North of Happenstance: Chapter Fifty-Six

Breathing heavily, the collar of her coat pulled up high, half obscuring her face, Penny rushed through the throng of people milling around the copious displays of books scattered around the entrance to the LitLiber. Her eyes twitched uneasily from left to right and back again. But she didn’t see anyone.

And, by anyone she meant Calida McDonald, of course.

When her fingers closed around the doorknob to Jake’s office, Penny felt her stomach pinch tightly, ears pressed momentarily against the wood gain of his door, waiting for any noise. What if they’d found her already, what if they were in their now, cornering Kate…

But silence met her probing scrutiny, and quickly checking around her, to make sure no one was watching, she slipped inside the door. The lights were off in the office when she stepped over the threshold. With only one small window up high, the room was cast in pitchy grey shadows.

“Shut the door!” The squeak of sound, which seemed to be coming from somewhere behind Jake’s desk was urgent, forceful.

With a slam, Penny did as she was bidden. “Kate?”

“Over here.”

Navigating by touch, Penny eased herself around the chairs in front of his desk. “I can’t see anything in here.”

“Don’t turn on the light! Someone might notice!”

“Okay, okay,” Penny promised, her fingers sliding against the edges of Jake’s desk. Rounding the back of it, she found Kate, huddled on the floor underneath the massive structure. By now her eyes had begun to adjust to the lack of lighting, and the image which met her gaze was pathetic. “Oh Kate…”

“Penny?” Kate croaked, staring disconcertingly up at the woman standing before her. “What are you wearing?”

Penny had almost forgotten her incognito appearance: a curly blonde wig covered her head, the short, zany cut reminiscent of a childish witch; a long, tan trench coat hid her person from chin to heel. “Oh, this? Didn’t want to be recognized.”

“No chance of that,” Kate whispered.

Penny flicked her wrist impatiently, stepping back. “Come out of there,” she insisted.

Slowly, Kate unfurled her person, slipping up from behind the desk. “Did you see them? Are they still out there?”

Penny shook her head slowly. “I didn’t see anyone, but I was kind of in a hurry…”

Kate looked hopeful. “Maybe—do you think they could’ve gone?”

Penny doubted it. “I don’t know. Want to tell me what happened?”

Kate sighed. Throwing a hand through her unusually disheveled hair, she plopped down on one side of Jake’s desk. Watching her, Penny felt a flurry of activity explode in her stomach. Jake’s chair. She couldn’t help seeing him in her mind’s eyes, leaning back against the plush piece of furniture, his brow furrowed in concentration, his eyes intent as he studied business models—or whatever he did here. This was his space. She could practically feel his presence here, dominating this space. For a moment, she was glad for the darkness. Now wasn’t the time for distracting thoughts….

“I don’t know,” Kate said with a sigh, bringing Penny’s attention back to the task at hand. “I was just standing in the Romance section, stocking some new arrivals when I heard her.”

“Your mother?”

Kate’s voice was dry. “Nothing makes the hairs on my arms stand up quick like the sound of her voice.”

Penny could hardly disagree with that. Calida did have a way about her. Overwhelming. Terrifying. “Okay?
“It was loud, chilling,” Kate remembered, her voice eerie in the dark room. “She didn’t see me, thank God, but I heard her asking Delia if I was there…”

“I’m looking for Kate McDonald,” Calida had said, her voice carrying, determined. “Could you please tell me where I can find her? It’s rather urgent.”

Delia, bless her heart, hadn’t known exactly where Kate was; unfortunately, she had also been eager to help, assuring Calida that Kate was, indeed, definitely there—she’d go and find her, just one moment please.

“Then what happened?” Penny asked breathlessly.

“I panicked,” Kate admitted, looking down at her fingers, which were fused together, her knuckles aching in the tight grip. “Dropping the books back in the delivery box, I moved to the end of the bookshelf. Hiding behind its bulk, I went to peer around the side of it, hoping to catch sight of her…only it wasn’t my mother who I saw. It was the back of Phil’s head!”

Penny nodded wordlessly. That must have been a shock.

“I couldn’t,” Kate shook her head. “I mean, how did they even find me?”

“I don’t know…”

“So I did the only thing I could think of,” Kate murmured. “I ran.” Closing her eyes in mortification, Kate remembered how her heart had beat, thump-thump-thumping erratically in her chest.

She couldn’t breathe. Her body felt limp with fatigue. Crouched low, trying to keep her body out of sight, she’d leap-fogged from one aisle to another, her eyes ever-vigilant to shadows, sound, approaching footsteps. But she’d seen no one. When she’d reached the end of the line, she’d crawled (literally crawled, on her hands and knees) down the length of the last row there, until she’d found herself at an impassive: an open stretch of space between where she remained and Jake’s office stood. Straightening, she’d stopped, tossing her head from left to right, judging her next move. A group of teenagers was coming at her from the left, a mom and her two toddlers from the right. Jumping out in front of them, murmured “Sorry, sorry’s!” peppering the air, she’d wrestled herself between the gaggle of approaching, colliding bodies, hoping the crowd would conceal her until she’d cleared the area. Then, her body safely plastered up against the far wall, she’d tip-toed the rest of the way, her arms splayed out at her sides, her fingers stretching toward the door handle just out of reach…

“Oh Kate, you didn’t,” Penny breathed upon hearing this tale. “You poor thing.”

“Now I’m stuck,” Kate cried. “I wasn’t thinking clearly. I just knew I had to get away. But now—outside of escaping through that window,” she said, pointing to the dinky thing up high on the wall, which would hardly fit a grown woman, even one of Kate’s tiny size—“I’m a sitting duck.”

Penny smiled. “Not so fast,” she advised, and with a quick motion, whipped open her trench coat to reveal a backpack strapped to her front. Zipping it open, she quickly pulled out a long black wig, a floppy straw hat and a long maxi dress. “Here. Put these on.”

“What?” Kate looked at them dumbly. “Where did you get this stuff?”

Penny shrugged. “I keep them at the shop.”

“Why?”

Penny gave her a look. “Do you really think this is the time for questions?”

“Right.” Without further ado, Kate pulled on the dress, followed shortly after by the wig. Tucking the last of her hair inside its massive proportions, she looked at Penny. “Well? Will I do?”

“For a quick getaway,” Penny considered, “I think you’ll pass muster.”

Kate nodded. Straightening her shoulders, she asked: “So, what next?”

“We walk out the front door.”

“Just like that?”
“Just like that.”

Kate took a deep breath. “If you say so.” With more conviction then she felt, she marched toward the office door…

“Oh wait,” Penny said at the last moment. Rustling around in her handbag, she came up with a pair of ridiculously large sunglasses. “Put these on.”

Slipping them on, Kate took a deep breath.

“Ready?” Penny asked.

“Ready,” Kate assured her. She reached for the doorknob and then, with a smothered wail, snatched her hand back. “Wait. My car!” Kate cried, turning back to stare at Penny. Though her eyes were concealed behind the frames of her glasses, the psychic could easily picture their wide, frantic glance.

“Yeah? What about it?”

“They would have seen it by now,” Kate reasoned. “What if they’re watching it? Waiting for me to leave—!”

Penny refrained from commenting on Kate’s melodrama. It wasn’t the time. Still, she couldn’t quite keep the impatience out of her voice when she answered. “It’s fine. Maggie’s meeting us out front anyway.”

“You brought along a getaway car?” Kate asked, eyebrows raised.

Penny shrugged. “I figured we could use one. Plus, I didn’t think you’re nerves would be much for driving anyway. And my car…” Penny paused. Well, her car was back at her house but explaining that to Kate seemed—like too much, frankly. Shaking her head, she insisted. “Anyway, I called Maggie. Now let’s go!” With a waving motion, she shooed Kate out the door.

 

 

 

“I can’t believe that worked!” Kate screeched excitedly minutes later, once she was safely tucked inside Maggie’s SUV. Shaking off the itchy wig, she smiled hugely up at Penny, who was sitting beside Maggie in the front seat.

“I can,” Maggie muttered drily, sparing both of their outfits a quick look before pulling out onto the road. “Where’d you get those getups, anyway?”

“Apparently, we aren’t supposed to ask,” Kate chimed in, lips pursed amusedly.
“If you must know—” Penny sighed dramatically. “Sometimes, my clients feel more comfortable if I prescribe to a certain—well, image during our sessions.”

“So you dress in costume?”

“If that’s what the client wants.”

Kate giggled. Letting out some of the nervous energy, she grinned up at Penny. “Do the spirits ever confuse you for someone else?”

“Oh shut it,” Penny grumbled as Maggie turned the car down Kate’s quiet street.

Nosing the vehicle into her driveway, the pastor turned off the ignition. Turning back to look at Kate, she smiled fleetingly. “So we should probably talk…”

“Yeah—”

“Talk?” Kate asked guilelessly. “About what?”

“About what you’re going to do?”

“What do you mean, what I’m going to do?” Kate was defensive.

“Kate, they aren’t just going to go away,” Maggie said softly. “You can’t avoid them forever.”

“They’ve come all this way,” Penny added. “I don’t think they’re just going to leave…”

“Not until they get what they want,” Kate finished. “Story of my life.”

Maggie smiled tightly.

“Well tough,” Kate decided, arms crossed. “I don’t want to talk to them. I don’t want to be ambushed.”

“I know, and they shouldn’t have handled it this way,” Maggie agreed. “But Kate, don’t you want to end this feud once and for all? Put it behind you?”

“Don’t you want to stop running, stop hiding?” Penny chimed in. “You’re stronger than that. Prove it to them.”

Kate bit down on her lip. Then, with a jerk, she nodded. “Okay,” she said. “You’re right. I don’t—I don’t want to runaway anymore.”

With a contented sigh, Maggie opened her car door. “Good. Now, why don’t I make us a pot of tea and we’ll sit down and figure this out—sort out your thoughts, figure out your next move.”

