North of Happenstance: Chapter Fifty-Eight

Kate stared nervously down the length of space separating her from her mother. She cleared her throat, her fingers almost white as they gripped the edge of her front porch railing. “There’s someone I’d like you to meet,” she called out. And then: “That is—unless you have to go?” Kate let her gaze drop uneasily. “I know Phil is waiting for you…”

“It’s not as if the man can’t board a plane by himself,” Calida countered drily, her lips pulling into a discerning frown. She nodded sharply, decisively. “I’m not his mother, after all.”

Kate goggled, unsure.

Brushing her hands down the sides of her pretty outfit, eyes not quite meeting her daughter’s, Calida made an impatient noise in the back of her throat. “Yes. All right.”

“Yes?
“I’d like to stay,” Calida admitted. “If you’ll have me.”

“I’ll have you.”

“Okay.”

“Okay.” Kate felt the weight of those words. “Right. Good.”

For a moment silence descended. Neither woman spoke, neither woman moved, each seeming to be waiting on the other… The air was thick with uncertainty. Fidgeting, Kate wasn’t sure where to go from there; her bravado of moments ago had abandoned her, deflating her courage; she hadn’t thought beyond asking her mother to stay.

“Is the person you’d like me to meet hiding somewhere inside your house?” Breaking the heavy quiet, Calida raised an incredulous eyebrow.

Kate frowned. “What? No…”

“Then—” Calida motioned pointedly toward her rental car, which was parked a little way down the street. “Shall we?”

“Oh! Oh, right!” Kate laughed awkwardly. “Yes. Let me, um, let me just tell the girl’s we’re going.”

“That’s fine. I’ll wait in the car,” Calida assured her. “Don’t be long.”

“Yes. Okay.” Grimacing at her lack of conversation, Kate turned on the steps. Quickly, she took herself back inside, back to the kitchen, where she found Penny and M.T. impatiently waiting, their gazes locking on her the moment she passed into view.

“So?” Penny asked unashamedly, leaning forward eagerly.

“Umm…” Kate bit her lip. “I asked her to stay?”

“You did?”

“Why?”

“Penny!”

“I’m just saying…”

“I want her to meet Jackson,” Kate said, interrupting them.

“Our Jackson?”

“Well. Yeah.”

“Have you lost your mind?” Penny asked, glancing frantically out toward the front walkway, where Calida could be seen striding toward her car.

Kate shifted. “I think…”

“Look I’m all about the two of you patching things up, but Kate your mother is a barracuda. You really want to sick her on Jackson?” Penny’s eyes were large. “May I remind you, he’s not any too happy with you at the moment? This might not be the time for the Great Calida McDonald…”

“But that’s just it. I think it’s exactly the right time,” Kate argued. “Introducing him to her—it’ll prove my feelings. It’ll show him that I’m ready to commit, that I’m fully invested in our relationship.”

Penny whistled.

“Jackson knows about me and my mother,” Kate defended hotly. He knew Kate’s situation; that she’d had more-or-less run away from home (at the ripe old age of twenty-eight, no less) just to escape her clutches.

“Don’t you miss your family back home?” He’d asked her one night a few weeks ago. They’d been snuggling on the couch, eating popcorn as they watched an old black-and-white on the television.

“My family?” Kate had stuttered.

“You hardly ever talk about them. In fact, besides that trip to Minneapolis this summer, I’m not sure you’ve ever brought them up.”

Kate’s voice had hardened. “There’s not much to tell.”

“I’m sure that isn’t true.”

“Fine,” Kate had told him. “There’s not much I want to tell.”

Jackson had reached over to kiss the top of her cranky heat. “Okay, I’m sorry. I won’t pry.”

“No, I’m sorry,” she’d said then. “I just—my family, they‘re the reason I’m here. In Whestleigh.”

Beseechingly, Kate tried to make herself understood now as she stared at Penny’s disenchanted face. “I told him how she never approved of who I am; that I was never allowed to make my own decisions or stand up for myself, or even just believe I had a right to make my own choices without the fear of her constantly trying to change me. Don’t you get it?” Kate cried excitedly. “If I introduce Jackson to her—to the very root of my issues with commitment—that’s big! That has to mean something, you know, that I’m done running scared. It’ll make things right between us, I know it will. It’ll show him that he’s worth fighting for.”

“Yeah, well, your mother is definitely that. A fight.”

