there something in particular you were hoping she’d talk about?”

“You’re third-degreeing me again.”

“You started it.”

“Yeah? Well, clearly you’re better at it.”

“Hazards of the trade, I suspect.”

“So?”

“So what?” Maggie asked, grabbing for another book. She didn’t even bother with the title. Whatever.

“Did she?”

Maggie turned to stare up at Penny. “Did she what?”

“Talk about it!”

Hoisting the books against her shoulder, Maggie took a step backward, toward the aisle-way. “Penny, if you want to know how her rehearsal with Jackson went, then ask Kate.”

“You are so infuriating some times,” Penny grumbled.

“And it’s only going to get worse in the next twenty seconds,” M.T. replied.

“Huh?”
“What was it you said to me not five minutes ago?” M.T. asked, her voice just a shade shy of haughty.

“I said a lot of things.”

“Don’t nose into my business. That’s what you said.”

“Yeah?”

“And what did I say back.”

Penny gave a great, gutsy sigh. “I don’t remember. I can’t be expected to listen to every speech you prattle on about.”

“Never mind. That’s not—” M.T. sighed. “The point I’m trying to make here is this: take your own counsel…and stay out of Kate’s business.”

“You’re not going to tell me what she said, are you?”

Maggie turned toward the check-out counter. “I’m not even going to tell you if she said anything at all.”

“Traitor.”

“Call her,” Maggie insisted, throwing out the suggestion over her shoulder.

“I’m not so sure she’s taking my calls yet.”

“She is.”

“How do you know?”

Stopping, resigned, M.T. looked back at Penny. She lifted one eyebrow pointedly: “Are you taking hers?”

“If she ever bothered to pick up the phone and dial my number…yeah,” Penny mumbled down at her feet.

“Exactly.” Resolutely, Maggie picked up walking again. “Call her,” she threw out a second time, just for good measure.  With her back turned on Penny, the physic was unable to see the extremely satisfied look on the pastor’s face as she made her way to the register.

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Forty-Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is everything all right?” Penny asked then.

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey Mags…”

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

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

“Oh.”

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

God, Penny will be over the moon.

 

 

 

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

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

Penny smiled at her reflection.

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

Penny dropped her eyes from the mirror.

Yeah. She supposed it did.

Jake and Kate.

She’d get used to it.

She’d learn to love it.

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

Kate. “Hey.”

Penny. “Hi.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kate wished for the radio.

 

 

 

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

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

“Cheers,” Kate said weakly.

“Ditto,” Penny said shyly.

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

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

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

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

“Is what it?” M.T. asked innocently.

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

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

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

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

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

M.T. bit her lip.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course I am…”

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

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

“Oh, shut up Penny.”

“No, you shut up.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh believe it, babe.”

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

“What?”

“Wait. Hank?”

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

“What are you talking about?”

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

Kate’s brow furrowed.

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

“Ew.”

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

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

M.T. “Had sex?”

Penny.“Yeah.”

M.T. “Yeah.”

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

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

Penny scowled. “What’s a while?”

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

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

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

“What did you say?” Kate asked softly.

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

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

“I know.”

“And all this time…?”

“All this time.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes and no…”

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

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

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

“Maybe. Maybe not.”

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

M.T. blinked. “What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wow,” Kate whispered.

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

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

“Okay?”

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

Penny smiled. “Oh yeah.”

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

“That’s why we’re here.”

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

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Forty

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

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

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

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

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

Blackness.

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

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

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

Then, she repeated this phrase one more time.

Nothing.

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

And nothing else.

Dammit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh.”

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

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

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

“Yes, but…”

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

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

Janessa didn’t say anything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Janessa rolled her eyes.

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

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

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

Janessa nodded sharply.

“Tell me about him.”

Janessa looked at Penny.

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey Penny,” he said, smiling slightly.

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

“Yeah. Sorry to just drop by—”

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

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

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

“Oh. Okay. I won’t keep you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Anything’s better than that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jake’s mouth turned down. “No…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No. I came over to say I’m sorry.”

Penny blinked. “Excuse me?”

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

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

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

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

Penny smiled. “And the year after that.”

“Yeah.”

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

“And I didn’t.”

“And when I came back…”

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

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

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

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

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

Jake grinned. “No.”

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

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Thirty-Nine

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still….

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

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

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

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

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

No, instead Kate just barreled—

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

Damnit…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay…then?”

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

“It doesn’t work that way.”

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

“Okay…”

Janessa shrugged. “Can I come in?”

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

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

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

“Oh.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So, do you promise?”

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

“I’m not in trouble.”

“Then what?”

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

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

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

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

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

“What about right now?”

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

“Maggie…can I ask you a question?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So you got most of the affection.”

“And Penny got what was left over.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Kate.”

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

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

Kate nodded.

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

“I didn’t mean to—”

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