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 Thirty-Nine

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still….

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

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

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

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

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

No, instead Kate just barreled—

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

Damnit…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay…then?”

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

“It doesn’t work that way.”

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

“Okay…”

Janessa shrugged. “Can I come in?”

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

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

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

“Oh.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So, do you promise?”

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

“I’m not in trouble.”

“Then what?”

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

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

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

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

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

“What about right now?”

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

“Maggie…can I ask you a question?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So you got most of the affection.”

“And Penny got what was left over.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Kate.”

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

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

Kate nodded.

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

“I didn’t mean to—”

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

 

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Thirty-Eight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ready for what?” Jake asked.

“I told you—”

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

But Kate just looked at him silently.

“We just kissed Kate!”

“I know,” she said. “I know and—”

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

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

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

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

“Okay…”

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

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

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

“Whoa—hey…”

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

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

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

“I know.” Jake sighed.

“I don’t want to be your rebound.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

….

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Picturing the memories I’ll make here.”

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

Maggie made a strangled sound in her throat

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

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

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

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

Maggie nodded roughly.

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

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

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

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

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

“And once it finds it…”

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

A moment of silence passed.

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

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

“Yeah.”

“Yeah.”

Another beat of silence.

“Thank you.”

“Anytime.”

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

“Penny—listen, about what happened downstairs…”

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

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

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

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

“And you kissed him right back.”

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

“Yes I did.”

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

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

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

“Penny don’t be like that.”

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

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

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

Kate felt trapped. “I didn’t say—”

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

“You’re glad?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So, he is the one. It’s Jake.”

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

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

“No—”

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

“That’s not fair, Penny.”

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

Kate’s head snapped backward. “What?”

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

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

“I didn’t mean that, Kate.”

“But you said it.”

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

 

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Thirty-Seven

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

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

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

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

Kate shook her head.

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

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

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

“You did what?” Kate demanded roughly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Penny…” M.T. warned softly.

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, sure,” Kate said on a whisper.

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

“And you disagree?” Penny asked.

“No…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

Almond shaped green eyes clashed with brown.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kate looked down at her shoes. “Uh….”

Now Jackson looked confused. “Penny?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jackson. “And your point is?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing had been real… before today.

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

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

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

“Do you want me to leave?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kate shook her head. “No—it hasn’t.”

“And, in a way, I’m glad.”

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

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

Kate closed her eyes. “I know…”

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

“Jake. Stop. I’m not ready—”

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

Kate nodded. “Okay…”

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

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

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

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

“It already has.”

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

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

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

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

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Thirty-Two

Kate looked around the walls of her living room. The teal-blue accent of the room gave her peace, a welcoming she desperately needed. This was her haven. Her special place. No one could touch her here. She was safe—to think, to breath, to be Kate.

She felt bad for the way she’d treated Penny. She’d need to apologize—yes, tomorrow she’d seek her out. Did she but know it, her thoughts aligned perfectly with Maggie’s; she hadn’t meant to get so upset with the psychic—she hadn’t meant to take it out on Penny, all her frustration and sadness.

Sure, the thing with the boat had been annoying—really annoying. Typical Penny fashion: a train-wreck of good intentions. Still, it hadn’t deserved Kate’s scathing wrath. It hadn’t necessitated that big of a response. It had been Minnesota. She couldn’t get what had happened there off her mind.  She’d thought it was a new beginning, seeing her mother standing there, having her wrap Kate up in her arms, whisper so lovingly in her ear:

“Don’t—it doesn’t matter, you’re here now. You’re here now.” Pulling back, Calida’s hands caressed the sides of Kate’s face, framing her cheekbones. “I’ve missed you, oh God, how I’ve missed you. Please don’t runway again…I’m so sorry!”  

            For a short time, Kate had almost believed her….

Staring uncomprehendingly at the tall, well-dressed woman before her, she’d waited for the other shoe to drop, for her mother to scold her, tell her what to do—make the demands the great Calida McDonald was so known for. But they hadn’t come.

“Your father—wait until I tell him. He’ll be so pleased.”

“Mom…” Kate’s voice came out in a protesting croak. She hadn’t signed up for a family reunion. She wasn’t ready for any of that.

But before Kate had time to process her thoughts, to marshal them into a semblance of order, Calida was speaking again, her gaze finally relinquishing its hold on her daughter to take in the other two women standing there…silently, curiously.

            “Pardon me…I didn’t notice we had company?” There was no mistaking the question in her voice.

Over Kate’s head, the sister’s exchanged looks. Maggie’s eyes were wet with unshed tears; Penny’s were narrowed with suspicion.

“Not at all—I’m Maggie.”

“Penny.”

“These are my friends,” Kate’s voice came out hard, defensive. “They’re with me.”

Maggie, taking her cue, quickly walked forward, reaching out her hand. Calida quickly took it in her own beautifully manicured grasp; she smiled wobblingly. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. McDonald.

“Please, call me Calida.”

Penny smiled thinly in response.

“And how do you know Kate?” The question was calculating…. “You must not be from around here. That is, I’m sure I’d remember any of her childhood friends…?”

Penny stared her down. “No, we’re not from around here.” She gave Maggie, who had her mouth open in response, a firm, telling glance.

Maggie snapped her mouth closed quickly.

“I see,” Calida responded quickly. “Well, how wonderful to make your acquaintance—Any friend of Kate’s…”

And with that, Calida turned back to her daughter. “Oh, it will do my heart such good to have you settled in the house once again. And not to worry, we’ve kept your room ready… Cook will make all your favorite meals…”

“My room…. Cook?”

Calida’s smile faltered. “That is, you were planning to come back home, weren’t you darling?”

Kate’s eyes zipped meaningfully from her mother to Maggie and Penny.

“And your friends too,” Calida insisted quickly, following her daughter’s look with cunning precision. “You are both more than welcome to stay at our place. Do say yes.”

“The thing is, I’m not sure how long we’re staying…” Kate’s voice was a squeak of sound.

“And I won’t pressure you either way. We’d be thrilled to have you…all three of you…for just as long as you’ll let us.” Calida was adamant.

Kate’s mouth opened and closed but no words came out. Her body felt stiff, her breathing forced. This was all happening so fast. It was just like her mother, to come in and take charge, to put people in corners…

“If you wouldn’t mind very much, I’m afraid those doctors are going to come back any moment with those drugs of theirs that put me right to sleep—” the hoarse, yet forceful voice of Nanny Moore piped in. “Before then, I’d love a few minutes alone with my poppet…?”

