North of Happenstance: Chapter Eighteen

“Bless me father for I have sinned,” Kate’s voice came out soft, questioning…

The metal lattice separating her from the priest on the other side of the confessional was foreign looking, something she’d prior only witnessed in movies—the structure divided into two separate compartments.  She tried to get comfortable but the wooden abode was small, stuffy, her knees jutted up against the door in her seated position. The padding on the chair was thin, no doubt to keep the sinner’s declaration to a minimum.

She wasn’t sure how to begin a confession. Was there a certain prayer or a recitation required in the introductory statement of such a sacrament—a manual for dummies? Closing her eyes, she tried to remember what her Catholic friend’s had said about it.

Something about how long it had been since their last confession…?

“I’m not technically Catholic,” Kate said instead, opting for truth over subterfuge, “so I guess this is my first confession. You see, I’m actually Lutheran but I can’t go to my pastor because, well because she’s a part of the reason I’m here today…I’ve got to talk to someone and Penny would think I was betraying her if I talked to M.T., disbelieving in her psychic abilities—” Kate was babbling. Taking a deep breath, she paused here, taking the moment to regroup. She was probably doing this all wrong.

“Go on, my child,” she heard from the other end of the booth, the voice soothing, non-judgmental, even slightly amused.

Kate sighed, “Perhaps I should begin at the beginning. It all started yesterday. There’s this girl—Janessa. I mentor her through my church. Anyway, she wanted to go to a high school hockey game…”

 

 

 

Janessa had practically begged Kate to bring her to the sporting event. It wasn’t that she was any huge fan of hockey, rather one of the players. She had a crush. But Janessa being Janessa, it wasn’t on one of the players for her hometown team, rather the rival school.

That’s why it was so important Kate take her to this particular game; Janessa would have a viable reason of running into said player, a perfect excuse for drooling all over him—under the guise of school pride. This way she was safe to check him out without making her intentions obvious. Not that it mattered. Kate would have taken Janessa regardless. One, it was the first time her charge had reached out to her and two, Kate loved hockey.

It was only when they walked into the arena that things got weird. They’d no sooner found a spot to sit in the packed stands then Kate spotted them: Jake and Ashley, sitting together. They were two rows over, perfectly within Kate’s peripheral vision (if she craned her neck just so). Jake’s arm was stretched casually across her shoulders, Ashley’s head resting ever-so-trustingly against the side of his jaw. The sight of their canoodling about set Kate over the edge.

Standing up abruptly, Kate motioned Janessa to follow suit. She could not watch this all night.

“What are you doing?” Janessa whined, her mouth twisted into a sneer as she was led back down the steps and around the back of the rink to the bleachers on the other side.

Kate plopped down at the only abandoned spot there—shrouded in shadows from the overhanging balcony above them. Patting the space next to hers, inviting Janessa to join her, Kate scrambled for something to say, not sure how much she should confide in a sixteen year old girl. Secrets were reasons to gossip at that age.

Think, think, why did you insist upon moving…?

“Well, I thought, if you want to cheer for Zack, it would look less conspicuous from over here, in the visitors section,” she settled on, pleased with her quick recovery.

 

 

 

“But, I lied to Janessa,” Kate told the priest now, cringing even in memory. “Jake is my boss. He and I—well, we had a moment. Once,” she clarified, careful to emphasize that last part. “I moved seats because I didn’t want to have to be around him, didn’t want to see him with her—not knowing what I do.” Kate was being cryptic, she knew that, but despite her presence at Holy Cross Catholic Church, she wasn’t ready for a tell-all; the Father didn’t need to know everything and the details surrounding the Halloween Party were decidedly off-limits.

When Kate remained silent for too long, the priest prodded her gently: “What happened next?”

“I tried to hide my discomfort from Janessa but she could tell something was up. According to her, I was acting super weird.”

 

 

 

Jake’s arm, the one flung across Ashley’s shoulder, was fully occupied now, his hand caressing her shoulders, his fingers running lingering touches down to her elbow—

“There he is,” Janessa squealed, her fist connecting softly against Kate’s arm. The players were entering the ice.

Jerking her eyes back to the topic at hand, Kate tried to look interested, “Exciting,” she returned lamely. She tried to think of something to say in connection with this. As of yet, conversation with Janessa was anything but natural. “He-he skates well,” she tried, nodding toward the figure circling the perimeter of the rink.

“No, not him,” Janessa snapped. “That’s Ben Johnson. I don’t like him.” There was no mistaking the condemnation in that remark.

“Oh. Sorry,” Kate mumbled, confused. “Well, which one is he again?”

Janessa’s sigh could have been heard a block away. “Number 18. Right there,” she said pointing at one of the boys standing at the starting lineup.

Kate nodded. “And, how did the two of you meet?” she questioned.

“He showed up at one of Cassie Murray’s parties,” Janessa told her matter-of-factly.

Kate had to forcibly keep herself from a lecture on the dangers of high school parties. Drinking, sex, gossip…

With the slightest flick of her eyes she caught Jake laughing at something Ashley said, his head turned down, smiling at her. A distraction, Kate needed a distraction. Angling her own body toward Janessa, she asked: “So he’s pretty cool, huh? What did you two talk about at the party? What grade is he in? Does he live close by?” The words popped out of her mouth without apparent control or censor.

Janessa’s faced folded up at the inquisition, unintentional though it was. “Don’t third-degree me,” she said mutinously.

“Oh-no, I wasn’t…” Kate floundered. She wasn’t sure how she did it, but she always seemed to say the wrong thing.

“Whatever. The game is about to start,” Janessa interrupted her ruthlessly. Girl bonding was over.

“Okay,” Kate said slowly. Silence descended on the two of them after that, with Janessa cheering and booing alongside the other bystanders—with simultaneously ignoring Kate.

The entire first period was spent in this fashion, Kate going through the motions of watching the game, all the while surreptitiously glancing at the bleachers across the way. With Janessa’s patent rejection, Kate was left with little opportunity to keep her thoughts at bay, her eyes on task.

It wasn’t until intermission that Janessa even seemed to remember Kate existed—or chose to acknowledge it. It wasn’t until intermission that Kate felt the slightest disruption in her twisted version of hide-and-seek.

“Can I get something from the concession stand?” Janessa asked coolly.

At the sound of the girl’s voice, Kate jumped to attention: “Oh! Of course.” Kate quickly dug her wallet out of her purse. She knew, without having to ask, that Janessa didn’t have any spare cash on her. Kate handed her a twenty dollar bill.

The players were no longer on the ice, the ref’s huddled together in a small section on the rink talking shop, and multiple fans were on their feet: the restrooms and cups of hot chocolate calling…. A new fixation took root in Kate’s mind.

“Do you want anything?” The teenager asked begrudgingly, half-turning in her direction at the inquiry.

