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-Four

What was it about her shop lately, Penny wondered fleetingly—everyone and their mother, it seemed, felt compelled to just drop by unexpectedly, seeking all sorts of random advice (like she was some columnist in the newspaper). All of this would be fine, of course, if even one person were interested in the spiritual world.

But there was pretty much zero chance of that, especially considering the latest in the long line of unannounced visitors who’d just passed over her threshold—

Hank Burke.

Didn’t need to by psychic to know he wasn’t here to get insight from the Angel messages.

Penny tried not to grimace when she looked up to see his unnerved person shadowed against her curtained doorway.

“Hank,” she stated drily, lifting one incredulous eyebrow at his entrance.

He nodded formally. “Penny.”

She pursed her lips. She had long ago gotten over her infatuation with the man, not the least of which had to with the fact that Maggie seemed so incredibly happy with him, that she and Hank were obviously the right choice. Penny was glad to have surrendered her chase. Hank treated Mags like…well, like she deserved to be treated.

But Penny wasn’t sure she was willing to forgive the man yet for his mocking attitude toward her profession. He’d laughed. Said he didn’t believe in her kind of hocus pocus. Granted, he’d said it kindly (she supposed) but it had rankled all the same.

And now he had the audacity to show up at her place of work?

The nerve.

Kate hadn’t understood her ceaseless grudge on this issue.

“It’s not like half the town hasn’t said the same about your psychic powers before—or worse,” she’d remarked one evening.

Penny had shrugged. “I know. It’s just—he was supposed to be different.”

“But he wasn’t. So you moved on. Isn’t that actually for the best?”

Penny had considered this for a second. “I suppose.”

“And really, isn’t it more important that he follow M.T.’s faith?”

“Yeah…”

“Do you still have feelings for him?”

Penny had made a face. “No.” And she’d meant it. Her feelings for Hank had never been real; she’d based them on an illusion of the Hank she’d made up in her mind.

“So what does it really matter?”

“It doesn’t.”

“Then learn to like him because I’m pretty sure that Maggie’s in love with him.”

….

Penny tried to hold on to that conversation as she reluctantly waved Hank inside her cramped quarters. “What can I do for you?” She enquired and then, before she could help it, Penny reached for her pack of Tarot Cards. “Questions about the future you’d like me to shed some light on?”

Hank stilled. “Ah. No. That’s, ah, that’s okay.”

“I thought not.” The sarcasm was as rich as it was uncomfortable.

Hank shifted from one foot to the next.

Penny waited him out.

Hank opened his mouth. “Penny…”

“Hank…”

He scratched the side of his head, his eyes dropping to the floor. And was that a blush working its way up his neck?

“I know we don’t know each other very well.”

Penny nodded.

“But you mean a whole lot to Maggie.”

“We’re sisters,” Penny stated simply. And they were.

“Yeah. And she really values your opinion, you know, and—”

Spit it out, Penny thought impatiently.”

“I want to marry her, Penny.”

Whoa.

“Marry her?” Penny sputtered. She hadn’t been expecting that.

“I’ve come here today to ask for your permission.”

“Permission?”

“I think she’d want that.” Hank cleared his throat. “Actually, I’m positive she’d want that. Your blessing—well, like I said, you mean a lot to her.”

“You want to marry Maggie?” Penny repeated.

“I love her.” There was no doubt about it now, Hank’s face was red.

“But—” Penny shook her head. “Give me a second here please. I’m just—this is such a surprise!”

Without warning, Hank nabbed the seat opposite Penny. She had a feeling his legs wouldn’t hold out on her much longer anyway.

“I know we haven’t been together for very long.”

Penny nodded silently.

“But—I’m sure.”

“And Maggie, how does she feel?”

“I haven’t talked to her about it. I came to you first.”

Penny was oddly touched. Still… “It is awfully quick. You’ve only been together for, like…”

“Seven months.”

“Well. Yeah.” Her voice was skeptical.

Hank sighed. “The thing is…”

Penny shook her head. “I mean, marriage—”

“I’m losing her, Penny.”

“What?” Penny was fast losing the thread of this conversation.

Hank waved his arms around furtively. “The church. Her position there. It’s, ah, put a toll on our relationship.”

“Oh.” This old thing again.

