North of Happenstance: Chapter Fifty-Six

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Over here.”

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

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

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

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

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

“No chance of that,” Kate whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your mother?”

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

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

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

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

“Then what happened?” Penny asked breathlessly.

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

Penny nodded wordlessly. That must have been a shock.

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

“I don’t know…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?”

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

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

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

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

“We walk out the front door.”

“Just like that?”
“Just like that.”

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

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

Slipping them on, Kate took a deep breath.

“Ready?” Penny asked.

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

“Yeah? What about it?”

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

“So you dress in costume?”

“If that’s what the client wants.”

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

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

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

“Yeah—”

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

“About what you’re going to do?”

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

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

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

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

Maggie smiled tightly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mother.”

“Calida.”

“Mrs. McDonald.”

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

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

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

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

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

“He’s here, too?”

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

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

They were good.

“You followed us?” Kate asked.

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

“Then how—?”

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

Kate bit her lip.

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

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

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

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

Kate goggled. “Me?”

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

Penny had a sinking feeling about that.

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

“What did I say?” Kate whispered.

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

Kate blinked. “That’s it?”

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

Penny cringed.

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

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

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

“We found you.”

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

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

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Fifty-Five

Groaning quietly, Penny woke up slowly. Agonized. Eyes tightly closed, her brain felt like it was ricocheting madly around her head—even just breathing seemed to be sending the thing unraveling, bouncing painfully from left to right, unhinged. Parched. That’s how she felt. Her mouth was dry. Impossibly dry. Smacking her lips together, she tried to get some moisture inside the dessert coating her teeth, her tongue…

Stretching, Penny let her eyes slowly slip open.

Wait. Her arms raised up over her head, Penny felt confused, disorientated.

This wasn’t her duvet.

This wasn’t her bed.

This wasn’t her house.

It was only by sheer will that Penny kept herself from shrieking—alarm bells jangled unerringly in her bleating brain.

What happened last night—?!

Then, almost as quickly as the question popped into her head, Penny remembered, the night before slapping itself across her memories.

She and Jake had gone out for drinks, one round quickly following another. She wasn’t even sure how many beers—urgh, how many shots?—she’d consumed. Five? Six? God…

She’d told him about how lonely she’d been feeling lately, how insecure—. “…I mean, what is it about me? The everyman friend.” She’d laughed humorlessly.

Jake had jerked his head back. “Don’t say that…”

“Why not? It’s true. No one looks at me. Well,” Penny considered with a wicked grin. “Not unless their pointing at the freak show down the road.”

“Penny—” Jake growled warningly.

“I want to be look at,” Penny pleaded. “Really looked at, you know? Desired. Sought-after. I want to be the fantasy.” Flapping her hands dramatically, she said: “I want what comes so naturally for other women.” Women like Kate, she thought, but she didn’t speak that last bit out loud.

“Well, from where I’m sitting, the view across the way doesn’t look to bad,” Jake joked with a wink in her direction.

Penny made a face. “I’m being serious here.”

“So am I.”

Confused, flustered, Penny hadn’t been sure how to interpret that. So she laughed, took it for the light-hearted comment it was most likely supposed to be. “Okay. Whatever.”

Jake sighed. Reaching forward, his hand hovering over hers, he said: “Penny, you have to know—”

She shook her head. “I mean, what do you look for in a woman?”

Jake reared back, his chair scraping against the tiled floor. “What?”

Penny persisted. “What makes a woman attractive to you? What’s your type?”

Jake looked uncomfortable. Taken aback.

Penny had waved her hand dismissively. “I’m looking for a little perspective here, and who better to ask than a man? You know what it is that makes one woman cute and another gorgeous; what makes one woman a good friend as opposed to a good…well, bedmate?”

“Bedmate?” Jake grinned.

Penny made a gesture. “You know what I mean.”

“Okay.” Jake took a deep breath, his hand dropping back down to the table. His eyes watched Penny’s hands as they ripped and shred the paper coaster before her. “I like a woman who has a great sense of humor.”

Penny stuck out her tongue. “Everyone says that.”

Jake shrugged. “It’s true. If she makes me laugh…that’s huge. Bantering back and forth. Wit. It’s so important.”

“Okay?”