But Kate was too busy taking up her favorite pastime of spying on Jake and Ashley to notice. Please don’t get up, don’t grab a snack, do not mingle with the other parents inside the warming house…please do not get up, she silently pleaded. Because, if they rose to their feet, stretched their limbs, it would be only too plausible for their eyes to search around the building, idly taking in their surrounding, their concentration freed from the game. It would be only too possible for their eyes to meet…

“Okay, whatever. I guess not,” Janessa mumbled at Kate’s lack of response. With a shrug, she made her way down the stadium steps.

Crouched low in her seat, hair falling deliberately over her face, thankful of the bodies walking past, blocking her behind a sea of legs and jackets, Kate readjusted. The knit-hat she’d worn to cover her ears from the cold temperature of the arena was now pulled low on her head. She needed to remain incognito, well-disguised. Once everyone had moved beyond Kate, she’d be even more conspicuous, alone against an empty backdrop. Scurrying, she buried her nose behind the event program; no more than the brown of her eyes poked over the thick paper cutout announcing each team, their players, and accompanying advertisements.

She’d seen them and that was bad enough. If it were reciprocated, then something would actually have to do something about it.

 

 

 

“I keep fantasying about him,” Kate continued, her voice shaking over the confession. She was probably going to hell. The priest was going to tell her any minute now. “It’s hard enough to face him, but now whenever I do I can’t help imagining what would happen if…” shrugging, Kate let the sentence dangle; no need to paint the man a picture.

“It’s not just my mental state either,” Kate admitted. “This unfortunate attraction is spreading, affecting my job—infecting Jake and my professional relationship” When the religious figure on the other side of the partition remained silent she explained further:  “I made a mistake at work because of it, because I was too distracted. It was a pretty big mistake,” she revised. Her desire to avoid Jake had been unquestionably two-fold.

 

 

 

It was the press release. Kate had written down the wrong date—she’d sent it out to the media with the wrong date! Jake hadn’t noticed it until the following day when the newspaper sent him a copy of what they intended to print, a formality really, awaiting his approval. The good news: no damage had been done—both the radio station and the newspaper were quickly apprised of the blunder, and corrections were made before any public announcements had been made. Still…

“Kate, can I see you for a minute?” Jake’s question, its clipped quality, was the first thing she’d heard upon showing up for her shift that very afternoon. Fighting back a wave of nervousness, she’d nonetheless nodded her acquiescence. What now, she’d wondered as she made her way to Jake’s office.

Kate wasn’t sure what she’d expected walking inside, but it certainly hadn’t been Jake, standing firmly erect in front of his desk, a scowl stamped across his features, the press release she’d written strangled in his left hand.

“Does anything look off to you here?” he asked, pushing the paper into her now- numb hands. Dammit. Kate felt her heart skip a beat. She knew, without knowing, that she’d made an error. They’d be no other reason for the obviously rhetorical question, delivered in such chilling tones.

It wasn’t like she was that surprised, everything considered.

“Ah?”

“The date, Kate. Look at the date.”

Shit. She got the date wrong. That had to be it.

“I—oh, my,” she sputtered, her eyes stuck on what she’d written: Sunday, December 28th

“What happened?” he asked, cutting her off. His voice was hard. The reading was on Saturday, the 27th.

Kate shook her head, “I-I don’t…I must’ve gotten confused.” As far as excuses went, Kate’s was pretty poor.

Jake racked a hand through his hair, swearing softly under his breath. “Kate, I don’t even know what to say.”

Kate nodded, tears pricking at her eyes. “I know. I’m so sorry. I can’t believe I did this.”

“That’s just it, I can believe it,” he returned, his words as surprising as they were insulting. “I mean, what the hell is going on? You’ve been distant lately, strange and quiet. I thought—” Jake sneered derisively, “Kate, I asked you repeatedly…‘it’s under control’, you said.” He shook his head. “And then you pull this!”

“I don’t know what happened?” Kate tried.

Jake ripped the paper out of her hand, shaking it expressively. “That’s not good enough, Kate. If I hadn’t caught this…Jesus, do you know what they would have done to me, to this store’s reputation?”

Kate could feel her lips trembling under the harsh reprimand. She deserved it. She couldn’t deny that. “What can I do?” she pleaded, her eyes large in an ashen face. “How can I help fix this?”

“Prove to me that I was right, that you can actually be trusted.”

 

 

 

“I haven’t spoken to him since,” Kate informed the priest. Slinking out of his office, she’d run to the ladies’ room to have a good bawl. By the time she’d reemerged, her nose pink and her eyes swollen, Jake had left for the day. If any of Kate’s coworkers had noticed, they’d been too kind to saying anything. “The awful thing is, he doesn’t even know how I feel. And, all the while, I’m fully aware that he’s not available. Does that make me some kind of of wanna-be adultress? How morally corrupt is that? How pathetic?”

Kate didn’t wait for the Father to answer these questions. “I’ve tried to stop thinking these thoughts, honestly I have. But then I did something stupid…”

Despite her baser instincts, Kate knew she was going to have to tell the priest what happened that night with Jake, she was going to have to face his probable damnation. Then again she’d already blown her resolve to keep the events of that fated October night well-hidden. So what was one more person?

 

 

 

It was last Monday, after school. Kate and her Shakespeare Study Group had stayed late after class, preparing for an upcoming test. It was as they were packing up their respective books, finished for the evening, that the idea of going out for a couple of drinks was thrown out—and quickly accepted.

It wasn’t the first time the group hadn’t gotten together for a little social hour, but it was the first time Kate had decided to tag along. She was feeling the academic pressure and with Penny and M.T. at odds, she was fresh out of easeful companionship. A cold beer would be nice. One beer wouldn’t be any big thing.

Well, one beer turned into two, which turned into seven. At least, Kate thought she only had seven. She lost count somewhere along the way. Regardless…there’s a saying about ‘loose lips sinking ships.’ Kate had never understood the meaning of those words more keenly then after that night.

Sitting around a table with eight classmates, people who were otherwise anonymous strangers, faces she wouldn’t likely encounter again after that semester, Kate had come uncorked. It was as if she couldn’t hold it inside her any longer. She told them the story—what happened at that Halloween Party. She told them everything (even her residual lust-filled erotic daydreams in the aftermath).

She’d needed to tell someone about it; M.T. and Madame Penny hadn’t been enough. They were her friends, her best friends. They weren’t objective observers who could rationally evaluate how deep she was in, what she should do, how she should repair the mess she’d made. That’s what her classmates had become: bonafide analysts of her romantic entanglement.

“Holy shit, that’s dark stuff,” Becky Mellon had mused when Kate had finally managed to shut her goddamn mouth, finishing the woebegone tale.

“Kate, I never would have taken you for such a kinky type,” Phil had teased then, nudging her shoulder playfully.

Kate had giggled clumsily: “You don’t know the half of it.”

“God, your boss must be hot,” Becky had spoken up again, eyes twinkling knowingly at Kate.

“I just want to lick him,” Kate had announced idiotically. She’d had been raised to refrain from overindulgence in alcohol. The Great Calida McDonald had told her daughter more than once: she hadn’t raised a low-brow boozer, the kind who bellied-up to a grimy, germy bar surrounded by scoundrels and (god forbid) the blue-collar sort.