“At least, that’s what she thinks.”

“She lives in the proverbial fishbowl of practice what you preach.”

“Has she talked to you much about it then?”

Penny shrugged. “Yeah. She has.”

“And?”

“And what?”

Hank looked disgusted. “Did she tell you she was planning on talking to the council—asking them for permission to basically date me?”

Penny nodded slowly. “She did.”

Hank pounded his palm down on the tabletop. “Like they should get to decide? Pfft. Are they God?”

Penny could do nothing but shake her head. “I couldn’t agree with you more there.”

“She’s a person just like anyone else.”

“She shouldn’t have to defend her private life.”

“No more than anyone else.”

“Well…” Penny bit her lip. “But like I said—she’s got that whole ‘practice what you preach’ thing to follow. And then there’s the issue of a moral clause—though I’m not sure if that’s actually written anywhere in the bylaws, but she certainly seems to think so.”

Hank looked defeated. “Yup. She said it was the only way. She’ll have to talk to them, discuss the situation.” His lip curled. “I don’t mind her talking to the congregation about her personal life—”

“That’s a relief,” Penny felt obligated to say. “From what I hear, she does it constantly. You’d better get used to it now—”

“But there’s a line. She acts like she’s not free to have one without their say-so.”

“Especially her dating life.”

“Yeah.”

Penny was starting to get the picture. “Unless, of course, she got married. Is that it? Then she’d be off the hook to live her private life, um, privately?”

Hank’s face flushed.

“So that’s why.”

“Why what?”
“The sudden rush toward the altar.”

Hank shrugged. “I would have asked her anyway.”

“Just not quite this soon had it not been for all that.”

“I guess,” Hank mumbled.

“Hank…”

“She’s distancing herself from me. I can feel it.” Hank ran a rough hand through his hair. “Okay, so I don’t think we should have to grovel at anyone’s feet just to hold hands, but it doesn’t mean I don’t understand the responsibility she welds to the community…”

“And all the fringe conditions that go along with it,” Penny muttered.

“Exactly!” Hank insisted vehemently. “I just think there should be a limit.”

“Okay.”

“But no matter what I say, she seems convinced that I’ll eventually leave her. That I’ll grow tired of it all.”

Penny nodded. “Bracing for the inevitable.”

“I can’t get through to her.”

“Self-fulfilling prophecy.”

“Yeah. I guess.”

“Will you? Get tired of it?”

Hank laughed. “Probably. But I’ll never leave her.”

“Fair enough.”  Penny took a deep breath. “Still. That doesn’t sound like the best reason to get married—”

Hank looked affronted. “I’m doing it to save us!”

“Yeah. I know.” Penny looked sad. “But that’s just it. Marriage shouldn’t be used to save a relationship much like children shouldn’t be used to save a marriage.”

“You’re twisting it.”

“Maybe.”

“I love her. I want to spend the rest of my life with her.”

Penny smiled. “Yeah?”

“Yeah and—and if I don’t do something quick I won’t be able to. She’ll push me right out the door.”

Penny considered this.

Hank rubbed a hand down his face. “This isn’t going the way I planned.”

“Conversations with me rarely go the way anyone planned.”

Hank looked up at Penny. “It wouldn’t be—I want you to understand I wouldn’t be marrying her because of the church.”

“I didn’t think that was the case, but that’s good to kn—”

Hank continued doggedly. “I mean, I’m not doing it for the…ah,” he coughed. “For the ah, um…”

“Conjugal purposes?”

Hank blushed. “That either.”

Penny patted him softly on the shoulder. “Yeah. I know.”

“So what do I do?”

“Wait.”

“Wait?”
Talk to her,” Penny said. “Tell her what you told me just now. I promise you, she’ll stop running. And if she doesn’t, I’ll duck-tape her to a chair long enough to at least hear you out. You were willing to marry her just to keep dating her. That says something.”

Hank laughed begrudgingly. “Yeah. Probably that I’m a fool.”

“A fool who’s in love.”

Hank coughed.

“She’s lucky to have someone who cares so much.”

Hank looked acutely uncomfortable. “She’s a good woman.”

“One of the best.” Penny fixed him with her gaze. “You really want to marry her?”

“I do.”

“That’s all I really need to know then, isn’t it?”

