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

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.

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Twelve

Kate took a deep breath, and then another. Her dress felt too tight, but then, modern image had it that Romeo’s Juliet was something of a stunner. Hence, she couldn’t be seen in anything that billowed too loosely. She would have to make do with what little airway she was afforded.

The backstage of Whestleigh High School’s theater department reeked of body odor and fear, but Kate wasn’t positive they weren’t side-effects of her own person. Today was the day: the group theatre project for her Shakespeare class; the one-act revival of Romeo and Juliet.

Kate looked up at the clock hanging beside the left wing entrance. It was 7:50 a.m. They’d been instructed to show up at quarter to eight to have a quick meet-and-greet with the school’s theater director. Kate considered that at least she’d been lucky to have gotten Whestleigh High School as the locale for this so-called production. Unlike her classmates, most of whom lived on campus at Cordwyn—a twenty minute commute—she’d had a comparatively restful morning.

But she probably shouldn’t have eaten that second muffin for breakfast this morning. She’d wanted to make sure she left on a full stomach. Now, an hour later, the contents stirring rebelliously, Kate wondered if that hadn’t been such a good idea. Pinning a smile on her face, she reminded herself that she was fine. She wasn’t going to vomit. She wasn’t going to pass out. These were just a bunch of kids for goodness sakes, what did she care for their critic?

Her mantra sort of helped.

That is, until the teacher worked in. At first, shrouded in the shadows of the dimly lit room, Kate couldn’t make out his features but after the first couple of steps, his patrician nose, sandy blonde hair, those wide shoulders came into striking view…and she wanted to barf all over again, but for an entirely different reason.

If memory served her correctly, and admittedly she’d been pretty drunk that night, the man making his hurried way toward their ragtag troupe of actors was none of than Madame Penny’s next door neighbor. What had Penny said his name was? Jackson?

If Kate prayed that his recall wouldn’t extend to that evening, she was doomed for disappointed. No sooner had he reached their little group then his eyes, scanning what should have been the faces of relative strangers, twinkled knowingly, deliberately upon contact with her own diverted countenance.

Just as quickly, however, his eyes moved on, brushing past her, leaving Kate wondering if she hadn’t just imagined the humor she’d read in them moments ago.

“Good morning everyone,” he announced then, his voice infused with sudden energy. “Let me introduce myself. My name is Jackson Fischer. I’m the resident English teacher and, subsequently, the theatre director here at Whestleigh. I want to take a moment to both welcome and thank you for taking the time to rehearse this scene with our students today. We’re really excited to have you!”

Out of her peripheral vision Kate say the rest of the group smilingly nod at his preamble. Like a robot, she followed suit.

“Now let me see,” he said then, looking down at a piece of paper he’d been quietly holding in his hand, “who is our Romeo today?”

“That would be me.” The guy to Kate’s immediate left held up his hand.

“Ah, Guy Patterson, correct?” Mr. Fischer clarified.

“Yes.”

“And who is our esteemed Mercutio?”

Going down his list exactingly, Jackson called out each individual player, until all had been properly identified themselves. At last, he turned to Kate, who remained the only unannounced attendant.

“That leaves our beloved Juliet,” he said, with a pointed look in her direction, “which means you must be Kate McDonald.”

“Yes,” she said simply, exerting all her energy to keep a rising blush at bay.

“It’s so nice to be properly introduced.” Though the statement was said in benefit of the entire cast, Mr. Fischer’s eyes never strayed from Kate’s downward cast expression. He was baiting her.

Before she could come up with a witty comeback, something that wouldn’t give her away, he spoke up again. He didn’t seem to require much feedback with his commentary, which was probably the teacher in him—used to being listened to.

“Before the students arrive, let’s quickly run over how the day will progress. You will perform for three different classes today: first period, second period, and fourth period. I apologize about the small gap of time in the middle, but at least you won’t be stuck here all day,” he said with a smile at the group.

“I will introduce today’s exercise at the start of each class, a matter of five to ten minutes. I’ll end each speech with this address “Now, without further ado….” When the curtain goes up, you’re on. Following the performance, should time permit, I would like to open the floor for a round of Q&A. This is a rare opportunity not to be missed, granting the audience a session with their actors,” Fishcer said, waving his arm expressively. “Of course,” he added, “it will be limited to the arena of the theatrical process and experience.”

“Sounds great,” Amanda Steven’s said, buttering up to the teacher as though she were still in the seventh grade. Kate rolled her heavily made-up eyes. Either she really wanted an A on this project or the girl was hot for teacher. Not that Kate would entirely blame her…at least on the latter assumption. Even Kate could admit, though she didn’t want to, that Jackson was a damn good looking man.