“That’s right,” Penny said, nodding firmly. “This time, you get to be the one in control.”

“That’s right,” Maggie agreed. “And this time, you get to have a say.”

“I like the sound of that,” Kate agreed.

“And remember, we’re here for you girl,” Penny said, as they walked up the short drive to her front door. Little did the psychic know just how prophetic those words would turn out to be…!

“Katie?” The soft entreaty, coming from the shadows of the covered porch had all three women freezing on the front step, their heads rotating in synch as they turned to lock gazes with the voice belonging to that soft question.

“Mother.”

“Calida.”

“Mrs. McDonald.”

Holding up her hand, a soft laugh pulsating out of her mouth, Calida forestalled any further talk. Brushing back her perfectly styled hair, she turned to look at Kate. “I was hoping to talk to you…?”

“How—where?” Kate sputtered nervously, staring helplessly at her artlessly turned-out mother.

“How did I find you?” Calida asked, with a perfectly raised eyebrow. She laughed hollowly. “I assure you, it wasn’t easy.”

“It wasn’t supposed to be,” Penny retorted.

“Phillip!” Calida called out suddenly, her head shifting to the left, her body leaning backward over the railing to yell down the side of the house. “Phillip, up at the front…”

“He’s here, too?”

“Well, surely you knew that?” Calida chided. “You saw us at the bookstore, after all.”

Kate’s face blanched. And, waiting, she soon watched Phil’s form come slowly into view. Walking up the narrow bath from the backyard, it was clear he and Calida had intended a trap, staking out the place at both ends.

They were good.

“You followed us?” Kate asked.

“Of course not,” Calida said, flicking off a piece of imaginary dirt from her shirt sleeve.

“Then how—?”

Calida smiled. “It’s a friendly place, this Whestleigh. Almost too friendly. When I stopped at the coffee shop in town, the barista was only too eager for a little gossip. When I mentioned that I was in the area to surprise you, she was only too glad to fill in the blanks.”

Kate bit her lip.

“That’s when I found out about the LitLiber. The girl figured you’d probably be there, it being a Tuesday and all,” Calida said mockingly. “I guess it’s true what they say: small towns know everything about everyone’s business, huh?”

Penny held up her hand. “Okay, but how did you know about Whestleigh, at all? How did you know about Connecticut?”

Phil, standing at the base of the front steps, remained silent throughout this whole exchange, his gaze intent upon soaking up Kate’s stiff posture. Her eyes, however, hadn’t dared to come within two feet of where he stood. Besides, she seemed too consumed by her mother’s presence anyway—

Calida smiled. It wasn’t very nice. “Actually Penny, Kate told me.”

Kate goggled. “Me?”

“Do you remember that day I took you ladies to my club?” Calida asked. “We went to the spa?”

Penny had a sinking feeling about that.

“Well, a few mimosas and loose lips and all that…”

“What did I say?” Kate whispered.

“That you were back in college,” Calida told them gleefully.

Kate blinked. “That’s it?”

“Well,” Calida smiled triumphantly. “Then Penny had told me about one of her clients.” She turned to the psychic. “And you used a very particular phrase in describing her—an old nutmegger if you’d ever met one, right down to her roots.”

Penny cringed.

“After that,” Calida shrugged. “It was simple game of connecting the dots. And in a few short weeks, the private detective I hired had pinpointed your general whereabouts.” She smiled amusedly at Phil. “Though to be fair, it still took a little time to find you here. We searched high and low in Hiltbolt looking for you.”

Of course. Hiltbolt; the town where her college was located.

“But you found me anyway.” Kate’s voice was resigned. She’d gotten over her shock now.

“We found you.”

“And?” Kate asked wearily. “What do you want?”

Calida blinked. “What do we want?” She shot a look at Phil. “We want an explanation, Kate. Closure.” She took a deep breath, pulling her shoulders straight. “We want an apology. And we mean to have it.”

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Forty-Six

The July heat was oppressive. Kate’s bangs, cemented in sweat, lay heavy on her forehead. Her legs, pumping against the hard ground, were tired, weighted down. And, according to her calculations, she still had another mile to go…! It had been a long time since she’d run any distance; she was definitely feeling it now. And that damn sun!

God, she could almost feel jealous of Penny—her legs propped up on the chair beside her, a cool iced-tea in hand, with only a measly stop-watch to impede her relaxing afternoon sit-down.

She’d no sooner thought this then Kate cringed, silently berating herself. Get a grip, girl! It was a petty, spiteful thing in which to wish. Penny had sprained her ankle. Sure…she was sitting down on that chair, and her legs were propped up, but it’s not as though Penny were having a ball of a time—her ankle a swollen, achy, throbbing mess. And it’s not like Penny had wanted to injure her leg—it’s not like she wasn’t probably sitting there, right now, wishing it hadn’t happened. She’d been forced out of participating in the triathlon this weekend. She was undoubtedly upset about the whole thing. Kate was being insensitive.

Kate frowned. Still, it wasn’t fair. She hadn’t wanted to join this stupid event. Neither had M.T. They’d been forced into doing this ridiculous endurance test—a fundraiser for the school board—by Penny. And yet, here it was, two days to go-time and the only one not feeling the burn, the only one not pushing themselves out in this grueling, hateful heat was the only person who’d apparently wanted to do it in the first place.

How was that for justice?

Rotten. That’s how it was.

Uncaring of the childishness of it all, Kate resumed her earlier way of thinking: she wished it had been she who’d sprained her ankle. She’d have happily traded places with the psychic right now if only that were possible. God—she hated running!

It was a common misconception. When people saw her, all long, shapely legs and toned calves and thighs…they immediately assumed that Kate was athletic. Or that she aspired to be. And especially, they took it for granted that she was a runner.

Kate’s lip snarled. And they were always wrong. On all counts.

Turning at the break in the trees, Kate felt her heart-rate kick up a notch or two. She was almost there now. Just a matter of a few yards. Craning her neck to the side, her feet relieved at the lack of resistance as she sprinted down the hill that would eventually bring her to the mouth of Penny’s driveway, aka her Finish Line, Kate felt the first moment of giddiness she’d experienced since starting her leg of the race.

Ten feet…

Seven feet…

God, she was so close.

Two feet.

Feeling her body verging expectantly, Kate felt first one foot and then the next fall against the rocky, cracked pavement that marked the end of her treacherous journey. Finally, at long last, her feet came to a thankful stop.

Bent down at the waist, Kate tried to suck in her breath. She really, really hated running. Vaguely, she heard the soft patter of feet coming towards her, but she didn’t even bother lifting her head.

“What did you do to piss Penny off?” Jake teased, coming to stand beside her, holding out a cold water bottle.

Kate took it greedily, her fingers quickly twisting the cap off. Her chest heaved with the force of her breathing. “God—it must have been something bad,” she returned, but her eyes wouldn’t quite meet his.

“Do you even like running?” Jake asked, walking with her toward Penny’s yard, where she could just make out the sound of M.T. and Penny’s voices in mid-conversation.
Kate made a face. “That obvious, huh?”
“You looked like a hunted woman.”

Kate made a weird laughing sound. “Yeah.” And that was it, she couldn’t think of anything else to say—her bantering had come to a close; and considering how stilted and unoriginal it had been up to that point, this was saying a lot! It was just too much, talking to Jake this way, all easy and cool, the way it used to be—too much had happened, too much still needed to be resolved, for them to just go back.

Kate frowned. Bringing the water bottle up to her face, she took a strong drink of the icy cold liquid, anything to disguise her lack of conversational skills. Damn Penny.

Because, if the psychic spraining her ankle had sucked, the fact that she’d recruited Jake to take her place in their three-man team had been a total downer. Today marked their first practice together under this new formation—Kate, M.T. and…Jake. Since each member began the race at a different spot, besides a quick, breathy ‘hey!’ in passing, as Jake finished his segment of the race and Kate took up hers, they’d thankfully, mercifully, had little chance to talk.

Until now, that was. After every practice, the girl sat down in Penny’s backyard to talk logistics and strategy, gossip over a beer or two…. Blowing out a hard breath, Kate considered that, of course, Jake would be expected to join them now.

A pang of something uncomfortably close to guilt pinched at the sides of her stomach. Kate needed to talk to him. She needed to tell him…well, maybe not about her and Jackson, per se—that would probably be over-sharing, but the fact remained the same. She wasn’t interested in Jake that way. Not in the way he hoped; not the way he was interested in her.

Wiping her forearm over her lips, Kate dropped the bottle down to her side. It was time to tell him. Past time.

Today. She’d find a moment to talk to him today.

 

 

 

Only that didn’t happen. Instead, walking up to where Penny was perched on the edge of her woven chaise lounge, sunglasses perched jauntily on her nose, and a margarita held loosely in one bejeweled hand, Kate’s intentions were quickly forgotten, easily overwhelmed. Nabbing an empty seat, Kate looked up to find Penny staring mournfully at the stopwatch in her hand. She was tisk-tisking loudly. M.T. rolled her eyes extravagantly. Jake grabbed for a beer.

“Guys,” Penny said, sighing out the word for dramatic effect. “These times, they just aren’t cutting it. If we’re going to win this thing, I’ve got to see you giving more.” The wide grin splitting across her face gave told to her little joke.

Maggie shrugged, a cocky smirk coming to rest upon the usually serene pastor’s countenance. “Don’t look at me,” she said. “I beat my best time today.”

“True,” Penny said. “Very true.”

Kate pouted cutely at Penny. “Unfair—she got a break from all this heat, swimming in the cool water! Plus, I was staring right into the sunlight!”

Penny whistled. Her devilish eyes landed on Jake. “Well, I guess that leaves you.”

Jake’s eyebrows rose. “Me?”
“To take the blame for everything wrong with these times.”

Jake’s eyes narrowed.

Penny grinned. “No actually, now that I think about it, it makes perfect sense.”

