North of Happenstance: Chapter Fifty-Nine (THE END)

Jackson stared unblinkingly at Kate.

“I love you, Jackson,” she repeated again, her voice barely a whisper of sound. Her teeth gnawed against the side of her lip at his extended silence. “I hope that’s okay?”

Because suddenly she was terrified. She’d said those words before, of course, but never to Jackson (and he’d certainly never said them to her). Only, she’d never really meant them. Not until just now.

But then Jackson smiled and some of her fear melted away. “Yeah Kate,” he said, his voice low, husky. “It’s okay. It’s more than okay.” With a half step, he made to move toward her, his eyes soft as he neared….

Calida cleared her throat pointedly. She’d clearly been forgotten. Her interruption had the desired effect. Jerking at the sound, Jackson ceased in his movement toward Kate. His eyes shifted, swiveling to take in Calida’s expectant expression.

He smiled charmingly.

“Excuse me, Mrs. McDonald.” Shifting gears, he didn’t skip a beat; to Kate’s quiet dismay, his attention was lost now, transferred instead to the elegant woman beside her. Whatever he’d been about to say next—whatever his response to Kate’s exclamation would have to wait. “It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

Dammit.

“How kind,” Calida purred, holding out a hand, which was quickly taken in his own.

“Please, won’t you come inside?” he asked, stepping back to allow them entrance.

Calida smiled, but it held little warmth. “I’d be delighted, I’m sure.”

“No, the delight is all mine,” Jackson assured her as she stepped daintily into the foyer, Kate bringing up the silent rear. “I can’t tell you how long I’ve wanted to make your acquaintance.”

Jackson had impeccable manners.

“I only wish I could say the same,” Calida said, her eyes quick to take in everything around her. Opulent surroundings. “But as it happens, I’ve only just heard about you.” Her laugh was a tinkle of social merriment.

Jackson had to bite his lip to keep from pointing out the obvious: that until just recently, she and her daughter hadn’t been speaking at all.

Likewise, Kate shot her mother a speaking look; but Calida was too busy inspecting Jackson’s home he led them down the arched hallway off the entrance and into the main living area, to pay any notice to her daughter. As her sharp eyes gazed around the room, her usually pinched features took on an even harder look. Her long patrician nose quivered as she glanced over the gilded mirror hanging above the fireplace, the authentic Oriental rug underneath the sofa—the tasteful throw pillows and blankets, the classic sconces on the papered walls, all the trinkets and baubles scattered about. The room screamed of money and high taste.

It was abundantly clear that Jackson came from wealthy stock.

And Calida couldn’t find one damn thing wrong with the place.

Clearly it rankled. Kate smiled.

“Well,” she said sharply. Too sharply. “You have a beautiful house. What is it your family does?”

How like Calida to get right to the matter at hand. Before Kate could throw out a reproached, Jackson was answering her.

“Well, if I have my history correct, I believe the earliest Fischer’s were with the railroad industry.” He grinned openly. “But other than that, in the last fifty years or so the family has, er, rather diversified our interests.”

Calida cocked her head. “Meaning what, exactly?”

To his credit, Jackson didn’t look unnerved by her tone. “Meaning…”

“Jackson teaches English at the high school,” Kate cut in, her voice loud and deviant. Her eyes sparkled from a suddenly hot face, her very stance—arms crossed and chin raised— practically begged her mother to mock his profession, to make comment. “And he’s absolutely brilliant at it. The kids love him.”

Jackson shot Kate a quick wink.

“Oh.” Calida smiled. “How…noble of you.” The exaggeration of her pause, the stress she placed on that one word made the hairs on Kate’s neck stand at end.

She let out a huff of breath. “I should certainly say so, mother.”

Calida made a dismissive motion, “Oh don’t be so sensitive Kate, I was merely complimenting the man.” With her hands clasped behind her back, she shifted, her eyes taken with some glass ornaments placed inside a crystal bowl on the mantelpiece. Gone now was the picture of Emily that used to rest so lovingly on its rough-hewn wood. “After all, much like some must invent while others assemble, so too must one educate so another can achieve greatness…” She touched one of the glass-blown bulbs.

Turning helplessly to Jackson, Kate raised her arms impotently. “I am so sorry,” she mouthed. She could actually feel the blood drain form her face. Rude didn’t even begin to cover it…

But Jackson only shrugged, not looking the least put out by Calida’s words.

“I’ve always thought that knowledge is the best kind of power,” he said in quiet agreement.

Kate wanted to throw something. Preferably her mother, right out the door!

It wasn’t until sometime later, after Calida had swallowed her second cup of coffee that, placing the empty cup back on its saucer, she asked politely where she might find the washroom—and Kate found herself alone with Jackson for the first time. Finally.

Waiting until Calida was safely out of earshot, Kate threw Jackson a tremulous look. “Jackson. I don’t even know what to say. I’m so sorry. Really—”

“Nah,” he said, waving her words aside. “Don’t worry about it.”

“It’s just, I know she can be, ah, tough sometimes, and I’m sorry that I just thrust her on you like that….” Maybe bringing her mother over hadn’t been such a good idea after all. Calida was always going to be Calida.

Jackson moved closer to her. “Hey,” he said. “Stop apologizing. It’s okay, Kate.”

But she couldn’t seem to stop: “But surprising you this way? I mean, what was I thinking? She is not an easy woman and I should know. Only I wanted to—” the rest of Kate’s flustered words were cut short when Jackson’s head bent, his lips silencing hers in a hard kiss.

It was both unexpected and exactly what she needed.

But all too quickly, it was over and Jackson was lifting his head to stare down at her. His eyes were tender, the pads of his thumbs coming to brush away the hair at the sides of her face.  “I love you, Kathryn.”

She smiled gloriously. “Yeah. I know.”

Jacksons looked momentarily thrown. “You do?”

She nodded impishly.

He grinned then, one eyebrow raised             devilishly. “Confident, weren’t you?”

“For the last forty minutes, you’ve not only put with my mother and her rudeness and her sundry inquisitions,” Kate informed him, “but you’ve also been kind to her.”

“Ah.”

Kate smiled. “And, I figured, there could only be one explanation for that.”

“Gave myself away, huh,” he teased, rocking her gently from side to side within the circle of his arms.

Kate wrinkled her nose. “Big time.”

Jackson’s smile disappeared, and his voice, when he spoke next was somber, solemn. “Thank you,” he said, and at Kate’s quizzical look: “For bringing her here. To see me.”

“Thank you for opening the door.”

“For you? Always.”

“I’m all in, Jackson” she told assured him earnestly. “I need you to know that.”

Jackson nodded toward the hallway. “After this, how could I think anything else?”

Kate followed his line of sight. Her lips twisted. “Now perhaps you can appreciate why I ran away from home.”

“Oh, yeah. Big time.”

 

 

 

Penny was so mad she could have spit. Yanking hard on the door of the LitLiber, she crossed quickly inside the bookstore. It had taken two minutes of sitting on her cold office floor, tears flowing easily tracks down her cheeks, before it all started to make sense.

Her conversation with Jake, circling through her consciousness, snatches of his angry words splicing at random across her memories:

“Because I was surprised to not see you…this morning. My bed. You were supposed to be there when I woke up.” Jake had been so angry, so upset. And with a snap, it pulled itself into place.

He’d wanted her there. In his bed, when he woke up.

She could still see his face, twisted, distorted in fury. “Am I to take it that last night is to be forgotten? Never spoken of again?”

            His scorn and derision were nothing but a mask to hide the truth.

… “I’m done pretending.”

            “Pretending?”

            “To be your friend.”

Over and over, the past two months washed over her, pricking and poking at her:

Jake taking her to the concert.

The fact that he’d hidden knowledge of Kate and Jackson’s relationship; he’d continued on with the ruse even though he’d known it was pointless. He’ done that to be with Penny. There was no other reason.

“Well, from where I’m sitting, the view across the way doesn’t look too bad.”

            “Brunettes….. I like brunettes.”

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

“Oh my God,” Penny had cried out weakly, her head snapping upright as the thunderbolt flashed across her startled mind. “Jake has feelings for me.” Tasting the words on her lips, for a moment, Penny had smiled in dawning realization, her body curling into itself, savoring the statement as it hung in the air, her body warm, safe—

And in the next, she was swearing. “That goddamn—and he had the nerve to call me a coward!” Scrambling unsteadily to her feet, Penny’s eyes had narrowed in a pale face. “Well, we’ll see who’s cowering now.” Straightening her skirt, she’d turned toward her door. Stopping only long enough to lock up, and stick a sign on the front saying that she’d gone to lunch, Penny’s feet had taken her quickly, clipping hurriedly up the block, until she’d reached LitLiber.

Now, striding across the moderately busy store, she only just kept her lips from snarling at the passersby, only just kept her arms from pushing the oblivious customers out of her way as she blazed a trail toward his office door. Once she reached it, Penny allowed herself only enough time to anticipate the look on his face before she stormed in, throwing the door open with a bang.

Jake was bent over his desk, busily writing something down when her shadow fell across the hardwood floor, when his office door crashed angrily against the wall. Looking up sharply, the frown marring his forehead at this extravagant entrance disappeared immediately at the sight of her standing before him.

For a moment, he seemed too shocked to react at all.

At last, he seemed to find his voice. “Penny?” Rising quickly to his feet, his body held defensively, guardedly, he watched her advance into the cramped space.

“Surprised to see me?” She mocked him.

Jake didn’t comment.

Reaching the opposite side of his desk now, Penny leaned across it until her finger, the one she had pointing at him, jabbed into his chest. “You—you…” Her lips twitched, curling. She took a deep breath.

Jake, on the other hand, looked almost bored. “I, what?”

Penny’s mouth thinned. “You want me!”

Jake’s eyes widened. He hadn’t been expecting her to say that. Well good.

“Hah!” With a decided punch, she drilled her finger into his shoulder again. “You do! You want me. All this time—!”

But Jake only shook his head. He looked defeated. Tired suddenly. “What do you want, Penny?”
“I want some answers!”

“To what questions? You seem to have it all figured out.” His tone couldn’t be drier.

“So that’s it then?” Penny asked incredulously. “You’re just done. It’s over. Just like that?” She snapped her fingers. “There’s nothing left to discuss—”

“Penny…”

“You weren’t even going to tell me, were you?”