“And someone who’s kind. Considerate. Someone who can be a good friend as well as a good, what was it you said?” Jake teased. “Oh, yeah. Bedmate.”

Penny gave him a look. “Really?”

“What?”
“Vague character traits? That’s what you’re giving me here? Sweet and funny? Really. What’s next: intelligent and driven? Adventurous and daring?” Penny shook her head vehemently. “No. I want specifics. What makes you tick?” Penny leaned in close.

Jaw swallowed hard.

Penny raised an expectant eyebrow.

A second passed in silence. Then another.

“Jake?”

“Brunettes.” He cleared his throat. “I like brunettes.”

“Since when?” Penny asked with a pfft of sound. “Pretty much every girl you’ve ever dated was blonde.”

“Preferences change.”

Penny considered this for a moment. “Okay. Well. What else?”

Jake held her gaze. “Dark eyes,” he offered softly. “Mysterious, exotic eyes.”

Penny nodded eagerly. “Go on.”

“A woman who isn’t afraid to take risks. Someone who believes in what she believes and who isn’t afraid to be herself, even if that makes her different from everyone else.”

“Different how—?”

But Jake was on a roll by then:

“…a woman who I know I can always go to for advice; who I want to go to for advice. Even when it’s zany or crazy. Especially then.”

Penny’s head tilted to one side. That sounded suspiciously like—

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

“Jake?”

He rushed on ahead: “…a woman who is strong and independent but who I want to protect anyway, who I can’t help trying to protect.”

Penny’s voice was thin. “But-but, you’ve always done that for me,” she pointed out hesitantly. “Shielded me from a world of ugly gossips and rumors….”

Jake smiled sadly. “And I always will. That’s my point.”

Penny looked down nervously. She wasn’t sure what was happening, but something definitely was— it was there in his voice, in the gaze he leveled her way. Frantically, she tore a new chunk off her coaster.

“Penny.”

“Yeah?”

“Look at me.”

Slowly, she raised her eyes.

“Do you know what else I like?”

Penny shook her head slowly. “No.”

“Curly hair. Bangles and scarves and flowing skirts.” Jake dropped his eyes down to her mouth. “And red lipstick.”

Penny’s hands flittered up to her lips. “Oh.”

Reaching forward, his hand came to rest over hers, stopping her fingers mid-motion from their shredding. “Penny. Don’t you know?”

“Know?” Her voice came out like a squeak.

“How beautiful you are?”

“Don’t,” she whispered, shaking her head hard. “Don’t say stuff you don’t mean.”

Jake grinned. It was lopsided. “Why are you so sure I don’t mean it?”

Penny throat convulsed. “I don’t want to be your charity case, Jake,” she insisted. “Saying stuff just because—well, it’s almost worse, you know. People telling you the things they think you want to hear, regardless of whether or not they’re true. It’s so clichéd and humiliating.” She made a face. “The comforting friend telling the ugly, fat one she’s actually gorgeous and skinny—or what have you.”

Jake had whistled then. Long and low. “You’re way off. That’s not it at all.”

“No?”

“No.”

Penny hardly dared to breathe. There it was again—that note in his voice that she wasn’t quite sure how to read. Intense. Emotional. Heated. Breathy, pitchy, she risked her pride: “Then why are you saying it?”

He’d given her a meaningful look. “I think you know why. At least, I hope you do. That you feel the same.”

As the previous evening’s conversation floated over Penny’s consciousness she felt her stomach getting tight, her palms sweating…

They’d paid out after that. Neither of them had brought the conversation back up again, but it remained there, between them …

Closing her eyes, Penny watched the rest of the night through her mind’s eye, the events parading past like the reels on a feature movie presentation.

They’d stood up to leave, Jake helping Penny shrug into her light jean coat.

Jake reaching for her hand as they walked outside.

“Don’t worry,” He’d assured her as they marched up to the curb. “I had the bartender call us a cab. They should be here any minute.”

Then she was sliding inside the crummy, unclean vehicle, sitting demurely beside Jake as he raddled off the address.