Kate nodded eagerly, playing her part.

“And hey, don’t worry,” Penny purred, leaning forward to pat the back of Jake’s hand. “We understand. You’re new to our team. Adjustments need to be made. Expectations need to be lowered. That’s all.”

“Expectations need to be lowered?”

“I’m a hard act to follow,” Penny informed him. “I get it. We all get it.”

“A hard act to follow?” Jake said, taken to repeating her most ridiculous comments. “Now be careful Penny… or have you forgotten how many years we shared gym class together?” Jake made a point of turning to look at M.T. and Kate. “Oh the stories I could tell.”

Now it was Penny whose eyes narrowed ominously. “You wouldn’t dare.”

But dare he did, a wicked smile gracing his features. “Do you remember the time, Coach Wilson asked you to go and grab a rack of basketballs?” Jake asked, his teeth flashing white across his tanned face.

“It could have happened to anyone,” Penny insisted, a laugh bubbling up in her throat.

“What could have?” Maggie asked curiously.

“Basketballs are orange Penny. And they bounce,” Jake poked.

Penny flushed. “Well…those soccer balls kind of bounced…”

Kate’s laugher pelted the mid-afternoon air.

“And didn’t you trip once during the stair-step test?” Jake asked. “You go up and down the same step the whole time…it was impressive.”

“Well, we can’t all be athletic stars,” Penny shot back, “and you’re welcome for it, Mr. All-Time MVP. Without us, how would you have stood out so brightly?”

“Wait.” Jake held up a hand. “So, my prowess notwithstanding, I owe my legacy to you—because you sucked at sports?”

Penny nodded slowly. “Exactly.”

Jake chuckled. “You are the wind beneath my wings.”

“In fact…”

And on and on she and Jake had gone, round and round, laughing, teasing, arguing with one another. Kate and M.T. had sat between them transfixed by the witty repartee, the rapid-fire back-and-forth, the parry and thrust.

And, though Kate knew she should have, though she’d scold herself for it later, she just hadn’t had it in her to ruin the fun. Everyone was having such a good time. Jake was having such a good time. He looked…happy. She couldn’t do it. Kate looked around the group. This was neither the time nor the place—the subject matter could hold. She nodded. Yeah. Later. Not tonight.

She’d talk to Jake later.

 

 

 

The morning of the Whestleigh Triathlon Scramble dawned bright and hot. (In fact, it would end up being the hottest day of the summer). Pulling into the cramped parking lot where registration was being set up, Kate groaned weakly as she alit from her vehicle. Already, the sun was beaming generously from a practically cloudless sky.

Checking herself in, Kate looked down at her watch. She still had a good fifteen minutes left before the buses would arrive to pick up the bikers and runners, depositing them at their respective starting places. Good, she wanted to loosen up at bit first. Moving off to the side, bent on finding a quiet spot to do some stretches, one hand shielding her eyes from the heavy beat of the sun, Kate pouted again. “Just my luck. Why couldn’t it be storming out?”

Drifting past the other runners, she found a deserted spot at the edge of a tree line. “And why does running have to come last? The sun will be at its highest point then!” Grumbling to herself, one hand braced against the steady trunk of a nearby pine, Kate reached back for her left foot, bringing the heel of her shoe up against her hamstring. “Why couldn’t I have been picked to swim instead of stupid running?”

“I don’t know,” a deeply masculine voice said from behind Kate, causing her to gasp in surprise, “but I’m sure glad you weren’t.”

And then, before she had time to so much as respond, Kate felt a pair of strong, familiar hands grip her arms and, in a flash, she felt her body being lifted, turned, until she found herself suddenly on the other side of the tree, her body hidden from view of the other racers.

“Jackson.” Amused, breathless at his antics, Kate found herself smiling up his face. Her heart beat strongly against her neck as she watched his face lower…those hands holding her upper-arms were caressing suddenly, the pads of his thumbs rubbing up and down from her shoulders to her elbows and back again.

“Hi,” he breathed seconds before his lips pressed down against hers. Kate’s breath fluttered nervously out of her mouth, her fingers picking at rubbery material of his wet-suit. When his tongue slipped past her lips, Kate had to bite back a groan, her fingers tightening their hold. Then his hands were behind her head, holding her close. Kate felt her body meld against his. Her teeth grazing against his bottom lip, wanting more…

And then he was gone, Jackson tearing his lips away from hers.

Kate stared up at him dazed.

“Yeah. I’m definitely glad you’re not swimming today,” Jackson murmured, breaking away just far enough to utter the words. “It would have been a drowning hazard, competing together in that lake this morning.”

“Promises, promises,” Kate sighed, as his head bent, teeth nibbling lightly against the base of her jaw line.

“Yeah,” he muttered, “and it would have been awkward…you know, when I beat you.”

Kate’s head reared back. “Beat me?” she mused playfully.

Jackson shrugged winningly.

“Pretty confident, aren’t you?”

“Just playing the odds.” Jackson grinned down at the look on Kate’s face.

But whatever she was about to say was cut short by the sudden boom of a microphone amplified through a speaker-system…

“The race is starting soon,” Jackson muttered inanely, his head twisted toward the announcer’s booth; but nothing important was being said yet—parking information, registry reminders, yada yada…

“Yeah,” Kate returned. Reluctantly, she broke free of his hold. “I should probably get to my spot.” With a small gesture, she moved backward, her feet easily side-stepping the tree. Spinning on her heel, she made to start walking, heading straight toward where she could just make out the first of the buses lining up on the curb…

Jackson couldn’t help himself: “Oh and Kate…”

Pausing mid-step, she twisted her head around. “Yeah?”

“On behalf of male’s everywhere, thank you for wearing those shorts.” Jackson winked, a wolfish grin splitting across his tanned face.

Kate laughed. Freely. Then, with a lazy swish of her hips, the action stretching the taut material over her body in all the right places, Kate batted her eyelashes, looking demurely over her shoulder. “You’re welcome.”

“All right,” Jackson groaned good-naturedly, his hand batting at the air. “Get away from me now, you siren. I need to focus.”

Kate smirked. “Afraid of a little distraction?”

“Cold water has never looked more inviting,” Jackson agreed.

Turning back around then, a spry jump to her step, Kate couldn’t help laughing again. “See you at the finish line, stud.”

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Forty-Five

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

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

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

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

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

5:46 p.m.

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

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

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

Breathe Kate. Just breathe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No problem.”

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

“Would you like to come in—?”

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

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

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

Jackson laughed quietly. “Thanks.”

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

And she wanted to see where this led.

She was in. Fully in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kate smiled back wobbly. “It’s okay.”

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

Kate reeled. “I—oh…”

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

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

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

“Jealous? Over me?” Kate hedged.

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

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

Of course, it also spelled trouble….

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

“No?” Jackson looked worried.

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

“I don’t want you to do that either…”

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

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

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

“I wasn’t?”

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

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

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

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

“Oh, I’ll ask.”

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

Jackson had the grace to look ashamed.

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

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

“We’re leaving?” Kate asked unnerved.

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

And Kate grinned. Then she giggled.

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

<  Recepient List: Mags; Katy Kat

—————-07/08/2015 Wed—————–

 

From Penny: Kate, M.T. get ready… I’m

       signing us up as a team for the Triathlon

       Scramble. It’s next Saturday.                                                        

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

       Mags, you got swim-duty. Get training!

  • Sent 8:15 p.m.

 

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

  • Sent 8:23 p.m.

 

From Penny: None at all.

  • Sent 8:24 p.m.

 

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Forty-Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is everything all right?” Penny asked then.

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey Mags…”

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

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

“Oh.”

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

God, Penny will be over the moon.

 

 

 

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

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

Penny smiled at her reflection.

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

Penny dropped her eyes from the mirror.

Yeah. She supposed it did.

Jake and Kate.

She’d get used to it.

She’d learn to love it.

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

Kate. “Hey.”

Penny. “Hi.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kate wished for the radio.

 

 

 

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

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

“Cheers,” Kate said weakly.

“Ditto,” Penny said shyly.

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

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

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

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

“Is what it?” M.T. asked innocently.

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

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

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

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

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

M.T. bit her lip.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course I am…”

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

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

“Oh, shut up Penny.”

“No, you shut up.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh believe it, babe.”

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

“What?”

“Wait. Hank?”

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

“What are you talking about?”

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

Kate’s brow furrowed.

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

“Ew.”

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

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

M.T. “Had sex?”

Penny.“Yeah.”

M.T. “Yeah.”

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

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

Penny scowled. “What’s a while?”

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

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

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

“What did you say?” Kate asked softly.

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

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

“I know.”

“And all this time…?”

“All this time.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes and no…”

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

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

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

“Maybe. Maybe not.”

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

M.T. blinked. “What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wow,” Kate whispered.

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

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

“Okay?”

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

Penny smiled. “Oh yeah.”

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

“That’s why we’re here.”

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

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Forty-One

Penny tried to keep her facial expression neutral, but it wasn’t easy. Jake was sitting inside her too-cramped office, his body effectively cutting off whatever walkway she maintained—knees brushing up against the edge of the table, back chair legs pressed up tight to the wall. The picture of a somber, nervous man sat opposite her—and he’d come to talk about Kate.

Penny just managed not to frown.

Kate. The thing was, she and Penny weren’t exactly on speaking terms. Hadn’t spoken, in face since Penny had more-or-less come unglued on the woman, telling her she was no longer interested in…well, in this.

So imagine Penny’s feelings on the subject. Conflicted didn’t even scratch the surface.

“Now…what’s this about Kate?” Penny asked reluctantly, playing dumb. She really, really didn’t think she wanted to talk about this.  Not to Jake.

“I think you know already,” he returned, and it was clear he wasn’t buying her forced nonchalance.

Penny sighed, a stray ringlet of curls scattering across her cheekbones at the action. “Yes. Okay. I might, uh, have heard some things about the two of you,” she hedged.