Well, Kate had made up for lost times that night. And, for perhaps the first time in her life, she wished she’d listened to her mother.

 

 

 

“I never said Jake’s name…I didn’t mention the LitLiber specifically,” Kate said, the words uttered more for her benefit than Father Matthews. She frowned. “At least, I don’t think so. I’ve run over that stupid conversation so many times—what was I thinking? These are the smallest towns in the universe! What if someone from Whestleigh overhears this story? It won’t be difficult to put two and two together…” Kate stopped talking, unwilling to travel down that road again. She’d told M.T. she could handle the fear that at any point Jake could find it out. She had to start living up to her word.  “And the whole time, at the stupid hockey game, I kept wondering: what would happen if Jake found out? I hoped he would, I prayed he wouldn’t. I kept going back and forth—wanting him and wanting to avoid him. My brain was spinning in some broken, tangled mess that just kept repeating itself. I did a stupid thing and I just keep reliving it.”

As it was, Jake and Ashley never did see Kate at the hockey game. Or, if they did, they chose to pretend otherwise. Either way was fine by her.  She didn’t have to talk to them, didn’t have to pretend. She was allowed to put that off a little bit longer…“I need to find some way to forgive myself of my sins with Jake, to forget about what happened and move on. I can’t have this distraction hanging over my head.  It’s not just work, either. I-it affected my time with Janessa,” Kate said.

 

 

 

Kate tried to get her to open up more about this Zack boy on the ride home. (It hadn’t been possible during the game, what with Janessa more or less pretending Kate wasn’t there).     Had she managed to talk to him after the game? Did she have a plan for meeting him again? Did she know if he was single? Kate’s questions feel on deaf ears. Janessa was shutting her out. Partly, Kate knew it was in Janessa’s very nature, as a sixteen year old, to be contrary, but there was another motive behind her sudden reticence, and it had all to do with Kate herself.

“Like you care,” Janessa snorted.

Kate’s eyes had widened at that. Momentarily taking her eyes off the road, she caught Janessa’s frankly rebellious look. “What? Of course I care. I care a lot,” she defended herself.

“You care because you think it makes you a better person. It’s about you, not me,” Janessa corrected her. Kate’s hands on the steering wheel jerked slightly.

“Whoa. Where is this coming from?” Kate asked as calmly as she could.

“I’m not an idiot, okay? I get it. I’m like some charity case you got stuck with—and it would look bad if you didn’t uphold your end of the bargain, so you play along. But really, you want to be with me about as much as I want to be with you. It’s fine. I don’t care.”

Kate pulled the car over to the side of the road. Things had turned serious suddenly. She’d thought they’d had a good time tonight…at least, as good a time as they ever had.

“Janessa, you are not some charity case,” Kate said, her voice shaking in her determination to make herself understood, “and I do want to be with you. I was so complimented that you asked me to come with you tonight, I can’t even tell you.”

Janessa turned her gaze out the passenger window. “Could have fooled me.”

“What did I do?” Kate asked, genuinely bewildered.

“I know fake listening when I see it,” Janessa said, her eyes clouding over. “My mom excels at it. You would swear, talking to her, that she’s involved and interested, absorbed in the conversation…but then you’d learn, the whole time she hadn’t heard a damn thing, hadn’t cared anyway.”

“You think I did that?” Kate asked, picking up on Janessa’s point quickly.

She shrugged. “I don’t care either way.”

 

 

 

“What do I do, Father?” Kate asked now, her face pressed against her hands. “How do I…where do I go with this?”

“What is it you want from the Lord, how are you hoping he can help guide you—heal you?”        The priest asked instead.

“I want to be free from the guilt I feel, from the wicked temptations that live within me despite that guilt. Does that even make sense? Is that possible?” Kate asked out loud.

“Yes,” he said gently. “The Lord can help free you of these bonds, but not before you act on your own contrition. You must decide to live without sin. Temptations are conscious choices, crafted by human frailty, redeemed by human grace. You must take accountability for your actions: you created this so you must put an end to it. Divine absolution does not exist for you convenience. Admitting to a sin is not enough, you must quit it. Once you do that, you will be given the forgiveness of the Lord, Our Father.”

The advice was so pure, so awesome yet…The words humbling, crushing and…Suddenly, hearing it, Kate felt like a fraud. An imitation stripped bare: her situation was no more real than she allowed it to be… blatantly self-perpetuated, theatrically premeditated.

Why had she come here? Why had she sought out such impressive counsel? She’d talked to Madame Penny and M.T. why hadn’t they been enough? Why had she talked to her classmates about Jake? If was as if she craved the attention, the shock-and-awe factor.

She’d made such a thing out of it, allowed it to have such power, such monumental importance. The whole affair—from the Halloween Party to that afternoon in Jake’s office—it seemed so trivial now, something she’d blown all-out-of-proportion. She and Jake had kissed. Yup, it was weird but now, listening to the remarkable, the esteemed priest before her, she felt foolish, look a woman obsessed.

Why hadn’t she seen it before?

“I’m lonely, and I think I’m only just learning how much,” she said suddenly. “I think I’ve built this up, this thing between Jake and myself. I’ve made this such a dramatic pursuit, such a sleepless anxiety because….well, because it’s better than nothing.”

 

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Sixteen

“Kate, can I see you in my office for a moment?”

The words, as unexpected as they were forceful, caused Kate to still, her hand suspended over a stack of outdated periodicals placed on a wire holder near the check-out counter of LitLiber. Luckily her back was turned when the command was issued, so the speaker wasn’t able to witness the sudden tightening of her facial muscles, her knee-jerk hesitation.

Because the voice which delivered that question belonged to none other than Jake.

 

It had been weeks since the Halloween party; if M.T. could see Kate now, she’d be so disappointed. She and Penny had worked hard that ill-fated dinner, running through every possible scenario of just how Kate should present herself toward her boss. It hadn’t worked. The first time she got within one hundred yards of him, staring down the sight of his tall, dark complexion, Kate had bailed, avoiding him just as surely as ever.

Instead, she’d spent all her time, when she wasn’t actively helping customers, re-categorizing each section of the store and when she’d completed that, reorganizing each shelf, as well. Every nook and cranny had been dusted, polished, and otherwise put-to-rights. Her next project: peeling gum off the bottom of the seats in the café.

…desperate times and all that.

With a start, Kate called herself back to the present. Her eyes cautiously moved, raking over the building until they landed with a thud on the exterior wall of Jake’s office. He wanted to see her for a moment. In there. All alone. Without any distractions.

“Sure,” she piped up anxiously, aware now that she’d been a long time in answering.

With a lingering touch, Kate abandoned the magazines. No doubt about it, she felt tongue-tied, uncomfortable at the thought of talking privately with him, even if only for a few minutes. Besides a mumbled hello or goodbye, she’d hardly spoken to Jake since ‘the thing.’ She wasn’t very subtle. Kate knew that. She could see his confusion out of her peripheral vision as she’d scuttle past, she’d been privy to the inner-office chatter—had she and Jake gotten into an argument? Still, she couldn’t help herself. She got weird when he was around.