They were huddled together at the steps leading up to Jake’s apartment. It was misty outside. Penny was snuggled in her jacket, teetering unsteadily on her four inch heels, the faint sound of the taxi pulling away echoing in her ears—and then he was kissing her. Just as she’d expected him to do. Just as she’d been hoping he’d do. (After all, with a telling look sent her way, he’d only proffered his address to the cabbie, hadn’t he? It wasn’t like she was so drunk she hadn’t understood that look in his eyes when he’d done it, the unspoken question mark hanging in the air, her subtle but unmistakable answer. She hadn’t offered up a second address.)

Right there, at the base of the steps, his arms winding themselves around her back, hauling her body up close to his, Jake kissed Penny.

The feel of his belt digging against her stomach; the graze of his fingers at her waist, pulling her impossibly closer; the scent of his aftershave wafting up in the still night air; the taste of whiskey where his lips clung to hers…

Penny didn’t remember going upstairs but then, somehow they were, his arms steering her toward the bedroom, her shirt falling off one shoulder as the back of her knee bumped up against the living room end table, upending her balance…his hands guiding her as she walked backward, her thoughts too consumed by his lips, his hands, those roaming fingers, to be bothered overmuch with walking. Then she felt the world dip, her body being pushed backward, her shoulders falling softly against his mattress….

Feeling her heart picking up double-time in her chest as what happened next transfixed itself upon her gaze, Penny slowly felt her head turn to the left.

And there, not five inches away from her was Jake, his black hair spiking out against his white pillow, his face expressionless in sleep, those impossibly long eyelashes resting against his high cheekbones, the beginnings of a beard shadowing across his jawline.

Oh God he was gorgeous.

Her chest shaking, quaking as the full realization of what happened settled upon her person, Penny could feel the onslaught of a panic attack take form. She was in bed with Jake. Jake.

Dammit, what had she been thinking?

What had he been thinking?

Penny felt tears crowding against her throat. Jake. And it had been glorious. Everything she’d dreamed it could be and more (and dammit, she had dreamt about this. About him and her; and, if she were honest, she’d dreamt about it pretty much since high school.)

But she and Jake were never supposed to actually happen. He was supposed to be a fantasy. Someone she could curl up to in her imagination, all the while knowing that reality would never bend so far as to allow for something so—unnatural. The cool guy and the weirdo? Yeah right. No thanks.

There is only so much disbelief the mind can handle.

Biting her lip, Penny let her eyes wander down his sleeping form. Better soak it in now, it wasn’t likely to repeat itself.

He’d been lonely; she’d been lonely. The perfect recipe for just this kind of thing. (And the copious amounts of beer probably hadn’t helped much.) More than likely, she’d been little more than his rebound from Kate.

God.

Penny closed her eyes tightly on the pain of that thought. Still, she knew she was right. Because there was absolutely no other earthly reason Jake would have jumped into bed with—well, with her.

It’s not like he loved her. It’s not like he was even interested in her that way. No. Nu-uh. No way. He’d been lonely. She’d been lonely. This had been a means to an end. A forgone conclusion to a temporary salve.

“You stupid fool,” Penny whispered harshly to herself, her arms gripping the bed sheet tightly as she quietly tiptoed out of bed. “You stupid, stupid fool.”

Tears forming at the back of her throat, Penny made it soundlessly out of the bedroom, her arms snatching up scattered bits of clothing along the way. Fumbling toward the bathroom, she felt the smothered hysteria trying to claw its way up her stomach…

Quickly throwing on the clothes from the day before, Penny kept her eyes determinedly trained to the ground, refusing to meet her face in the mirror overhead. Refusing to see the red-rims of grief engulfing her as the broad light of day beat down; refusing to see the hurt and humiliation bearing down on her.

She’d slept with Jake.

The moment she’d been waiting for—

And now it was over.

Closing her eyes as the first tears fell, Penny chocked back the accompany cries scratching against her vocal chords. Well, she’d finally gotten her wish, hadn’t she? She knew what it was like to fall in love.

(It wasn’t like she hadn’t known it before. She’d been a little in love with Jake since that first day in the cafeteria when he’d sat down next to her. But she’d never had to admit it to herself, she’d never had to take those feelings seriously, because what would have been the point? He was so far out of her league, she was so far removed from his kind of girl—it’d always been safe before. Loving him. An illusion. Something to cling in the quiet of her mind. But not anymore.)

Now she knew: knew what it was to fall in love; to be in love.

Just in time to learn what it was like to have her heart broken.