“I think it’s a fantastic idea,” M.T. offered. “Jackson’s an important part of your life and introducing him as such, to your mother of all people, will speak volumes.”

“He’s angry because I kept us a secret,” Kate insisted, “and what better what to show him I’m through with all that then this?”

“But what about our plan?” Penny hissed out of the corner of her mouth.

Kate’s lips twitched. Oh, yeah. The plan, aka the “Big Romantic Gesture”, aka Penny’s scheme to get Kate back in Jackson’s good graces. Like most plots involving the psychic, it had been big, intense, and characteristically nutty. It had called for a whole host of props, among them a fully decked-out float, replete with yards and yards of crepe paper, duck-tape and balloons; discretely assembled loud-speakers, with accompanying microphones and camcorders; a garishly painted banner; music by the local bell-ringers; and one insanely elaborate ruse to get Jackson down to Bailey’s park at 12:07 in the morning…

It was all still in the preliminary phases, but just thinking about it gave Kate anxiety.

“New plan,” Kate informed her matter-of-factly. “And I think this one might work even better.”

“I guess,” Penny relented begrudgingly.

Kate nodded. She glanced quickly up at the clock. “Well, I better get going. Calida’s waiting,” she murmured, taking a half-step backward. “Wish me luck.”

“Good luck.”

“All the lucks.”

“Oh, and lock up when you leave,” Kate called, already making for the front door, her purse slung haphazardly over her shoulder.

 

 

 

“Do you even know where we’re going?” Calida couldn’t seem to help herself from asking when, five minutes later, Kate pulled off the main road down the short, dirt dead-end drive that wound to a close at the base of Jackson and Penny’s private houses.

“Of course,” Kate sighed, pulling over on the side of the rutted track. Getting out of the vehicle she waited while her mother gracefully alight from the passenger side. Now that they’d arrived, she was experiencing some severe second thoughts. What if Jackson wasn’t home? Or worse, what if he refused to answer the door? What if Calida made no impression upon him? What if he’d decided that Kate wasn’t worth all the hassle after all…

“Are you all right?” Calida asked, her voice unusually loud in the stillness of the lake as she rounded the back of the car to where Kate stood. “You look a bit pale.”

“I’m fine, mother,” Kate bit off.  Throwing her hair haughtily over one shoulder, she marched up to Jackson’s front door, heedless of her mother’s faltering steps behind. Bringing a shaking hand up to the doorbell, she pressed the buzzer.

“You never mention who we’ve come here to see? Don’t tell me your also good friends with a Catholic Priest—?” Calida’s jovial words were cut short by the sudden opening of the door before them.

“Kate?” At the sight of her, Jackson stilled, the door only halfway open. His lips formed a thin, hard line.

Kate could hardly breathe. “Jackson. Hi.”

He sighed tiredly. “Look, Kate I’m not in the mood to hear more excuses right now,” he started to say, in a very un-Jackson like tone of voice.

“No, I know,” she said. “And I’m—”

“Look. I know you’re sorry,” he finished, “but that’s not, I need a little…”

“Open the door, Jackson.”

“It is open.”

“No. All the way,” Kate said, and reaching forward, grabbed for its edge. Pushing against his hold on the doorknob, she swung the structure wide.

Jackson’s eyes widened at the unexpected sight of a strange woman standing beside Kate.  Swiveling, his shocked gaze got the full force of Calida’s intense, unwavering stare.

Taken aback, his eyes shifted back to Kate.

Screwing together the last of her courage, she said, her eyes never leaving his: “Mother, I’d like you to meet my boyfriend, Jackson.” She smiled hopefully up at his inscrutable face. “My boyfriend Jackson, who I love very much.”

Her mother gasped softly.

Jackson’s mouth dropped open just slightly.

 

 

 

Sitting cross-legged on her office floor, Penny tried to relax her mind.

“Breathe in. Feel your body infusing with air. You’re light. Floating… And breathe out. And take all the thoughts and emotions, all the clutter lurking in there out with that cleansing breath. Anchor your body to the ground, to the earth. Breathe deeply. Expand your chest.  Reach up to the sky, open to the celestial world above. And close. Let everything out. Out, out, out. A blank, open canvas,” she muttered to herself, her eyes tightly closed, palms resting, face up, on her thighs. “Be open. Be vulnerable. Be free.”