Jake’s mouth turned-down. Penny was being far from encouraging. “Did you know I told Kate that—uh…” Jake looked distinctly uncomfortable. Still, he tried again: “It was about a month ago now, and I ran into Kate and I—”

“Oh!” Penny said, rushing to his rescue. He clearly didn’t want to finish that sentence and honestly, she didn’t want to listen to him do it, either. “The thing at Julie’s Diner, you mean?” For a euphemism, it was hardly clever, but it got the job done.

Jake laughed. “Yeah. That thing.”

Penny nodded. “And has Kate—?” Now it was Penny’s turn to look and feel haunted. “How does she feel?”

Jake frowned, his mouth pulling down hard at the corners. “That’s what I came to ask you, actually?”
“Oh.”

Leaning forward, arms crossing over the top of the oak table, Jake looked closely at Penny, his voice plaintive: “You’re friends. You talk to one another.”

“Most of the time.”

Jake gave her a level look. “Penny, you saw us at M.T.’s house.”

Oh god.

“Yeah,” Penny drawled. “I did.”

“And Kate told you what happened…?”

Penny felt her cheeks burning a little. “Well, as to that…we never did quite discuss it.”

Jake looked confused—and unless Penny was way off the mark, a little hurt too. “You didn’t?”
“Kate wanted to,” Penny started to say and then thought better of it. She wasn’t exactly, precisely on Team Jake, but admitting that straight to his face? She couldn’t do that. It would raise too many questions. “But—we got side-tracked and honestly, I haven’t talked to her in a couple of days, so….” Penny waved her hand dismissively.
“Oh. I got the impression you two were usually joined at the hip,” Jake said softly.

Penny shrugged. She hoped it looked off-hand, chill. “Usually.”

“It’s just—I don’t know what to do. She’s—” Jake seemed to be searching for the right word. “She’s a hard woman to read.”

“Yeah.”

“I just thought—maybe she would have said something to you about it? I don’t know.”

“As to that,” Penny remarked. “I’m not sure I’d be allowed to tell even if she had.”

Jake accepted this with a jerk of his chin. “Yeah. I suppose.”

“What I can do, though, is listen to your side of the story, perhaps help you gain some perspective on the situation,” Penny improvised, even though every other part of her was screaming: NO! RUN! So much for self-preservation. “So tell me, what happened down there Jake? After I left.” With a movement of resignation, Penny realized she was not going to get that lunch after all.

Jake cringed. Then sighed. “I-I pushed her away. She told me she wasn’t ready, that she needed time, but I—I asked her to make a decision, to choose me anyway. I know!” He cried, raising his hands at Penny’s stern look. “I was a jerk. It’s just…with Jackson right up stairs, I couldn’t seem to help myself.”

“Ah.” So that was it.

“That’s where she is right now, you know,” Jake said.

“What? Where?”

“At Jackson’s.”

“And you know this how?” Penny asked, trying to keep the creeped-out factor from entering her voice. Stalker much?

But Jake seemed to have sensed it all the same. “No, no, no! No,” he rushed to defend, the flat of his hand slicing thickly through the air, as if to validate his denial. “The play at the LitLiber later on this month? Jackson is directing it and he and Kate are having a private practice today to make up for one she missed last week.”

Penny nodded slowly. The fact that Jake remembered they were having that practice today, right now, spoke volumes.

Jake threw Penny a dark look. “I think he likes her. Jackson, I mean.”

Penny was no longer just conflicted. She was acutely uncomfortable.

Jake shook his head. “No, I’m sure he likes her. And—”

Penny’s hand shot up. Talking about Jackson felt like a betrayal. Not to mention, it made her feel guilty. Little did Jake know he was confiding in the one woman who was vehemently against the idea of him and Kate. “What happened downstairs Jake?” She repeated. Redirection, that’s what this conversation needed. “After I left?”

Now it was Jake’s turn to act unaffected. And it was Penny’s turn not to buy it.

“Nothing.”

“Yeah, I kind of know that isn’t true,” Penny reminded him drily.

“No, I mean—,” running a hand through his thick hair, Jake struggled for words. “You left and Kate started back-pedaling, like usual—backing away from me. I tried to stop her but—she kept saying something about not getting hurt again.” Jake stopped here for a moment, his eyes taking in Penny’s form in the gathering dusk settling outside the one window in the room. “Do you know what that means?”

“Yes.”

Jake looked impatient. “Okay?”

“No, no.” Penny laughed. She may be mad at Kate but damned if that skinny blonde wasn’t Penny’s very best friend in the world. She would never ruin that. “That’s all you’re getting out of me. Yes, I know what that means. Next question?”
Jake took the hint well. “Right. Well…she was talking in riddles—something about falling into the same old pattern, about other people getting hurt, about other people hurting her… I tried telling her: “This isn’t about anyone else….” but it didn’t seem to penetrate.”

And finally, though she’d hardly admitted it, even to herself, Penny got to hear the rest of the story about what had transpired down in that basement. Because, though she’d sworn to Kate that she wasn’t the least bit curious, Penny had been practically bursting at the seams, wanting answers. And Jake, bless him, filled them in:

They were standing in the basement, dim shadows dancing against the dark walls. Shutting the door in her quick, and angry departure, Penny had inadvertently given them even more privacy than before. Squared-off, Jake tried to assure Kate…

“You’re dodging the issue Kate… it’s not about—what did you say his name was?” Jake asked. “Phil? It’s not about Ashley either. It’s about you. What do you want?” Jake’s voice was low, barely above a whisper as he waited for her to respond.

Kate’s forehead crinkled. Her blonde hair hung damply to the sides of her face.

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

Jake was sure there was a story to be found in that cryptic remark: she’d never been allowed to ask herself questions like what did she want? But those were avenues to be traversed another day. Instead, he took a step toward her. A protective step. A step of intent. “Okay,” he told her. “Then start small. Do you want me to kiss you again? Don’t over-think it. Just tell me what you want.”

Jake stared down at Kate, who in turn, stared up at the spot on the stairs that moments ago had held Penny’s weight. Her mouth opened…

Jake felt his stomach twist.

Then Kate’s lips moved…but no sounds came out. Her eyes still hadn’t strayed from the top of the stairwell. Her body was held tight, taut, as if she might come lose if she allowed her muscles to relax even half an inch.

“Kate?”

At her name, Kate’s head snapped back around, her eyes large when they connected with his. Then her arms were up, warding him off, pushing him back. And her lips were compressed now, tight. “Stop.” And she didn’t sound like Kate anymore. “I told you,” she hissed, “I need time. Space. And you just won’t give it to me.”

Quickly, wincing at the rough sound of her voice, Jake heeded her command, his feet almost tripping in his haste to create some distance between them. “I know,” he confessed. “I’m sorry.”

“Yeah. So you keep saying,” she reminded him. “You tell me you understand, that you won’t pressure me and yet—here you are!” Kate cried, her arms hugging her body tightly again, her voice an pitchy squeak. “And I just—I can’t. I told you that. Not now.”

“I know, I know.” Arms raised up in defense, Jake thought it best to move yet another step away from Kate. “You’re right. You’re absolutely right. I shouldn’t have—.”

“No, you shouldn’t.” Kate’s face crumpled for a second. “You said—I told you…and you said that was fine. Said you didn’t need me to be ready. Remember?”
Jake nodded. The accusation in her voice, the anger: it told him all he needed to know.     “Then you need to be fine with it,” Kate told him firmly, though her voice cracked just a little.

“I am.”

“Then act like it.”

“Okay.”

Kate looked down at her shoes. And suddenly, all that steam from before seemed to seep right out of her, leaving her listless, fragile once more. “Listen, I understand that this isn’t what you want, and if you, um, you know, if you don’t want to wait for me–to uh, figure out my life and all that, I get it. You have to do what’s right for you,” she stressed. “But so do I. Which is why I can’t—I can’t be there yet. Not where you want me to be.”

Jake nodded silently.

“Do I want you to kiss me again?” Kate asked on a laugh. (Correction: she asked this on a slightly hysterical laugh.) “Absolutely. Yes. And, at the same time: I don’t know. Maybe?” She smiled sadly, shaking her head. “Which probably means No. At least, for now. Not until I’m sure…”

“Shh,” Jake insisted then, his cheeks ruddy with color. “Don’t. I—you don’t need to explain yourself to me.”

“That’s just it: yes I do. Only I don’t know how—”

“Yeah, I noticed,” Jake joked.

Kate laughed. “Stop being so nice to me. I don’t deserve it.”

“Yes you do.”

A soft beat of silence flooded between them. Jake looked at Kate whose down-bent head watched as her fingers fiddled with a ring on her right index finger. Glancing up at him, she fought to look in his eyes. She nodded with a jerk.  “Okay then.”
And there it was.

“Okay then,” Jake consented.
And, turning toward the stairs, her shoulders hunched, pallor off-color, Kate made to leave. After all, what more was there to say? Only, at the foot of the stairs, she stopped, and half-turned back to where Jake still stood, stock-still, rooted in spot. “I’m sorry.” she said then, softly. “I’m sorry I couldn’t do what you did.”
“Yeah? What’s that?” Jake asked. There was note of self-depreciation there he hadn’t meant to include.

“Be brave. You know who you are and you’re not afraid of that person.”

Jake smiled. “I know who you are too.”

Kate smiled back. “I don’t think that counts.”

Jake. “No. Probably not.”

“…and then she left the room,” Jake told a rapt Penny. “So I sat down there for a few minutes, telling myself what an idiot I was before making for the kitchen sink. And—” he shrugged. “That was that.”
“Have you talked since?” Penny asked breathlessly.

Jake pulled a face. “No. I rearranged the schedule at work so we wouldn’t have the same shifts….”

Penny grinned.

“I know,” Jake said, disgusted. “I’m actively avoiding her. And to think she called me brave.”