Poetic.

“You deserve it,” she told herself as she slipped out of Jake’s apartment, her steps intent as she slunk down the stairs, down the sidewalk, her body pressed up tight to the building’s she passed, her feet making quick work of the distance between there and the sanctuary of her shop. Only fifteen feet…ten….five…

Bursting through the back door, her legs wobbly and unsure, Penny reached desperately for her curtained doorway, barely making it two steps inside before the sobs she’d held back finally broke loose. Sliding down to the floor, her back pressed up against her filing cabinet, knees bent up to her chin, Penny let her head fall forward, the tears spilling across yesterday’s outfit…

“You knew he could never love you back. People like Jake don’t fall for people like you.” Her lips trembled over that last word. “They just don’t.”

At last, the sobs came to a close, dwindling down to the occasional sniffle and heavily in-drawn breath. The pit in her stomach was empty now, replaced with the hollowed-out sensation that always followed a good cry.

Looking at the dark, wet patches smearing the long folds of her skirt, Penny shook her head. “Pathetic, Penny. That’s what you—”

The sudden ringing of her cell phone brought her derision up short. Heart skidding across her chest, Penny quickly fumbled the vibrating thing out of her purse. Fingers shaking, she slowly bright it up to her face, checking to see who was calling.

Please!

Please—

But it was only Kate.

Wiping away at the tracks of tears, Penny hit the ANSWER button quickly. She could actually use the distraction right now.

“Hello?” Her voice came out soft, uneven. But it didn’t matter. The woman on the other end of the line was far too preoccupied to notice the quavering tone of voice anyway.

“Penny—Oh my god…” A scratching sound muffled Kate’s words, making them garbled.

“Hello? Kate?”

“Penny? Penny! Are you there?”

“Yes. Yeah. What’s up?”

“Where are you?”

Penny’s brow furrowed.  “Uh. I’m at my office. Why? What’s—?”

“Can you get away?”

“Now?”

“Yes now!”

Penny’s hand went up to touch her puffy eyes. “Uh. Well—”

“Please Penny!” Kate’s voice shifted, lined with panic. “I need you…”

That decided it. “Yes. Okay. Just tell me where—” Penny heard a thunk on the other end of the line, followed by a quiet groan. “Kate, what’s going on?” Penny demanded again, straightening from her position on the floor. She’d been right. Kate was proving a mighty good distraction. “You sound weird.”

A slight pause. “They found me.”

“Who found you?”

“My parents. Phil.”

“What?!” Penny jack-knifed to her feet. “Where are you?”

“The LitLiber. In Jake’s office. Hiding.”

“I’ll be there in two minutes.”

“Hurry Penny.”

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Fifty-Three

With a weary sigh, Kate shut and locked her outside door. Hefting the overnight bag over her shoulder, she made her way out to the curb, where a nervous looking M.T. stood, beside an equally unsure Penny.

Or maybe they just appeared tense to Kate, who was feeling a little, well, panicky herself.

“Tell me one more time,” Kate said, shoving her bag in the backseat of the car. “That I’m doing the right thing here.”

M.T.’s face gave nothing away. “Kate…”

“She’d go and see him anyway,” Penny intruded, leaning up against the trunk of Kate’s car. “You know Janessa. It’s much better that she’ll have you there.”

M.T. nodded. “That’s true.”

“But—shouldn’t her mother be involved in this?” Kate whined, all her second-thoughts springing hurriedly to the surface. It had been three days since Janessa had turned up at her door, asking her to go to Coventon, to help her track down her father. “Shouldn’t she be the one taking her…?”

And though Kate was honored—truly, honored—to have been the one asked to take the girl, she was worried, scared. There were so many pitfalls facing them. And she had a terrible feeling about the outcome of an impromptu, unannounced visit to the man who’d abandoned his daughter thirteen years ago….

“What if it turns out badly?”

Maggie smiled sadly, as if she too shared Kate’s thoughts on the matter. “Then she’ll have you to lean on.”

Penny nodded eagerly. “You’ll be there to help sweep her back in the car…”

“But we’re talking about Janessa here,” Kate cried, shoving her hands through her hair. “There’s an equally good chance that she’ll just run away from me—”

Maggie bit her lip. She wouldn’t say it out loud, but Kate could see it on her face: the pastor was worried.