He sighed. “Please don’t do this—”

“Why not? Don’t I deserve that much at least?”

“What do you want me to say?”

“You’re just going to walk away?” Penny pleaded.

Jake raised his hands, furious now. “How could I walk away? You left first.”

“That’s not fair!”

“No? Then you didn’t slip out of my apartment this morning?”

“Yes, only…”

“I had to find you, Penny. And when I did, you had nothing to say.”
“You’re twisting things…”

“How so?”

“I needed time to think!”

“About what?”

“About what happened?”
“But I thought it didn’t mean anything to you?”

“When did I say that?”

Jake paused, nonplussed.

“Would I be here right now, fighting for you if it had meant nothing to me?”

Jake’s lips curved in quiet amusement. “Is that what you’re doing? Fighting for me?”

“Well duh!” Penny spat. There was no denying Jake’s smile now. “Which, by the way, is more than I can say for you!”

His eyes gleamed. “My savior.”

“Oh shove it, Farrow.”

His grin only widened.

“Don’t be cute. I’m not in the mood.”

He wiped the smirk off his face. “Okay. What do you want?”

“To make myself emphatically clear,” she said. “Because clearly you haven’t been paying close enough attention these last fifteen odd years.”

Jake stilled.

“I’m here to tell you—” She made a rough sound. “That I want you right back, you stupid idiot!” She pulled herself straight, her eyes narrowed on his face.

Jake whistled. “Took you long enough to admit it.”

Penny shot back. “Excuse me?”

Instead of answering her, Jake rounded the side of his desk. He took a predatory step closer to her. “Anything else?”

“Anything—? What?” Penny stuttered, at a loss.

“Anything else you’d like to make emphatically clear?” he asked innocently enough. He was almost beside her now.

“N-no.”

“Good,” he said, reaching for her…

 

 

 

A week later, smiling across the table at Penny and Maggie, Kate reached for the bottle of newly opened wine. With precision, she poured out three glasses of Chardonnay. The smell of fried catfish wafted through the room, adding to the festive scene.

“Okay, Kate I can’t take it any longer,” Penny said, taking the proffered glass from Kate’s outstretched hand.

“What?”

Penny waved around them. “Girl’s Night Dinner?” She looked at Maggie for support. “I mean, the suspense is killing me!”

M.T. nodded. “It usually means only one thing….”

“Something’s up.”

Kate laughed.

“So?” Penny persisted. “What’s the occasion?”

Kate smiled. “Do you know what today is?”

Penny rolled her eyes. “Obviously not.”

“It’s my one year anniversary in Whestleigh.”

Penny sucked in a breath. She looked over at Maggie. Then back to Kate. “No way. It can’t be.”

“On this very day last year.” Kate said softly.

“No kidding.” Penny shook her head. “So much as happened. And yet, it doesn’t seem possible it’s been a whole year.”

“We’ve come a long way,” Kate agreed.

“Well. I think this calls for a toast,” Penny said, raising her glass. Maggie and Kate quickly followed suit.

“To new homes,” Kate called.

“Here, here,” Maggie murmured, clinking glasses.

“To friendship,” Penny added, her gaze taking in the three of them.

“And love,” Kate said, blushing.

“And the muddied waters we waded to find it,” Penny echoed. To think: Kate could have fallen for Jake. Penny might have succeeded in stealing Hank from Maggie. And everyone would have been the poorer.

“To finally putting ghosts to rest,” Maggie murmured, her finger going to massage the necklace hanging round her neck.

“In more ways than one,” Kate said, thinking of her mother. She and Calida would never be close, but at least they were speaking to one another. It was a start.

“Ah yes. Ghosts. My bread and butter,” Penny chimed in, making everyone laugh.

“To the next year and what it has in store for us,” Kate shouted.

Penny smiled, her gaze switching from Kate to Maggie. “Side-by-side-by-side.”

“Amen to that!”

And for a moment, Kate’s kitchen was infused in giggles before the women took their drink of wine.

“Oh, did I tell you,” Penny said then, setting her goblet down on the table. “About my client Madeleine?”

“Is she the one who wanted a reading done on her house plant?”

“That’s the one.” Penny looked at Maggie. “She swears it’s the reincarnate of her late sister.”

“Oh goodness!”

“What’d she want you to do this time?” Kate asked, getting up from the table to check on the fish.

“Oh, get this….

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Forty-Four

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kate smiled.

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

“Sure.”

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

“Yeah?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah.”
“We kissed.”

“Ah!”

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

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

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

M.T. smiled. “Ah.”

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

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

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

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

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

“No, of course not,” Kate proclaimed.

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

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

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

“Thank you,” Kate whispered.

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

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

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

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

“Yeah?”

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

 

 

 

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

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

No, it was Penny.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You think so?”

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

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

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

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

“Curious?”

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

Penny sighed. Loudly.

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

“Don’t.”

“Don’t what?”

“Don’t nose in on my business.”

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

“An invitation?”

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

“I know.”

The sisters stared at one another.

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

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

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

“Okay. Here it comes…”

“Here what comes?”

“The lecture.”

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

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

“Jake?”
“Yeah.”

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

“I’m not doing that.”

“Right.”

“Right.”

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

“Oh,” Penny said. “Yeah. Sure.”

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

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

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

“What did you talk about?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Why would she?”

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

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

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

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

“You’re third-degreeing me again.”

“You started it.”

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

“Hazards of the trade, I suspect.”

“So?”

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

“Did she?”

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

“Talk about it!”

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

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

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

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

“I said a lot of things.”

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

“Yeah?”

“And what did I say back.”

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

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

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

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

“Traitor.”

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

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

“She is.”

“How do you know?”

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

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

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

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Forty-Three

Kate squirmed quietly in her seat. She was damn near bursting at the seams to talk to M.T. and Penny. Mostly Penny. Kate had big news; news that would end her and the psychic’s stupid feud. News both of these women would really, really want to hear…at least, she hoped so.

And what better time to share-all (and clear the air) than tonight, when they were already together, enjoying one of their infamous Girl’s Night Dinners. Though, to be fair, Kate wasn’t sure if ‘enjoying’ was quite the right word….

But, clearly M.T. needed the spotlight right now. Kate nodded her head. So she would wait. And she would help M.T. Kate was an adult, after all. She could put her big news on hold until they’d reached a conclusive answer to M.T.’’s current predicament. Of course she could. And, after that, she would talk.

So—how did a pastor go about consummating a marriage-less relationship?

Penny’s voice intruded Kate’s thoughts: “…but could you potentially get fired for this?”

M.T. tried to look casual. “Well—I’m sure it wouldn’t come to that…”

“Do you need to tell everyone?” Kate asked quietly.

M.T. looked confused. “I’m not sure what you mean?”

“It’s just, when you say you’re going to tell the people of Good Shepherd do you mean… all of them?”

“Yes. All of them.”

“Yeah.” Kate swallowed hard. “It’s just—isn’t that a bit risky, throwing it out to the entire congregation, giving them authority over something so, uh…ambiguous.”

“That’s what I’ve been saying all along,” Penny said under her breath.

“Actually,” Kate returned smartly. “You’ve been saying they don’t have a right to know period. I’m saying—”

Penny smacked a hand over her forehead. “Oh Good God…who cares?!”

Back straight, and chin tilted at a haughty angle, Kate turned back to M.T. “It’s just, does it need to be such a public affair? That’s wrought for emotional and reactive responses. And what if they don’t support it? What would you do then?”

M.T. looked panicky again.

But Kate wasn’t done with her scare tactics. “And, if all that happened, what about the church? Would they be forced to make an issue out of this?—I mean, what is your denominations technical stance on this anyway?”

M.T. fidgeted with a lock of hair—twining it around her ear, letting it loose and then repeat. “Listen, I know it’s risky but it’s also real and genuine—”

Kate cut off her defense. “Okay, but what about if you started smaller? Say the board of directors—see what they have to say about it. I mean, these are the people who quote the by-laws chapter and verse, right? They’ll know how to advise you going forward.”

Now it was M.T. who squirmed in her seat. “I’m not sure—they’re kind of a stodgy bunch. They’ve never been exactly welcoming to me.”

“What about the church staff then—?” Kate offered, but her quiet suggestion was both cut-short and drowned-out.

“And?” Penny boomed loudly, leaning forward to join the conversation again: “They’re just as much a part of Good Shepherd’s as all those countless other strict traditionalists. If you can’t stomach squaring if with only a handful of them how do you propose a whole sanctuary full? Or are you planning on only revealing your intentions with the more liberal church-goers?”

“I’ve just never been the kind of pastor who…” M.T. pushed her plate away as though it had offended her. “I don’t want to feel as though there are parts of my life I can’t talk about to the parishioners. I don’t want to feel like I’m keeping secrets, or hiding things. That feels wrong. And if I can’t be honest and open, how can I ask them to be—”

“All right but, how does Hank feel about it?” Kate asked, praying for a Hail Mary. “About his private life being talked about in such a well, public setting? Because it’s not about just you anymore.”

“Oh.” M.T. looked taken aback.

“Never considered that one, huh?” Penny jeered.

“We never talked about it…”

“You may want to,” Penny cautioned. “Because, according to this conversation, it’s something he’d have to get used to.”
“Well, I mean, I don’t know if I’d put it that way—”

Penny frowned. “You’re asking for the church’s permission to date a guy…I’d say so.”

M.T. made a face. “You’re putting words into my mouth.”
“No. I’m just clarifying. You can’t make a decision—a very personal decision—without their unequivocal say-so.”

“Penny, that’s enough,” M.T. replied curtly.

“Have you told Hank about your reservations—about why you haven’t, well, you knowed with him?” Kate asked meaningfully.

M.T. shook her head. “No. I—”

“Why not?”
M.T. shrugged. “Because when you say it out loud it sounds kind of…” She shrugged uncomfortably.

Penny. “Big Brother-ish?”

“No,” M.T. snapped. “No. Because I’m afraid he wouldn’t understand.”

“You’re afraid it would scare him away,” Penny answered firmly. “Admit it.”

Maggie sputtered. “No, it’s just…there are certain allowances…I’m not sure he’s…it’s a big thing to ask someone—”

“Hey,” Kate soothed, reaching forward to touch the back of M.T.’s hand. Her voice was gentle where Penny’s had been hard, forceful. She smiled at the scared pastor sitting opposite her. “If Hank isn’t willing to do that, then why are we even having this discussion?”