(But hey, at least the Halloween Party remained a source of anonymity. Kate would rather the staff believe some made-up fight between them then know the truth of that make-out session.)

These thoughts took Kate to Jake’s office door. Standing outside, frantic, she tried to remind herself of what M.T. had said: walk in with your head held high; smile charmingly; don’t be nervous or awkward; nothing happened at that party; nothing is different; he’s still Jake—your boss. Sure, he’s cute but in a safe, distant sort of way. He’s still the same guy and you’re still Kate—a quiet, reserved employee of good standing.

Knocking hard once, Kate turned the doorknob in her hand. Poking her head around the opening, she tried to smile convincingly. In reality, her lips stretched grotesquely around her teeth.  “You wanted to see me?” She asked, staring pointedly at his eyebrows. That was as close she’d get to eye-contact.

“Yeah, take a seat Kate,” he offered, waving her all the way inside, toward one of two chairs placed opposite of him.

Kate did as asked, shutting the door behind her like a hunted animal. She’d always considered Jake’s office rather cramped. It was filled to overflowing with its desk, printer, three chairs, and a small filing cabinet. It hadn’t bothered her before now, but suddenly an attack of claustrophobia seemed like a real threat and Kate wondered if the beads of sweat she could feel pooling around the sides of her forehead were noticeable.

“Thank you,” she muttered, crossing one leg over the other. Her hands she left clenched on her lap. She felt fidgety.

All M.T.’s prompting hadn’t helped. She was acting anything but cool and unaffected.

Jake frowned. “Sure. I—Kate, is everything all right?”

Surprised into looking up, dead into those green eyes, Kate’s body jerked. “What?”

“It’s just, you’ve seemed, I don’t know, upset maybe?” Jake said questioningly. He shook his head, mouth pulled tight. “I just want to make sure that everything’s, well, that you’re good.”

“Uh,” Kate clucked, her tongue bouncing off the roof of her mouth with the sound. Spinning, her brain tried to register what he’d just said—or had he asked her something?

It was no use. Kate couldn’t focus. It had been a mistake, allowing her eyes to travel lower than his brow line…Now she couldn’t stop staring at his lips—the same lips she’d struggled so hard to forget; memorized she remained, her consciousness flooded, her retina’s burned: thin, a dusky shade of coral, with a sexy and well-defined bow marking out the bottom set. She remembered the feel of them pressed up against her and, suddenly a phantom pressure built there, against her mouth.

Cripes! The mere sight of Jake’s lips had turned dangerous.

Was everything okay? Absolutely not!

“Everything-uh, everything’s fine,” Kate heard herself say at last. “I’ve just been under a lot of pressure…”

Bad word choice: Kate was certainly feeling a lot of pressure. Her body ached, her breath felt pitchy, and she desperately wanted to get the hell out of there. It was too intimate.

“Everything’s fine,” she reasserted, more firmly this time. What else could she say?

Jake nodded. “All right. I’m glad to hear that.” Then, as though he couldn’t help himself, Jake added: “You know you can always talk to me, right? If school is getting hectic, any potential scheduling concerns, if you just need a vent-fest—” Jake fumbled, getting momentarily lost in his point: “I’m not just talking about at the bookstore, either. I’m here Kate.”

Kate smiled. It felt fake, toothy.

“Thank you. But really, I’m fine.”

“Okay. Good,” Jake repeated, leaning back in his chair, satisfied with her answer this time.

Was that all he wanted—just a little check-in? God she hoped so. Scooting forward on her chair, the better to rise to her feet and beat a hasty exit, Kate politely waited to be excused, her hands gripping the sides of it anxiously.

At the implication of her movements, Jake frowned. “Now that’s cleared up, the reason I called you in here today—”

“Oh?” Kate asked, trying to cover her disappointment.

“Yeah,” Jake said slowly, “Kate, I’m sure you’ve noticed—,” he paused here, changing tact’s. “I’ve been a little preoccupied lately. What I mean to say is: Kate, I want you….”

Startled eyes flew upward, clashing with Jake’s; a crooked smile played out at the edges of his mouth, the slightest of creases carved across the corners there:

I want you. I want you. I want you.

The reverberation was deafening, drowning out everything else. Jake was still speaking, Kate could see his mouth sounding out words, but they were overpowered now, muted by her overwhelmed senses.

I want you. I want you. I want you.

And suddenly, impossible images transposed themselves across her eyes: Jake standing up and reaching across the distance separating them, his hands rough as they hauled Kate to her feet. Breathless, she felt those hands cup against her elbows, caressing softly as he brought her steadily closer. And closer. Until their noses were mere inches away from contact, until she could feel the slight rhythm of his heartbeat were it pulsed against his neck.

Her nostrils flared, taking in the scent of him as she waited for his head to descend, as she waited for those lips to brush up against her own. In those seconds, she wondered how it would be: to make love on an office desk. It was so clichéd. So trite, but damned if she didn’t want to find out personally.

One knee rising slightly, until it rested against the edge of the particle-board furniture, followed quickly by the other. Jake’s hands dipping down, grabbing hold of her hips. With a hard tug, she was brought across the surface of the desk, her body pressed tightly up against his. The vantage point was different. Kneeling, she stood at equal height to him.

 

“…our first book signing at the Litliber. So this is a pretty big deal,” Jake said, his voice cutting across her fantasy abruptly. His informative tone a rude awakening, an unwanted return back to reality.

Kate was still sitting down in the chair she’d taken upon walking into Jake’s office. He remained across the desk, his posture comfortable where he lounged back against the swivel chair.

“Uh, yeah,” she said absently. What had he been talking about?

“Okay, let’s take a look at possible times, shall we?” he asked then, and this time he did stand up. Pushing a loose-leaf calendar forward, he came over to her side of the desk—the one she’d just been fantasying about. Leaning forward, beside her, his right hand braced on the edge of the hard surface, Jake’s attention seemed entirely bent on the task at hand.

Kate only wished for the same ease of concentration.

Reaching forward, Jake pulled a notepad and pen toward Kate. When she looked at it questioningly, he said: “In case you want to take notes.”

“Right,” Kate said stupidly. Notes? Nevertheless, she took the pad and paper in her stiff fingers.

“Besides just social media outlets, I want to take out radio ads, throw some announcements in the newspaper. But when and how many?” he asked.

Kate’s skin sizzled at his proximity. It didn’t take much imagination to wonder what would happen if he let his left hand, the one hanging loosely at his side, slide against Kate’s thigh.

“…the event is on the 27th, so that leaves us a lot of time still…”

The pads of his fingers would just barely brush against the fine layer of her skirt, tickling her overly sensitized skin there. Sucking in her breath, Kate felt her body tingle at the anticipated impact of that touch.

Jake’s eyes skimmed sideways, catching Kate’s: “…two announcements in the newspaper, you think? Sunday the 14th and the 21st? Yeah,” Jake circled those dates on the calendar with a red pen, something Kate would be thankful for later. “And we’ll really want to highlight the timing of the event, from one o’clock until two-thirty…” Jake chewed on the corner of his lower lip, his eyes an intense leafy green.