Calida, as if sensing a supporter in the frail woman lying so cozily in the hospital bed, nodded sharply, her arms quickly steering Maggie and Penny toward the door. “Absolutely dear Ms. Moore. We’ll leave the two of you alone at once. Penny, Maggie, let’s get a cup of coffee. I’m sure we could all use one!”

Neither sister had so much as a chance to demur before Calida had them outside the hospital bedroom and into the long, sterile corridor running the length of that wing.

Kate stared beseechingly down at her oldest friend, hardly noticing the absence of the other women, her attention stolen by the wheezing plea in her old Nanny’s voice. “What is it, Nanny? Can I get you anything?”
Nanny waved her words aside. “Kate, I know you’re scared. You thought if you went far enough away she would no longer have such a hold on you.” Nanny didn’t need to explain who she was. “Like a mask, you thought the distance would free you—make you brave, give you the courage to be your own person. And you needed that, to be out of her clutches. I understood it then, that’s why I didn’t fight you. But there’s something you need to understand now…”

“Shh Nanny, don’t worry about me…”

“It worked,” Nanny continued as though Kate hadn’t spoken. “It gave you back the voice you’d lost long ago. I heard it in those letters you wrote to me. I saw it in the woman who walked through those doors not half an hour ago. You’re different. You’re stronger then you ever were.”

“Nanny, you shouldn’t tax yourself…”

“Now you have to believe it. You have to trust in that person you’re working so hard to become. Don’t let your fears keep you back—not any longer. You have stepped out of her shadows, be proud of that.”

“I am…”

“Remember that you’re the reason you’re back here—it was your choice. No one made you. No one can make you do anything, not anymore. Say it.”

And so Kate obligated her. “No one can make me do anything.”

“So now, it’s time to forgive her. Love your mother Kate. Find the good in her. It’s there. I assure you. And let her love you—you, Kate, and not the girl she wants you to be. She means well. She just doesn’t know any better, that’s why she pushes you so hard, that’s why she doesn’t always stop to hear you. She means well.”

“She’s a steamroller—”

Nanny more smiled. “It’s one of her best and worst characteristics.”

“What if I can’t? Find the good, I mean.”

“You will.” Nanny sounded so confident. “That’s one of your best and worst characteristics. You always look for in the good in people.”

Kate shook her head, her fingers curling trustingly in Nanny’s Moore’s grip. “What would I do without you?”

Nanny smiled. “Well, thanks to these here doctors, you won’t soon have to find out.”

“Don’t joke Nanny. Not about this.”

“All right, you’re right,” Nanny agreed. Laying back against the pillows, she sighed contentedly. “And anyway, seeing you is all the medicine I really need. Oh Katie—I’ve missed you.”

“I’ll stay as long as you need me.”

“I know.”

“And I’ll stay with her. For you I’ll stay with her.”

“Don’t make this about me….”

Kate laughed, wiping a stray tear off her cheek. “It’s what you want though, isn’t it?”

“For you and your mother to finally come to peace with one another? Oh yes, I’ve wanted that for years—”

“Then rest easy.”

Nanny coughed weakly. “You’re still missing the point, my sweet.”

“No I don’t think I am.”

“Do it because it’s something that you want—do it because you want to love your mother.”

 

 

 

Ten minutes later Kate walked out of Nanny’s room. One of the nurses had indeed come in with a sleeping sedative…. Taking her cue, Kate kissed Nanny’s soft cheek in goodbye and went in search of her mother and friends, sparing the latter a moment’s sympathy. Kate knew better than anyone what kind of pit-bull her mother could be when she wanted something.

And, more than almost anything in the world, right now Calida wanted to know where Kate had gotten off to.

Advancing into the small alcove designated as one of the sundry waiting rooms peppering the building, Kate heard her mother talking. Stomach muscles clamping, her ears turned eagerly to catch the sound of what she felt sure would be pleading demands for information on Kate’s whereabouts:

“…and oh! The dresses that child ruined. You never met a kid so fascinated by mud puddles.”

With something akin to the surreal, Kate waited a beat, the sound of Penny and Maggie’s laughter filtering vaguely though her senses.

“Penny was also quite fond of dirt, and sticky things as a small child,” M.T. recounted reminiscently.

“And of course, Nanny always tried to keep it a secret, how Kate’s clothes managed to get in such shambles, but I always knew.”

“And you didn’t mind?” Penny enquired disbelievingly. Kate could have kissed her.

Calida shrugged. “Well, yes, I suppose I did.”

“But you never let on? Stopped her antics?” Maggie asked, coming between them. “You let her believe she was pulling one over you?”

Calida laughed softly, a tinkling of sound Kate knew her mother had spent years perfecting. It was the epitome societal taste. “I suppose I didn’t have the heart to spoil her fun. I was hard on Kate—I know that. I don’t pretend otherwise. I wanted her brought up a certain way, and that dictated a more rigorous set of manners and behaviors. So when I could allow her to just be a small child, I did.”

“Well…” But whatever it was Maggie was going to say next died on her lips as she spotted Kate, standing uncertainly in the doorway there, shamelessly eavesdropping. Two pairs of eyes soon mimicked the pastor’s gaze.

“Kate, there you are—come and sit,” Calida invited, waving her daughter closer, thankfully overlooking Kate’s ill-bred activity—listening the others talking about herself. Kate’s face flamed with humiliation.

On stiff legs, she heeded her mother’s words, nabbing the seat on the other side of Penny.

“What did Nanny want to talk to you about?” Calida asked.

Kate felt her teeth snap together. “That’s between her and me.”

For a second, Kate felt a certain, tingling buzz going off inside her head. It was the heady sensation of rebellion. Never in her life had she spoken like that to her mother. And it had felt kind of…good.

Calida looked as taken aback as Kate felt. “Oh—well, yes, of course. How rude of me.”

For a second no one spoke. Penny readjusted her position on the hard seat, fidgeting nervously. Maggie sat quite still, composed. She was used to uncomfortable silences; hazards of the trade. Kate stared down at the floor, unwilling to meet her mother’s eyes, which were gazing hopefully at her daughter’s down-bent head.

“Well, we were all having a nice little chat—I was telling them what you were like as a child.”

Kate nodded. “Yeah, I heard.” Then, almost against her will, her eyes looked up, catching hold of her mother’s steadfast look. “Did you really know—about what really happened to my dresses?”