M.T. sighed. “Okay. Yeah. You’re right. I’ll talk to him.”

Penny nodded. “Yeah, it’s—”

The sudden piercing jingle of Kate’s cell-phone rang out, interrupting whatever Penny had been about to say. Reaching apologetically into her back pocket, Kate retrieved the device, which she’d forgotten to silence earlier. Checking the screen, she saw it was a text message. Blushing, Kate was pretty sure she knew who it was from. After all, she was with the only other people who regularly contacted her already.

Penny, staring pointedly at the thing clutched in Kate’s hands, seemed to be waiting. Looking up to see those prying eyes, Kate quickly dropped the phone down onto the seat beside her. “Sorry,” she mumbled.

“Tonight,” Penny said decisively. “After we leave. Call him.”

“Yes, okay—”

Kate’s phone buzzed again. This time, all three pairs of eyes turned to look at it.

“Have somewhere you need to be?” Penny asked.

“No—no,” Kate assured them. “I’m sure it’s just someone from work.” The fib came easily to her lips. “Probably looking to drop a shift or something.”

“Do you need to check it?” M.T. asked, without censure. “It may be important.”

“No, I’m sure—”

“Go ahead,” Penny invited, waving toward the condemned thing. “Otherwise, it may go off all night at this rate…”

“Fine,” Kate replied tightly and, goaded by the words, snatched up the phone with impatient fingers. Opening up the text—now two text messages—Kate saw that she’d been right all along. They were from him. Reading them silently, she couldn’t help the small smile that played out over her mouth as she read the missive.

“Ah. Judging by the look on her face,  if it is from Kate’s work, I have a pretty good guess of who it is that’s trying so hard to get a hold of her,” Penny whispered loudly to M.T. Kate’s head snapped up at the ominous words, her smile freezing uncertainly on her face.

Maggie sent her sister a speaking look. “Don’t,” she mouthed.

Penny pursed her lips. “No actually, I should speak,” and turning to stare at Kate, who bit the inside of her cheeks nervously, added: “Because, the thing is…”

Kate felt her heartbeat kick up a notch. Not again…

“The thing is,” Penny said. “Jake’s a good guy—”

Kate blinked. Wait. What? Jake—? That wasn’t what she’d expected to hear.

“He’s a great guy actually,” Penny continued. “But I think you already know that.”

Kate shook her head. “Penny…”

“No, let me finish,” she insisted. “I shouldn’t have—you’ve been pressured your entire life on who to like and who not to, and—well, I’m sorry if I was doing that too. I’m sorry that I acted like you needed my approval to validate your feelings…and that there was only one way to gain it, by liking what I liked.”

“You weren’t—”

“Yes, I was,” Penny admitted. “And it didn’t even make any sense, because Jake would be perfect for you.” At this impassioned speech, M.T. stared thoughtfully at her sister. And a bit confusedly. (This went double for Kate, who was openly gaping at Penny.) “I-I think I just wanted to be right so badly about you and Jackson that I refused to—that I…”

“Penny, that’s the thing…” but again, Kate’s words were ignored.

“I didn’t want to see what was happening with you and Jake,” Penny made a fleeting gesture with her hand, “I didn’t want to see what I saw down in M.T.’s basement. But, I did see it. And it made sense…at least, once I got over myself, it did.”

Kate felt herself shrinking in her chair. What the hell was happening? Penny wanted Kate to get with Jake? Now? Finally? That was rich. Of all the times to switch sides…

And to think she’d been so excited to talk to Penny tonight, to tell her what had happened yesterday afternoon, when she’d been over at Jackson’s house, rehearsing for the play. She’d been itching to talk to Penny… and most certainly not about Jake. It was a good story, only now she wasn’t sure she had the right audience to hear it.

 

 

 

Because, barring the clumsy, gawkish entrance at Jackson’s front door, it might have been one of the most romantic nights of Kate’s life. The evening started out as most historic evenings go—normal, uneventful even. They’d just been sitting in his living room, scripts in hand, going over scenes for the play…

“…okay,” Jackson announced tirelessly, after the better part of an hour’s rehearsing: “Try that last line again.”

Kate scratched the side of her neck. “Yeah, it sounded a bit cartoonish when I said it, didn’t it?”
“More like an after-school special,” Jackson replied.

Kate laughed. “Yeah. All right.” And so she read the line again—Jackson standing back and watching her movements, her inflection, her facial expressions.

It took three more read-through’s and then…

“That’s it,” he said, with a definitive clap of his hands. “Right there.”

“Oh thank God,” Kate teased playfully, dropping her script down at her side. “I thought I’d be here all night!”

Jackson grinned. “Hey, you’re working with a professional here. No sloppy acting allowed.”

“Because, surely, if that part wasn’t just perfect, I was going to get tomatoed for sure!”

Jackson smiled gamely. “Ready to run through it one more time? From the top?”

“Slave driver!” Kate cried with a wink.

“All right,” Jackson relented. “How about a five minute break?”

“That sounds like a dream.”

Jackson nodded. “Water?”
Kate nodded. “Even better.”

“Be right back,” he said before leaving the room, his steps taking him quietly toward the back of the house, where the kitchen was located.

It was as she was standing there, idly gazing about the room, waiting for him to return that Kate noticed it, a picture frame sitting on the wood-hewn mantle, its gilded border nestled on either side by floral vases, each one overflowing with fresh, wild flowers. The photo was of a blonde woman. A very lovely, and very young blonde woman. A glimpse of the lake could just be seen in the background. She was smiling with such happiness.

“Kate?”
Jumping at the sound of Jackson’s voice, coming from close behind her, Kate turned quickly around. She hadn’t heard him come back in, but it was clear from the look on his face he’d been there for a bit…and that he’d seen her looking at the photograph.

So she decided not to pretend otherwise. Talking softly, as though her words were delicate, Kate nodded toward the picture: “Was this…?”
“Yes.”

“Emily.”

Jackson’s throat bobbed in response. Carefully, he set both glasses of water down on the coffee table before advancing toward the fireplace.

“She was…very beautiful,” Kate whispered.

“Yes.”

“I’m sorry,” Kate offered belatedly. “I wasn’t meaning to snoop.”

“Of course not,” Jackson said, waving her words away. He turned to look down at Kate then and that’s when she realized how close to one another they were suddenly. “In fact, I’m kind of glad you saw it.”

Kate stared at him, one eyebrow slightly raised.

“I wasn’t sure how I’d feel…having you here. This was her home.”

Kate’s teeth rasped lightly over her lips. “I don’t understand…?”

Jackson took another half-step forward, until he was almost touching her. “I needed to be sure.”

“Sure?”
In answer, Jackson’s right hand lifted, settling against the side of her cheek, his thumb absently caressing the underside of her chin as his face slowly lowered, his breath rustling across her cheek. “And now I am,” he whispered seconds before he fitted his mouth to her own.

And for once in twenty-eight years, Kate didn’t over-think her response; she didn’t question the practicality, or doubt what was right or wrong. She didn’t analysis the moment right out of her life. For once, she acted upon instinct. And, on that, she raised her arms to his face, her hands cupping either side of his jaw as she opened her mouth up to the invading pressure of his tongue….

Long minutes later, Jackson lifted his head and, staring down at Kate’s bemused expression, he smiled. “I have to confess,” he whispered in a mock-serious tone. “I asked you over here today with an ulterior motive.”

Kate nodded. “I see. So all this talk of ‘practice,’ was just a ruse, huh?”
Jackson grinned. “Well, only partly. The rehearsal was real enough—your acting did need some help…”

Kate swatted him on the shoulder. “Yeah? Well so does your flattery.”

Jackson’s grinned slipped from his face. “Hopefully what I have to say next will make up for it.”

Kate held her breath.

“Kate McDonald,” Jackson said, “would you go out on a date with me?”

And, for the second time in her life, Kate didn’t stop to consider her answer, she didn’t weigh the pros and cons, and she didn’t let herself wonder what Penny would do, how M.T. should would advise, or if her mother would approve. No, this time, she said the first word that came to her mind, the one that felt right sitting on her tongue.

“Yes.”

 

 

 

But now, staring soulfully at Penny, Kate, who’d dreamed of retelling this story, found herself ironically unable to do so.

“…look, all I’m saying is, I overreacted the other day, seeing you with Jake,” Penny said now. “And I took it out on you which wasn’t fair, because I think we all know I wouldn’t have been anywhere near as upset if it had been you and Jackson down there. What I said, it wasn’t… I was wrong, okay? On all accounts.”

“But Penny…”

“But that’s over now.”

Kate felt her brows furrow. “So you want me to end up with Jake? Not Jackson? I’m confused.”

“Me too,” M.T. muttered under her breath.

“No.” Penny took a deep breath. “I’m saying that perhaps I didn’t give Jake a fair shake. And if that’s the case, then perhaps I stopped you from—just, disregard everything I ever said about him.”

Kate felt a lump forming in her throat.

 

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 Thirty-Four

A slight breeze wafted against the window curtains of Penny’s room, as the three women stared outside.

Maggie looked back at Kate. “Are you sure this is what you want to do?”

            Kate nodded. “I’m sure.”

            M.T. sighed again. “All right. Penny—lead on.”

Without more encouragement, Penny tossed one end of the sheets over and out the window.  Glancing nervously over her shoulder, Kate felt her heartbeat kick up another notch. “Hurry up—we don’t have much time.” Any second now her mother was going to throw the door open, catch them in the act.

Shifting back to the window, she watched Penny slide over the ledge. Her feet made a soft scabbing sound as she leaned up against the exterior wall. Maggie quickly tied the other half of the “rope” against the window-crank, securing Penny’s dissent.

“Be careful,” she whispered to her sister as Penny’s head slowly slipped from view, her steps almost silent now as she crawled downward.

“All right Kate, you’re next,” Maggie said once Penny had swung herself up onto the tree branch.

Kate nodded. Scooting over the window, she grabbed the sheet with sweaty palms. Shucking against the vinyl siding, her breath shaking her half to death, she lowered herself to the rose trellis…

It was over in a matter of minutes. Maggie’s soft jump from the tree to the ground brought the women together again. Except for a couple of scratches, they were safely outside. The only problem was—it wasn’t dark yet. Wouldn’t be for another hour or two. They stood there in their dinner finery, grouped together on the McDonald’s carefully manicured lawns, for all the world to see.