But it wasn’t working.

She just kept seeing Jake’s damn face.

After Kate had left with Calida, Penny’s problem (the one she’d happily put on the back-burner when Kate had called from under Jake’s office at the LitLiber, the one she’d much preferred not to think about anyway) had unfortunately resurfaced. In a big, bad way. Going home had been out of the question. She needed to think. Or to escape thinking, she wasn’t sure which. She needed to mediate, to be one with the Angels and Spirits around her. Gain a little perspective. So she’d gone to the one place that always steadied her—Madame Penny’s House of Intuition.

But perspective was being elusive and she wasn’t connecting with the Universe.

“Fail,” she muttered, opening her eyes warily.

Then she screamed.

“Jesus,” she cried out, one hand slamming up against her shaking chest. Gasping on a chocked breath, she felt her face infuse with heat. “How long have you been standing there?”

Because leaning up against the doorway to her office was none other than Jake Farrow.

His lips twisted into a cruel smile. “Surprised to see me?” he asked softly. Scrambling quickly to her feet, feeling at a disadvantage on the floor, Penny tried to find her inner serenity.

“Well. Yeah,” she offered plainly.

“That’s funny,” he mused, bringing a seemingly casual hand up to his chin. He rubbed his fingers against a slight bit of stubble there. “Because I was surprised to not see you. You remember: this morning. My bed. You were supposed to be there when I woke up.”

Penny’s mouth dropped open.

“Jake.”

He looked disgusted. “I never would have taken you for a coward.”

“I am not a coward,” Penny demanded, pointing a finger at him. “How dare you…”

“No? Then what was that little disappearing act? Shame?”

“No! Never…”

Jake raised a dark eyebrow. “Then what?”

Penny felt her face flush, her heartbeat quicken against her veins. “I just…I wasn’t sure what happened?”

Jake barked out a laugh. “Shall I remind you?” He took a menacing step forward.

“No!” Penny held up a hand, stumbling backward. “I mean, I know what happened.”

“I should think so.”

“I just don’t know—”

“You don’t know what?”

Penny felt itchy. She felt on display. And really, why was she required to do all the explaining, all the talking? Why should she spell out her fears when, for all she knew, last night had been nothing more than a casual fling for him? And God, what would he say if he knew how much it had meant to her! No. No, no, no. She shrugged eloquently. “I don’t know what to say.”

Jake sighed. It held a weary note. “So it would seem.”

Penny’s eyes grew in alarm. “Well, what? You can’t just expect me to…”

Jake held up a hand, cutting her off. “Stop. Don’t.” He pushed himself off the wall. “You’ve made yourself patently clear.”

“You certainly haven’t though!” Penny accused.

“Why bother?” There’s nothing left to say.”

“Nothing—”

“Am I to take it that last night is to be forgotten? Never spoken of again?”

“No. Yes. I-I,” Penny’s mouth kept sounding out words. “Jake, gave me a minute here.”

“I gave you all morning,” he told her. There was a note of finality in his tone as he turned toward the door.

“Jake. Wait.”

With his back to her now, one fist closed around the thick brocade material of her doorway, Jake only shook his head. “I can’t.”

“You can’t what?”

“Wait any longer.”

“What? I don’t—”

“I’m done pretending.” Penny watched his shoulder’s coil.

“Pretending?”

“To be your friend.”

Penny felt those words all the way to her stomach.

“It’s not enough for me. Not anymore.” And with those words hanging heavy in the air, he slipped through the curtained doorway, his steps hard and quick as he walked down the hallway toward the building’s exit.

Slinking slowly to the floor, her knees buckling from the confusion, the hurt and tension of the last few minutes, Penny felt tears crowding against her throat.

“Don’t go,” she whispered into the empty room.

 

 

 

Bent over her sermon notes, Maggie hummed softly to herself. After dropping Penny off at her office, the pastor had taken herself smartly back to the church, after first apologizing profusely to Heather, the office secretary, for her unexpected delay and promising to have the Sunday service completely solidified by the end of the day.

So here she sat.

Scratching out a line of text, she felt her lips twist. At this rate, she’d be here until midnight, trying to get everything just right…

On the wings of that thought, Maggie heard a quiet knock coming from outside her office door. Pushing her reading glasses off her face, she carefully kept from frowning. The last thing she needed right now was an unnecessary distraction.