Those eyes were even darker in passion, a smokiness which lent them an almost midnight color. She wondered how deep that color would get if he was allowed to give seduction his undivided attention. She wondered how they’d transform if she were to slowly undo the buttons of her shirt, if she were to allow her skirt to glide off the swell of her hips. She wondered how dark those eyes would get if she—

“I can always talk to Bobby about adding more slots if needed, but I think four ads should do. And Anita at the print shop is working on posters, as well.”

Jake’s words floated vaguely over Kate’s consciousness, her mind a whirl of sexual desire, her eyes unfocused in her state of forbidden temptation. All she felt was the whisper of his breath against the tendrils of hair falling against her ear, the hum of his masculinity where he stood beside her, the scent of his aftershave when it wafted against her nose.

“You’re quiet over there. Any thoughts?”

Kate jumped at the question. Shit. She’d done it again. Peeking up through her lashes, she encountered Jake’s stare. Chest shaking, she thrust her prohibitive thoughts to the background. Straightening her shoulders, frantically recalling the snippets she’d managed to hear, Kate fought for composure, for something to say.

“Uh, yeah. I agree. What with marketing on the website, I think those should be enough to get the town’s interest,” she said, fingers crossed down at her sides. She had no idea if that even made sense.

Jake’s smile reassured her that at least she was on the right track.

“It’s settled then.” Rapping his knuckles against the calendar, Jake stood up straight.

Letting out a silent sigh, Kate felt her muscles relax when he returned to his side of the desk once more, the movement offering her some much needed space. “I really want this to be well-attended. Book signings are so necessary for small establishments like this. The first one has to be perfect.”

Kate nodded dumbly, still unsure what it was she was supposed to be doing with this information.

“So, you’ll arrange for those spots today? It shouldn’t take long, write up a quick press release outlining the event and any pertinent details, call the appropriate people… Cool?”

Kate nodded again, feeling like a parrot. At least she knew what she was doing with the information. Now she just needed to find out who in the hell she was doing it with? The newspaper, the radio station? Both? Surreptitiously, her eyes wandered down to the notepad still clutched in her hands. Scratch marks and doodled circles stared back at her. Jerkily, she placed the pad face down on her lap, so Jake wouldn’t see. She was so screwed.

“And who specifically am I contacting?” she asked out loud, striving for poise…and failing miserably.

Just as she’d feared, Jake looked nonplussed at the question, a pucker forming over the bridge of his nose.  He’d probably gone over this already. “Ed Murray from the Whestleigh Gazette.”

That was the newspaper.

“And Bobby Tomkins at Constitutive Flavor Radio.”

Both. She’d be contacting both.

“Listen, I know this is a big favor to ask—if you’d rather not do it, I completely understand. I can miss a Chamber of Commerce meeting.”

“No,” Kate said sharply, her embarrassment at an all-time high. From the sounds of it, Jake was fast losing faith in her credibility. That was not acceptable.  “No,” she repeated, softer this time. “I just, I’m not good at remembering names that’s all,” she fibbed.

When he didn’t respond, Kate rushed to add: “Please, I want to do this. Let me help you out.” I’d rather not do this! I have no idea what I’m doing. I should not be left in charge.

Jake’s lip pulled upward a little at her words. “I know you can.”

“Go to your meeting,” Kate said, fighting an internal war with herself. She was in way over her head. Jake had given her an out and, idiot that she was, she’d declined it.

Pride was a tough character flaw to shoulder.

“Thanks Kate,” he said and, checking his wristwatch: “Shoot. I’ve got to get going or I’m going to be late.” Jake gained his feet.

Kate also rose from her chair, feeling at a disadvantage.

“Any last minute questions?” he asked, shrugging on a sports coat.

“No.” Kate tried to sound confident. “Oh, wait,” she said, when his hand reached for the door. It just occurred to her—she couldn’t remember him saying…

“Yeah?”
Kate pretended to look down at her notes, her brow furrowed, trying, at least, to look adept at her job. “I want to double-check that I’ve got the author’s name written down correct. Will you spell it out for me?”

Kate figured that sounded plausible. Better then admitting she plum couldn’t recall which novelist they were showcasing at the event.

But Jake just looked confused. “What?”

“The author—”

“Her book is on the desk Kate. Right there,” he said, pointing at the large hardcover novel beside his computer. “I put it there for you to reference—along with an excerpt of what she’ll be talking about. I told you that.” The last words were said emphatically.

“Oh,” Kate said. “Right. That’s probably why I skimmed over it in my notes,” she added, tapping her pen against the pad for dramatic effect.

“Kate—”

Before Jake was allowed to get any further, she interrupted him: “That’s all I needed,” she insisted. “Enjoy your meeting.”

“Yeah.” Jake looked at his watch once again then back at Kate, weighing the options.

“You’re going to be late,” she prodded softly.

He sighed, conceding. “Yeah. All right—I’ll keep my phone on me at the meeting. Call if you come across problems,” Jake said uncertainly.

“There won’t be any,” Kate assured him. When Jake still didn’t move, she persisted: “Go. I’ve got this under control.”

“All right,” he said slowly, “Then I guess I’ll leave you to it.” Kate hadn’t thought it was possible, but he sounded even less convinced than before.

Finally though, he left. Kate was alone at last.

Sitting down, her body pressed snug against the desk, she opened a word-processing document. Her fingers trembled. It was fine, she assured herself. It wasn’t a big deal. Kate felt her fingers fix themselves over the keyboard. She could do this. She remembered most of what Jake had said (at least, she thought so), it was just scattered around in bits and pieces; she just had to fit the puzzle together.

It took a long time, and some undoubted back-tracking, with multiple phone calls to both Ed and Bobby’s office, but finally Kate finished the piece:

Upcoming Book Signing at LitLiber

The LitLiber Bookstore is hosting their first ever book signing event, honoring author Lindsay McBride’s recently released novel, “A Life Uncharted,” which follows the journey of a twelve year old girl embarking on the life of a professional gymnast. Join us, from 1-2:30pm on Sunday, December 28th as she shares her experiences writing this gripping story of dedication, obsession, lust, and loss.

 

 

 

Pulling the office door shut behind her, Kate took a moment to congratulate herself: it was done, put to bed, over. She only had a couple hours left of her shift, and then she could begin putting this day behind her. She couldn’t wait. Walking up to the cash register, Kate went to relieve one of the other girls at the check-out counter. She relished the thought of mind-numbing transactions….

At ten minutes to 5:00 p.m., (ten minutes to shift-change) Kate watched Madame Penny breeze through the front door of LitLiber. No sooner had the psychic walked inside then her eyes latched on to Kate. Scurrying over to where she was standing, behind the Customer Service Counter, Penny motioned her over.

“Are you almost done?” Penny asked bluntly—without even a ‘hello’ in welcome. “Otherwise we’re going to be late.”