“What do we do now—they’ll see us if we walk up the block,” Kate cried in a hoarse sort of whisper. Pointing unnecessarily, she took in the large windows facing the foyer and the dining room, which were only too visible from the street.

Maggie frowned, looking helplessly toward Penny for an answer. The physic only smiled.

“How fast can you run?” Penny asked the women.

“Run where?” Kate asked wildly. “We’re miles from a hotel—or the hospital…and I’m not wearing shoes…!”

The sound of an approaching vehicle cut Kate short. With a jerk, she leaned up tight against the side of the building, trying to hide. Just who could that be…?

“You don’t have to run miles,” Penny said, indicating the car that was slowly sweeping toward Kate’s house. It was a taxi. “Just to the curb.”

“Wha…? How did you? What?”

Penny shrugged. “The taxi we took home yesterday. I got his number.” Her tone dripped with dry censure. “Just in case something like this should happen.”

“When did you have time to call for a taxi?” Maggie asked inanely.

Penny gave her a look. “Oh I don’t know, near about the time I hurdled down from that oak tree.” Then with a wave of her hand, she produced her cell phone, as if that answered all their questions. “Luckily, he wasn’t busy when I phoned. Said he’d be here in a matter of minutes. Seems he was right.”

As Penny spoke, the car pulled to a noiseless stop in front of the house. Kate stared at it dumbly, her mind blank. It was all too much. It was only the tug on her wrist from Penny which snapped her out of this reverie. “Come on Kate. We gotta get a move on—before they notice!”

They almost didn’t make it. It was as Kate was on the verge of leaping inside the musky-smelling car that the front door to her home opened, and Calida’s brilliant silhouette, followed shortly by Phil’s, tumbled into sight.

“Kate…! Kate, where are you going! Come back here!”

Sparing her mother one last glance, Kate hopped into the cab. With a resounding thunk, she slammed the door shut.

“Go!”

The squeal of tires and they were off. Clothes, toiletries, suitcases and the like, were all left behind.

 

 

 

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

            She felt bad for the way she’d treated Penny. She’d need to apologize

After everything she and Maggie had done for Kate, and how had she thanked them—by freaking out over a stupid boat. Penny had been genius at Kate’s house. If it hadn’t been for her, Kate didn’t even want to think about what would have happened that night.

The stupid boat. Penny had tried. God bless her, she’d only been trying to help Kate move on from that ordeal when she’d rented that stupid, stupid boat. Crane Bay had been a good idea in theory. Kate knew that now. The girls had meant well. Only, Kate hadn’t been ready, not just then. So she’d freaked out. About a stupid boat.

And now, three days had passed since their ill-gotten return.

At first, Kate had been too mad to talk to Penny. She’d needed time to work out her frustrations, to vent out all those feelings her mother had brought back to the surface. So she’d ignored Penny’s frequent attempts to call her. She’d ignored the sundry text messages. It wasn’t because Kate was still mad at her. Not any longer. She just needed a little quiet.

With steady eyes, Kate looked up at the clock. But now that time had come to an end. She could no longer hideaway in the sanctuary that had become her house. Jake had been kind when he’d heard about Nanny Moore. Through a kindly worded text message (the only kind of interaction they’d had since that drunken  night at Julie’s Diner), he’d promised Kate as much time as she needed before putting her back on the schedule. M.T. had been wise. She’d waited Kate out. And Penny—she’d been her typical self. She’d just loved.

On that thought, Kate pulled out her phone and shot off two quick text messages. Then, climbing out of her chair, she headed for the shower. Yesterday had been the last in a long line of days in which she’d requested off of work; which meant that tonight was her first shift back at the beloved bookstore. And she was ready for it. Excited even; to have something to do, something to keep her mind preoccupied. Resolutely ignoring the gnawing sensation in the pit of her stomach, Kate reminded herself (as she’d done repeatedly since the new scheduled had been posted) that Jake would be done for the day by the time she clocked in. He would be gone. Home.

She didn’t have enough energy to face both work and Jake on the same day.

 

 

 

But it seemed Kate wasn’t going to get what she wanted. Walking into the LitLiber an hour later, the first person she saw upon entering the building was Jake. And standing right beside him was none other than Jackson. Huddled together, by the Customer Service Desk, they both turned at her approach. It appeared they were waiting for her.

Stumbling to a stop, Kate felt a blush work its way slowly up her neck. Her eyes skipped from the one to the other frantically, her mind flashing back to the last encounter she’d had with each man.

Jake:

“Do you also know that it’s all your fault?” Jake asked then, his voice even, conversational, a goofy grin splitting across his face.

            “What?” Kate was starting to feel like a parrot here.

            “Ever since you came to town,” he said groggily, “I can’t get you out of my head.”

            Kate’s eyes popped. Had he actually said that?

            Jake may not have been lucid, but his next words were clear enough: “You’re so beautiful. And-and smart, independent… yet there’s something so fragile about you too. A conundrum—that’s what you are!” He smiled hazily. “I think about you…all the time,” he cried languidly, his voice undulating rapidly in his stupor, his filter shut off—the words leaving his lips without regulation. “And I forget about everything else. You’re there, all the time, even when you’re not! I couldn’t—I was cheating Ashley.”

            Kate thought her heart would beat right out of her chest. Her nerves were a live thing, thrumming against her body, her ears drowned by the anxious beating there…Jake wanted her?

            His rough laugh broke into her thoughts. “You’ve disrupted my whole life, did you know that?”

 

            “I’m crazy about you Kate.”

 

Than Jackson:

Making quick work of the storm door standing between them, before Kate had time to realize his intentions, Jackson had done just that– striding determinedly across the threshold, the bulk of his body crowding hers in the small landing; without quite realizing how, Kate soon found herself pressed between the solid wood construction of her front door and the wall of his chest.

            “Jackson?” she asked, her voice pitched in disbelief. The dilation of her eyes, the pulse beating rapidly against her throat, the sultry sound of his voice dripping oh-so-welcomingly off her tongue…Kate didn’t offer up even a token protest.

            In response, his hands came up to cup her face, his head bending down, lips hovering over her mouth. “We never talked about it. You never asked,” he whispered, his eyes gauging her response. Kate leaned into his touch. “But I wanted you to know…”

            His lips brushed lightly against her own, clinging softly in the silence that followed. With a low groan, Kate felt her body step even closer into his embrace, her arms, by their own volition, circling around his neck. And Kate kissed him back, the swell of his tongue receiving an instinctive, heady response in kind. In those brief moments, her stomach dropped away….

 

 

Shaking her head free of these paralyzing thoughts, Kate tried to focus her attention. She was not, absolutely not, ready for this. But, if either man noticed her unease, neither made comment—nor did they seemed besieged by the same awkward memories. Jackson smiled warmly. Jake with a goofy grin.

“Kate, just the girl we were hoping to see,” Jake called, beckoning her closer.

For one wild second, Kate wondered if she hadn’t made it all up—the frenzied, alcohol-induced admission at Julie’s Diner; the stomach-flopping kiss on her front doorstep. But then, as she neared the men, she felt it. That electric charge. Jake’s eyes, up close, were guarded, twitchy. And Jackson’s looked hopeful but scared; they’d never talk about that kiss. After pulling away from her, Jackson had whispered: “Just think about it, okay?” and then, without another word, he’d turned and left her standing there, mouth gaping open, gasping for air.

And after everything that happened with Nanny Moore…well, Kate swallowed. Throwing her shoulders back, she attempted a breezy smile. If they could act nonchalant then dammit, so could she.

“What’s up?” She asked flippantly, but her eyes refused to look in either man’s direction for very long.

Jake cleared his throat. “As you may have heard, every year the LitLiber participates with a local organization to promote literacy and reading for kids.”
Kate smiled. “That’s wonderful—”

“Westleigh Public Schools also help to coordinate the program,” Jackson intoned.

“Yes, of course,” Jake agreed quickly.

Kate fought back a smile.

“Anyway,” Jake continued, “this year we’ve decided to run things a little differently. Usually, we just conduct an informational talk for the families in the area, but turnout has been rather low—”

“So we thought, this time around we’d run the event as a play—”

“Give them a story instead of a lecture.”

“Something educational but also entertaining.”

“A visual look at the benefit of books—”

Kate wasn’t sure where this was going. “Okay?”

“The play will take place here—in the Kid’s Reading Corner,” Jake said, gesturing toward the part of the store.

“And, as chair of the school’s theatre department, I volunteered to direct it,” Jackson added.

Kate nodded. “Well—anyway in which I can help….?”

Jake nodded. “I was hoping you’d say that.”

“You were?” Kate was starting to feel a bit suspicious.

Jackson spoke: “You seemed like a natural choice. First of all, you do actually work at LitLiber; the community would recognize you as an authentic spokesman. And I’ve seen you perform—as Juliet, you’ll remember, last fall at the high school. You were really quite good.”

Kate was starting to get the picture. “Wait. You want me—”

“To play the lead role in the production.” Jackson nodded.

Kate goggled at them.

Jackson looked satisfied.

Jake encouraging.

“But only if you want to.”

“Of course, you’re not required to do this.”

“It is for a good cause though.”

“And your willingness to help out would not go unnoticed.”

Kate felt two sets of eyes peering at her pleadingly.

 

 

 

 

“Well, look at the bright side,” Penny said later that evening, after Kate had gotten off from work. She’d text both women earlier that afternoon, asking if they’d like to meet up with her for a drink once the LitLiber closed. It had been her way of an olive branch and both Penny and Maggie had snatched at it gleefully. “At least this play will keep your mind off dear old mom.”

Kate pulled a face.

“Penny, do you have no tact?” M.T. growled. Turning to Kate, she arranged her facial features into something warmly sympathetic. “So you said yes?”

Kate shrugged. “What else could I say? They just stood there, staring at me. I couldn’t say no.”

Penny took a hearty sip of her martini. “So big picture here: for the next few weeks you’re going to be working closely alongside the man who’s practically admitted he’s in love with you, and the guy who just recently kissed you within an inch of your life? That about it?”

Kate guzzled her beer. “Yeah.”

“One doesn’t even need to be psychic to see what’s going to happen next.”

“Oh Penny, put a sock in it,” M.T. snapped.