Hank smiled tightly. Then, with a hesitant movement, he gained his feet. “Well. I best be going. But, um, thanks,” he mumbled, his arms gesturing emptily: “for the…well, for whatever this was. I’ll talk to her.”

“I’m glad I could help,” Penny said, smiling after him as he made it toward the door. Perhaps he wasn’t so bad after all.

“Oh, and Hank,” she called out as his hand reached toward the curtain. He glanced back at her. “About my blessing…”

“Yeah?”

“Ask me for it again in a few months,” Penny told him quietly. “I’m pretty sure you’ll like my response.”

Hank smiled. “I’ll hold you to it.”

“Bye.”

“Goodbye Penny.”

 

 

 

Leaning back against her chair, once Hank had finally left, Penny felt a smile inking out across her lips. Maybe it wasn’t so bad, that everybody just kept showing up here.

Hank wanted to marry Maggie.

Because Penny had believed him when he said that he loved her, that he wanted to spend his life with her—that it wasn’t for the church that he’d come asking (if perhaps her position within its walls had been the reason he’d come asking now.)

Hank wanted to be with Maggie. That’s what was most important. Wedding or not, he wanted her.

Feeling oddly emotionally in the wake of her conversation with Hank, Penny almost reached for her phone to call Kate. Only Kate was on the way to Coventon with Janessa. Wincing a little, Penny wondered how the trip was going. According to her calculations, the girl’s should be arriving in town any time now.

That only left Maggie. And obviously she couldn’t talk to her about it.

Squirming in her seat, Penny felt her glee blossom.

Maggie was going to get her happily-ever-after. Penny couldn’t think of anyone who deserved it more. She wasn’t quite sure when it had happened but, Penny could no longer imagine her life with M.T. in it. For so long she’d tried to fight it, afraid that she’d get hurt again, abandoned again.

But there it was: Penny loved Maggie. Desperately. Forever.

There it was: despite all her efforts to the contrary, Penny had let Maggie back in. And now that she had, Penny knew she’d never let her out again.

She supposed it was true, what they say: that ex step-sisters make for the best kind of family.

With a contented sigh, Penny folded her arms over her stomach. Everything was finally coming together. Kate had Jackson. Maggie and Hank. And Penny had…

Frowning, Penny straightened slowly in her chair.

Who did she have?

For the first time Penny wondered at the flash of jealousy, almost instantly squashed, that squeezed at her chest: Kate and Jackson. Maggie and Hank. Kate and Jackson. Maggie and Hank.  Penny and nobody.

Zip. Zilch. Nada.

“Well that’s quite enough of that,” Penny scolded herself, frowning so deeply that creases formed around her mouth. “I’ll have none of that, cry baby.” She nodded sharply. “I’m happy for Kate and Maggie. Incredibly. Sincerely. They both deserve everything they’re getting.”

But the words rang a bit hollowly in her mouth.

It was true—Penny was happy for them—only it wasn’t the whole truth;

no matter how many times she told herself it didn’t matter, that it shouldn’t matter, Penny still felt a little sad, bereft…alone at the thought of what Kate and Maggie had.

Because Penny couldn’t share in it.

Because she desperately wanted it.

Because she didn’t have it.

Penny wouldn’t take their joy away for anything in the world, but she also couldn’t deny a longing to be in their place…

 

 

 

“Hello?”

“Hey. Hi.” A slight pause. “It’s Penny.”

“Yeah. I know. What’s up?”

“You doing anything tonight?”

“Uh. No—”

“Want to?”

A quiet chuckle. “With you?”

“Well, who else?”

“Yeah. What did you have in mind?”

“I don’t care as long as there’s booze involved.”

“Everything okay?” A note of concern wove its way into the conversation.

Penny laughed. It had a smoky, deep sound. “It will be after about four tequila sunrises.”

The other end of the line went silent for a moment. “I’ll pick you up in an hour.”

“Make it half an hour and we’re good.”

Jake grinned. “Half an hour then.”

“’Kay. Bye.”

 

 

 

 

It took three pints of a local IPA and one unfortunate tequila shooter, but finally Penny was feeling no pain. Squinting across the small round bar table at Jake, she grinned. Three empty glasses and two shooters lay scattered on the hardtop between them.