“I doubt she’d do that,” Penny improvised drily. “After all, she’ll need you to take her back home.”

“But she may very well shut down,” Maggie countered, despite the glowering look Penny sent her. “Forewarned is forearmed, Kate. Brace yourself for that. Let her react the way she’s going to react.”

Kate nodded.

“Though it may sting at the time, she’ll need to know that you won’t turn away from her—no matter what she says or does,” M.T. finished. “What Janessa needs to know most of all is that you’ll still be there to love her. She hasn’t had a lot of that in her life.”

Kate felt her stomach pinch, restricting her breathing for a second. “You know, I really do love her,” she whispered. It was the first time she’d said it out loud.

Maggie reached out her hand, placing it comfortingly on Kate’s shoulder. “What you’re doing for her—she won’t forget it, even if she doesn’t yet know how to show her appreciation, just know that it means the world to her.”

“Yeah,” Penny murmured. “I was there when she got the news, you know. It was earth-shattering for her. The fact that she asked you, that she trusts you enough—don’t underestimate your value to her in all this.”

Kate opened her mouth to speak but whatever she was going to say was cut short by the sudden appearance of a shadow against the walkway. Turning her head, Kate quickly caught a glimpse of Janessa walking toward them from the street, her shoulders hunched in her typical pose, a ratted backpack riding low on her shoulders.

“Showtime,” Penny muttered. Stepping forward, she gave Kate a quick hug. “You’ll do great,” she whispered in her ear before stepping back.

Then it was Maggie’s turn for an embrace. “I’m so proud of you Kate.”

“Thanks guys,” Kate said, her voice quiet so it wouldn’t carry over to the surly teenager.

And then all three of the women shifted their attention, each smiling tremulously as they turned to watch Janessa beat a grudging trail up to Kate’s car.

“All set?” Penny asked when Janessa was close enough to hear.

Stopping dead at the sound, she looked up, a horrified expression playing out on her face. Her eyes took an accusing expression when they landed on Kate. “I thought it would just be us going?”

“It is,” Penny assured her. “Mags and I are only here to wish you both well.”

“God,” Janessa said, throwing open the back door of Kate’s car to chuck her bag inside. Slamming the door shut again, she rolled her eyes. “We’re only going to be gone for like two days—chill out.”

Penny’s mouth thinned, but before she could open her stiff lips in retort, Kate rushed forward, speaking over her.

“Did you talk to your mother?” she asked.

Janessa shrugged. “Yeah.”

“And?” Kate raised an eyebrow. “What did she say? Is she okay with this?”

Janessa shrugged. “She didn’t really care. Told me good luck tracking the bastard—” M.T.’s eyelids flinched at the vulgar term, “—down and, if I did happen to trip over his body, I should get back the money she’s owed.”

Kate gulped.

“Oh,” Janessa added darkly, as if she couldn’t resist poking at Kate. “And she laughed. A good, long laugh. Told me I was headed for heart-ache but if I was stupid enough to invite it upon myself, she felt it wasn’t worth the effort to change my mind.”

Kate swallowed. She wasn’t sure how she was supposed to respond to that.

“She also gave me some money for the motel we’re staying at,” Janessa admitted, dipping her fingers into her jean pockets to produce two crumpled-up fifty dollar bills. Thrusting them toward Kate, she said: “Mom insisted. Said it was more than fair, since you were the poor sucker being dragged to Coventon in the first place. She said there was no reason you should pay for it, too.”

Kate was oddly touched—she guessed. She’d still never really met Janessa’s mother. Except for that one time earlier this summer when Kate had driven Janessa home after the church’s talent show and Ms. Cooper had just been walking up the porch steps herself, clearly just getting in for the night… But other than  a nondescript wave, she hadn’t seemed inclined for a chat. Jumping out of the car, Janessa had practically begged Kate not to get out of the vehicle too. “She probably stopped by the bar on her way home from work,” Janessa had stated tonelessly. “No point talking to her now.”

And that had been that.

Janessa’s mom (Cathy, Kate believed was her name) had never shown up to any of the church functions Kate more-or-less drug Janessa to. She had never been in attendance at any of the school activities, either. Janessa always walked wherever she was going…

Talking the money Janessa proffered now, Kate nodded awkwardly. Though she didn’t need or want it, she had a feeling Janessa’s pride was at stake here. “Tell her I said thank you.”