“And so you are,” Penny argued. “Leaving her alone, giving her time and space to think—unclouded and undistracted. Even when it’s probably the last thing you want to do.” Jake’s gaze flickered up to hers impulsively. “That has nothing to do with being brave. It’s noble.” Penny took a hateful breath. “And it’s exactly what she needs right now.”

“I hope so,” Jake said.

Penny smiled tightly, unnaturally.

“I really like her Penny.”

Yeah. She got that. Loud and clear, thank you very much.

Clearing her throat, Penny tried for words of encouragement, but they didn’t come. She just didn’t have it in her.

 

 

 

Kate pressed the doorbell nervously. Then, feeling guilty—and then angry about feeling guilty, because it was none of anyone else’s business anyway—she watched her eyes skip back over her shoulder, looking for any lights on at Penny’s, any movements marking her presence in the small house just across the way.

But the house remained as pitch dark as when Kate had carefully, hesitantly brought her car down the dead-end lane. Penny wasn’t home. And, though she despised herself for owning the weakness, Kate was glad about it. She didn’t need to fuel the psychics flaming accusations with any more ammo than necessary. And seeing Kate, dressed in tight fitting jeans and a stretchy pink tank-top, her face carefully made-up, and her hair pinned back at her best advantage, right outside the door of Jackson’s house, would hardly help the cause.

Then, eyes careering back around, Kate could just make out the muffled sound of footsteps coming from inside the house…and just like that, all thoughts of Penny fled. And, just like that, Kate felt her stomach pinch painfully on itself. And, just like that, it was all-Jackson.

“Coming!” Kate heard seconds before he was standing before her, the heavy door swung open to reveal his lazy smile of greeting. Jackson’s hair, always cut neatly short, shown almost brandy in color, and his shirt, a tan polo (perfectly pressed of course) fit almost as close as a second skin, showing off those beautifully sculpted arms, the by-product of living on a lake, and those impossible-not-to-notice shoulders. A swimmer’s physique. Pair that with fitted khakis pants, and Jackson looked pretty much the same as usual: a well-groomed city boy with the most country-boy muscles Kate had ever seen.

Phil 2.0.

Except, besides fashion and physical appearance, Jackson wasn’t really all the much like Phil. Right? For one thing, Jackson had a wicked sense of humor.

“Kate,” he said now, his voice interrupting her musings, which was probably for the best.

“Hi-hey Jackson.” Kate cringed. That came out breathy. Awkward. Rushed.

Eh.

“I see you brought your script,” he said, seeming unfazed by her gawky speech, staring instead down at the strangled papers she held in her hand. All business.

“What?” Looking down, Kate flushed. “Oh. Yeah.”

“Good. Well, come in, come in,” Jackson invited, moving back to allow Kate entrance into the rather grand foyer there—replete with black-and-white checkered tiles on the floor. Maybe he and Phil weren’t so dissimilar after all. Kate frowned.

Quickly banishing that thought, however, she clung tighter to the script in her hand and, holding it up triumphantly, strutted across the threshold. Play it cool, Kate. Be confident. Funny. Act natural.

“Wouldn’t be much of a practice if I left it at home, would it?” As far as jokes went, it was pretty lame (though it was a definite improvement of the former: ‘hi-hey’ debacle). Kate cringed for the second time in as many seconds. Be casual. Breezy. Relaxed…

Which, it turns out was terrible advice.

For, no sooner had Kate landed upon these adjectives then her less than graceful gait found itself pitching forward…her foot skipping roughly, unevenly over the rug through down in the center of the hallway, causing her to trip. The fine material bunching together underfoot, Kate felt a moment’s terror grip her stomach as her upper body flayed forward, her arms outstretched, hips swaying, overbalancing, trying to force her body back in the upright position.

Or…wait. Had she really erred, at all?

For, no sooner had her body begun it’s forward dissent, accompanied by some unfortunate squeaks and squeals from Kate’s surprised mouth, then that pair of ridiculously strong arms she’d been so admiring seconds earlier, wrapped themselves around her midriff, bringing her to an ungainly stop halfway to the floor. (Picture this: Kate, bent, hunched forward at the waist, her arms out, hoping to break the fall, her face crumpled in expectation of the pain, stuck in mid-air, suspended in this humiliating pose by the strength of Jackson’s arms.)

Despite this, Kate wasn’t worried about how she looked. She wasn’t mortified by this show of gracelessness. She wasn’t thinking about herself, at all. She was however, breathing quickly—and not just as a result of that near-miss. Her heart was beating, shaking in its awareness of the man behind her: his aftershave, the spicy, smoky scent wafting between their bodies, making her nose crinkle appreciatively. The tingle of her skin, especially where it was pressed up close, held captured by his forearms, and those long-tapered fingers, sizzled, diverting her attentions. She held her breath, afraid that even the tiniest movement on her part and it would all disappear.

And, in the space of time it took her to take all this in, Kate was suddenly, inexplicably swamped with a feeling of enveloping guilt.

A feeling of guilt owed entirely to Penny.

“Are you okay?” Jackson asked, breaking the moment, his breath whispering down Kate’s neck and across her shoulder’s; nodding, she allowed him to slowly pull her up to her feet.

Brushing unnecessarily at her knees, hair curtained in front of her flaming face, Kate took a jerky breath. Was she okay? No of course she wasn’t okay! Twenty-five seconds ago she’d been wrapped in his arms (albeit, not exactly romantically but still…) and she’d liked it! She’d more than liked it, she’d savored the sensations coursing through her body at his touch, been damn near hypnotized by it.

And that, in some twisted sort of way, made her think of Jake. And how she’d kissed him the other day. And what Penny had said: what if it had been Jackson who’d walked down the stairs that day at M.T.’s house, Jackson who’d seen her entwined in Jake’s embrace? What would Kate have done? How would she have explained herself?

But most importantly: how could she have liked being in Jackson’s arms just now when, only earlier this morning, she’d found herself daydreaming about another man—when she’d allowed that other man to kiss her, and whom she’d kissed back? It made everything feel cheap and wrong. Which made Kate feel guilty because she was the catalyst. And what was she doing about it: falling from one pair of strong arms into another pair of sweet-tasting lips!

And really, what kind of woman found herself attracted to two very different men at the same exact time? If she wanted Jackson then that should be that. End of story. End of Jake. But it wasn’t quite that easy. And if that was the case, how much stock could she really expect to put in either relationship’s stability, or…or worth or likelihood of being the real thing? If she could like both of them at once when, for all intents and purposes, she should only like the one over the other, then how much substance was there in her feelings toward them, anyway? How much sustenance? Was it all just superficial, on the surface? And, if not, how did she possibly decide between the men? (Because isn’t this supposed to be a glaringly obvious choice—the right one is the right one and you know it when you’re around them, and all that?) The one diminished the other.

And, in that moment of clarity, Kate knew: this guilt wasn’t going away. Not until she could answer those questions, until she could look one of them in the face and say definitively, exactly as Penny had insisted: I pick you and no one else. And I’m sure.

With a resolution she was far from feeling, Kate took a nervous step forward, out of Jackson’s reach, her arms hugging the sides at her waist, her chin jutting out. “Anyway…” she laughed coolly, breaking the silence. “Shall we get started?”

No more flirting. No more maybes.

But, if Jackson was taken aback by the sudden distance in her tone, he did well to disguise it. With a measured gesture, he motioned her to the room just off to the left. “By all means.”

 

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Twenty-Seven

“Kate, I’m so glad you could stop by,” Penny announced immediately after that woman had pulled aside the curtain marking the entrance to the psychic’s House of Intuition.

A droll smile on her face, Kate gestured toward her phone. “I got your text message. It sounded urgent,” she admitted. Penny’s missive had been short but implicit: they needed to talk. Clearly, whatever it was hadn’t been something which could be shared over the phone. “So, what’s up?” Kate asked, moving  inside the room to grab up an empty chair around Penny’s table.

At the same moment, Penny sprang to her feet, her movements feverish suddenly. Pacing the length of her shop (which spanned three footsteps) she spun around to stare down at Kate’s vaguely amused expression. “I had a vision,” the psychic informed her.

“A vision?” Kate asked in dismay. She’d thought this was a real emergency. She should have known better.

“Yes,” Penny said impatiently. “I get them from time to time—a flash of insight brought about by one of my clairs. This time, I saw something…”

Kate nodded wordlessly, distractedly.

“It was while I was preparing for a session that it struck me, my senses bombarded by the uncalled prophecy….” Kate frowned. Penny sounded even more ludicrous than usual, her voice all but dripping with heavy drama. “That’s how these impressions generally work—coming to me abruptly, unexpectedly, without conscious thought or provocation.” Penny pointed a finger to her head. “They’re so genuine, so authentic, you’d swear it was really happening, right there in front of you, but then, just as quickly as the image appears it disappears and, all at once, you know….” Penny didn’t expand upon this, for which Kate was grateful. She didn’t have time for a psychic rundown.

Clicking her tongue theatrically, Penny continued: “And the foreseen cannot be ignored.”

Kate checked the urge to look down at her watch. She didn’t have all day here. Apparently, her lack of enthusiasm communicating itself to Penny, the other woman hurried onward, “Anyway, as I was saying, I had a vision. It involved you.”

Kate kind of figured that. “Go on,” she said though, hoping the prompt would successfully move Penny along on her tediously slow story.

“You were standing before me, arms stretched outward… and on either side of you where the hazy silhouettes of two men, their faces blackened out, disguised from my sight. Each had a grip on one of your hands, each trying to tear you away from the other one and into their own respective arms.” Penny paused here for a moment, to let the picture settle over Kate before saying. “In that instance, I felt your confusion, your indecision, your inability to move one way or the other. You wanted to go to both of them, unable to choose…”

“Are you sure I wasn’t being kidnapped?” Kate asked drily, but Penny didn’t laugh at her lame attempt at a joke.