“You want to tell me what’s going on?” Jake shouted across the din. A live band was just starting up their second set.

Leaning closer, so he could hear her, Penny was forced to shout: “Nothing.” She waved her hand dismissively. “Really, I’m fine.”

Jake smiled. “Well, sure, you are now. But that’s hardly fair.”

Penny giggled. “It’s your fault. You ordered the last round.”

“You threatened bodily harm if I didn’t.”

Penny pouted. “I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Jake gave her a level look, not bothering to get distracted. “Come on, Penny. What’s up?”
“Nothing—”

“It’s not nothing.”

Penny shrugged. “It’s embarrassing. Stupid, really.”
“It’s not stupid to me.”

Penny blinked. “Why not?”

Jake faltered. “Because you’re my friend.”

“Yup. Got lots of those lately.”

“And that’s a problem?”

“No—”

“But?”

“But—don’t you ever feel, I don’t know, lonely?”

Jake lifted his drink slowly to his mouth. “Yeah. Sure.”

“I know it’ll pass but it’s just hard. Seeing everyone else falling in love.”

“I get that.”

“First it was Kate and Jackso—!” Slapping a hand over her mouth, eyes clamping shut, Penny felt something close to horror steal over her body. Then self-hatred. How could she have let that slip?

Opening frightened eyes, Penny forced herself to look up at Jake. He seemed frozen, his glass still halfway to his lips.

“Oh Jake!” Penny felt like an ass. “Oh God. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry—I-I don’t know what I was thinking…” Penny cried, frantically now. “I just—I’m drunk…Please don’t pay any attention to what I’m say—”

“It’s okay, Penny,” Jake said, placing his glass down on the table now. “I knew already. Kate told me.”

“She did?”

“Yeah. A few days ago.”

“Oh.” Penny nodded. “You didn’t tell me that.”

“Well, clearly I didn’t need to,” Jake pointed out.

“Right.” Penny nodded. “Are you—are you okay?”

Jake shrugged. “If you can believe it, I was kind of relieved.”

“You were?” Penny felt her face go blank. What?

Jake smiled down at his beer. “Yeah.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Yeah. That’s kind of what I’m afraid of.” With a quick motion he brought his beer back up to his lips. Three long swallows and he’d emptied it. “Want to get another round?”

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Forty-Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is everything all right?” Penny asked then.

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey Mags…”

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

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

“Oh.”

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

God, Penny will be over the moon.

 

 

 

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

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

Penny smiled at her reflection.

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

Penny dropped her eyes from the mirror.

Yeah. She supposed it did.

Jake and Kate.

She’d get used to it.

She’d learn to love it.

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

Kate. “Hey.”

Penny. “Hi.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kate wished for the radio.

 

 

 

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

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

“Cheers,” Kate said weakly.

“Ditto,” Penny said shyly.

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

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

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

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

“Is what it?” M.T. asked innocently.

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

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

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

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

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

M.T. bit her lip.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course I am…”

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

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

“Oh, shut up Penny.”

“No, you shut up.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh believe it, babe.”

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

“What?”

“Wait. Hank?”

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

“What are you talking about?”

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

Kate’s brow furrowed.

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

“Ew.”

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

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

M.T. “Had sex?”

Penny.“Yeah.”

M.T. “Yeah.”

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

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

Penny scowled. “What’s a while?”

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

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

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

“What did you say?” Kate asked softly.

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

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

“I know.”

“And all this time…?”

“All this time.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes and no…”

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

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

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

“Maybe. Maybe not.”

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

M.T. blinked. “What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wow,” Kate whispered.

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

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

“Okay?”

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

Penny smiled. “Oh yeah.”

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

“That’s why we’re here.”

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

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Forty-One

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

Penny just managed not to frown.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jake laughed. “Yeah. That thing.”

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

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

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

“Most of the time.”

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

Oh god.

“Yeah,” Penny drawled. “I did.”

“And Kate told you what happened…?”

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah.” So that was it.

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

“What? Where?”

“At Jackson’s.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nothing.”

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

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

“Yes.”

Jake looked impatient. “Okay?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jake felt his stomach twist.

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

“Kate?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I am.”

“Then act like it.”

“Okay.”

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

Jake nodded silently.

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

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

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

“Yeah, I noticed,” Jake joked.