Calida smiled. “Yes. I really knew. Nanny minded most of them rather well, but I could always tell her work apart—especially the items she had to stitch in repair.”

“But you didn’t—you never said anything to me.” Kate’s voice was accusing, disbelieving. It was too much to digest.

Calida shrugged. “And in a way I regret that.”

Kate smiled. That sounded much more like the mother she knew so well.

“…if I had, maybe we could have jumped in puddles, or rolled down hills, together. I think I would have done well with a little more playfulness.”

Kate dropped her eyes again. Water was threatening to spill out of them. She wasn’t prepared to let her mother see that form of weakness. Not from her anyway.

Calida sighed. “Hindsight: what a terrible thing. It fills you with a kind of regret you don’t know is possible in your youth.”

Out of Kate’s peripheral vision, she watched Maggie’s hand come out, rest comfortingly on Calida’s knee. For some reason, that softened her.

“I would have loved that, you know,” Kate’s voice came out raspy, coarse. “To build forts with you—to run through the sprinkler system with you.”

Calida nodded, her throat constricting visibly. “Then let’s do that.”

Kate snorted.

“No, I mean it,” Calida said then, her voice firm. “Let’s jump in piles of leaves—whatever you want! I would do any of it, just to spend a little time with you.”

Kate shook her head. “I’m going back, Mom. This isn’t home anymore.”

“I know that. I know,” Calida assured her. “Just—stay with your father and me while you’re here. Please. Let us have even that much of you.”

The soft entreaty; the tangible fear in her mother’s eyes—Kate wasn’t aware she’d made up her mind on this issue until her mouth opened and she said: “Yes. All right. I’ll stay with you.”

“And you two, as well,” Calida said, turning to Penny and Maggie. “I meant what I said earlier. Say you’ll stay.”

“We already made reservations—”

“We’d love to,” Maggie said, speaking over Penny, her eyes looking at Kate’s pale face.

 

 

 

Kate’s house was opulent. Penny twirled around, taking it all in at a glance: the massive, 18th century chandelier in the foyer, sprinkling soft light from the lofty ceiling onto the marble floors; the large, faded Oriental rug at their feet; two stripped peach-and-cream upholstered chairs sitting to one side of the door, a small fireplace before them, giving off a cozy look.   Opposite of this grand opening, a winged staircase stood, wrapped around with old-fashioned balustrades. And to the right of this mammoth architectural delight was the large, impressive dining room, the arched doorway flung wide open, revealing a table which would easily sit twelve; floor-to-ceiling windows, and a large, ornately designed serving buffet finished off the formal, luxurious look.

“And Kate just left all this?” Penny muttered underneath her breath.

Maggie silently had to agree. They’d always known Kate had come from wealth but this—this was a whole different plane of rich. The kind that bespoke of instant power, influence…opportunities unfounded.

And Kate had walked away from it all. Without a backward glance.

“Well…money doesn’t buy happiness—isn’t that what they say,” Maggie said, speaking her thoughts a loud.

“Yeah, but being poor isn’t exactly fun central, either.”

“Ladies,” Calida said then, coming to stand beside them, “please, make yourselves comfortable. But first, Regina will show you to your rooms,” and out of seemingly nowhere a young, blonde woman came forward and, reaching for their bags, ushered them up the curved staircase….

Turning to Kate, Calida held open her arms. “Kate. Welcome home.”

 

 

 

 

Kate pulled a sad face. It had all started out so well. She’d thought—just at the first, that perhaps this time around things would be different. She’d hoped for…Kate shrugged. She didn’t know what she’d hoped for, but whatever it was, she hadn’t gotten it.

She’d been duped. Again.

Only this time, it was the last time.

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Thirty-One

Reaching for the carafe, Penny poured out two cups of strong, black coffee. Turning carefully around, she handed one of the dainty porcelain saucers in her hand across the cramped oval table to where her sister currently sat.

“Thank you,” M.T murmured, accepting the steaming beverage.

With a grace of movement, Penny quickly deposited herself in one of the remaining chairs. Thin light streamed into the small room, casting a warm glow, accentuating the fine specks of dust dancing in the air around Penny’s office. A faint chirping of birds just penetrated the walls.

For a moment, the sister’s focused on the warm drink in their hands, neither one talking.

“Is Kate still mad?” M.T. finally asked, broaching the topic that had recently consumed both of their thoughts.

Penny sighed. It had a world-worry note to it. With a small, self-depreciating shake of her head, she nodded. “Oh yeah.”

 

 

 

It had all started out innocently enough. Returning home from their impromptu trip to Minnesota, Penny and M.T. had been desperate to keep Kate’s mind off of everything that had happened…especially that thing.

Silent, stiff, unnaturally pale, Kate had needed a distraction. It was one of those rare moments when the sister’s entirely agreed with one another. Kate needed space…to forget, to process. And this time they didn’t think Whestleigh would be far enough away.

It had been Penny’s brainchild: a weekend vacation out to Crane Bay—a premier camping resort, a mere two-hour drive south Whestleigh. The area was perfect, boasting a chain of twelve inter-connected lakes, restaurants nestled right up against the water, tennis and volleyball courts, ice-cream socials…the works. A girl like Kate, who grew up in the land of ten thousands lakes, was sure to find peace of mind out there so close to nature, and yet so far removed from the life she once knew.

So Penny had rented out a cabin for their stay—a kitschy, two-bedroom place, replete with plaid curtains, rough-hewn wooden furniture, and that particular style of enamel plate ware—blue with white speckles. Nestled in a picturesque landscape, they were steps from the lake, with a long, gorgeous dock reaching right out into the slivery depths.

For Kate, Penny was determined to master her dreadful, terrible fear of the water. For Kate. So, with that thought firmly in mind, she’d gone out and rented their party a boat. A speedboat.

It hadn’t been easy talking Kate into their plans. She’d seemed much more inclined to live out the rest of her days in sweats, eating chips and ice-cream, and laying about in her favorite lounge chair. But, through pure determination and willfulness, Penny and Maggie had worn her down. Honestly, she’d probably agreed just to shut them up about the whole idea, but they hadn’t looked that particular gift horse too closely in the mouth.

So, without further ado, the women had packed up their best summer clothes (Penny taking along about five different life-jackets, two snorkels, and a pair of, if one could believe it, arm floaters), and set off for this much-needed retreat.