His slacks hugged his toned gluts to perfection and his polo shirt displayed just the right amount of upper body muscle without being labeled too-tight. And both were pressed with an expert hand (even his nails were nicely groomed!) His eyes were alert, signaling a man who had slept well the night.

Kate shook her head. She had more important things to think about Jackson Fischer’s sleeping habits…boxers, briefs, buff? Telling herself to get a grip, she deliberately shifted her body, changing her line of sight. She now had a fantastic view of the stage curtain, fluttering slightly from a nearby window.

Jackson kept talking, but Kate had now tuned out. Hopefully it wasn’t necessary information, because she just couldn’t summon the strength to listen to him anymore.

 

 

 

It made it so much worse, knowing that he was watching. Kate wasn’t sure why she’d given Jackson the power to increase her nervousness, she wasn’t sure why she cared that he was an audience member. She barely knew the man. Other than one drunken swim she’d have never known of his prior existence.

With or without reason, the fact remained: he was in the audience, watching her…and it had an effect. She suddenly felt seven years old again, her throat constricted, her hands batting against her collarbone, hoping to pat the airway back open.

This extra-sensory awareness of Jackson Fischer’s presence couldn’t have come with a more inconvenient scene, Kate knew as she walked quietly on the stage. In less than thirty seconds, the stage crew would draw the curtain, announcing the beginning of the production. In another five minutes she would kiss Guy Patterson, but all the while she would be thinking of Jackson Fischer. How freaking messed up was that?

But somehow, she made it through—through the kiss, the embarrassing succession of sexual entendres shortly following thereafter, even the flat marriage conducted between herself and ‘Romeo’—somehow she made it through to the conclusion of Act II, constituting the end of her first performance of the day.

One down, two to go.

Now, sitting in the chairs that Mr. Fischer had oh-so-thoughtfully provided for the players, she turned her attention to the students crouched in the theatre seats before them, waiting as the first round of questions began.

“Is it embarrassing, when, you know, you have to kiss someone on stage? Like, pretending to be in love or something?” A lot of girlish giggles followed this question, bravely articulated by a young lady whose face now flamed fire-engine red.

Guy Patterson fielded that question, for all the world as though he were some seasoned actor, and not someone who just last week asked Kate which side ‘stage left’ presided upon. Still, she kept a straight face as he fumbled his way through.

“Once you are in character, all reality is striped clean. I’m not kissing Kate,” he said, pointing at her to further his point, “I’m playing a part, I’m embodying someone else, who’s kissing someone embodying yet another someone else.”

Well, if that doesn’t clear things up, Kate thought humorously, her eyes scanning the furred eyebrows of the puzzled expressions circling around her. That got a little muddled.

“Honestly,” Kate said, piping up, “it is a little awkward…at least, at first. But, as Guy was saying, since we’re both playing a part, it’s easier to move past the weirdness of it all. By that I mean, I don’t consider that I’m kissing Guy when we’re on stage, rather that Juliet is kissing Romeo. I’m in character. Does that make sense? We’re telling someone else’s story through our action. Knowing that helps to make it less… uncomfortable.” Kate doubted that helped much, but she was glad to see some of the creases marring these confused foreheads iron out.

“Now Guy, you said you are, and I quote ‘embodying someone else.’ That’s a very important aspect of acting. Could you expand upon what that means further?” This question came directly from Mr. Fischer. Heaving a slow sigh of relief, Kate sat back further in her chair. She was off the hook this time.

To give him credit, Guy did his best to describe the process of getting into character. Unfortunately, it’s a more-or-less abstract concept. It’s not only hard to explain and, as such, digest, but each person undergoes that transformation differently; certainly Kate doesn’t do what Guy explained: closing his eyes and envisioning his character standing in front of a mirror, the background of which, besides showing his own reflection, playing out a reel of this newfound life, the character’s favorite meal, moments in his past that shaped his person, love interests…the whole shebang. That Romeo’s favorite dish and his first kiss were never spoken of in Shakespeare’s work hardly mattered, Guy defended. These nuances were created in effect, a tool for Guy to better understand his new persona, to make his character feel real by ‘living’ their life story.

Kate simply read the script and tried to emulate the person as they were written, copying her behavior to their language, her tone to their meaning, her message to that of playwrights hand. Of course, she’d never considered herself much of an actor either, so it was probably best that she hadn’t been called on to answer that one anyway.