Shit. Kate had almost forgotten: she and Penny had signed up for a writing class. It was being held that evening, in one of the spare conference rooms located at the back of LitLiber. The class was free to the community and when Penny asked, Kate had agreed to attend with her. Kate figured it would be something to file the time away. Plus, it was the first time in Penny had shown any interest in a subject that wasn’t a little kooky. If Kate was going to pick a time to decline her friend’s invitation, it wasn’t going to be now.

Except…Kate really didn’t feel up to it tonight. Her confrontation with Jake had been a real doozy and that stupid press release had almost cost her sanity. She’d never worked so hard to remember a conversation in her life (particularly, a conversation that had happened within a half an hour of the fact).

“Yeah, but listen—” Kate started.

“I’m so excited for this,” Penny said at the same moment. Her eyes sparkled with it. “Imagine the stories I could tell with the information I know!”

Kate smiled tightly. Penny did look eager. That sealed the deal; choking back a sigh, Kate managed to nod in agreement. She didn’t have the heart to cancel on her friend—especially this late in the day. Whatever, maybe it would be good to go to the class. It might prove a worthwhile distraction from her current x-rated condition.

“Let me clock-out,” Kate said, trying to invoke a little enthusiasm into her voice.

 

 

 

At least a dozen other women were already seated, pens and notebooks out on the table before them, by the time Kate and Penny walked into the classroom. Long rectangular tables spanned the length of the room, lined up, side-by-side, in four rows. The front of the room remained open, with a small podium standing center-stage and a whiteboard at its back.

Scooting down one aisle, Kate and Penny grabbed the last available seats. The large attendance size had Kate wondering who was running the course. Must be one hell of a teacher.  She’d seen the flyers circulating around the building, but before Penny had tossed the idea her way, Kate hadn’t given it much thought. She was learning more enough without it.

Kate’s thoughts were cut short when the door to the room opened once more. Following the crowd, she turned in head in its direction, trying to spy who was walking through it. When a tall, broad-shouldered man with a distinct sandy head of hair came into view, Kate wanted to die.

“Good afternoon! So sorry I’m late,” he announced to the room at large, making his way further inside. He mumbled something about student conferences holding him up and, judging by the sympathetic murmurs in response to this, it appeared all was forgiven. Dropping a shoulder-bag on the floor underneath the whiteboard, he sauntered up to the podium.

Good Christ, he’s teaching this thing? Didn’t Jackson Fischer get enough of that at the high school?

Without wanting to admit it, Kate felt her heartbeat kick up a notch or two. Without wanting to admit it, she felt her excitement for the night’s seminar grow. Without wanting to admit it, she felt herself respond to his presence. Down girl, she reprimanded herself. What the hell had gotten into her? First Jake now Jackson? Her hormones were definitely in overdrive.

“Shall we get started?” Jackson asked rhetorically. Heads bobbed up and down excitedly. Focusing on her breathing, Kate tried to pull herself together. The day had gone from awkward to weird.

Jackson was addressing to the class: “…last week we did an exercise in imagery, consisting of a five hundred word essay describing one memory by using all five senses,” Jackson carried on, the undulation of his voice steady and sure. “I’ll pass those back now, with my comments and feedback. To those joining us for the first time: welcome! Don’t worry if you’ve missed any of the previous discussions—each class is structured fairly independent of those preceding and following it.

“While we will continue employing the use of imagery, it will not be the primary objective in this week’s lesson. Instead, we are going to learn how to properly express (and harness) our writing by applying it to a very specific literary genre—to get a better acquainted with the individual rules and formulas which govern these fields of study. As an adult writing class, some of the content we’ll explore will be of a mature nature. On that note, there is one particular style of writing which has just recently blossomed in popularity. Its genus was once thought to be taboo…a guilty pleasure,” Jackson insinuated.

“Today we’re going to review—and you are going to write–erotica!”

The giggling gasp that followed his words effectively disguised the paling of Kate’s face.

Welp, so much for distracting her libido.

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Seven

“Ohmigod, can I just say that I feel great?” Kate shouted at Penny.

Biting her lip, Penny tried not to laugh at the sight before her. It was barely five o’clock, and already Kate was, to put it politely, tanked.

It was entirely Penny’s fault. She’d demanded Kate get in the car—she’d demanded an evening of relaxation. She’d demanded this little girl’s night in.

Kate hadn’t been keen, not at first. “That’s really not necessary,” she’d stressed when Penny informed her of the plan.

“Well, I insist. Now where did you park?” Penny had thrown back, craning her neck to the left, the better to see behind her.

“Why?” Kate had tried to ask, but it was fruitless. Penny had already spotted her compact sedan. Her effects redoubled, without invitation, she’d made her way over to it, knowing good and well that Kate would inevitably follow behind; what else could she do?

“We’re going to need liquor that’s why. If this is going to happen, it’s going to happen right.”

As Penny predicted, Kate had finally relented.

“Well, why the hell not,” Penny had heard her say to herself. “I hadn’t been able to with Simon Yates, that’s for sure.”

Penny had a feeling that Phil—from the little she’d been able to glean of his character—probably hadn’t stood for such behavior either. No doubt, Kate was due for it.

They’d left only long enough to grab the essentials: a bottle of tequila, a six-pack of import beer, a bag of potato chips, and enough margarita mix to drown a person. When they returned to Penny’s place, arm’s loaded down, they were stocked-up, settled in, and ready to commence on the evening’s entertainment.

 

Now, four hours later, the snacks were long since demolished, glass bottles were strewn out about the fire pit, the scent of salt and lime remained, permeating the air, and Kate was standing chin-deep in the lake…wearing nothing but her bra and panties. Penny wouldn’t have thought the city woman had it in her to do something so, well risqué.

It had started out innocently enough—lawn chairs were perched around a cozy bonfire, a makeshift bar was constructed, well within arms span, and soft music played out over the still afternoon air. The scene was set: inviting but loose, intimate yet vague. It was exactly what Kate needed. Penny announced herself both the bartender and emcee: firmly resolved to keep the drinks coming and the conversation deliberate. So they drank and talked. Not about anything serious, Penny made sure of that. It was chill. Short anecdotes were swapped back and forth in a lively non-threatening way:

“I had a client last week ask me to get in contact with her dead cat.”

“Shut up. Did she really?”

“Yes. It was a very awkward conversation.”

“With the client or the cat?”

“Well, both really. The cat was glad to be dead. Never liked her owner.”

“I used to have a cat.”

“Really?”

“Well, no not really. It was imaginary. I named him Mr. Whiskers. I know, I know, how very original. My mother wouldn’t let me have a real one. Not the great Calida McDonald. She wouldn’t hear of owning such a filthy animal—the hair, the claws, the meowing. It was all too much. So I made one up. I think I did it to spite her.”

They sat there, laughing, reminiscing, each one content in their environment. Until…well, until what happened next. In retrospect, Penny figured it was probably the fourth beer-margarita that pushed Kate over the edge. Call it overkill. One minute she’d been calmly swaying against her chair, her speech only slightly stirred as she stared, mesmerized, into the flames of the fire, her actions depressed from the effects of the alcohol and then…boom! Kate pulled a one-eighty. Pushing herself off the chair, her glass dangling precariously in one hand, she was suddenly adamant that it was perfect weather for an evening dip. Then she’d giggled. Then she’d hiccupped. Kate’s behavior was as abrupt as it was unexpected. They hadn’t been talking about swimming—or even the lake for that matter!