The first day had gone off without a hitch. So all right, Kate hadn’t talked much, but that was hardly to be expected. She’d hardly spoken since…well, since their last night in Minnesota. Still, wrapped up in a sweater, she’d consented to sitting outside with the others, roasting s’mores in the small fire M.T. had built.

It was the following morning when things had gotten a bit hairy—when things had gone so terribly, terribly awry. Dragging the other two down to the dock, Penny insisted they take a morning cruise out in powerboat.

Thick splashes of red-and-blue paint decorated the side of the spearhead-shaped vessel. Secured tightly to the side of the dock, it was a thing of beauty. Even Penny, who had little actual experience with anything aquatic, despite living on a lake, was impressed by the look of the motorboat.

“What, was the rental agency out of pontoons?” M.T. whispered with a sidelong glance at Penny. Her eyes shifted uneasily toward the impressive vehicle.

“Don’t be silly—! A pontoon? That would have hardly done. This puppy is going to really zip!”

“Yeah, that’s what I’m afraid of,” M.T. muttered.

“Its fine,” Kate said, speaking quietly beside them. “I can drive if you’d like—”

“Absolutely not!” Penny shouted.

M.T. gave her a piercing look. “Penny are you sure? Kate seems the obvious choice here—”

“Yeah, I do have experience with speedboats,” Kate agreed, adding drily. “I grew up on Lake Minnetonka, you know.”

“Pish posh.” Penny waved their words aside. “I did a whole training session with the rental company. I know what I’m doing.”

M.T. didn’t look convinced.

Kate looked like she was about to argue the point again.

But Madame Penny stopped them both short with this: “I’m not big on water. I’d feel much better if I could be in control, okay?”

“Okay.”

“If you’re sure.”

“I’m sure. Now, go put on some sunscreen and those swimsuits and let’s give this thing a run for its money.”

It had started out well enough at first. Penny had procured a map of the lakes and, as the self-proclaimed tour-guide had taken them, jerkily at first, through first Crane Bay and into the neighboring waters of Lilac Lake. The spray of bath-temperature water welcomed them as they sliced through the relatively open body, guiding them reassuring onward toward an upcoming channel.

Red and green buoys bobbed glaring ahead…

“Penny, slow down!” Kate’s plaintive wail was the last thing anyone heard before the sickening crunch.

With a jolt, the boat came to a standstill, a terrific tearing sound reaching their ears from underneath the glossy depths below.

“What the—!” Wrenching her body against the side of the boat, Penny’s head stared down at the dark water. The boat sat silent, dead. Automatically, Penny’s hand seized the key, turning it frantically from ON to OFF and back again, but the engine refused to turn over. Nothing.

“What happened?” M.T.’s voice came out small, a squeak of confusion and mounting dread.

“I’ll tell you what happened,” Kate said, her voice strangely loud. She was standing up now, leaning over the back of the boat, her fingers pointing shakily behind them. “We’re standing in no more than four feet of water—and Penny just ripped the engine off the boat!”

That explained a few things.

“What?!”

Kate rounded on the women now, her face blossoming a deep, burgundy red in her distress. “You didn’t even slow down Penny—Did you think those buoys were put there purely for ascetics? I assure you, they weren’t!”

“Kate…”

“Jesus Christ, do you know what this means? We’re stranded!” Kate’s voice was so loud is echoed deeply off the surrounding trees, her voice rippling across the surface of the lake. “I mean, what the hell were you thinking, flying through a channel like that?”

“I didn’t know…” That was the wrong thing to say.

“Well no shit!”

M.T.’s eyes bulged out of her head at Kate’s nasty tone. It was so unlike the other woman’s usually calm, almost apologetic demeanor, that for a second no one spoke.

“Kate, I’m sorry.”

“You’re sorry?!” The words hit Penny like a slap in the face. “You’re sorry?! Seriously? We’re miles away from our cabin, stuck in the middle of nowhere, and for what? Because you wanted to play fast-and-loose with the rules of the waterway—”

“Kate, calm down,” M.T. tried to say.

“Look around,” Kate cried, waving her arms frantically at the densely wooded land on either side of them. “There are no houses here, no roads…”

M.T. spared a pitying look at Penny, whose face had gone three degrees of white during Kate’s tirade.

“All right,” M.T. agreed, speaking slowly, softly. “But what I do see are power lines. Which means—aha!” Pulling her cell phone out of her purse, M.T. held it up triumphantly. “I have a signal. We can call someone for help.”

Kate took a deep breath. Then another. “Okay. Who do we know that lives out here?”

The sister’s meaningful exchanged looks. The short answer: no one. But neither wanted to admit that…not with Kate’s current state of mind being what it was.

“Not to worry—I, um, I have someone I could call,” Penny improvised, speaking quickly, determinedly avoiding eye contact with Kate as she did so. Holding out her hand, she beckoned for M.T.’s phone. “I’ll just—I’ll give them a ring, huh?”

“And just who might that be?” M.T. whispered urgently to Penny, as she passed over the phone, careful to keep her voice out of Kate’s hearing range. “You don’t have friends out here—neither of us do!”

“Shh! Never you mind. Just—keep Kate preoccupied. All right?”

M.T. did as instructed. Walking over to Kate, she put her arms around the woman’s tense shoulders, effectively blocking Penny from her view. “Well, you have to give her this, Penny has certainly made this a trip we aren’t bound to forget.”

Kate’s snort was weary, uncooperative.

M.T. tried again. With a nod toward Penny’s outfit—she was wearing two life-jackets, one on top of the other, with three spares stacked neatly under the steering wheel, a snorkel mask perched atop her head. “At least, we have a plethora of floatation devices.”

“Like their necessary in less than a foot of water.”

M.T. pulled a face. “See, it could be worse. We could be in much direr straits.”

Kate gave her a long look. “Not if she’d let someone who actually knew what they were doing drive the damn boat.”

“Yes, well I doubt she’ll make that mistake next time.”

Kate snorted again. M.T. didn’t take that as a good sign.

Luckily for the pastor, however, by that time Penny had finished up with her mysterious phone call. Coming to join the women, she plastered a beaming smile across her face.

“Not to worry ladies, rescue is on the way!” Though she’d said this for comedic effect, judging by Kate’s stony expression, she wasn’t going to get the laugh she’d hoped for.

“Well, see now, everything is going to be just fine,” M.T seconded.