Throwing her hands up in the air, Penny looked mildly hurt at the reproach. “What? I’m just saying, Kate needs to tread carefully here…”

“She’s right,” Kate admitted softly, miserably.

“I know,” M.T. seconded.

“So what do I do?”

Maggie shrugged. “What do you want to do?”

“And don’t say avoid the issue,” Penny butted in, “we’ve seen how well that’s worked out for you in the past.” The dim lights of the bar only partially disguised the glare Kate sent her way.

Kate blew out a ragged breath. “I don’t know! I like them both.”

“Oh-I got it!” Penny said. Ruffling quickly through her purse, she pulled out a small notepad and a pen. “Let’s right down a pro and con list. What do you like about each man, and what don’t you like? We’ll measure them together, side-by-side.”

“That sounds like a horrible idea,” M.T. said.

Penny ignored her sister. “First off, tell us: who’s a better kisser?”

Kate felt her stomach pinch at the words, at the remembered feeling of Jake’s lips pressed up closely against her, his mouth devouring hers with passionate, violent intensity. Jackson’s had been softer, gentler, but no less ardent, no less impactful.

Dropping her head in her hands, Kate closed her eyes.

“Equal but different.”

“That’s not going to be a lot of help,” Penny murmured softly to herself. “All right next question….”

M.T. groaned weakly into her glass of wine.

 

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…

 

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Fifteen

Time: 3:54 p.m.

Rushing up the steps to her front door, Kate was tempted to check the time on her watch—a fruitless endeavor. She knew what time it was. She’d never lost track since leaving Cordwyn College.

Penny and M.T. were coming over for dinner at 5:00 p.m.

It was another of the pastor’s attempts to see her sister and, as such, another of Penny’s provisions that Kate joins them. Somehow, Kate had found herself agreeing once again, and this time, not just to having dinner. She was also hosting the event. M.T. was still living out of a hotel and Penny’s cottage, it had be patently proved last time, maxed out at two dinner companions.

At least, Kate wouldn’t have to cook. Penny was bringing the food, M.T. the wine.

Unlocking her door and reaching the entryway, Kate tossed her book bag on one of the two pink upholstered chairs she’d unearthed from a nook under the staircase in the basement. Frantically, her eyes searched the downstairs: a pair of boots lay sprawled across the tile at her feet, a couple stray dishes remained in the sink, and a throw blanket was spread anyhow across the recliner in the living room. The kitchen floor needed to be mopped and the rug in the parlor room need a good vacuuming.

She had little over an hour to go-time.

 

 

 

Time: 4:38 p.m.

Thanks to the miracle of necessity and speed, Kate’s floors now shined, the rugs professionally turned out; the shoe rack sat, precisely arranged; presently the dishwasher ran, midway through its cycle. The table was carefully set with linen tablecloth and Kate’s delicate china. Add that to carefully placed candles, and the air smelled sweet and fresh.

Brushing a sweaty strand of hair off her flushed cheeks, Kate allowed her feet to swivel in a slow circle, her overly sensitive eyes looking for anything out of order. There were two pegs open in the parlor room for Penny and M.T.’s coats: check. The island was scrubbed clean, ready for the arrival of food: check. Three wine glasses were set out on the counter, a corkscrew placed beside them: check. Soft music whispered out of the television in the living area, and that room’s freshly painted walls—a creamy hue nicely offset by teal-blue draperies against the windows—gave an impression of cool comfort, a welcoming place to relax after the meal: check and check.

Kate’s self-soothed tranquility was soon disturbed by an unexpected rap at the door. Someone was there. Oh God, oh no. Not yet. She wasn’t ready yet, she thought as she raced to answer the call. She still had twenty minutes and she desperately needed that time. She hadn’t even managed to change out of her school clothes. And her hair—good gracious, it needed at least five minutes of dedicated work.

Kate breathed a sigh of relief, however, when she saw who was standing on the other side of her screen door.

At least it was only: “Penny…”

“Don’t worry, you’re not running behind,” she said without preamble, bustling past Kate without so much as a by-your-leave, a tote bag thrown haphazardly over her shoulder.  “I’m early,” she continued, “I just wanted to give myself a little extra time to plate everything. I hope that’s okay.”

“Yeah, of course,” Kate said, trailing after her.

Standing irresolute, halfway through the kitchen, the stairwell just off to her right, Kate was momentarily torn… as a hostess she felt duty-bound to ask if Penny needed any help, but then again, she also felt obligated to look presentable to her guests. Her current disheveled appearance was strictly taboo.

She wouldn’t have time to achieve both of these aims.

“Don’t stand on ceremony with me,” Penny said, as though she’d just read Kate’s thoughts. Kate was starting to think the psychic really could. “Take yourself off, do whatever needs doing. I’m the one early, remember? This is not a reflection on your entertaining prowess.” Kate couldn’t help but chuckle at that, as Penny had intended her to do. “Besides, I’m covered.”

“Thank you,” Kate said. Without loss, she headed up the stairs, her feet taking them two at a time.

“Take your time—I’m fully capable of answering a door in your absence!”

“Never!” Kate yelled back playfully.

 

 

 

Time: 6:08 p.m.

“…and then he told me, it was just a joke. They didn’t even own a dog!”

Kate’s fist hit the table in her current fit of laughter. M.T. wiped a tear off her cheek, chuckling even in memory of that story—the third she’d recounted this evening, reminiscing about her troubles and mishaps as a young American in a foreign country.

Kate, her hair nicely pressed into a topknot, outfitted in a black skirt with grey tights and a loose-fitting silk top, was almost glad she’d been given a forced invitation to this party. Maggie could tell a mean tale!

The only person not partaking in the fun was Madame Penny. Like a stone, she’d remained seemingly unmoved through these little anecdotes. Twice, she’d tried to change the subject, but neither Kate nor M.T. had taken notice.

“I’m sure it’s the pastor in you, this knack for embellishing stories to their upmost ability,” Penny interrupted, her voice propelling like a crack against their merriment.

“Excuse me?” M.T. asked, with just the slightest note of defensiveness. Up to this point, through the spinach salad appetizer and even the shrimp bisque entrée, the sister’s had managed to remain civil. Of course, that was before they’d consumed an entire bottle of cabernet—and half of a second. Kate had a sinking suspicion something stormy was brewing.

“I’m just saying, you’ve always had a flair for, well, exaggeration,” Penny said sweetly, taking a vicious bite of her cheesy dessert.

Kate felt her stomach muscles tighten at the antagonizing words. Swallowing thickly, she could do nothing more than simply wait for what would happen next.

“I’m not sure I know what you mean.”

“Remember that story you always tell, about how you and Bobby Atkinson were chased up a tree by an elk the summer after you first moved to town? Well, I’ve seen you climb before and, unless that elk was drunk, he’d have trampled you long before even one foot found a low-hanging limb.”

Kate felt sweat break out against her upper lip, her insides churning at the onslaught of what would surely only lead to a fight; acid bubbles were forming, popping….

“Oh, oh, and what about the time we took a family vacation out to Richfield and you claim the bellboy, who’d barely spoken five words to anyone of us, helped you sneak out on our first evening there, to go dancing at that nightclub? And, if that isn’t hard enough to believe—especially since you were sleeping soundly in the bed beside mine when I woke up at three to go to the bathroom—then, while you were supposedly there, the police showed up, raiding the bar for under-agers. Yet, miraculously you managed to escape out the bathroom window. I mean, come on!”

“You think I made the whole thing up?” M.T. sounded more incredulous than angry.

“Yes, I do.” Penny seemed to be warming up to her argument now. “That police raid was a huge story; it made front news on all the papers. I think you wanted to be part of it, after crafting a perfectly viable excuse for why it could never be proven first.”

Kate hardly heard M.T.’s response. Her head was pounding now, her palms felt clammy, her stomach fast approaching a stage of revolt. Gulping, she forced herself to breathe, forced her stomach to keep the contents of her dinner within its system.

“I mean, I could go on and on: the college party you crashed with Melinda Johnson, you remember that one, right? because apparently you passed out on the couch and Melinda and some frat boy had to carry you back to her parent’s house, somehow completing this feat and all without waking anyone up.”

“Ruthie…
“Don’t call me that,” Penny insisted so forcibly Kate winced.

“Sorry—Penny. I don’t understand where this is coming from. All of these stories are real. I did these things, they happened. Out-of-character, larger-than-life, stranger-than-fiction, whatever you want to call them, everyone has a few stories like that…”

“No they don’t,” Penny insisted, her eyes averted to her plate. “That’s exactly my point.”

M.T. watched as Penny’s lips twisted, her face contorting with the words. This was far more personal than even M.T. had originally suspected; it was about Penny and not the other way around. Quietly the pastor spoke, her words measured with new insight. “People don’t have stories like that, or you don’t?” The words weren’t meant to be insolent, rather revealing.

Pressing her hands up against her hot cheeks, Kate wondered at the room’s temperature. She felt en fuego. She really, really hated fighting.

“I should,” Penny argued, “but, you’re right, I don’t have any stories like that. I don’t have any stories period—at least, not any to be retold at dinner parties. I guess I have you to thank for that…because someone had to be there: when mom needed her daily fifth of vodka, to make sure she didn’t drown in her own boozy saliva, put her to bed when she could no longer walk straight. Someone had to be home every night to make sure she didn’t accidently kill herself! Someone had to be responsible. So no, I wasn’t allowed to make any stories for myself.”

What M.T. would have said next will forever remain a mystery. It was precisely at that moment when Kate’s body heaved with a force to knock her hands up against her mouth. Pushing her chair back she had just enough time to excuse herself before rushing through the living room and into the bathroom. Slamming the door behind her, she reached for the toilet and fumblingly wrenched open the lid ….

 

 

 

Five minutes later, her face flushed, Kate lay sprawled out on the cool tiling of the bathroom floor. Through a tidal wave of embarrassment, she reminded herself things could have been worse: at least she made it in time.

Of course that wasn’t much help. If only her mother could see her now, Kate mused. Calida MacDonald wouldn’t hear of getting sick at one of her own parties. No stomach bug was strong enough to penetrate that will of steel!

A quiet knock at the door roused Kate of these unwelcome thoughts. “Kate? Kate, it’s Maggie. Are you all right?”

“Ugh,” Kate said weakly, hoping the sound would make it through the door and convince M.T. to kindly go away.