Penny tried reminding Kate that she hadn’t brought her bathing suit. Did she forget that? Kate had simply shrugged off this information, telling Penny that she didn’t need swimwear. Then she hiccupped again.

Throwing her hands up in the air, Penny caved. She doubted there was much she could say or do to dissuade Kate after that. And she wasn’t about to be a killjoy. The designated sober party, Penny hadn’t allowed herself to reach even so much of a buzz. She’d been too focused piling Kate with booze to bother overmuch. She was glad for that now. Someone had to keep an eye out.

Scooting one of the chaise loungers closer to the perimeter of the lawn, Penny cautiously congratulated herself on the night’s success. Kate may be a hurting unit tomorrow morning—Lord only knows how that would bode for Tuesday’s class schedule—but tonight, well tonight she was having a damn good time.

“Are you sure you don’t want to-to come in?” Kate sputtered. Coughing, the last words came out garbled as she took in a mouthful of water.

It was the gurgle of her words—that gulp of soggy, accidental, inhalation—that did it. Penny’s body seized at the remembered sound, at its dark influence. She’d worked hard to forget it, to feign that she’d forgotten it. Hell, she’d laughed earlier when Kate jumped into the water, consciously in command of it—or so she’d thought. Not anymore. A mental paralysis, a derelict flashback, a holy nightmare; Penny no longer saw Kate dancing against the tide, she no longer heard her friend’s girlish squeals of delight as the water brushed against her skin; she was no longer mildly amused at the antics. Just like that, one innocuous, wet reverberation and it all came flooding back.

Transported to another instance, to an unwanted memory, the world around her seemed to shrink, as if rewinding back through time, stopping, sticking, and playing on repeat: she tasted bile on her tongue—she couldn’t swallow. Blinded, dots flickered spasmodically across the cornea of her eyes. Brilliantly, they expanded then burst, over and over, hindering her vision, protecting from the sight of what lay ahead.  The sound of her feet, smacking against the wooden dock, beat a hurried drum against her ears, accompanied only by the sound of her voice breaking out over the rippling waves, screaming out an echo of resounding fear….

And suddenly the water wasn’t gentle anymore, the slosh and babble of its movement no longer melodic or soothing. The dusky reflection, broken here and there by the sway and spray of the current, wasn’t picturesque. It looked angry, billowing and spitting out a blackish pit, frothing at the mouth to swallow up everything in its path….

Stop!

“Stop it,” Penny half-scolded to herself. Shaking her head, dislodging any claim of the past, she unclenched the fits she hadn’t realized she’d made down by her sides. Shakily, she let out her breath. Clearing her mind, erasing, she firmly refused its presence, disallowing herself to go back there. Not tonight. Not with company over.

With a concentrated focus, she stretched her lips outward and upward, channeling her energy, centering her spirit, to a lighter plane. She was fine. Kate was fine. Everything was fine.

Opening her mouth, she prayed for glibness: “No, no. I like to keep a dry distance from all that business,” she assured her lightly. “I’m more of a spectator than partaker.”

Kate was drunk and some fifteen yards away, Penny doubted she’d notice the slight wobble in her façade.

“Your loss,” Kate called before dunking her body underneath the darkened liquid washing gently around her.

“Kate don’t go out too far,” Penny called urgently, checking herself just in time. She hadn’t been lying. She couldn’t swim and Kate, in her current condition, couldn’t be all that much better off.  If something happened…!

“Don’t be such a sour puss,” Kate called moments later, her head rising above the glassy surface fearlessly. Madame Penny breathed a sigh of relief.

Easing back against the mesh cushion, Penny decided to follow Kate’s lead; she certainly didn’t appear worried—probably she was an ace swimmer, even while under the influence. She didn’t seem to be sinking, at any rate. Yeah, Penny would follow Kate’s lead. She was fine. She was just fine.

No sooner had Penny come to this conclusion, her body reclining comfortably, her muscles loosening under the strain, then a distinct sound, coming just left of the dock, reached her ears. It was rhythmic, swift and steadily growing nearer. Perking, her attention diverted in that direction, she decided it was the echo of repeated movement: water cresting, splicing and breaking over…over something. But what? Squinting her eyes, Penny could just make out the lines of a shadowy object hovering in the midst of this quiet commotion. Leaning forward, she studied its accent, its voluntary extension, its limber projection. And then she knew, she knew what the sound was.

Good God, it was the stroking motion of a swimmer. And that swimmer was most definitely not Kate McDonald, who was too busy treading water to do much more than simply remain afloat.

Madame Penny didn’t need to be psychic, either, to know who was in the lake with an unsuspecting Kate. It was Jackson Fischer, her one and only neighbor. His was the other house on the lane, sitting almost directly across the way from her own little cottage. Only, his was a dark grey clapboard estate—boasting three levels and 3,000 square feet of space. He’d inherited it from his late grandfather. She’d always wondered how he afforded to keep the place up. Penny had also inherited her home (about the only thing her mother had possessed of any redeeming value and worth), and even that, with its far humbler heritage—a veritable shoebox in comparison—was damn near too much house to manage and maintain for just one person. A mystery, she’d always suspected Fischer had more money than he let on.

Penny and Jackson had grown up together. She knew him almost as well as a sister knows her brother. His daily routine could be clocked to the minute: he swam the perimeter of the lake every evening, right around this time. She should have remembered that. How could she have forgotten that? Had she forgotten that? Had she really?

Maybe, and then again, maybe not. Some things were meant to be overlooked. Who knew?

Tall, broad-shouldered with sandy blond hair, cut meticulously short to compliment brown eyes, Jackson was a fine looking man. Even more, he was dependable, honest, always willing to offer a helping hand. Single, too. Penny had it on good authority that Jackson was very single. Truth be told, she would be drooling over him herself if she hadn’t know him her whole entire life. But Kate…well, that could be a different story. He was no Simon Yates. No harm in meeting someone new, right?

Of course, Kate was out there in her underwear. That gave Penny pause.

“Um, Kate I think it’s time to come out of there,” she called out, rising from her chair now to wave her drunken charge back to the shore. If her voice sounded a bit frantic, well, dammit this time she didn’t care; on second thought, they could meet some other day.

“No way, the water feels so-o nice,” she heard back.

“No really, I think it’s—,”

Too late, Kate saw what Penny had been trying so hard not to point out, what she’d been trying so hard to screen Kate from. The screech she let out at the incoming intrusion of Jackson’s breaststroke was enough to send Penny’s hands up to cover her sensitive ear buds. Unfortunately, it was also loud enough to alert Jackson, knocking him off balance.

Bobbing up out of the water, his eyes zeroed in on Kate, who was now squatting in the water, hoping to shield her scantily-clothed person from his prying eyes.