“It’s going to be a bit of a wait yet,” Penny cautioned, reaching underneath the front seat of the boat for a cooler neither Kate nor M.T. had noticed before. Popping the top open with something of a flourish, Penny reached inside, bringing out three bottles of cold beer.

“What…?”

“I knew these would come to good use. We’ve got to past the time somehow.” Penny tossed each girl a beverage. “Might as well enjoy ourselves.”

“Are you allowed to drink on a boat?” M.T. asked, but she’d already popped the top of her own beer.

Penny shrugged. “I don’t know. But, in the unlikely event that a patrol should actually float past, I doubt the alcohol would prove to be the most pressing issue.”

Kate grunted, but she too, had opened her beer.

“Well…cheers!”

But an hour and a half later, Penny’s so-called help still unaccounted for, Kate grew restless. “Shouldn’t they be here by now? Are you sure you gave them the correct coordinates? They know we’re on Lilac Lake, right?”

“Yes, I gave the right coordinates. It’s just…these things take time.” Penny spoke quickly. Too quickly. “You know how it goes: first they have to get here, get their hands on a boat, haul that to a landing, and depending on where that is…these things take time.”

“Well, how much longer, do you think?” Kate whined annoyingly. They were only their third beers by this time.

Penny feigned a nonchalant air. “Oh, I don’t know, give or take another hour.”

“Another hour! It doesn’t take that long to get a boat, surely? And just what did you mean, first they have to get here? Just where are they coming from?”

Penny looked guilty.

“Who did you call Penny?” Kate asked, her jaw clenched in anticipation. There was really only one person…She should have known.

“What matters here, is that we’re going to get toed back to safety.”

“Who?” Kate demanded.

M.T. held her breath. Kate sounded, if possible, more upset than when the engine flew off the back of the boat.

Penny lowered her eyes, intently inspecting her sandals as she mumbled: “Jackson.”

Kate sucked in a hard, uneven breath. “Jackson? As in your neighbor—Jackson?”

“That would be the one…”

“ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME RIGHT NOW?!”

Kate’s reaction was so far removed from normal, that even M.T., an old hat at dealing with counseling, seemed taken aback, unsure how to proceed.

“I CANNOT BELIEVE YOU—AFTER EVERYTHING THAT HAPPENED BETWEEN US—HOW COULD YOU?!”

Penny raised her hands up high, in a position of surrender. “Please Kate, stop yelling at me. I didn’t know anyone else.”

Kate took a calming breath. Her voice, at least, went down a couple octaves, if her accusations only got wilder. “You know, if I didn’t know any better, I’d swear you had planned this all along.”

“Kate, I would never…”

“Oh, no! Of course not.” Kate was the epitome of sarcasm. Lips snarling, mock sympathy. “You never push people to do things they aren’t ready for, claim to know better than everyone else—or put your nose where it doesn’t belong. No, not you! How could I even think that for a minute!”

“Kate…”

“It’s what you’ve always wanted, though, isn’t it?” Kate eyes glowed. “For me to choose Jackson—for us to end up together. You’ve all but admitted it from the moment we met. So why not plot a little scheme to get us together—especially when I can’t escape.”

“Nor can Maggie and I,” Penny reminded her. “Think about it. Our being here would sort of defeat the purpose of that little ploy, wouldn’t it?”

“It wouldn’t be your first stupid plan.”

“News flash Kate, not everything is about you!” The moment the words were out of her mouth, Penny deeply, truly regretted them. Kate had gotten a rise out of her, the last thing Penny intended to happen.

And that had effectively ended that. By the time Jackson had arrived, the women were no longer speaking to one another, Maggie stuck playing the uncomfortably middleman. Kate’s mood hadn’t improved one iota at his appearance, her eyes skittering anywhere but his face, her words clipped, short, uncommunicative to say the least. Mirror images of one another, Penny, on the other hand, couldn’t seem to shut up…blabbing on and on insistently, clearly trying to cover up any attempt at an awkward silence. Instead, it was just awkward chatter.

Once back at the cabin, the women lost no time in packing up their things and, trailing the beat-up boat back the rental shop (the damage of which caused Penny a dear sum of money), headed for home. It was the longest, quietest two hour drive of M.T’s life. Even the music, which Penny kept at blaring level, wasn’t enough to still the undercurrent of seething anger swirling around the women.

 

 

 

“I’ve tried calling, but she won’t answer.” Penny’s voice drifted over M.T.’s consciousness, brining her back to the present. “I hate having her mad at me.”

M.T. smiled sadly. “I know.”

“How long do you think she’ll stay that way?” Penny, did she but know it, sounded like a small, hurt child.

“I don’t know,” M.T. said honestly “Just give her the time and space she needs right now. She’ll come around when she’s ready.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of, what if she doesn’t come around? She was so angry. It was like she hated me.”

“Penny, try not to take it so personally. It’s not you she’s really mad at. Not entirely anyway. She just—” M.T. shook her head, pushing her cup of coffee to the side of the oak table. “She needed someone to be mad at, and you—well, you gave her the outlet she so desperately needed. After what happened in Minnesota—she bottled it all up inside her. All that anger, that hurt… it was bound to come out. She needed to let it out.”

M.T. stared across the table at her sister. “Try and remember: we, as humans, tend to project the kind of pain she’s going through on the people we love the most, the people who deserve it the least…”

“Because we know they’ll still love us, no matter what we say or do” Penny finished.

“Exactly. And Kate’s no different from anyone else in that department.”

Penny sighed. “I’ll try to take comfort in the compliment inherent in that statement.”

“As you should.”

Penny placed one of her hands gently over Maggie’s. “Thank you—for stopping by today. For checking in on me.”

“Always Ruthie. Always.”

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Thirty

Kate was late. Scurrying into her house, she threw her college book-bag aimlessly onto one of the pink upholstered chairs arranged in parlor room, her feet taking her quickly to the kitchen and up the stairs to her bedroom. Kate hated being late.

Despite this, she was nonetheless steadfast in her decision to change out of her school clothes first. Quickly shucking out of her jeans and t-shirt, Kate scoured through her closet. When her eyes landed on a bulky turtleneck, the material pilling at the neck, she reached for it gratefully. Throwing it over her head, the coarse fabric fell against her body loosely, ungainly, unseemly…it was perfect. Snapping a large scarf out of the woven bin laying on one of the shelves there, she quickly wrapped it over her hair, the style vaguely imitative of Madame Penny. All she needed know was that pair of sunglasses, the ones with the large lens, and she’d be ready.