It didn’t work.

“Kate, I’m coming in, all right?”

The sight of Kate, stretched limply across the floor, sent Maggie to her side at once. Squatting down on her haunches, she pressed the back of her hand against Kate’s brow.

“Oh sweetie, you’re burning up,” she said unnecessarily. Kate had intimate knowledge of just how warm her body temp was, thank you very much.

“So sorry,” Kate mumbled, “but I think I’m sick.”

“No doubt about it,” M.T. assured her.

“This isn’t exactly how I envisioned the evening would end,” Kate said, her eyes screwed tightly shut, hoping to ward off another wave of nausea, “but you two should probably go. Tell Penny I’m sorry but, I don’t want to get either of you sick.”

“And leave you here all by yourself? I don’t think so,” M.T. said firmly.

“Really, I’ll be just fine,” Kate tried to assure her.

“Kate, you’re face-planted on the floor of your bathroom. That doesn’t seem like the makings of fine to me. Come on, let me help get you up and into bed,” she said, proffering a hand at the words.

Kate shook her head vehemently. “Please, no. I want to lay here. It’s cool and it feels nice against my skin…not to mention it’s convenient in case of, well, you know,” she said emphatically.

“So what, you’re going to stay here all night then? In the bathroom?” M.T. asked skeptically.

“That’s the plan.”

“Well then at least let me get you a pillow and blankets.”

Kate nodded her consent. If it helped expedite the matter, she’d have agreed to just about anything.  From her position on the floor, she could hear M.T. move out into the kitchen, followed by the faint mumblings of conversation passing between her and Penny before the soft echo of her feet moving up the stairs and, minutes later, back down them again.

When M.T. reentered the room, Kate blinked open one eye. Her arms were loaded down: five pillows, one comforter and two blankets. Before Kate could wrangle the energy to wonder at this excess, M.T. got to work. Instructing Kate to lift her head, she slid two pillows under her neck before carelessly tossing the remaining items to the side. Then she covered Kate’s body with the down-comforter.

“Thanks,” Kate mumbled warily, but it seemed that M.T. was quite finished. Bent over beside Kate, she was now in the process of creating what appeared to be another make-shift bed on the floor…presumably for herself. “Really you don’t need—”

Before Kate could protest this further, another soft knock sounded at the door, shortly chased by the appearance of Penny’s big hair, snaking around the side of it.

“Poor Kate,” she tisked, easing her body all the way inside the room then. She held a glass in her hand. “I brought you some wa-ter…” The last word trailing off, Penny’s attention shifted suddenly, her eyes raking over M.T.’s ministrations. “What are you doing?” she asked guardedly.

M.T. shrugged, not stopping to meet Penny’s eyes. “I don’t think Kate should be left alone tonight.”

“So I see…” she said, and to Kate’s sensitive ears it sounded peeved, annoyed, one step shy of hostile.

Please don’t fight, Kate thought to herself, not now. My stomach can’t take anymore madness.

            Almost as though Kate had spoken the words out loud (or perhaps it was her all-too audible wince), Penny’s stance softened, her gaze sweeping past her sister to the poorly Kate and back again. “Well, I hope you brought down a pillow for me, as well.”

With a wink, M.T. held up the fifth pillow. “I had a feeling I wouldn’t be unaccompanied in that thought.”

“Indeed,” Penny said huffily.

Kate’s bathroom wasn’t exactly small but it certainly wasn’t large either. Somehow, though, by sheer force of will Kate supposed, the three of them managed to squeeze together, side-by-side, against the unforgiving tiles, straddled on either side by the toilet and the vanity. It was only as they all got comfortable that Kate remembered: “The lights. Can we turn the lights off, they’re hurting my eyes.”

Madame Penny may not have looked like an athletic person, but Kate learned to reevaluate that judgment seconds later when, kicking her foot up off the floor and arching her back, she managed to hit the switch with her big toe.

M.T. laughed. “Impressive.”

“Let’s make one thing perfectly clear,” Penny said then, into the darkness. All three of them were laying on their backs, looking up at the ceiling. In the quiet of the room, her voice sounded like a foghorn.

“What’s that?”

“Kate did not get sick from my food. I won’t have rumors spread about my shrimp bisque. It was perfect, heavenly.”

Kate was barely listening. Her eyes, now blissfully unaffected by the harsh lighting, looked unseeingly upward at the ceiling. She felt better already. Her cheek, nestled against the porcelain base of the toilet seat, found comfort in both its chilling effect and nearness.

“I think that’s fair,” M.T. mused, “It usually takes longer than fifteen minutes for food poisoning anyway.”

“Good, that’s settled then.”

M.T. nodded, the movement felt by both her companions. “You know, this isn’t the weirdest dinner party I’ve ever been a part of….” Stopping short, M.T. decided perhaps she needn’t expound on that. She’d shared enough tonight. Too much apparently. Her opener was abandoned, left hanging limply in the air around them.

A few seconds passed.

“Well?” Penny prompted, when M.T. remained silent.

“Well what?” the other woman asked carefully.

“What’s the weirdest dinner party you’ve ever been a part of?”

The question was an olive branch, but still the pastor hesitated. “It’s probably not that interesting.”

“I doubt that.” Penny sighed. “Your stories are good. You tell them well.” The admission was said chokingly, begrudgingly, but also…genuinely.

Turning her head a little to the left, M.T. looked at Penny, her features barely distinguishable in the shadows. “It’s not too late to make some yourself, you know. And, I’d love to be a part of them.”

“I know you would,” Penny said, and it was as close to an invitation as M.T. was bound to get.

“I kissed my boss last week at the LitLiber Halloween party.” The words dropped like a bomb around the ex-step-sisters. Kate’s mouth snapped shut at the involuntary admission. Apparently, she wasn’t going to keep anything inside of her tonight.

“What?”

“Jake?”

“Last week?”

“Was it hot?”

The questions, shooting out of her comrades mouths one after another, without pattern or conscience thought, settled around Kate.

“He doesn’t know though,” she said, her half-explanation only adding to the veritable flood of confusion.

“He doesn’t know he kissed you?”
“Was he drunk?”

“How did he miss that fact?”

“Is this one of those…he tripped and his lips landed on yours, kind of excuses?”

Holding up her hand, Kate pleaded: “Stop! I can’t focus.”

“Maybe it would be a good idea to start from the beginning?” M.T. asked, ever the rational one.

“And don’t leave out any details,” Penny chimed in.

Kate obliged them. Perhaps it was because the lights were off and, shrouded in darkness, she felt emboldened to share. Add to that the fact that, in their current position, she couldn’t look them in the eye even if she wanted to, and any awkwardness melted into the mists, crafted by a disguise in which to hide her discomfort. But mostly, Kate needed to tell someone about it. She’d promised herself she wouldn’t. She’d sworn herself to secrecy, but it hadn’t worked, it hadn’t stopped her thinking about it, dreaming about it, analyzing the hell out of it.

She needed some perspective and what better way than in a cramped room with her two best friends?

 

“So that’s why you met me at the end of Jake’s street that night,” Penny said at the end of Kate’s woebegone tail.

“Right.”

“I thought that was weird,” she said, talking to herself.

“Yeah,” Kate said wearily. She wasn’t sure what she’d expected from her listeners, but it certainly wasn’t Penny’s current reaction, though that was hardly an uncommon occurrence. No one processed news quite like her.

“Have you seen him since then?” M.T. asked. Finally a question Kate had expected.

“No. I managed to cover two shifts earlier this week, and I had a girl stay late for me yesterday. I’ve been able to avoid him up until now. But tomorrow…tomorrow we work together. No one was able to switch with me. I-I don’t know how I’m going to face him.”

“That probably explains your stomach problems.” Again, this piece of unhelpful estimation came from Penny.

“Maybe.” Kate sighed, her eyes dancing across the ceiling, inanely wondering when the fan had last been cleaned. It was pointless to have one if it was just breathing in and blowing out continuous sprays of dust.

“That’s tough. Are you planning on telling him—what really happened that night?”

“No!” Kate half-sat up in exclamation, only brought back down to the floor by M.T.’s arm, slung over her chest. “No.”

“Okay, I hear you. Calm down,” M.T. said dryly.

“Here it comes, the pastoral beat down,” Penny commented.

Even in the dark, it wasn’t difficult to see M.T.’s quick frown. “You’re right, I don’t condone lying,” she admitted. Raising up a hand to ward off Penny’s snort of derision, she continued: “but I also don’t pretend to preach a perfection I don’t live,” she said clearly. “Besides, I’m not just a pastor; I’m a supporter, a conspirer, a confidant. I’m a friend.”

Kate patted M.T.’s arm in reassurance of this. “A good one, too.”

M.T. seemed pacified. “Bottom line: you have no intention of telling Jake what happened that night.”

“No.”

M.T. shrugged. “Well, if that’s the case, it shouldn’t be a problem.”

“How so?” Penny and Kate asked in unison.

“Well, if he’s never going to know, and if, according to you, nothing ever happened then you can walk in there with your head held high, a swagger in your steps and a carefree smile on your face. Because nothing should be any different than it was the last time you saw him.”

Kate shook her head. “That’s easier said than done. Things are different. For me anyway. I do know what happened and I don’t think I can pretend that well. And,” Kate took a deep breath, because what she was about to say next held weight, “I keep waiting for him to figure out that it wasn’t Ashley he kissed that night. It’s bound to happen, right? Then what? Does he start looking for answers? If I make one mistake, if I give one tell away….”

“Why not just tell him the truth then?” Penny asked, playing the other side of the coin.

“How do I do that: ‘Oh hey Jake, gosh I sure had fun at your Halloween party last week! I’m not sure if you remember, but we made out in your cloakroom? You didn’t know it was me, but surprise! You got the wrong girl. Anyway, see you around the office—oh, and by the way, you’re a great kisser?’” Sarcasm dripped off Kate’s voice.

“Kate I never pegged you as the dramatic type,” Penny said.

“I have my moments.”

“We are talking circles here, Kate,” M.T. interjected. “You either tell him or you don’t. You’ve got to decide that first.”

“I can’t tell him,” Kate repeated. “I know I probably should, but I just can’t.”

“Can you deal with the fear of him someday figuring it out—unveiling your secret? Because you’re right, that is a definite possibility,” M.T. agreed, including: “Can you get good at pretending? Can you act like the same person you were before it happened? He’ll see right through the lies if not. Can you be fine with that?”