“I tried acting once but I was so conscious that I was acting, you know that I was still really just me underneath it all and it felt…I don’t know, fake like a cheap imitation or—” a young girl started to say then. She was sitting two rows back, her face half hidden behind a curtain of hair. “How do you break out of that? I mean, like so you can embrace the imaginary so completely that it feels real.”

Kate blinked. So did Guy Patterson.

Instead, it was Shelly Bibbon, who played the Nurse Maid, who answered this profoundly insightful question. “It takes a lot of practice. You have to be able to compartmentalize in a way, to mentally lock away the, you underneath all that acting, until the job is over. It takes a lot of discipline but the more you act, the better you get at it. The self-conscious awareness that you’re only acting slowly fades as you continue to embrace other identities. Then, after a while, this freedom of expression takes over, where you are able to be anybody you want to be, and that doesn’t feel false anymore. If feels like a super power.”

Jackson Fischer spoke next, his words indicating the end of the class hour: “What a great exercise. I challenge everyone: when you leave here, I want you to pretend to be someone you’re not. Keep it small: if you’re shy be a little loud, if you’re crazy-expressive be really observant. Be appropriate: this isn’t an excused free-for-all…unacceptable conduct will not be tolerated. The same rules and consequences will be expected and enforced,” Mr. Fischer said in rider to this announcement. “Leave here today as your alter ego, the person you’d be if only you weren’t you…stretch your imaginative prowess.

“I’m sure Kate would agree with me on this,” he said then, and suddenly he was looking straight at her, causing a swift shuffle of heads to follow in wake. Damn him, she could’ve sworn he threw a wink her way before explaining that cryptic little opener: “sometimes it’s necessary to shed our ordinary self for someone new, to thrust out our common appearance and personality, even if it’s just a little bit, and do something different to make us feel alive in a new kind of way. Be daring! Right Kate?”

Gritting her teeth so hard, Kate was surprised her jaw didn’t creak when she answered him. That louse, he definitely winked. “Hmm. Yeah. Right.” The clipped note of her voice didn’t invite further discussion. God, you get drunk one time and sort-of/kind-of go skinny dipping and you can never hear the end of it!

Mr. Fischer turned his gaze back to his students, dismissing her glare as though it weren’t even there, as though it mattered that much to him. “Because that,” he said slowly, dramatically, “is what acting is really about.” On that note he sent them on their way, but not before reminding them once again to relish their assignment for the day—self-transformation!

“Well guys, how did you think that went?” he asked after the door banged shut after the last student.

“That was great! The students were so receptive to what we did. It was great, getting feedback on their experience,” Amanda Steven’s gushed, kissing up to the teacher for all she was worth. Kate hunched her shoulders, hoping her nonverbal message would be clear to Mr. Fischer: she was done sharing, for the moment at any rate.

Mr. Fischer smiled angelically, obviously pleased with her answer. “Great. Well, you’ve got about ten minutes before the next class will get here. Its home room second period so everything gets delayed a little. Take this moment to hit up the bathroom or grab a drink of water,” he said briskly, moving toward the door himself. “I’ve got to run back to my classroom to take attendance. Be back shortly.”

Then he was gone.

Jumping off her chair, Kate lowered herself off the stage and onto the ground floor of the auditorium. Her throat felt a little parched and in her frenzy this morning she’d forgotten her water bottle at home. Walking up the center aisle, Kate had her sites sit on the door Mr. Jackson had just exited. There was probably a water foundation nearby. She’d just about reached the end of the rows, her feet moving quickly, when a hand snaked out suddenly, indistinguishable in the low lighting there, the fingers grabbing onto, and holding fast, a stray piece of ribbon hanging loose on Kate’s dress. The action effective thwarted her process.

Letting out a small squeak in surprise, Kate stopped mid-step, her eyes searching through the darkness until they made out a silhouette attached to the otherwise foreign arm holding her hostage: big hair, chunky scarf, bangles running up the fellow wrist.

“Penny,” Kate breathed in recognition, “Jesus, you scared me half to death.” Kate’s left hand landed with a pause against her chest, over her fast-beating heart. “What are you doing here?”

“Well, I wasn’t going to miss out on your first performance. I mean what kind of friend would I be, if I didn’t support you in this?” she asked, perfectly serious.

Kate wasn’t sure if she wanted to laugh or scream.

“Penny, this isn’t a public show.” Kate wouldn’t have set one foot on that stage if it were. High school kids were one thing; she didn’t even compare to their self-experimentation-scientific-study case of weirdness. They weren’t her peers. Everyone else, well that was an entirely different matter.