Janessa shrugged. “Whatever.”

“All right then,” Kate said, clearing her throat. She nodded toward her small sedan. “Should we hit the road?”

Janessa’s only response was to walk over to the passenger side, open the door, and quickly bend herself inside its plush interior. Then she slammed the door shut, her eyes staring straight ahead.

“I guess that’s a yes,” Kate muttered to herself, sparing M.T. and Penny one last wave before getting in herself.
Still standing on the sidewalk, Penny and M.T. watched Kate’s car slowly roll away from view. Turning toward one another, they shared a knowing look.

“Think she’ll be okay?”

“Janessa?” M.T. asked.

Penny hitched one shoulder. “Her too.”

M.T. stared out toward where the car had sat only minutes ago. “As long as they stick together.”

 

 

 

The car ride to Coventon passed in a relatively boring fashion. After a couple of failed start-up attempts at conversation—particularly about Janessa’s dad and what she remembered about him—Kate had finally given up.

Janessa wasn’t in a chatting mood.

Kate had a feeling all of the girl’s energy and concentration was being consumed by her ever-increasing anxiety—there was no room left for listening, engaging. Kate could hear it in the slightly labored breathing of the passenger sitting beside her, see it in the ramrod straight way she held her body, feel it in the hard, unblinking way she stared out the windshield mirror.

And it only got worse with each mile that Kate ate up.

Bit by bit, Janessa turned into a stone.

But the third hour of this silent road trip, Kate could feel a headache beating at the base of her neck. They were less than twenty minutes outside of Coventon. Her own nerves were starting to sing now. Other than the heavy metal music that Janessa preferred, she’d had nothing but time to think:

The private investigator, after Penny called him to enquire further about what he’d found out about Janessa’s dad, had been a wealth of information. Apparently, Paul Cooper worked in a paper plant, frequently pulling the third shift. Almost every morning, when he punched out for the day, he could be found at a little diner across the street (and every evening too, when he’d stop back in for supper before ambling over for his night shift. Very exciting stuff here.)

He lived alone, in a rundown apartment in a not-so-great neighborhood. He was a lousy drunk; the investigator had found empty bottles littered across the floorboard of his truck, and even more spewed out across his living room coffee table (when he’d snuck a look in through the man’s windows). His weekends were taken up at Joe’s Bar where, according to the locals, he drank himself almost to the point of being passed out.

Rinse and repeat.

As far as the PI knew, Paul Cooper didn’t have any other children. He wasn’t currently dating anyone. He didn’t appear to have any friends. Other than the rare weekend out at the racetrack, his paychecks went to rent, beer, food, and more beer.

The untold story of Paul Cooper.

Boring. Sad. Not exactly the makings for father of the year.

Remembering this, Kate’s resolve weakened. What were they doing? This was a mistake. She should just turn the car around now…

“How are we going to find him?” Janessa asked, her voice shocking Kate out of her musings. “When we get there, how are we going to find him?”
Kate took a deep, calming breath. She couldn’t turn back now. It was important to Janessa and even though there was a part of Kate that agreed with the girl’s mother—at least the part about how Janessa was walking into heartache—she had said she would do it, and she was going to make good on that promise. Janessa needed to do this, and Kate needed to be the one there in case it didn’t end well.

“Well,” Kate said slowly. “At this rate, I figure we’ll make it to Coventon at just about six o’clock, and according to the PI Penny hired, your dad can usually be found at a little diner nearby, having dinner then.”

She winced. They were going to surprise attack him. He had no idea they were coming. He had no idea his daughter was looking forward to seeing him—none of it. When the girl’s had discussed the best way to handle the situation, the PI (who had a sort of slimy appearance, but was nonetheless expert on the subject) and told them this was the best way.

“Otherwise you take the risk he’ll run.”

“That seems a bit dramatic, doesn’t it?”

“Not in my experience,” he assured them. “Either that or they tell you they’ll meet you but never show up. Believe me, this is how it’s done.”

So that’s how they were doing it.