“Wha—?” His half formed question was only too well understood by Penny. No one other than she lived on that side of the lake and he knew all too well that her idea of submergence went no farther than the dip of her toes. He’d probably never run into another person here before—much less on a school night, much, much less howling like some crazed animal.

“Oh hello there,” Kate said, demure now, her alarm giving way to a correctness of manner she’d probably had beaten into her at a young age. If Penny hadn’t been so embarrassed for her, she’d have probably laughed at that. As it was, Kate’s eyes rose no higher than the water level and Penny’s heart went out to her. “Pardon me. You gave me a fright.”

“I noticed,” Jackson said drily.

“Jackson, Jackson,” Madame Penny called, waving her arms overhead to get his attention. It worked.

“Oh hey Penny,” he called back, seemingly less disoriented at the entrance of her presence. At least he wasn’t going to have to kick someone off the property now.

“So sorry to startle you,” she told him, coming up to the sandy shore. “Um, have you met Kate?” she asked dumbly. Shooting an apologetic glance her way, Penny called herself a fool; she’d meant to distract his attention away from Kate, not redirect it there. She’d panicked.

As if on cue, Jackson turned back to Kate, who was only visible from her chin up by this point. “No, I can’t say that I have,” he answered, with just a hint of mirth. “Uh, it’s nice to meet you,” he said, holding out his hand to properly introduce himself. Water dripped across the splay of his fingers. Awkwardly, he made to move closer, stopping only at her frantic half-step backward.

“Yeah. Yes. It’s, um, nice to meet you too,” Kate replied back, saluting him from the safety of the distance carefully kept between them.

Jackson noticed that too. A wicked glint entered his expression. “I’d be careful of moving back too much farther,” he cautioned her. Pointing up at the yard light situated exactly between his and Penny’s property line he added, “Pretty soon I’ll have a clear sight of what you so obviously don’t want me to see.”

Kate stopped, petrified at the words. Her eyes, hunted, wide, sought out Penny for help. It was clear the psychic would be of little assistance however, even to an inebriated Kate. She was damn near bent over double in her fit of laughter.

“Oh Jackson knock it off. You’ll give the poor girl a heart attack.” Penny guffawed out, her voice far from commanding. It seemed Kate would have to make do with that.

“Sorry,” he said to Kate, but he didn’t sound sorry. Not in the least. “But if you’re going to skinny-dip you’ve got to be prepared to be found out.”

“I am not skinny-dipping,” Kate protested, straightening her back artlessly at the accusation. The action left her shoulder’s bare. The cups of her bra could just barely be made out from the outline of water pooling around her.

“Yeah,” he said slowly, his eyes eloquent, “I see that.”

With a second screech, Kate feverishly crossed her arms over her chest, plunging her body back underneath the wet layer of protection, her knees buckled meanly. “That was a low thing to do,” she seethed.

“I didn’t do anything,” he protested, arms raised in defense. Smiling boyishly between Kate and Penny, he seemed to be looking for reinforcement on this issue.

“Oh Kate, its fine,” Madame Penny said soothingly. “You aren’t showing anything a bikini wouldn’t put on display.”

In response Kate whimpered, hugging her arms around her chest even tighter if that were possible. Jackson laughed. Kate shot him a scathing look which he ignored.

“Hey, if it bothers you so much, why don’t you just get out of the water?”

“Because—because you’re here,” Kate garbled. “I can’t—you’ll see…stuff,” she ended lamely.

“All right, all right, calm down,” Jackson chuckled. “Listen I’ll swim out away from the dock and you can escape, how ’bout that? I won’t be able to see anything that way, okay?” At Kate’s suspicious look he added, “If it’ll make you feel more comfortable I’ll even agree to remain completely underwater throughout. I can hold my breath for about forty-five seconds. That should give you enough time to reach land and cover up sufficiently.” There was nothing for it but to agree to this.

“You better not peek,” Kate said.

Jackson didn’t respond to this, which was just as well since he’d already told her he wouldn’t. “Penny have you got a something to cover her up with?” he asked instead, turning away from Kate without so much as a by-your-leave. His indifference smarted, not that Kate was about to admit it.

“Oh!” Turning in earnest, Penny wondered where she’d put the beach towel she’d brought out earlier. “Yes,” she called triumphantly, grabbing it from off the back of the lounger she’d since vacated; she’d hung it there for easy reach.

“Great. Ready?” he asked Kate now and, without further ado, dove under the water, his feet kicking out for momentum behind him.

In all Penny’s life she’d never seen anyone move as quickly as Kate did just then. She was up and out of the water and swaddled in Penny’s microfiber towel before such much as thirty-seconds had passed. They never even saw Jackson’s head rise above the water. Kate had Penny firmly inside the house, the blinds pulled, tightly closed, and the lights dimmed down before then.

“God, what a righteous jerk, making fun of me like that. So I went swimming without proper attire, so what?” Kate said, her voice infused with feeling, her wet hair dripping on Penny’s carpet. She’d barely allowed for the front door to swing shut before barging into speech.

Penny tried to be neutral. “Jackson’s just a teaser—it’s nothing personal. You’d have to know him but—”

“Pfft. Nothing personal? That was the very definition of personal out there Penny!”

“I just meant he’d do it anybody, regardless,” Penny said, but she might as well have been talking to herself for all the attention she received.

“And as for getting to know him, that’s not likely,” Kate seethed, pacing the short length of Penny’s living room. “I mean, he was just so—so, like casual about the whole thing.”

Penny shrugged, unsure how to proceed. “Well, it wasn’t a big deal Kate. You were decently covered—in your underwear. Like you said, so what?”

“It wasn’t a big deal?” Kate shouted, turning on Penny. “I was practically naked in front of the man, and…instead of being a gentleman and, you know helping me out of an uncomfortable situation, he just sat there, snickering!”

“He was caught off guard too—”

Kate was hardly listening. “Did you see the way he was looking at me?”

“Uh, I don’t know?”

“I mean, am I so unappealing? Is it ludicrous, to expect a level of deference rather than hilarity at the site of my body?”

“No, no—”

“Is his body so perfect?” Kate damn near shouted.

“Well…”

Kate’s eyes narrowed at Penny’s hesitation. “Yeah, okay, fine. He’s in great shape. He lives on the freaking water—I should hope he takes advantage of all the aquatic exercise at his disposal!”

Penny fought back a smile. Aha, so maybe there was something there, between them, after all—or at least, there could be, in time, fostered by a certain amount of pushing and prodding, here and there, of course. Without a doubt, Jackson had made an impression on Miss Kate. And it was definitely strong. Madame Penny wasn’t a conceited woman but her gift of intuition hadn’t led her astray yet. Besides, she figured, everyone needed at least a little companionship. Who better than her oldest friend and the woman fast becoming her dearest?

Silently she turned her attention back to Kate:

“I’ve never been more humiliated in my life! You don’t think he saw anything, do you?”

“No, I’m sure he didn’t,” she soothed quietly.

….

 

Okay, so maybe the night hadn’t been a complete triumph but at least Kate wouldn’t find her life in Whestleigh boring. That had to count for something.