“Come in,” she called, careful to keep her voice neutral.

But it wasn’t one of the ladies from the flower committee coming to discuss altar arrangements, nor was it the youth director coming to inquire about Confirmation Sunday; No, no. And certainly, the tall, handsome man standing in her doorway was not the church volunteer coordinator, here to complain about the lack of interest in the Library Board….

Smiling delightedly, Maggie beckoned her guest forward. “Hank,” she breathed, and suddenly his visit didn’t seem like a distraction at all, but a much-needed break in her day.    “What brings you here—not that I mind in the least!” With precise movements, she shuffled the notes scattered across her desk into a semblance of order, pushing them out of sight.

“Would you like a cup of coffee?” she asked, as he crossed the room towards her desk. Hank didn’t respond, but then he wasn’t a talkative man. Half-rising from her chair, M.T. continued  “Oh. And I think Heather brought in doughnu—”

Reaching across her desk, one finger fall gently over her lips, Hank stemmed the last of her words

“I came here to tell you,” he paused. “Don’t talk to them.”

Huh? “Talk to whom?” she asked, her voice muffled by his finger.

“The church board. The PPC—whoever in hell that is,” he responded gruffly, slowly releasing his index finger from her mouth. “The congregation. Your staff,” he continued, ticking off the list. “And, I don’t know, anyone else you had in mind—”

“Don’t talk to them about what?” But, actually she had a pretty good idea.

“Our private life. Our-our intimate affairs.” Hank’s neck burned above the collar of his work shirt.

“Oh.” Stall, Maggie. Stall. “But, Hank we discussed—”

“No. You discussed. Now it’s your turn to listen,” he informed her staunchly.

Maggie swallowed nervously. “Oh.”

Now that he had her quiet, undivided attention, Hank seemed to have lost his nerve.

“What is it you’d like to say?”

“Dammit Maggie!” Hank sighed, his hand scratching at his hair. “I don’t want you to have to do that. And I don’t think you want to do it, either.”

“But I do—!”
“I’ll wait.” The words were simple, short. Uttered in a gravely timbre.

Maggie’s eyes widened, but otherwise she remained silent.

“Do you understand me? I’ll wait for you. However long it takes. We’ll do this right.”

“Hank…”

“Tut, tut!”

Maggie quickly snapped her mouth closed. But nothing could wipe away her smile.

Hank grinned. “Don’t underestimate me, Margaret. I’m a patient man. I’ll wait for you.”

 

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-One

With something akin to panic, Jake stared down at the concert tickets sitting on his kitchen counter. They were for her favorite band—when he’d found out they were playing in town, he’d rushed out to buy them. It was going to be a surprise.

Grimacing, he pushed them out of his sight.

Kate had the absolute worst timing.

Pushing himself up, Jake paced from his kitchen counter to his living room windows and back again. That would all end now; they would go back to the way things had been before. Because—because, he and Penny’s relationship was a farce, built on the fabric of something false, something that turned out to be, ironically, only in the way….

Because Jake didn’t want Kate anymore.

He wasn’t entirely sure when it had started, but somewhere along the way she’d just become the excuse, the reason to keep hanging out with his old friend, his friend that he’d forgotten how much he missed; his friend that had somehow become more important than the girl.

But he wouldn’t have that excuse anymore.

Jake shook his head, his mind rewinding back to half an hour ago, when he’d heard that unexpected knock at his door…

“Kate,” he’d announced, surprise etching across his features when he found her on the other side of his doorstep.

“Jake.” She’d tried to smile. “I-uh—are you busy right now?”

“No…”

She’d looked momentarily relieved, and at the same time sharply uncomfortable. Nodding with a jerk, she’d taken in a noisy breath. “I was hoping, erm, can we talk?”
And Jake had known already what she’d come to say. Stepping back, he’d waved her inside. “Of course,” he’d inviting, a pit forming in his stomach.

Fidgeting, she’d moved into his living room.

“Can I get you anything to drink?” he’d asked automatically, hoping to dispel some of the nervous energy practically oozing out of her pores.

“No, no, that’s okay,” she’d said. Then, squaring her shoulders, she’d looked him dead in the eyes. “I’m not really sure how to say this, so I’ll just start…”
“Kate,” Jake had interrupted then, holding up a hand. “It’s okay.”