These thoughts took Kate the rest of the way to Coventon. Sneaking a glance at Janessa when they passed the town’s Welcome sign, Kate saw that the girl’s eyes were wide, unseeing, her breath whooshing noisily out of her mouth.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” Kate asked, as she nosed her way toward the diner’s address. She had it converted to memory by now. “It’s not too late to change your mind…?”

But Janessa only shook her head. “No. Let’s do it.”

Pulling up to the curb of the diner in question—it’s grimly, greasy exterior only matched by it’s recycled inside, the booths ripped and worn, faded, the cracked linoleum underfoot spotty with dirt and debris—Kate smiled encouragingly at Janessa before alighting from the car.

Walking slowly inside, she felt her heartbeat kick up, her forehead breaking out in sweat. Kate had been sent a picture of Paul Cooper, which made it all the easier to spot him as she and Janessa entered the dimly light café, her eyes quickly roaming over the miscellany of baseball caps, flannel shirts, and workmen’s boots.

He was sitting in the last booth off to the left, a cup of coffee resting in one beefy hand.

Now that they’d found him, Janessa didn’t seem to know what to do, how to approach him. Walking slowly toward the table, with each step Kate could actually see her nerve leaving her. They hadn’t exactly rehearsed this part. They probably should have. When she’d finally been forced to come to a stop, her body hovering over his table, eyes unable to rise much further than the floor, Janessa seemed to freeze.

Paul Cooper, sensing her shadow, glanced up, a question forming on his thick black eyebrows.

“I…erm—” Janessa’s breath came out in a squeaky blast of air, her body shifting from foot to foot as she stood there. “Um…”

Bloodshot eyes narrowed in her direction, a thin mouth pulling down at the interruption. “Yes?” He asked briskly.

“Ah…I, uh.” Janessa’s face flamed a deep red color.

Paul frowned. “You okay, kid?”

“Umm…”

“Speak up. I can’t hear you.”

Janessa swallowed. Kate wasn’t sure what to do.

“Janessa,” she finally said, her voice pitched nervously.

“What?”

“My name…” Janessa looked pleadingly at Kate. She nodded. “My name is Janessa Cooper.” The words were weak, watery, but still they had the desired effect.

She had the man’s attention now. With a rattle, he set his cup of coffee down on the table. “Janessa?” He asked softly, shaking his head. “Well, I’ll be….”

“Can we sit down, perhaps?” Kate asked, her voice intruding for the first time. Looking at Janessa’s shaking form, she was worried that if the teenager didn’t take a seat soon, she’d fall over.

“”Course,” Paul invited, but there was a certain reserve in the way he said it.

Sliding in after Janessa, Kate waited for someone to speak.

Janessa looked down at the orange tabletop; Paul seemed content to stay silent.

“Do you—do you know who I am?”

Paul grimaced. “You’re Cathy’s daughter.”

That made Janessa’s chin jut out. “I’m your daughter.”

Paul waved his hand through the air. “Sure. Sure, well…”

An uncomfortable silence descended for a moment.

“Your mom sick or something?”

Janessa eyes lifted. “What?”
Paul shrugged. “Is this about that child support? Do you need money?” He turned to Kate. “You her lawyer?”

Janessa’s eyes grew large in her pale face. “No.”

“Then what?” And, as unlikely as it would seem, Paul looked genuinely curious. “What are you doing here?”

Janessa seemed to shrink back against the vinyl upholstery “I just, I came to see you. That’s all.”

“Oh.” His face hardened ever so slightly.

“I wanted to,” Janessa’s voice shook. “I don’t know. Meet you, I guess.”

He sighed. “I see.”

“You know, mom used to tell me you were dead. It was only a few months ago that I learned the truth.”

Paul didn’t seem unduly upset by this information. “That was probably for the best.”

“To lie to me?” Janessa’s voice was ominous.

“Sometimes it’s better than the truth.”

Janessa would not cry. “I don’t understand.”

“I wasn’t nobody’s father. I’m still not,” Paul said, his words brutally cruel. “Listen, kid I left because it was the best thing for you and your mom. I wasn’t fit—”

“The best thing for me?” Janessa’s eyes flashed. “The best thing for me?”

Paul shrugged. “I couldn’t take care of myself, much less someone else. She probably thought telling you I was dead would keep you from doing exactly what you’ve gone and done….”