“Kate…”

“You’re matchmaking knows no limits, does it?” she return, her tone playful.

“This isn’t about matchmaking,” Penny insisted, her hands, balled up in fists, planted firmly on her curvaceous hips.

“Then what is it about?”

“I think you know,” Penny said softly. “It’s part of why you came to Whestleigh, after all.”

“To find a man?” Kate queried mockingly.

“Well, maybe that too,” Penny mused, tongue-in-cheek. “No, Kate. You came here to find yourself, to answer the questions waging war within, torn on who you should be versus who you actually are…Well, it seems that struggle as intensified. Part of knowing yourself is discovering what it is you want—for yourself and from yourself.”

“And the balance to all this hangs between the embrace of whichever fella I decide to fall into?” Kate scoffed.

“You’re awfully deflective for a woman who supposedly doesn’t believe me,” Penny said, changing tacks nicely. “Makes me wonder… Are you uncomfortably aware what my vision represents—the truth of what it means? Do you know who these two men are?

Kate didn’t answer her.

“Did I hit a little too close to home?” Penny pushed, not bothering to mince her words.

 

 

 

Well, of course she knew who those two men were—and what they meant to her—Kate steamed, back in her car once more. Pushing her foot down on the accelerator, she breezed down one city block for another, until, according to her satellite navigator, she came up on her destination. Turning into a parking lot there, she carelessly threw her car into the nearest free spot. Shutting off the ignition and reaching into the back seat, she reached for the midsized nylon-mesh bag she’d packed back there.

Penny’s timing was impeccable, Kate fumed, her feet taking her quickly inside the building to a surprisingly clean and cool lobby. Having never been there before, precious minutes were wasted while she located where it was she needed to go but, soon enough, she found herself standing before the door she called for, her fingers curling confidently around its handle…beyond this was a childhood she hadn’t lived. On that thought, Kate pushed it open….

Sneakered feet stepping hesitantly onto the rubber-mated gymnasium floor, her eyes quickly took stock of the room. Arms breaking out in chills, the by-product of the tank top she was wearing, Kate felt her breath catch when she spied him there. .

He was alone in the room, with only the rhythmic bounce-bounce-bouncing to keep him company in the large auditorium. He was also wearing a sleeveless shirt and Kate had to forcibly take her eyes away from what it revealed. She’d always suspected that Jackson had muscles but holy boy did that man have muscles! Even his legs, exposed from the knees down, looked lean but strong, nicely defined and toned.

“You know, I probably should warn you now,” Kate called out without warning, the abrupt nature of her voice disturbing Jackson’s one-man game. “Though I always wanted to play basketball, I never actually have. I’m not even sure I can dribble a ball.” Moving gracefully onto the court, she met up with Jackson, who’d stopped throwing baskets at the sight of her.

“Don’t start backpedalling on me,” he teased her, tossing the ball her way. Kate caught it easily. Slowly, she rotated the foreign object in her hands. “This is happening.”

“I’m not I just—I don’t want to feed you any false claims,” Kate shrugged uncomfortably. It was hard to admit, not being good at something. “I’m afraid this won’t be much fun for you.”

Jackson winked. “This act isn’t going to work,” he insisted. “I take no prisoners.”

Kate just shook her head. “I tried to warn you.”

Jackson rolled his eyes exaggeratedly at her solemn tone. “Kate, I’m well aware that you’ve never played before. That was the point of your memoir, wasn’t it?” Kate swallowed uncomfortably at the mention of that writing assignment. They had yet to bring up Jackson’s own particular storyline. “I’m not expecting you to be ready for the WNBA here, okay? Let’s just have fun.”

Kate laughed. “Okay.” She looked down at the ball in her hands. “I guess, dribbling doesn’t look that hard.”

Jackson threw her a devilish look. “If you need, I can always stand behind you, show you how to move…”

Kate felt her cheeks color. Did she know who the two men were? Oh, most definitely. One of them was standing beside her right now… Looking up at him surreptitiously, Kate studied his blondish hair, spiky attractively at the edges, his eyes a warm, gentle glow and she couldn’t help but wonder: what did she want?

Jackson was gentle but guarded, educated but naive, kind, generous but at times, mocking, bitter…

Jake, on the other hand, was ambitious but indulgent, considerate but also careless, thoughtless but never intentionally…

And both, in their own way, were very, very taken.

 

 

 

These thoughts tumbled unendingly inside Kate’s mind throughout the rest of the evening, long after she and Jackson had finished up for the day (which, though she’d been terrible at, managing to make only one shot, had given her almost unknown pleasure. Spending time with Jackson, flirting shamelessly, reveling in her own understandably lacking ability…Kate had been able to momentarily forget everything else…).

It was late by now, nightfall descending thickly. Shutting the lamp off in her living room, yawning through her frustrated ruminating, Kate decided to call it quits for the night, and just go to bed. She hadn’t gotten any school work done and the way her thoughts were going, she wasn’t bound to either.

Damn Penny!

It was as Kate was shuffling across the wooden floorboards toward the stairwell leading to her bedroom that she heard a sound coming from outside. Stopping, she listened intently. There it was again! Cautiously sidling up to the window in her kitchen, she pressed her face up to it, her ear cold against the frozen glass. It was too dark to see anything, plus the window was foggy from the wintry chill, so she’d didn’t bother peering through the shifting shadows.

There! Feet it could just be heard, slipping across the frozen ground…multiple pairs of feet, followed closely by the subdued noise of quiet chatter amongst the troupe. As Kate stood there, frozen in her curiosity, they passed by, the hum of their soft commotion dimming into the distance.

Intrigued now, Kate padded out to her front stoop, the better to eavesdrop. Wrapping her arms tightly across her stomach to ward off the cool night air, she gazed about, waiting for her sight to adjust to the blanketed evening, her head blindly following after the strange echo.

After a moment of squinting, she could just make out the shapes of four bodies—maybe fine, standing there, a couple of houses down from her. Wait, wasn’t that Anne Ganthy’s house? Circle around one another, their voices hushed with muted excitement, they appeared to be teenagers. Kate didn’t remember Anne having any children. She was closer to retirement age than anything…Riding a close second to that observation came another: in the hand of what was obviously the ring-leader of this little outfit, was a package of toilet paper.

Kate’s eyes bugging out of her head, she remained immobile, stunned by what was about to happen right in front of her. They were going to prank Anne! Just as she thought it, Kate watched as the first strand of toilet paper sailed up in the air, falling limply against one of the bushes she kept neatly trimmed on either side of her front porch….

Covering a hand against her mouth, Kate held back a girlish giggle. She shouldn’t find this situation funny. Indeed, she should go right up to those hooligans and confront them, make them clean up the mess they were obviously intent on making at the woman’s expense and-and apologize for their behavior. But then again… it was Anne Ganthy they were targeting. Anne Ganthy. Not exactly Kate’s favorite person in the whole, certainly not someone she had any intense desire to help or defend. Honestly, Kate couldn’t force up the energy to pretend she wasn’t a little thrilled the woman was going to get a little back… She’d had enough run-ins with the Anne herself to know that she probably deserved it.

That thought firm in her mind, Kate retraced her steps, slipping unheard back inside her home without the slightest guilt, leaving the kids to their own devices. Besides, it wasn’t as if T.P. was dangerous, just a nuisance.

 

 

 

Besides, Anne Ganthy loved to be a nuisance to others, Kate reminded herself the next afternoon. She and Danger were testament to that, she considered, leading her rambunctious puppy from the car and into the building touting the sign: Whestleigh Dog Obedience Training and Academy. She’d signed Danger up for the course hoping it would help appease the grumpy Ganthy in her relentless pursuit to have Danger removed from the neighborhood. If she could just get his barking to abate….

Tonight marked the beginning of the academy’s eight week long session and Kate could hardly deny the bundle of nerves she experienced as she walked inside the foreign building. Danger was a good dog, a great dog, but he did have this little authority problem.

Tugging him gently after her into the large, open space where the program was being conducted, Kate took a deep, calming breath. The trouble with being new in town, she rationalized, biting her lip nervously as she looked for a quiet, unobtrusive spot to stand, was that you had to do everything by yourself, surrounded by veritable strangers.

No sooner had Kate supposed this than her eyes met with a familiar face among the crowd. If the other person’s smiling nod in greeting, their sudden movement in her direction, was anything to bog y, Kate wasn’t about to be lonely for long. Swallowing thickly, she wished now—almost desperately—for what, only moments ago she’d despaired over. A cruel twist of fate, the only person Kate would gladly take isolation over was making her graceful way toward her.

Ashley Burns. Ashley, Kate’s co-worker and Jake’s secretive girlfriend. Ashley, the girl who didn’t know that Kate had accidentally kissed her boyfriend. Ashley, the girl who’d wipe that affable look off her face if she had any idea just how often Kate fantasized about that same boyfriend. Dammit.

“Hi Kate,” Ashley called in greeting, her knuckles white against the leash holding her large German Shepherd, muscles tensing in her feebly attempt to drag him along after her. He didn’t seem inclined to follow her lead.  “Here for the dog training class?”

Danger, lying down at Kate’s feet now, tongue hanging out of his mouth lazily, was clear evidence to that. Ashley’s cheeks burned crimson.

Duh. Still, Kate smiled nicely. “Yes.”

“Oh, I’m so glad. I didn’t think I’d know anyone here tonight. It’s a relief to see a friendly face,” Ashley said, talking fast, her movements jerking with the force of her dog’s continued resistance. Clearly, he wasn’t interested in standing still. “Trigger, be still!”

Kate nodded limply. She and Ashley could hardly be classified as acquaintances, much less friends. Sure, they worked together but rarely on the same shift, and even when they did, Ashley, being popular amongst the ranks, had never before freely sought out conversation with Kate—not unless it had to do with the LitLiber specifically. She didn’t have to. She belonged. She had real friends there. Kate was peripheral. Still, she’d always been kind during those infrequent exchanges…. Kate guessed that was something.