It was the first time she was going out in public since…well, since her love life had gotten so conflicted. She’d holed up in her house the last three days, claiming school work as her excuse. Almost all the food was gone out of her house now, and the walls had started closing in around her. And, as Maggie had assured her when she’d called that afternoon, it was time to face the world again. She couldn’t hide out forever….Looking at herself in the mirror Kate nodded her head with satisfaction. She was almost unrecognizable.

Kate knew she was being ridiculous, wearing a disguise to go have coffee with Penny and Maggie, but she couldn’t help herself. What if Jackson decided to stop there on his way home from school? The store was only three building’s down from the LitLiber Bookstore….

“Too dramatic?” Kate mused to herself, as she raced back down the stairs. “I don’t think so.”

She had just reached the parlor room again, her thoughts preoccupied with the business of pushing the foot of one leg into her suede shoes, when she felt the unmistakable vibration of her phone ringing in her back pocket.

Rolling her eyes, Kate reached for the device. It was probably Penny, calling to enquire about Kate’s whereabouts, to scold her for being late. But, when Kate looked down at the screen in her hand, she was surprised to note she didn’t recognize the number calling her…except for the area code. She knew that area code all too well.

Abandoning her other shoe, Kate hobbled over to the pink upholstered chair, squeezing her body in beside her schoolbag. With tremendous strength, she answered the call, bringing the phone uneasily up to her ear.

“Hello?” she asked, her voice husky with dread.

 

 

 

“He’s tall, at least six foot four, with a shock of brown hair, hanging long and loose down his face,” Penny said, her voice soft in memory. “At first, I don’t notice him coming toward me. I’m too focused on the task at hand—”

“Oh yes…slaying zombies, right?” Maggie asked deadpan. With an almost imperceptible look, she glanced down at her watch. Kate was more than fifteen minutes late. It wasn’t like her.

“Hey, someone’s got to do it,” Penny defended lightly. “Anyway, I’m in the middle of a field, my machete in hand when I feel his presence behind me. Swinging around, thinking he’s one of the enemy, I raise my sword, ready to fight. That’s when our eyes meet. Stunned, frozen in that position, I can only stare into those amazing brown pools of wisdom, mesmerized by what I see. In them, I read our future, as easily as if I were reading a newspaper—it’s that clear. Standing right in front of me, naked from the waist up, is my soul mate.”

“Yeah, but Penny it’s only a dream,” Maggie reminded the younger woman gently. “You can’t really believe…”

“Of course, I really believe,” Penny insisted. “And it isn’t just a dream, it’s a reoccurring dream. In my profession, that means something.”

“So you think this half-naked man is a real person? Do you also think zombies are going to attack Whestleigh soon?” Maggie teased.

“Of course the zombie’s aren’t real. They’re merely symbolic—a representation of my life’s purpose. Since my life’s work is psychic intuition, the zombie’s are merely an alternate portrayal of my House of Intuition. In my dream, the man comes to me looking for help. So, if dreams imitate reality, I know that’s where I’ll meet him; through my work, at my shop!”

It’s patently clear to Maggie that Penny’s put a lot of analytic—if bizarre—thought and logic into this dream. “Right, well—”

“Where in the hell is Kate?” Penny said impatiently, her voice riding over Maggie’s half-hearted response. “She’s almost half an hour late. Should we try calling her again?”

Maggie shrugged, retrieving her phone from where it lay on the table beside her cappuccino. “Sure.”

But, after the fourth ring, all Maggie got was Kate’s answering machine.

“Okay…we’ll give her five more minutes to show,” Penny improvised. “Then we’ll start worrying.”

 

 

 

In the end, Penny and Maggie gave her ten minutes, but when Kate still hadn’t walked through the doors of Bean Tamptations, when she still hadn’t returned a single call, they knew something was wrong. As per Penny’s edict, they finally allowed the first strands of worry to envelope them. Quickly leaving the coffee shop and settling into Maggie’s SUV, they drove straight for Eveleth Ave.  Penny tried calling Kate again, but again she was treated to that woman’s voicemail.

“Where the hell is she?” she asked, shooting a glance at Maggie’s profile.

“Don’t borrow panic,” Maggie pleaded, but her white knuckles clenching the steering wheel, the high rate of speed she took on the residential road belied the pastor’s cool facade. It was only as Maggie pulled into Kate’s driveway that the women allowed themselves a full breath. Kate’s car was there. She was home. That was something at least.

“She probably just fell asleep,” Penny said, working up the excuse even as she scrambled out of the truck, her feet making quick work to the front door. “I know she’s been stressed out about school lately…” she muttered inanely. Rapping her knuckles solidly against the door, she waited for Kate’s answer.

“And anyone who’s name begins with a J,” Maggie mused drily, coming up to stand beside her sister.

Penny knocked again, her ear pressed up against the door now, listening for any signs of life. She didn’t hear anything.

“Kate!” Maggie yelled. “Kate are you in there?”

Silence.

“Should we just go inside?” Penny asked, her fingers already turning the knob in her hand. “It’s unlocked,” she whispered then, watching in quiet bemusement as the door swung open at her command.

“Kate? Kate, we’re coming in,” Maggie said, and pushing passed Penny, did exactly that.

The woman had barely made it up the two steps that led into the parlor room when they heard it: the sound of muffled footsteps coming from upstairs. Maggie and Penny exchanged glances. Without a word, they advanced further into the home, their steps light as they headed toward the stairs.

Penny had just placed a foot on the bottom rung when another sound penetrated the walls: a broken sob, followed closely by an anguished whimper…like that of someone crying. That did it. Past the point of caution, Penny and Maggie raced up the stairs, their feet smacking loudly against the wooden structure there. Something was definitely wrong!

Clearing the stairwell, vaguely out of the breath, Penny and Maggie pushed past the door marking Kate’s bedroom, their bodies barreling inside on a cluttered whirl of arms and legs and all-around panic. Pausing inside the threshold, that’s when they saw here. Kate, her make-up smeared across her crumpled face, standing before her bed, throwing clothes haphazardly into an open suitcase there.

“Kate?” Maggie queried softly. Of all the things she’d imagined in the frightful flight up here, this certainly wasn’t one of them. Kate was leaving?

“If this is about Jake and Jackson, I think it’s going a bit too far,” Penny parried half-humorously.