Kate swallowed. “I guess I’ll have to.”

“Mm-hmm,” M.T. murmured, unconvinced. “Show me.”

“Huh?”

“Practice on me and Penny.”

“Practice?”

“Like a dress rehearsal. Penny, you pretend to be Jake. And Kate, obviously, you’ll be yourself. We’ll run through a couple different scenarios for when you see him next—what to say, how to behave, stuff like that.”

At fist, Kate said nothing to this request, seemingly chewing on the idea with all the vigor of a teenager choosing her first-day-of-school outfit.

“I’m in. What else have we got to do to entertain ourselves at the moment?” Penny asked. “Kate?”

She sighed, giving in with all the enthusiasm of a teenager contemplating her first homework assignment. “I suppose I’ve already lost my dignity, what more could this hurt?”

“That’s the attitude,” Penny enthused. “All right maestro, set the scene:” This was directed toward M.T.

Kate braced herself for what was coming….

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Eight

Kate dropped out of her Romantic Literature class. She figured it was the lesser of two evils: that or drop out of college all together. Definitely, she couldn’t face the humiliation of that again. Not this year. She still had Art History, the Shakespeare program (so she hadn’t ditched the English language entirely) and a pottery class. Those would keep her sufficiently occupied but not overwhelmed.

Absently running her thumb over the glossy length of the novel in her hands, Kate supposed she’d been partially right. She hadn’t been overwhelmed. Not after that. In fact, she hadn’t realized just how underwhelming three classes would be. The raised letting of some up-and-coming author’s penname skipped across the pad of her thumb—it wasn’t like she got a lot of homework in pottery. Adding another, different course to her workload was out for obvious reasons (been there, done that, failed miserably) so she’d decided to get a job instead. Something part time, just enough to conquer the boredom but remain undemanding. Something which wouldn’t come between her studies…something to quell the slight regret that she’d hadn’t measured up to the challenge of it all.

The LitLiber had seemed only too obvious. It was exactly the kind of environment she craved. Low-key, chill, a job she wouldn’t take home with her. So she’d applied. Maybe her resume was the product of good timing—surely the staff looked nothing short of harassed by the ratio of patrons. Or maybe it was the look on Jake’s face when he came out to talk with her, a cross between flattery and remembrance. Maybe it was neither, maybe it was both…either way:

“The job’s yours if you want it,” he’d said after the shorted interview of her life. Sitting in the bookstore’s small café, only a small bit of table separated him from Kate. “Though I must say, looking over your credentials, it’s clear to see you’re entirely over-qualified.”

Kate had shrugged. “That’s subjective I suppose. I’ve never worked with books before, so I doubt my past experiences will be of much use.”

Jake had grinned at this, not fooled by her elusive response. “Don’t be so modest. I’m sure you’d be an asset here. So, what do you think, would you like to work with us?”

“Yes,” she’d said without reservation. “Very much.”

 

That had been five days ago. She’d since completed her training, passing her skill review with a perfect score. In fact, today marked her first solo shift. Turning the paperback over her in palm, Kate celebrated that, all-in-all, it had gone rather smoothly. Granted, she should have been done twenty minutes ago, but the arrival of a shipping order, earlier than expected, had kept her. Jake wanted those books on the shelves post-haste. Not wanting to look like a slacker, she’d volunteered to stay late.

“Would you like some help?” The words, coming unexpectedly from off to Kate’s left, gave her a start.  Immediately she recognized the voice belonging to that question, even before casting her eyes that way. Jake.

“No, no, I’ve got it,” she said quickly, nervously. Was she not going fast enough?

“Yeah, yeah. Move over,” he retorted easily, coming to stand beside her. Reaching inside the book trolley he took out a stack of novels. Quickly, mechanically he started inserting them into their appointed slots.

“Suit yourself.” Kate shrugged, returning to the pile in her own hands. Meticulous, she placed the books on the wooden panels. Out of her peripheral vision, she watched Jake—he’d managed to put away ten to her three.

“I feel ridiculously slow compared to you,” Kate joked lamely, but she wasn’t kidding. Embarrassment flared.

“Well, to be fair, I’ve been stocking books here since I was fourteen years old. Probably even earlier,” he confessed, reaching inside the cart yet again. Showoff. “Nepotism had nothing to do with it, I assure you.”

“Oh? Is this a family business?” Kate asked, momentarily distracted from proving what a hard worker she was, distracted from trying to compete with his deft maneuvering.

Jake laughed. “I forget sometimes that you’re new to town,” he said. “Yes, this store was founded by my grandfather. I took it over when he passed away.”

Kate nodded, mumbling her condolences awkwardly, unsure what to say.

“Thank you. It’s been almost four years now,” he said softly and it was obvious Jake had been very fond of him.

Kate nodded her head, not sure what to say back. Instead, a strange sort of silence fell between them. Kneeling down, Kate shuffled some books around, making room for a new addition in the ‘P’ section.

“Psst.” The sudden sound, emerging through a gap in the orderly row of books, and coming from the other side of the shelving-rack, startled Kate. She knocked over a couple titles.

“Sorry,” she muttered to Jake, grabbing for the books anxiously. She decided not to comment on the hissing sound one aisle over. Hopefully he hadn’t heard it anyway. Closing her eyes, she prayed that Madame Penny, who she was downright positive had perpetrated the noise, would go away. This was not the time to be caught fraternizing with the customers. Not with her boss right there.

“Psst.” It was louder this time. “Kate?”

That sealed it. Jake heard it. Raising an eyebrow, he appeared to be fighting back a grin. “I think someone’s trying to get a hold of you,” he whispered at her, mimicking Penny’s urgent undertone.

“It would seem so,” she said apologetically, but she didn’t make any move in response. Ducking her head, she resumed her work, wedging a piece of work forcefully into a spot too narrow to fit its hefty breadth.

“Kate? Kate! It’s me, Penny.”

“Aren’t you going to find out what she needs?” Jake asked Kate, who was doing her level best to pretend she couldn’t hear the one-sided conversation playing out on the other side of the bookshelf.

Smiling up at him tightly, she nodded her head. What else could she do? If she didn’t, he might think she wasn’t a very good customer service agent. Not to mention, she doubted Madame Penny was going to shut up anytime soon. With a soundless sigh, she stood up, the remaining inventory left, abandoned at her feet, as she preceded down that aisle, onto the next.

Rounding the corner, her lips pressed into a tight line, Kate had little trouble spotting her intruder. Penny was crouched down, her face shoved against a line of paperbacks, her eyes searching for Kate’s outline….

“Penny, come here,” Kate demanded in a hushed tone.

For once, Penny did as requested. “Oh, I’m so glad I found you,” she started to say.

“Penny, I’m at work. My boss is right over there,” she said in an outraged whisper.

“I know, I know. I wouldn’t bug you normally.” Kate had some doubts about that. “But this is an emergency.”

With anyone else, Kate would have taken that at face value but what Penny considered an emergency, heaven only knew.

“What happened?” Kate asked.

“My sister just called me. It would appear she’s back in town—for the moment, at any rate,” Penny said drily.

“I didn’t know you had a sister,” Kate said, latching onto what she thought was most pertinent in the previous sentence.

“Well, actually, she’s my step-sister. My ex-step-sister,” Penny clarified. “We aren’t close.”

Kate was fast losing her patience. “Okay?”

“Listen, I need you to do me a favor. She wants to get together tonight and have like a “family dinner” or something. Hah! More likely, a sadistic reunion of dysfunction,” she said, her face contorted. “Like we were ever actually a family.”

“What do you need me to do?” Kate asked, concerned now, especially after the delivery of Penny’s last line. It held a mixture of resentment and pain. Besides, after all Penny had done for Kate in recent weeks, there was little she wasn’t entitled to.

“Join us.”

“What?”

“We haven’t seen each other in fifteen years—her choice—not since our parents divorced,” Penny explained hoarsely. This time there was no mistaking the hurt that echoed. “She just up, you know, and left. No note, no nothing. I haven’t heard or seen from her since then. And now, she just causally informs me that she’s here and she wants to get together. Like it’s nothing,” Penny scoffed.”

“I see,” Kate said, though she doubted she saw anything.

“If you ask me, she should have just stayed gone. I, for one, have nothing to say to her. But then my feelings don’t count for a whole lot, not with her.” The last part was said under Penny’s breath. “Please Kate. I need you. You’d be a natural buffer, a conversation piece. I don’t think I could stomach it alone.”

“Yeah, yeah of course I’ll come,” Kate assured her. This ex-step-sister must mean a lot to Penny if she was willing to go through with this get-together. Regardless of her demonstrations to the contrary, Kate doubted Penny would have ever agreed to it, if some small part of her hadn’t truly wanted to.

“You will? Oh! Thank you,” Penny said, her fingers reaching out to grab hold of Kate’s wrist. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

“Sure. No problem. But uh, listen, I’ve got to get back to my job now,” Kate told her, with a speaking glance over her shoulder, remembering suddenly that they were still at the LitLiber, that Jake had probably heard every word they’d just said, and that she was still on the clock.

“Yeah, yeah. Uh, show up at my place around 5pm?”

“Sounds good,” Kate agreed, gently shooing Penny away.

“And dress casually!” If Penny’s voice carried over that last statement, at least Kate could reconcile herself to the fact that she—and her big mouth—were heading toward the exit finally.

Without loss of time, Kate fetched herself back to where she’d been working before Penny’s intrusion. Jake was still standing there, though, by now, the entire shipment of books had been put away. Oh no, had he been waiting for her?

“I’m so sorry about that,” Kate rushed to say, sure she was inches away from a lecture about proper use of company time. How unprofessional could she get?

Jake brushed her words aside with the swipe of his hand. “Kate, its fine. To except that people’s personal lives won’t sometimes interfere with work is entirely naïve. It’s not like sometimes we won’t, oh I don’t know, ask you to stay late,” he said meaningfully. “That runs interference in just the same way.”

“Okay,” she said ineptly, “Um, thanks for finishing the rest of this without me,” she said, indicating the fully-stocked shelves.

“No worries. Now you should have plenty of time to get ready for your evening dinner,” he said with a wink.

“Heard that, did you?” she asked.

