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.
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.
“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.”
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.
“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.