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

“Yes you do.”

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

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

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

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

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

Jake. “No. Probably not.”

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

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

Penny grinned.

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

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

“I hope so,” Jake said.

Penny smiled tightly, unnaturally.

“I really like her Penny.”

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

Phil 2.0.

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

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

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

Eh.

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

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

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

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

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

Which, it turns out was terrible advice.

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

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

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

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

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

A feeling of guilt owed entirely to Penny.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No more flirting. No more maybes.

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

 

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Twenty-Eight

Hobbling carefully, her arms sturdy against the uncomfortable padding of her crutches, Kate made her way slowly into her kitchen. The soft click of the front door closing behind M.T.’s reluctant form ringing from the hall, Kate frowned. She was hungry. She hadn’t realized just how hungry when she’d more-or-less pushed the hovering pastor out the door; in retrospect, she should had her stay just a little while longer…but then again, if Maggie suspected Kate couldn’t even so much as make dinner she never would’ve agreed to leave Kate to her own devices.

Propping her body up against the counter, Kate fumbled a frying pan out from the cupboard. Eggs and toast. That’s what she’d make herself. Eggs and toast were easy, even for a woman with a sprained ankle. Plugging in her toaster oven, Kate spent the next few minutes fumbling about, gathering the required ingredients: milk, bread, eggs, butter, cheese…

Placing a skillet on the stovetop, Kate smiled wistfully. It had been quite a day. Sure, her ankle throbbed, but having Jake carry her out of the LitLiber, a look of frantic concern etched across his face had almost been worth it….

It had happened that morning, during the first hour of her shift at the bookstore. It was Thursday, and like all Thursdays, it saw the staff busily re-stocking shelves with new arrivals, preparing for a busy weekend. And that’s exactly what Kate had been doing, her arms loaded down with science-fiction novels, when she’d stumbled over the edge of a step-stool.  It shouldn’t have been left there, the small step forgotten by an employee who, doing likeminded work as Kate, had been called away suddenly to help a customer.

Tripping hard, one moment Kate was walking quickly across the aisle way and, the next, she was being flung headfirst across the carpeted expanse before her, the books in her hands flying in any direction (some landing with a solid thump against her splayed body there). She’d tried to catch herself, her fingers reaching out for the ledges of the bookshelves, but to no avail. Stunned, for a moment, she’d just lain there, catching her breath.

Her fall had made quite boom of noise and, before she’d even regained the energy to gain her feet, Kate was looking up at Jake, who’d rushed over from his position behind the Customer Service Desk as the riotous sound.

“Jesus, Kate, are you okay?” he asked, bending down on his knee to brush off the bits of books enveloping her. “What happened?”

Kate pulled herself into a seated position. Her butt hurt. Her legs ached. Her foot, however, was all but howling in reaction to this. Grimacing, she hid the evidence of this as best she could. The embarrassment surrounding her—half the staff by this point was circled in witness to her fall—she didn’t have room to focus upon her physical woes.

“I-I tripped,” she said, pointing to the offensive article as she did so. The answering scowl on Jake’s face was fierce.

“Who left this here?” he demanded of the gawking staff. Clearly, someone was about to get their ass chewed.

Kate hadn’t meant to do that. Holding up her hand, she cut him off there. “No, no, it was my fault. I wasn’t looking were I was going. I had too many books in my hands.”

Slowly Jake rotated his gaze back to hers. “Are you okay?” he asked. The anger from just a second again was replaced with a look of genuine concern.

Kate nodded dumbly. She wished everyone would just return to work and leave her to her mortification. “Yes, I’m fine. Really, it was stupid. Sorry for all the ruckus,” she tried to say.

Jake nodded. “All right.” With that he gained his feet. Holding out his hand to her, he added: “Let me help you up.”

Placing her hand in his, Kate was unceremoniously hauled to her feet. Her left boot had barely made contact with the floor, however, when her face blanched. And, before she could help it, a soft cry of pain shot forth from her mouth. Just as quickly as she’d been brought to her feet, Kate felt her body drop back to the floor. She couldn’t stand.

“Kate?” Jake asked, squatting down beside her. “What’s wrong?”

Kate shook her head emphatically. If she just ignored it, refused to allow it to have hold over her… “Nothing. Nothing’s wrong. Just give me a moment.”