“Yeah…” Kate mumbled, at a loss for words. Her nerves from earlier were nothing compared to now. Just standing by Ashley, Kate felt inferior, guilty, dirty, her mouth just itching to spill the beans. Clenching her teeth tightly together, she focused her attention down to Danger, who was half-asleep by now.

Jake and Ashley.

Kate with Jake.

Kate and Ashley.

It was too much.

“Trigger, stop!” Ashley called roughly, pulling Kate from her terrible reverie. Tugging none-too-gently on the leash in her hands, leaning back against her hunches, she appeared to have her hands full just trying to harness her dog’s single-minded intention of having his own way. His ears were perked upright, breath heaving out of his mouth excitedly, neck straining hard against his collar. The pair of them made quite a sight.

Still, Kate got the impression Ashley was embarrassed by his show of defiance, so she pretended not to notice, reaching down to scratch Danger appreciatively under his chin. At least he was being cool.

“You’d think I’d be used to this by now,” Ashley muttered, her own breath coming fast now, determined to win this particular game of tug-of-war.

“Hah,” Kate smiled inanely. “Have you had Trigger for a long time?” She asked, trying to remain conversational.

Ashley’s head whipped around at the question and, too late, Kate realized Ashley been talking to herself and, what’s more, Kate wasn’t supposed to have heard that.

Laughing despite this, Ashley shrugged. “No, I just got him actually… but, Trigger seems to share a lot of the same traits as my boyfriend.  You know what I mean, I say sit and he says run!” She giggled at her own joke.

Kate felt the breath whoosh out of her stomach at the reference to Jake, even in all its subtlety. All the blood seemed to drain from her face—her cheeks tingling numb and cold. She couldn’t do this. It was too much, too damn much!

Clearing her throat, her expression choked, Kate hardly heard herself respond. Empty, polite small talk had been drummed into her from such a young age, it came naturally. “Right,” she laughed hollowly. “Men! They’re so contrary.”

Eyes downcast, Kate called herself every kind of coward. Men might be contrary but women were devious—as she was learning firsthand.

Ashley smiled, but it looked kind of sad. “Yeah, and mine’s no different in that department. I swear, sometimes I wish I knew what he was thinking. It’s like, one minute he’s the guy I feel in love with, the one I know inside and out and then, in the  next, he’s as distant as the sun, and just as unreachable.”

Kate wasn’t sure how to respond. The conversation had turned awfully heavy all of a sudden and Kate—especially knowing what she did—did not feel equipped to carry it out. Why was Ashley telling her this? Kate hardly knew her!

A niggling warning siren sounding in the back of her head, Kate wondered for a frantic minute if Ashley knew. It would explain her abrupt decision to share something so private, so personal with Kate. Was she fishing for information? Or worse…was she truly unaware of Kate’s recent bout of indiscretion, and just looking for someone to confide in? How was Kate supposed to befriend her if that was the case, how could she possibly accept this confidence?

“He never used to be like that,” Ashley said then, speaking into the silence surrounding them, a silence thickened by Kate’s own conflicting feelings on the subject. Frowning, the words falling ominously from her mouth, she looked incredibly fragile in that moment, incredibly scared at the implications present in that statement.

And, against every moral fiber of her being, against her own will to think otherwise, Kate felt a horrible, unthinkable twinge of hope….

 

 

 

M.T. was bent over her desk, with only the soft glow of a lamp beside her computer to illuminate the room around her. The church had been closed for hours now, but there she remained—probably writing out her sermon. Fingers spread over the keyboard, lips pulled downward in concentration, her posture remained rigid, her attention fixed to the task at hand.

At least, that’s how it looked to Penny, standing silently at the entrance to the pastor’s office. She’d been on her way home when, driving by Good Shepherd, she’d seen Maggie’s light on and…throwing out a customary knock on the door now, softly announcing her presence, Penny watched M.T.’s head bob up at the unexpected sound.

“Hey Maggie,” she said in tentative greeting.

“Penny? What are you doing here?” M.T. asked excitedly. Easing her way further inside the room, Penny felt a little of her anxiety loosen at the obvious welcome.

“I was on my way home—” Penny started to explain but, on second thoughts, decided not to travel down that line of thought. She wasn’t ready for that yet. “Are you hungry?” she asked instead.

If M.T. was taken aback by her question, nothing of it appeared on her face. A smile curled its way around the corners of her mouth. “I’m starved,” she lied. She’d eaten supper not half an hour ago, but she wasn’t about to confess that to Penny, not when it seemed like…well, like an invitation to dine out together loomed imminently.

“I thought I might hit up Yellow Flame”—Penny’s favorite restaurant—“for a meal. Want to, do want to join me?” The usually cool physic was anything but in that moment…the words were flat, stiff, easily matching her body language.

Pushing her chair back from her desk, M.T. gained her feet. “I’d love to.”

North of Happenstance: Chapter Twenty-Six

“He said what?” Penny asked incredulously.

“And he didn’t know you were there?” M.T. countered, over her mouthful of cheeseburger.

Kate shrugged, but her nonchalant guise didn’t fool the other women. They knew better by now. Exchanging surreptitious glances with one another, they waited patiently for Kate to break. She was hurt, but her pride wouldn’t admit to it. Not just yet.

The three of them were huddled over the kitchen table at Kate’s house, having yet another of their dinner parties. This time, however, it was Kate who’d brought the heavy conversation; in fact, she was so upset she hardly noted just how well the sisters were getting along, almost as though they were…well, friends. The girls had decided on take-out that evening, evidenced by the white Styrofoam boxes littering the kitchen counter. Kate had volunteered to pick up the food, knowing she would swing by Julie’s Diner on her way back home from school anyway.

That’s when she’d heard Jake. He’d been sitting at the bar when she’d walked into collect her order, but he hadn’t seen her. He’d been too busy, a beer in one hand, a fistful of bar peanuts in the other, making conversation with his friends—conversation that had everything to do with Kate.

“…no, no—,” he insisted, cutting off one of his friends, “my employee Kate is worse. She just talks and talks and talks! To everyone, about everything. It takes her twice as long to ring in customers, to clean out the bathrooms, to stock books…! I’d tell her this, but I can’t get a word in edgewise…”

That had set him and his cronies off, guffawing at the lame joke, guffawing at her expense. Kate, listening to this incredible piece of news, her mouth hanging limply open, nevertheless crept steadily nearer. She couldn’t believe what she’d just overheard. She couldn’t believe Jake had just said that. Against her better judgment, Kate wanted to know what else he had to say. A self-inflicted sickness, she felt compelled to stay, to stick around. She didn’t want to, and yet she couldn’t make herself move away, either.

“Yeah, but she’s hot,” the imbecile on Jake’s right returned.

Jake shrugged. “I guess,” he threw out flippantly, as though it had never occurred to him to notice.

He guessed? Kate pulled herself up to her full height. There was no guessing necessary. She wasn’t a conceited woman, but Kate knew she looked nice—at least, according to societal standards. And, she was always beautifully turned out at work. She took great pride in her appearance.

“It’s hard to find a woman who doesn’t flap her gums in excess,” the baboon on Jake’s left said.

“Problem is, she’s not an easy person to talk to,” Jake stressed. “You know, for someone who supposedly worked in the cut-throat corporate world, she’s, I don’t know, fragile or something; I’m not sure how she would’ve survived it there,” he continued, warming up to the subject now.

Kate’s breath caught on a hiss.  So what, now she was not only an annoyingly chatty woman, she was weak too? The nerve!

“Maybe that’s why she left,” the goon on his left tossed out indifferently.

“Yeah, maybe,” Jake said, chewing on the idea. “I mean, she always acts so nervous around me…her hands are always shaking, and her eyes look anywhere but at my face…it makes me anxious!” Jake teased lightly and even to Kate’s sensitive ears, it sounded affectionate.

“Maybe someone’s got a crush on the boss?”

Kate actually felt her eyes bug out of her head at the not-incorrect guess. Perhaps she’d misjudged Jake’s friends. They weren’t complete idiots after all.

But thankfully, Jake had only laughed at the notion. “I doubt it, besides…”

Kate hadn’t been given the chance to hear the rest of whatever it was Jake said just then, her attention diverted by the presence of the restaurant host, coming up to her, to-go bag in hand. Paying the bill, her body slanted awkwardly, concealing her view from Jake, Kate made a hasty retreat. Her face burning, her eyes misting, she’d never felt so low in her life.

And now, looking into the anxious eyes of her best friends, Kate was forced to remember it all over again.

“Yes, he really said that and no, he didn’t know I was there,” she answered them. “The fact is, Jake can barely tolerate my company.”

 

That wasn’t true. In fact, Jake hadn’t meant any of the things he’d said about Kate. Certainly, she did talk a lot, but he found it charming. And yes, she worked slowly, but she was methodical, precise. He hated that she was nervous around him. He wanted to get to know her better. He wanted to be around her more.

In fact, he couldn’t stop thinking about Kate. It made him feel terrible. He should have been thinking about Ashley, his girlfriend. They’d been dating for a little over six months and he should’ve been enamored with her. But he wasn’t. He just kept thinking about Kate. She was an enigma he couldn’t figure out. Jake had known Ashley almost all his life. She’d graduated two years behind him, and they’d more-or-less grown up together. She was a wonderful person, a great girlfriend, but…then he met Kate.

That’s why he’d been talking about her. Not because he didn’t like, but because he liked her all together too much. He couldn’t admit that out loud though, hell, he could barely admit it to himself. Still, it was like a force beyond his control, to bring her name up in conversation whenever he could, however he could. He just—she had this laugh, a mere tinkle of sound, that he found himself craving when she wasn’t around. He went out of his way to bring it about when she was.