“What I’ve done?”

Paul made an offhand gesture. “Your mother—I knew the two of you would be just fine without me, better off actually….”

“Oh yeah, we’ve been just dandy,” Janessa returned, her face twisting over the words. “Mom’s had to work two jobs my entire life, just to pay the bills. And when she’s not doing that she’s down at whatever bar has the best special until she’s so drunk she forgets how much she resents me and everything I robbed her of…”

Paul had the grace to look ashamed. “I never meant—”

“And believe me I prefer it that way. A blacked-out mother is much better than the alternative. ‘God Janessa, I should have had an abortion, that’s what I should have done. I’d’ve spared us both this kind of life,’ or ‘Jesus Janessa, can’t you do anything right? I’ve given up everything for you: youth, beauty, money. Can’t you at least do better than C’s and B’s in school? I’ve sacrificed too much to be raising an idiot.’”

Kate could feel something unfurl itself in her chest at the words. The hateful, hurtful words. She’d known Janessa’s home-life wasn’t great but this—did her mother really say those things? Pushing back the emotions pulsing up her throat, Kate waited for Paul to speak.

But he didn’t. It was Janessa who broke the silence.

“Didn’t you ever wonder about us?” she asked plaintively. “Didn’t you ever wonder about me?”

“Well sure, of course I did,” Paul lied.

“Then why didn’t you ever call? Why didn’t you ever come back?”

“I told you, I wasn’t the fatherly type.”

“But—”

“Listen, Janessa…” Paul took a deep breath. “I’m sorry if I’m not measuring up your ideal—I know I’m not the father you were hoping to find here today. I’m not even sure how you did find me,” he added, half under his breath. “But that’s exactly why I took off. I was never going to be good for you. So I left and I never looked back. Doesn’t that tell you everything you need to know?”

Deftly, he threw money down on the table, signaling his intent to leave. Reaching for his jacket, he scooted out of the booth, but not before adding: “I’m sorry, kid. Really sorry. But you should forget about me. It’s for the best, I promise.”

And with that he gained his feet, turned and walked away. Without a backward glance.

For a minute no one spoke. Kate hardly dared to breathe. Then, finally her eyes slithered bravely to the side, her gaze zeroing in on Janessa’s face: the pale, dusky color of her cheekbones, the unmistakable glaze of wet tears shining in those big blue eyes, the tense, hard way she was breathing in and out. Janessa’s lips were pulled down, a mutinous line drawn against a hard countenance. Her body seemed to be made of glass and even the tiniest movement and she’d shatter all over the floor.

She’d just been rejected by her father. Again.

Kate’s heart rocketed against her chest. Her fingers practically itched to reach out for the girl….

“Janessa?” Kate asked quietly. The girl’s eyes slowly rotated to take in her face. “Oh, honey, I’m so sorry.” And then, before she could help herself, Kate felt her arms rising, curving to either side of Janessa’s shoulders…

“Don’t touch me!” Janessa’s body jerked, convulsed.

At the sharp command, Kate’s arms dropped back down to her sides.

“I don’t need your pity Kate,” Janessa snarled. “That’s the absolutely last thing I need from you,” she insisted.

Kate breathed slowly. “Okay.” Placing her palms flat on the seat, she was just on the point of sliding out of the booth—to give Janessa her space or to take herself to the bathroom for composure, Kate wasn’t sure—when she heard it. The muffled, low sound of a sob breaking out against Janessa’s tightly closed mouth.

Head whipping around, Kate had just enough time to take in the crumbled expression on the girl’s face before Janessa suddenly threw herself at Kate, her scrawny arms snaking around Kate’s neck to hold on tight, her face pressed hotly against her shoulder.

With something akin to disbelief, Kate felt her own arms wrap themselves around Janessa’s back, her mouth making soothing noises as her arms rubbed comforting circles there. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m so, sorry.”

“No one wants me,” Janessa cried. “No one ever wants me.”

“That’s not true,” Kate returned. “I want you.”

Janessa buried her head against Kate’s collarbone. “For now, maybe.”

Kate tightened her hold. “Always Janessa.” She rested her chin over the young girl’s head. “Forever.”

“I love you, Kate.”

She took a deep, steadying breath. “I love you, too.”