But she’d gone on anyway. “I asked you for time. I asked that you wait for me to figure out what I wanted…which was selfish of me, unfair of me. But you did it anyway.” She’d sighed. “You did that for me—and I’ll always thank you for your patience and kindness. Really, truly. The least I can do is be honest with you now.”

Jake smiled gently, hoping to ease her way. “Okay.”

“You have been such a good friend to me,” Kate said.

“And you’ve been a good friend to me.”

“And I don’t want that to change, but—” Kate bit her lip. “But that’s all we can be. Friends, I mean.” Her eyes stared down at her feet. “I don’t—I wish I could say, ‘I just don’t feel that way about you,’ but we both know that wouldn’t be entirely true,” Kate said with a half-laugh. “Only…. I don’t think I feel it enough. And that’s not fair to either of us.”

Jake reached forward to cup her elbow. “I know,” he told her then, silencing her. “I think I knew it all along.”

Kate’s eyes filled with tears. “I’m so sorry.”

“No, don’t be.”

“Jake, I would never deliberately hurt you. And I’m so sorry if I led you to believe—”

“Kate,” Jake had insisted, “the only thing you led me to believe was exactly what you just said: that you weren’t sure what you wanted. That you were confused….and  now, now you’ve decided. You’ve done nothing wrong. Nothing. I made all the moves, not you.”

“Stop being so nice to me…”

“No, I’ll never do that—”

Kate gave a watery snort.

“And Kate,” at this, she chanced to look up at his face, her eyes finding a gentle, compassionate response there. “Thank you for telling me—that is, how you feel. Thank you for talking to me about it, and in such a graceful way.”

“I know it’s terrible to say, but I don’t want to lose you.”

“You won’t,” Jake told her. “We’ll be fine. I’ll be fine.” And oddly, he’d meant it.

 

 

 

Jake pursed his lips. The irony was, it wasn’t Kate he was mourning right now, it wasn’t Kate who was making his muscles cramp, his throat feel too tight; it wasn’t Kate who he feared losing. It was Penny. Because somewhere along the way, she’d stolen the show, pushing Kate to the backseat, and making a convenient excuse of the blonde—and all in the name of continuing this ruse.

Only, he hadn’t been willing to admit that, even to himself, not until Kate had walked into his apartment, not until she’d started talking, saying words that should have crushed him, words that should have broken his heart. But all he’d felt was relief. That it was over. That Kate wasn’t in love with him. Because…because he wasn’t in love with her.

There was just one small hitch. Without Kate there was no Penny. And without Penny—Jake swallowed hard—without Penny, his life seemed a little duller, a little less humorous. Without Penny….

Walking back to his kitchen, he stared down at those concert tickets again. It had been a week ago: Penny had called, asking if he wanted to have dinner at her house—she was trying out a new dish and she needed a guinea pig. Maggie was out at Hanks and Jake was the only other person she knew desperate enough to be a taste-tester….

“I see,” he’d teased on the phone. “I’m nothing more than a science experiment.”

“Did I mention that I also have a six-pack sitting on ice?” She’d offered laughingly.

“Be there in five minutes.”

“I thought so,” she’d laughed.

Pocketing his phone, Jake had been true to his word. Wasting two of those minutes to rip out of the sweats and into a clean pair of jeans and a fresh button-up, splash on a little cologne, and work his fingers through his hair, he’d been quickly out the door, whistling as he’d locked up.

The topic of conversation had happened naturally enough. They’d just sat down at the table, and Jake had begun talking to her about the idea of booking a concert for the LitLiber’s Anniversary Party when she’d offered up her favorite band as a possibility:

“…I saw them for the first time in Hiltbolt. I was seventeen, and it was the first time I’d ever snuck out to a bar…” Penny had informed him. Her face was pink with the memory. “And, I don’t know, I guess it was love at first sight.”

Jake had grinned. “You were forever resigned to be the number one fan of a group called Stink Pig?”

Penny had wrinkled her nose. “Yeah, they could have picked a better name…”

“Are they actually any good?”

Penny had shrugged. “Who knows—but every time I listen to them, I’m seventeen again….”

“Drinking your first illegal beer…”

“…and having the absolute time of my life!”

Jake had teased her then: “I never knew you were such a wild child.”

Penny had laughed. “That’s just it. I wasn’t. I believe that night went down in history as my one and only experience breaking curfew.”