But he wasn’t supposed to like her, so he told himself—and anyone willing to listen—that he didn’t. If he said it enough, he might learn to believe it himself. At the very least, Ashley deserved that much.

Nice, sweet, predictable Ashley who loved him.

 

“So, what are you going to do with this information?” Penny asked some minutes later, after she and M.T. had tried, and failed, to convince Kate that of course Jake hadn’t meant to imply any real dislike toward her person. Kate wasn’t buying it. “Are you going to tell Jake—that you know?” she went on meaningfully.

Kate pushed herself up from the chair, her hands busy as she grabbed up the empty food containers, bringing them to the trash can. “I can just imagine how well that would go,” she said dejectedly. “I’d probably have to quit if I did that.”

“And you don’t want to quit?” M.T. asked, sounding surprised.

Kate shifted, listlessly throwing the contents away. “I mean, not really. I like that job.” And, though she knew she shouldn’t, she also liked Jake. Regardless of what he’d said, she liked him. Attraction like that didn’t just go away with a hurtful word or gesture. And, though he shouldn’t have been talking about Kate behind her back, she couldn’t exactly deny he had a right to some of his accusations. She was weird around him. She did blabber, especially in his presence, searching desperately for something to talk about, something to fill the silence. She trembled around him. What he said may not have been nice, but it wasn’t technically slanderous either.

“Is this going to be another whole, let’s just pretend it didn’t happen, scenarios? Because, last time I checked, that wasn’t working out well with you and him,” Penny said bluntly.

“And face his rejection face-to-face?” Kate considered. “No way….”

 

 

 

Walking out to their respective vehicles at the evening’s close, Penny sent M.T. a knowing look. “If Kate thought her relationship with Jake was strained after the Halloween disaster, what does she think will happen now?”

M.T. shook her head perceptively. “I know. My heart breaks for her. The thing is, I think she likes that man.”

“Me too.”

“And, though she put on a brave face, I think Kate was more hurt than she let on; she relies on others’ acceptance of herself.”

Penny whistled. “You can say that again. Kate doesn’t know how to like herself otherwise.”

Coming up on M.T’s car, both women came to a stop then, staring into the night helplessly. “So what do we do?” Penny asked her sister.

“We just be here for her. We accept her, regardless of the decision that she makes.”

Turning back, looking over her shoulder at the silhouette of Kate’s body through the kitchen window, Penny nodded. Then, her eyes finding M.T’s, she said: “You know, you’re very good at this.”

“At what?” M.T. asked, fishing out car keys from within her purse.

But Penny didn’t answer, instead she just smiled softly and walked away.

 

 

 

A week later, Kate had come to the same conclusion as Penny. Things with Jake had reached an all time low. Work had become awful:

On Tuesday, the first day they’d worked together after the unintentional eavesdropping session, Kate had done her best to play it cool (while simultaneously keeping her mouth shut), but the result of this exercise had been less than stellar. Translation: it reeked of weird.

“Kate,” Jake had said, coming up to her at the customer service desk. “I’ve got a question for you.”

She’d looked up at him inquiringly, her eyebrows finely arched in question.

After waiting a beat, looking disconcerted by her prim silence, her starched expression, he’d hesitated to add: “Well, I was wondering if there’s any way you could come in early next Friday? I-uh, I forgot that it’s the start of Spring Break at Cordwyn, which may leave is a little understaffed…”

Kate’s voice, when she’d finally spoken, had been clipped. “Yes. I can come in early.”

Jake had raised his eyebrows at the chilly tone. Where was Kate’s usual readymade smile, her typical bantering retort, that superfluous something about her own plans over vacation? All he’d seen was an unwilling participant in a suddenly awkward conversation. “If you had other plans though, don’t worry about it. It’s not a big deal, I just thought I’d ask…”

“What time would you like me here?” Kate had asked instead, and despite her best intentions, the words had come out a little frosty, a little unfriendly.

Jake had cleared his throat uncomfortably. “Uh, how about ten o’clock?”

Kate had nodded sharply. “Fine.”

Wednesday hadn’t been much better, and then they’d only seen each other in passing, at shift change.

“Ready for another fun day of work?” he’d teased, meeting up with Kate outside the employee room.

“Yup.” That’s all she’d said. Yup.

For a long, clumsy moment, Jake had just stared at her, waiting for more, but Kate hadn’t been forthcoming. She was done being labeled the chatter box of the group. If Jake wanted quiet then she’d give it to him.

“Well, all right, enjoy your evening…?”

“You too.” And with that she’d spun on her heel and walked away. If she’d turned back around, if she’d glanced back over her shoulder, she may have been surprised at the look of paused confusion on his face, of self-conscious disquiet at her brisk attitude, her lack of interest. She may have been curious to see how much her words, or lack thereof, had affected him. But she didn’t turn around, she just kept walking.

Not surprisingly then, Friday and Saturday proved much the same, only on those days Kate hadn’t stuck around long enough to endure any more conversations with Jake, running from one station to the next, sorting, reorganizing, filing, dusting…all with a sense of urgency and proficiency to shame even the speediest of employees. She’d exhausted the majority of her eight hour shifts winded and sore… her eyes peeled keeping out of Jake’s path. If this created some tension, some undue attention, that was nothing compared to what happened on Sunday…

Kate had been coming back from restocking the paper towels in the girl’s bathroom when she’d seen the mess; one of the shelves in the New Age aisle had come loose, all the books having spilt untidily across the floor in consequence. Without bothering to seek assistance, or stopping to knock on Jake’s door and inform him of the issue, knowing he was busy filling out invoices or doing inventory or something of that nature, Kate had quietly taken herself to the storage closet and grabbed up the tool box kept there, having decided to fix the broken shelf all by herself.

She’d been in the process of doing just that, the electric drill buzzing in her hand as she screwed another bit into place, when Jake came up behind her. Apparently, another employee had seen what Kate was up to and felt obligated to then report the matter to Boss Man straight away.  No one, it seemed, thought she could handle even the simplest of tasks.

“Here Kate,” Jake had said loudly in greeting, gesturing toward the tool, “I can do that for you.”

With a hard snap of her finger, Kate had shut the instrument off. She’d had enough. “Why, you think I can’t figure out how to screw together two pieces of wood?” she asked roughly, rounding on him.

“Whoa,” Jake had warned softly, his hands raised in defense, “I didn’t say that.”

“Well good,” Kate had returned sharply. “Contrary to popular belief, I am not a weak woman. I can do this by myself. I don’t need your help. That’s why I didn’t ask for it. Unless, that is, you don’t think I’m up for the job?” She’d turned rebellious eyes on him then, her foot tapping impatiently against the carpet as she’d awaited his response.

“Kate, what’s going on?” He’d asked instead, taking the drill carefully out of her hands.

“Nothing,” she’d mumbled.

“Hey, I’m sorry if I offended you. I didn’t mean to imply that you can’t do this—I know you can,” he’d assured her thickly. “I was just trying to help, but, ah, have at it, if you want.”

“Thank you. I’ve got it under control.” The words had practically eked prissiness.

“Sure,” Jake had said easily, “first though, do you want to tell me what that little outburst was all about?” Steel had resided underneath the offhand comment.

Smoothing down the sleeve of her shirt, pulling out the wrinkles, the tactic a deliberate stall, Kate had kept her eyes lowered. “No, not really,” she’d admitted quietly, and then: “I just, I don’t like when people treat me like I’m—like I’m made of glass or something, too delicate to be of real use.”

“I’m sorry if I did that,” Jake had said, his very look puzzled, a caricature of bewildered confusion— like a scolded child who wasn’t sure what he’d done wrong. “There’s nothing else bothering you?”

“Should there be?” Kate had challenged.

“I don’t know, that’s why I’m asking,” Jake had said slowly. “You’ve been, I don’t know, you’ve seemed a little short lately. And what you just said now has me worried. Is it us—are you unhappy here? You can talk to me Kate.”

But just don’t prattle on and on.

“Everything’s fine,” Kate had assured him, reaching for the drill once more. “But I’m not a robot; I have feelings, you know. My moods ebb and flow accordingly.” She’d felt her shoulder hitch. “And sometimes they get the best of me, that’s all.”

“Yes, I got that just now.”

 

 

 

Now, heading home from school, two days later, Kate wondered what was to be done about that situation. By the time she’d left work on Sunday, Jake seemed to be avoiding her just as vigorously as she was him. It couldn’t go on much longer. She didn’t want to quit, but she was starting to lose hope of salvaging her working relationship there. She and Jake had been through so much—problem was, he didn’t know it!

She was still chewing on this problem as she pulled up into her driveway. Getting out of her car, throwing her backpack carelessly over one shoulder, she gradually made her way up the steps. She’d call M.T., talk it over with her. She always knew what to say in situations like this.

Kate had just reached her porch steps when she noticed it, the burnished orange coloring of a brand new basketball, sitting just a little to the left of her door. A pretty pink bow had been stuck to the top of the purchase box. And, tapped just beside it, was a small card.

Before she even opened the note, Kate knew who the present was from. Only one person knew the meaning behind such a gift. No one else would have thought of it. Bending her attention, she read the three lines of text scribbled across the white cardstock paper.

 

Kate,

            Thought it was about time you learned how to play.

            P.S. My gym has an indoor court. Take me up on a game?

            –Jackson Fischer.

 

For the first time in over two weeks, she felt the beginnings of hope blossom once again in her heart. For the first time in over a week, Kate felt the beginnings of a full-fledged smile settle across her face. Maybe Jackson wasn’t quite so broken after all. Maybe Kate wasn’t quite so pathetic.

In an instant, Jake became but a hazy memory. He was a problem for another day. Right now, Kate was too busy being happy, excited, nervous…what would she wear, should she call him now to thank him, or later? What would Penny say? They’d probably have to discuss the entire scene, analysis the note, word-for-word, in fine detail… Right now, Kate was too busy daydreaming about a man who appreciated her, flaws and all…