“I did,” he confessed and then, with a more serious tone of voice, added: “I know Penny. We grew up together. You probably don’t even know what your presence tonight will mean to her—what her childhood was like, but know this: you’re doing a fine thing. It’s none of my business, of course, but I’m happy to see she’s found such a good friend in you.”

Interest piqued, Kate wondered just how much of Madame Penny she had yet to meet. “She’s been a pretty amazing friend to me.”

“She certainly has a way about her, doesn’t she?” Jake asked with such obvious affection Kate felt a moment’s envy. She doubted any of her old friends back home had ever talked so selflessly about her, without some hidden agenda. Penny was luckier than she knew.

“Have you met her step-sister? Ex-step-sister?” she asked. Forewarned is forearmed.

“Yes. I have.” Jake said guardedly. It was said without disgust or shame. Indeed, it sounded almost gentle.

 

 

Kate pulled up to Penny’s house at 4:45pm. She figured the other woman would welcome reinforcements as early as possible. After leaving the LitLiber she’d rushed home to shower, don a bright yellow sundress, coupled with a chunky necklace in the shape of a sunflower, and apply the lightest brush of mascara to her person, before heading right back out the door. Jake’s words spurring her on, she felt suddenly protective of Madame Penny.

Knocking on the door, Kate couldn’t help being aware of the house across the street. Shimmying for cover, she hoped the tall, yellow Witchhazel shrug would sufficiently hide her person from sight, from potentially prying eyes. She didn’t look forward to any more chance meetings with Penny’s neighbor, like ever again….

Lost in her musings, she was brought back to reality by the opening of the front door.

“Oh God, I’m so glad you’re here,” Penny said in preamble, her expression tight in greeting.

“I hope it’s all right that I’m early…” Kate said, her voice trailing off.

“It’s more than all right,” Penny assured her forcefully. Waving Kate forward she welcomed: “Come in, come in.”

“Do you need help with anything?” Kate asked softly, stepping inside. Penny seemed a little unhinged.

“Do you cook?” Penny asked. “I could use some help finishing up my popovers.”

“Popovers?” Kate asked disparaging. She was more of a microwave-ready type of chef. Anything more complex than that and she ordered out. It was a McDonald clan tradition.

“Nevermmind,” Penny said, leading the way to her kitchen, “At least you can keep me company.”

Kate followed behind her. The room, she saw, squeezing inside its confines, was small to the point of miniscule—undoubtedly more of a kitchenette. What with Penny’s curvy proportions, an intrusive composter, and wall-to-wall cabinets and drawers, Kate found herself wedged up against the pantry closet, her elbow resting against the room’s singular window.

“It smells delicious in here,” Kate said, wrinkling her nose. That was no lie. The air wafted out a warm, smoky scent that sent Kate’s stomach into overdrive.

“Ah—our family’s secret sauce,” Penny responded knowingly. “I basted it over the rainbow trout. You do like fish don’t you?” Troubled eyes latched onto Kate, as though the question only just occurred to be asked.

“I love fish,” Kate said. That was perhaps stretching it a bit, but Penny didn’t need any more worries. Besides, it had a heavenly aroma.

Madame Penny nodded her head in acceptance of this before placing the cornbread mixture into the oven. “That’s good because we’re also having clam chowder for starters.”

“You really went all out,” Kate said impressed.

“Hah,” Penny said, slamming the over door shut with her hip. “For all the good it’ll do me. Margaret will probably contend, in the passive-aggressive manner she perfected in childhood, that I picked it up from a restaurant somewhere. As though she’s the only person in the world who can read a recipe,” she muttered.

Kate gulped. Well, at least she knew Penny’s sister’s name now.

“You know, I really love the color of the walls in here,” Kate redirected, her eyes making a point of traveling along the peachy-hued paint running the length of the room, between jutting cupboards and appliances.

“It’s like she always needed to prove to me that she was better. She ran faster than I did, completed her homework quicker…she was always in competition with me. No doubt she’ll regale us tonight with tales of her culinary abilities!”

“You know, the last time I was here I only really saw the living room. I’d love a tour of the place,” Kate said, but she may as well have been talking to the walls…

“She’ll probably have created a meal just the same as this, only it’ll have been richer, more proportional, the cream thicker, et cetera et cetera.”

Kate gave up. Her attempts at distraction hadn’t worked anyway. “You said it’s been fifteen years,” she reminded Penny, “maybe she’s changed.”

“No. no-no,” Penny said, wagging a finger close to Kate’s nose. “You are not allowed to defend her.”

“I’m not,” Kate promised, holding up her hands in self-defense. “I just thought, maybe…I don’t know. She could be different. That’s all. I know I’ve changed from the person I was before.”

Blowing out her breath, Madame Penny dropped her hand back down at her side. “In her case, I doubt it highly.”

 

Two hours later, a bemused Kate sat looking down at the half-consumed fish on her plate. The conversation (if you could call it that) between sisters, strategically placed one on either side of Kate, went, momentarily unheard, over her head. She was too busy trying to absorb what she’d learned in the last hour to pay much attention.

Margaret Thayer, commonly referred to either Maggie or MT—something she’d invited both Kate and Penny to call her—was a pastor. Good Christ, the woman was a pastor! And that, that was only the beginning of the polarities. Maggie was tall, standing at probably five feet eight inches. Reed thin, she had ash blonde hair cut in a short bob across her chin. She had a look of porcelain grace. Of course, genetic resemblances would hardly factor into step-sisters but the contrast was startling nonetheless.

Where Penny was sarcastic, to the point of hostile, Maggie was demure, almost apologetic in her speech and manner. Try as she might, Kate couldn’t find a competitive bone in the pastor’s attitude. That seemed to be coming from Penny alone; the famous Hamlet line popping into her head, Kate wondered if Penny doth protest too much!

“I was very sorry to hear of your mother’s passing, Penny,” Maggie said, her words bringing Kate’s attention back to the present. She hadn’t realized Penny’s mother had died..

“Not sorry enough to come to her funeral though. Not that I was surprised,” Penny responded bluntly.

Kate cringed.

Maggie had the grace to look ashamed. “Unfortunately, I was holding a mission trip in Africa during that period. I couldn’t make it back to the States in time.”

“How providential. I believe mass means of travel has always been your excuse,” Penny retorted, her fork stabbing into the flaky fish with enough force to break her plate in two.

In counter, Maggie placed her fork discreetly beside her dish. “I’m so sorry Penny. I was young. I didn’t know what I was doing, how much it would hurt you. I just, I didn’t know.” She took a deep breath. “I’ve made mistakes, I won’t deny that—”

Penny snorted. “Well, don’t let me keep you from a guiltless conscience. It wasn’t your responsibility. You made that emphatically clear. I wasn’t—and still, am not— your responsibility.”

Kate had sinking suspicion they weren’t just talking about the funeral anymore.

“I’m not the same person I once was,” Maggie said urgently.

“How convenient for you,” Penny said smarmily. “Me, well, I’ll believe that when I see it.”

Maggie straightened her back at these words. “I expect I’m happy to hear that, at least.”

Pushing her plate away, Penny leaned across the table. “Why are you even here? After all this time, why now—you never seemed inspired during any of the other fifteen years spent without any form of communication. What’s changed?”

“Oh Penny, this was hardly a rash decision. I’ve wanted to see you, to talk to you, and touch you, oh, every day that’s passed since.”

“Then why didn’t you?” The words tore across the expanse between them.

“There were so many reasons, I suppose, but none of them good enough. I know that now. At first I was just so scared, so lost—I guess, I’d convinced myself I needed to find me before I could find you. I thought it would be better that way; I wanted to believe that I was saving you, but I was wrong. And by then, so much time had gone by it seemed easier somehow to stay away, to hide from the reality of what I’d done. But I never stopped missing you, I never stopped loving you. Not once.” Maggie’s voice cracked. “I’m sorry it took me so long, sorrier than you’ll ever know. But I’m here now and I have to hope—”

“You’re here now? What, am I supposed to be overwhelmed with gratitude at that?” Penny asked, cutting Maggie off.

“I just meant, I wanted you to—”

“To what? To forgive you?” Penny asked roughly. “Is that it? You came all this way, after all this time, for my forgiveness? You expect me to just forget about all that’s transpired? To be thankful instead, that you decided to grace my dining room with your presence?”

“No, Penny that’s not—”

“Newsflash: I’m not interested in what’s expedient for you. I mean, who do you think you are? ‘Please forgive me so I can feel better about myself!’” Penny’s voice was sharp in mockery. Kate sat, shocked. She’d never heard Penny so cynical, so angry. Before tonight, she wouldn’t have thought the psychic had it in her to be either. Kate knew presence here tonight had been for the sole purpose of avoiding this very confrontation, but it hadn’t been enough; the hurt went too deep.

For still, Penny wasn’t finished: “Are you kidding me with all of this? That sort of cheap, instantaneous confession may work with Catholics but around here, not so much.”

“You know I’m Lutheran, don’t you?” Maggie asked and then, before Penny could say anything to response, continued, “Never mind. I-I’m not expecting you to forgive me. At least, I pray that someday I may be given a chance to atone….”

“Humph.”

That didn’t sound promising, even to Kate’s mystified ears. Neither of the girls had directly mentioned the past but it was obviously weaved into every aspect of their dialogue and, poor friend that Kate was, she was almost desperately curious about what had happened to them. They must have been close once otherwise whatever it is that Maggie had done to Penny wouldn’t have hurt so much, the wound would’ve healed by now.

“All I’m asking for is a chance to…to get to know you again, to reintroduce you to who I am, who I’ve become,” the pastor said, her voice grabbing Kate’s attention. She had a presence about her. No doubt she was good in front of a captive audience on Sunday mornings. “I’d just like to spend time with you—if you’ll allow it.”

“And you’re hoping to accomplish all of this within, what, a week? I’m only assuming that’s the extent of your vacation here?”

Smiling nervously, Maggie spoke, “Actually, I’m not on vacation. I…well, I officially accepted a position as the Worship Pastor at Good Shepherd, only just this morning.”

Wasn’t there a Good Shepherd on Pickett Avenue? Kate’s mind whirled, picturing the small chapel she passed every morning on her way to school.

“What?” The chair scratching against the wood flooring, Penny pulled her body into an upright position.

Other than swallowing thickly, MT didn’t seem all that taken aback by this explosive response. “I’m moving back to Whestleigh, Penny.”