“It’s for the students. Only,” she said bluntly. Her mind wandered, wondering at the school’s security. Did they let just anyone off the street into the building? What about the student’s safety?

No sooner had that thought raced through her mind then she noticed the lanyard hanging around Penny’s neck, the word: VISTOR clearly marked across the front, with the school’s logo watermarked behind it. The woman apparently had connections, Kate mused.

“Oh, I know, but when I found out that you were performing at Whestleigh High, well…what else could I do? I asked Jackson if I could get a ticket to the show and he offered to allow me entrance as his personal guest, especially after I explained that it was you I wanted to see. I mean, there has to be some perks to living next door to a teacher, right?” Penny explained, but Kate was hardly paying attention anymore.

So he knew already that I was going to be part of the cast, did he? No wonder he hadn’t seemed that taken aback. He’d probably been relishing that first moment of contact. The jerk.

Shaking her head, Kate decided that it didn’t matter. Jackson Fischer didn’t matter. “Well, what did you think?”

Penny made a slight face. “Eh. I thought the kiss was so-so.”

Kate nodded her head. She had to agree.

“I mean, there was more chemistry between you and Jackson than old what’s-his-name.”

“Romeo,” Kate supplied absently.

“Yeah him. Next time, trying imaging Jackson during that part,” Penny said outrageously.

Kate shook her head. “Penny!”

“I’m just call it as I see it. You two have chemistry.”

“No, we do  not,” Kate argued, cringing inwardly at her overly hot denial. Don’t get too defensive, she reminded herself, that’ll only make you look guilty.

“Oh, yes you do. I saw the look that passed between the two of you when he brought up shedding one’s inhibitions,” Madame Penny said then, fanning herself in response. “It was…hot.”

“I think you misread what was happening. If I was sending him anything hot it was via death ray. He was all but mocking me in front of everyone, and not very subtly either.”

“Oh whatever Kate. Lighten up. You did that night,” Penny scolded her softly.

“Fine. I’ll let it go, but I’m not going to agree with you about any attraction there,” Kate said huffily, crossing her arms over her chest looking for all the world anything but ‘light.’

“No?” Madame Penny asked. “Girl, he’s gorgeous. You’ve as much as admitted yourself. Most of your little crew of there is already half-in-love with him, and that includes a couple dudes.”

“They can have him,” Kate said sweetly.

“Tough crowd,” Madame Penny said under her breath.

“Not really,” Kate defended herself, “it’s just, I’ve seen it all before. Sure, his blonde hair offsets his tan beautifully, giving him the all-American Male look. Couple that off with those brown eyes and yes, he’s sure to set some hearts a-flutter,” Kate said, taking a mental stock of his assets.

“Don’t forget his muscles,” Penny said helpfully.

“Yes, those too. Well-defined and nicely proportioned,” Kate said, getting a little lost in her point.

“And he’s great with kids…surely a huge turn-on for most women,” Penny supplied helpfully.

Kate nodded her head eagerly, having pulled herself together once more. “He’s polished, clean, well put together.” Somehow, these traits were made to sound negative.

“And that’s a problem?” Penny asked, sounding baffled.

“It’s just—,” Kate shrugged, “He might as well be Phil.”

Penny went ramrod straight at those words. “Phil?” she asked, cautiously probing.

Mentally reigning herself back in control, Kate smiled. “It’s neither here nor there. I’m just saying, I’m not attracted to Jackson Fischer. I-I can’t be attracted to him,” she said, more for her benefit than Penny’s. What was that saying, if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck…any relationship would end much the same. Suddenly the smiled twisted. There was an edge to the lines around her mouth, a stubborn set to her jaw. She was done.

“You aren’t going to enlarge upon that statement are you?” Penny asked, resigned to the answer even before Kate spoke.

“No, I’m not.”

“Someday,” Penny said half to herself.

“I’ve got to get back, the second show starts soon,” Kate said roughly, without bothering to answer.

Turning around, her search for water was now an abandoned subject, Kate returned to the stage. She’d run out of time. It was left to borrow from Guy; he’d brought a large container, plus she had a sinking suspicion he’d enjoyed that stage kiss more than he was supposed to.

Out of her peripheral vision she saw Jackson come back in the room, lean down over Penny’s chair and whisper something in her ear. The psychic’s low laughter could be heard all the way across the hall. Kate couldn’t help wondering what they were talking about. Or who…?

Shrugging, she told herself she didn’t care. She didn’t care about Jackson Fischer.

She didn’t care about Jackson Fischer.

If she said it often enough, she bet she’d come to believe it too.