“Really?” And that had piqued his interest. The most popular guy in school, he’d barely bothered to remember that he even had a curfew…there was always a party to go to, a girl to see.

Penny had scoffed then at his show of curiosity. “Can you really pretend that much surprise? You know what I was like.”

And, unfortunately, he had. Penny hadn’t grown up with much money. Her clothes had always been old, second-hand, and frequently carrying the unmistakable odor of stale cigarette smoke and booze. Her hair had been bushy, frizzy back then—add that to her eccentric personality and odd sense of humor, and Penny had pretty much been the laughing stock of the school.

 

 

 

Which was how he’d come up the idea to hunt down Stink Pig, and find out where they were playing next. He had it all planned out. He was going to sneak Penny out of her bedroom window and take her to watch them. He was going to help her be seventeen again.

And as luck would have it, he’d found Stink Pig easily enough. Their website stated that they were playing out at the Wild Oak Bar and Grill that very weekend. Barely a twenty minute drive away, Jake had snatched up the tickets without a second thought. It would be perfect.

The show wasn’t set to start until midnight. Jake would be locking up at LitLiber a little after ten. After going home for a quick change, he was going to drive over to Penny’s and throw rocks at her bedroom window or something like that—very old-school, traditional stuff. He was going to tell her to get dressed and that he had a surprise for her….

He stared down at the tickets once more, his mouth setting in a grim line. He hadn’t realized it until right now, how much he’d been looking forward to it. He hadn’t realized until right now, how much he wanted to do that for Penny…and how much he wanted to do it for himself.

But everything would change now. Their reason for getting together, the underlining theme to it all, the only thing that had drawn them back together and kept them that way (namely Kate)…it was dead in the water. And Jake couldn’t care less about that. Only, he didn’t want to lose Penny alongside Kate.

Only, how did he keep her? They didn’t have the same friends. They didn’t go to the same places. Hell, they didn’t even like the same music.

The tickets stared up at him mockingly.

And in a split second decision, Jake reached for his phone. Scrolling quickly through his contacts list, he quickly dialed the number he actually knew by heart.

“Good afternoon, Madame Penny’s House of Intuition—”

“Penny, its Jake…”

The air on the other side of the line changed. Jake could practically feel it. “So—you heard?”

“Heard?” Jake held his breath, playing dumb. Penny knew already?! Dammit.

She cleared her throat. “Oh, ah, I thought…that is, have you seen Kate today?”

Yup. She knew all right. Which meant there was only one thing to do. Closing his eyes tightly, Jake did something he’d never done before to Penny. He lied. “No. Why?”

He wasn’t ready to explain himself. He wasn’t ready to risk losing Penny….because, bottom line: he wasn’t sure she’d still be his friend without the added incentive of helping out Kate. After all, that’s the reason she was talking to him, hanging out with him, wasn’t it? Because of Kate. Because she was Kate’s best friend. Kate, Kate Kate….

What if—what if he wasn’t enough to keep her interest alone? What if…

So Jake lied.

If he didn’t know about Kate, then maybe they things could remain the same…even if it was just for a little bit longer.

“Nothing,” Penny rushed to say, “No reason. What’s up?”

Jake grinned. “What are you doing tonight?”

“No plans,” Penny said.

“The night you went to Hillbolt, when you were seventeen to watch Stink Pigs—do you remember what you were wearing?”

Penny laughed. There was a husky note in her voice. “Yeah, I guess.”

“Could you replicate it?”

“What?”

“Tonight, before you go to bed, put on something like what you wore that night.”

“Before I go to bed?”
“Yeah.”

“Okay,” Penny said, her voice accurately portraying her confusion.

“Oh, and Penny…”

“Yeah?”

“Make sure the window to your room is closed.”

“The window…?”
“I’ll see you later.”

Penny laughed again. “See you later.”

Putting down the phone, Jake grinned. Staring up at the clock, he mentally counted down time. It was almost four hours until he’d start work. Ten hours until he’d lock up for the night. It was almost twelve hours until he’d see Penny.

His heart kicked up a little. Twelve hours.

Walking toward his shower, whistling some old country and western song, Jake stole a look at himself in the bathroom mirror. There was flush on his cheeks that had nothing to do with the room’s temperature. Turning on the water, he stopped to let his mind wander for a second.

He wondered what outfit Penny was going to wear.

His grin only widened.

Twelve hours.

Time couldn’t pass soon enough.