But Kate didn’t seem to hear them; undeterred by their presence, her body continued its robotic movement, alternating between the closet and her suitcase…hanger after hanger discarded in exchange for the heaping, untidy pile steadily growing on her body.

“Kate? Come on, talk to us,” Maggie pleaded. Moving forward, her fingers reached out to gently touch Kate’s shoulder.

Jerking at the contact, Kate’s head turned sharply, wild eyes landing with shocked dismay on Maggie’s face.  “What—what are you doing here?” she asked.

Maggie smiled softly; at least Kate was finally talking.

“We’re looking for you,” Penny said simply.

“What’s going on Kate?” Maggie asked, and inkling her head, indicated the suitcase on the bed.

Moving on auto-pilot, Kate’s glance followed Maggie’s prompt. “I have to go,” she said softly, the words clipped, short.

“Go where?”

“Why?”

“What happened?”

“You’re freaking us out here.”

Kate shrugged. “Nanny is sick.”

Maggie’s brow furrowed. Nanny?

But, judging by the immediate response on her sister’s face, it seemed Penny understood who this Nanny person was. Face twisted in instant concern, Penny spoke softly: “Oh, Kate. I’m so sorry. What happened?”

As if her knees had suddenly gone out from under her, Kate slid into a seated position on the edge of the bed. “I was on my way to see you—I hadn’t forgotten—when I got a phone call. I didn’t recognize the number…when I answered it a stranger’s voice told me that Agatha Moore, my childhood nanny, was in the hospital…something about her heart,” Kate’s voice cracked just slightly over the word. Taking a deep breath, however, she found the composure to resuming speaking: “The man, I think it’s her son, thought I might like to know. He knew how close I was to her.”

“Oh Kate—”

“He wouldn’t have called it if wasn’t serious,” Kate sniveled. “Nanny would have never given him my number if she wasn’t scared.”

“Kate, what do you need?”

“I need to go, I need to be with her,” Kate said, misunderstanding Penny’s question. Buoyed by the words, she stood up again and, her purpose reawakened, took herself once more to the closet.

“Of course you need to go be with her,” Maggie soothed.

“When are you planning on leaving?” Penny asked, though she was pretty sure she knew the answer to that.

“As soon as I’ve finished packing,” came the terse response.

“Have you purchased your plane ticket yet?” Maggie asked, shooting Penny a telling look.

“Uh,” Kate stopped walking for a second, as though her thoughts couldn’t keep up with her. “No—”

“We’ll do that,” Maggie said.

Penny smiled secretively. “Yes, let us handle that.”

Kate nodded, but she hardly heard them.

 

 

 

 

Six hours later, three harassed women jostled about in their seats as the plane they were flying in taxied to a landing on the airstrip at the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport.

“You didn’t have to come, you know,” Kate said, watching through hollowed eyes as fellow passengers rose to their feet, exiting the massive aircraft. Neither Penny nor Maggie spoke, unsure of what to say. They hadn’t asked Kate’s permission, hadn’t so much as hinted at their intention to accompany her on this trip, they’d just gone and done it anyway. A surprise attack, they’d quietly driven her to the airport and, after ignoring her proffered goodbyes, had simply followed her to the security checkpoint where they’d produced their own tickets.

“…but, but I’m glad you did,” Kate continued. Reaching out on either side of her, she squeezed their hands. “I’m really glad you did.”

Maggie smiled. Penny bit her lip.

It was almost midnight. Going to the hospital at that hour was out of the question. Even Kate, in her current state of distress, knew that. So they took a shuttle to the nearest hotel and settled in for the night. The hospital was still some distance away, but in the blanket of pitch-black nightfall, Kate felt the first band of anxiety unfurl around her stomach. She was close to Nanny. For tonight, that was enough.

“…ain’t that life, the first vacation I take in years, and it’s to a climate colder than our own,” Penny said, walking out of the adjoining bathroom, her wet hair signaling a recent shower.

Kate, looking at the window, staring at the lights of the city she once called home, laughed, but it wasn’t filled with humor.

“Do you miss it here?” M.T. asked, slipping under the covers of the bed she and Penny were sharing for the night. They’d gotten a room with two queen-sized beds; it went without saying that Kate would take the other one for herself.

Kate’s shoulder hitched uneasily. “I don’t know. Maybe. Sometimes, I guess.” Turning away from the scenery, a sad smile graced her face. “I missed her. She was part of every good memory I have of this place”

“Tell me about her,” M.T. insisted.

And Kate did. “She joined our household when I was six years old. She looked just the way you’d imagine an English nanny might…plump, middle-aged, iron-grey hair pulled into a tight bun…”

“Does she have an accent?” Penny asked sleepily.

Kate considered this for a moment. “Yes…but it’s not as noticeable as when she first moved here.”

“What did you two do together?” M.T. asked, prompting Kate along. In times like this, the best distraction was talking about the happier times, remembering the good instead of dwelling in the fear of what could lay ahead…

Kate’s eyes softened. “We did everything together. We built fords in the house with old sheets, hunted for bugs in the backyard. We’d slay dragons in the afternoon, using sticks as swords and pillows as monsters. Sometimes she’d snuck me out to get an ice-cream cone. That was strictly secret,” Kate said, lost in her memories now. “If my mother had known…well, if mother had known half the stuff Nanny Moore allowed, she wouldn’t have lasted a week.”

“She was a rebel.” M.T. said

Kate smiled. “Oh yeah…and I was her faithful sidekick. I mean, she still made me do my homework, and I had chores to get done but…she used to say there was a time for work and a time for play, and enough hours in everyday for both.”

“Sounds like she loved you a whole lot.”

“And I loved her. She was my savior.”

 

 

 

At 8:30 the next morning, a solemn Kate led Penny and Maggie to the bank of elevators standing guard at the front of St. Ann’s hospital. She’d already seen to the receptionist. Nanny was on the 8th floor, room 822. Riding inside the cold metal box as it ascended the commanded height, Kate tired to level her breathing.

It had been almost nine months since she’d seen her beloved Nanny; Kate felt guilty about that. In her selfish desire to get away, she’d never considered all that she was leaving behind. She’d never considered this. Nanny was edging eighty, but somehow in Kate’s mind she’d never been allowed to really age from the woman she was all those years ago, when she’d first opened the imposing door to the McDonald house, her smiling eyes meeting those of the shy, nervous little girl standing before her. Nanny had always been there, the one constant in Kate’s life.

And now she was sick.

“Kate, it’s going to be okay,” M.T. murmured softly, her hand sweeping comforting circles on the girl’s back. Kate looked bad today. No amount of concealer could hide her sleepless night; no rogue could disguise the paleness of her cheeks.

“I hope so,” she whispered as the doors ahead of them whooshed open, opening gracefully on the cardiac ward. Stepping out of the elevator and down the accompany corridor there, Kate hardly noticed the beige walls with their neutral paintings, depicting calm, peaceful landscapes, her eyes intent on the plastic door signs she passed: 816…818…820….

 

Room 822

            Agatha Moore

 

Coming to a halt, Kate stopped to collect herself for a just a moment before knocking.

“Come in.” The voice which answered didn’t sound like that of the Nanny Kate remembered. It was too weak, too frail, too devoid of the energy that lady always had in abundance.

Poking her head inside the semi-private room, Kate’s nervous eyes searched for, and quickly located, that of her childhood friend: snowy hair hanging limply around a flaccid, too-still body. Without realizing she’d even moved, within seconds Kate found herself closing the distance between them, shakily reaching for the thin hand resting at the side of the hospital bed.

“Nanny! Oh Nanny,” she wailed, bending down o kiss the paper-thin cheek on display.

“Poppet!” Nanny breathed, her fingers holding tightly to Kate’s hand. “What are you doing here? If they find out…it’ll blow your cover.”

“Who cares,” Kate cried, and she meant it. “You’re the only thing that matters right now. Oh, I’ve been so worried! How are you? Are you all right?”

Nanny scowled. “It’s this damn ticker. If it weren’t for that, I swear I’d live forever.”

Kate blanched at the reminder. “What happened?”

But Nanny Moore brushed this question aside. “Kate, where are your manners?” she tut-tutted. “You’ve yet to introduce me to the lovely women who followed you inside.”

Faltering, Kate looked over her shoulder to where a hesitant M.T. and Penny stood, hovering just inside the doorway. “Forgive me. Nanny—these are my friends, Maggie and Penny.”

Waving them forward, Kate continued: “Penny, Maggie, this is my nanny.”

“Hello,” Penny and Maggie said in unison.

Nanny smiled in welcome. “Yes, yes, hello; I’ve heard so much about you two,” she announced, coughing a little over the words. “I’m so pleased to meet you.”

“I only wish it could have been under better circumstances,” M.T. said, smiling gently in greeting.

“Kate speaks very highly of you,” Penny seconded.

Nanny inclined her head in acknowledgement of this. “I watched her grow up. I like to think, in some small way, I helped contribute to the beautiful woman she is today—”

“Oh, you did!” Kate insisted tearfully.

Nanny went on as though Kate hadn’t interrupted. “For many years, it was my job to protect Kate; somehow, I never learned how to stop doing that. So I don’t mind telling you how worried I was when she up and decided to move out to Whestleigh, a town she didn’t know, all alone in the world,” Nanny’s voice was gruff, hard but on the next words, it softened: “But then she wrote to me about these two women she’d met…these silly, crazy, amazing women, and suddenly I knew: I wasn’t the only person protecting her anymore. She tells me you’re the best friends she’s ever had. You don’t know how good it did my heart to hear that.”

Kate blushed. Even after all these years, Nanny still possessed the power to render Kate speechless in embarrassment. Neither M.T. nor Penny seemed fazed by this response however.

“But who’s taking care of you, that’s what I’d like to know? Who’s protecting you?” Kate wailed, and those feelings of guilt she’d experienced earlier came back to haunt her again.

Nanny frowned. “Don’t be silly, the doctors are. Why, do you think you could do their jobs better?” she challenged.

Kate sighed. “That’s not what I meant. This time around, I’m the one who’s worried.”

Nanny only stared up at her with guileless eyes. “Well, enough of that. All the worry in the world isn’t going to change anything, it’ll just make you grey faster,” came the wise reply.

“But it’s okay for you to worry about me?” Kate returned hotly.

Nanny Moore grinned. “Exactly. You were my charge. It was in my very job description.”

“That’s not fair.”

Nanny smiled. “What’s that expression: do as I say, not as I do? Kate, if there’s one thing I never got around to teaching you it’s this: don’t over-think everything so much. That brain of yours, no matter how powerful, can’t write the future, or rewrite the past.”

Kate had her mouth open in retort to this when another’s voice rang out…

“Kate?!”

The questioning exclamative came from somewhere near the room’s entrance; in their excited chatter, no one had noticed the shadow filling the doorway. Kate’s words dying on her lips, the previous conversation was brought to an abrupt end as four pairs of eyes swiveled around, following the sudden, unexpected sound.

Standing, silhouetted in the fluorescent lighting of the hallway behind her, was a tall distinguished woman. Hair piled high on her head, she wore a plum-colored suit, the fine material making the most of her fit body. If it weren’t for her fingers, strangling the sides of a bouquet of flowers she held in her hands, she would have passed as a flawless.

Penny’s eyes slithered suggestively to Maggie’s.

Kate’s eyes, however, never strayed from the mysterious woman before them. Straightening her back, the movement slow, stiff, Kate brought herself up to her full height. For a moment, no one spoke, they just stared, Kate’s eyes wide with fear, the woman’s with dead disbelief.

Finally, chin tipped up a notch or two, a look of unconscious arrogance flitting across her expression, Kate spoke, her words quiet, resigned. “Hello, mother.”

“I knew it,” Penny hissed softly to Maggie, but no one heard her quiet victory. All eyes were glued to the sign unfolding before them.

Dropping the now-forgotten bouquet to the ground, Calida McDonald, for perhaps the first time in her life, didn’t stop to think before acting—she didn’t counsel decorum, didn’t give a damn about convention. Instead, she ran, her arms outstretched, straight into Kate’s immobile body. Wrapping her daughter tightly into her arms, Calida’s body shook with the force of her feelings: “Oh Kate—I’m so sorry! Please forgive me. I’m so sorry!”

Stunned, Kate brought her arms cautiously around her mother’s thin body. “Mom?”
“We’ve been so worried—where have you been?” Tears Kate had never seen shed fell from her mother’s eyes, messing with her carefully done mascara. “Don’t—it doesn’t matter, you’re here now. You’re here now.” Pulling back, Calida’s hands caressed the sides of Kate’s face, framing her cheekbones. “I’ve missed you, oh God, how I’ve missed you. Please don’t runway again…I’m so sorry!”

Maggie’s eyes went round. Penny held her breath.