“Is it your foot?” Jake asked suspiciously.

Too late, Kate realized that she’d been unconsciously cradling the throbbing thing against the palm of her hand. Tears pricking against her eyes, Kate nodded in defeat. “Yeah, it’s a little sore from the fall, I guess.”

“Can I take a look at it?” Jake asked, his hand already reaching out to gently take hold of it. Slipping off her shoe, followed shortly by her sock, Jake bent down to examine the swollen, bruised limb in his hands.

Considering the state of her injury (discoloration, inflammation, tenderness), his next words weren’t all that surprising. Kate needed to see a doctor. Immediately.

“It’s probably just a sprain,” Kate had wailed when Jake ordered Jackie, the store supervisor, to bring his car around to the front of the building.

Jake threw her a dark look. “Oh? I’m sorry, I hadn’t realized you’d graduated with a medical degree.”

“I haven’t…”

“No? Then maybe we should leave such diagnoses to someone who has.”

“Jake, really, I’ll be just fine. I don’t want to go to the doctor’s office.”

To this churlish plea, Jake didn’t bother answering. “Put your arms around my neck,” he said instead.

And, despite herself, Kate felt a thrill at the hot demand. Snaking her arms around either side of his shoulder, her trembling fingers clasped one another at his nape. Still, she had her pride…

“Satisfied?” she asked sarcastically, the purpose meant to disguise the reaction his proximity was costing her. Breath trapped in her throat, Kate felt the impact of his own hands curling around her body—the right wrapped around her back, the left cupped underneath her knees. He hugged her close against his chest.

“Exceedingly,” Jake grunted as he gained his feet, his arms tight against her captive body.  With that, he lead her out of the building, his movements followed by every pair of eyes in that stupid bookstore.

 

 

 

Jake’s obvious concern as he drove her to the hospital, his gaze as frequently on her pained expression as it was on the road, was nothing compared to the reaction she received an hour later when, exiting the doctor’s private consulting room for the waiting area, her steps awkward with the aid of the foreign crutches, her eyes landed on the agitated movements of M.T. and Penny.

Oh God.

She’d barely made it halfway across the floor when they advanced on her.

“Kate?” Jake’s voice was soft, questioning.

“I knew it! I had a bad feeling this morning…a black premonition. I should have listened to it. I blame myself,” Penny all but swooned, her wrist draped dramatically over her forehead.

“How are you feeling?” Always the pastor, M.T. looked almost mothering.

The questions, barreling one after the other, hit Kate with the force of affectionate and frankly humbly, worry.

“Jake called us right after you’d been admitted,” Penny said, shooting him an appreciative look. “We got here as soon as we could.” It seemed important to Penny that Kate know this.

“You poor thing, does it hurt much?”

“I’m so sorry Kate. I feel responsible for this,” Jake interrupted, running a hand through his unruly hair.

“I took a personal day from work, so I’ll be able to take you home and get you all set up,” M.T. said, rubbing a hand against Kate’s back soothingly.

It was all just a little too much.

Holding up her hand, Kate pushed her voice forward: “Guys! Calm down. It’s just a sprained ankle.” The look she shot Jake echoed the soft strains of an “I Told You So” comeback.

“It could have been worse,” he groaned.

Kate stopped him right there. “But it’s not,” she assured him. “Jake please don’t—accidents happen.”

Penny made a tsking sound. “Accidents are merely portals of divine will.”

Kate screwed up her face—what?

M.T., giving Penny and Jake a pointed look, laughed gently: “Forgive us, Kate. We don’t mean to be overbearing. We were just worried. Still are, in fact.”

Kate nodded solemnly, gratefully. Her hand reached out to clasp that of her dear friend’s. “I know. Thank you for that.”

Jake shook his head, as if still not appeased. “Whatever you need Kate, just say the word. Okay?”

Kate smiled gently. He did look upset. “Just a couple days of rest, according to my doctor.”

“And rest you’ll get, even if it means I’ll have to sit on you!” Penny threatened, ever the theatric.

“I’m sure that won’t be necessary,” Kate returned drily.

“Do you have school today? Would you like me to call any of your professors, explain what happened?”

Kate blanched at M.T.’s question, unused to all the attention. Her own mother wouldn’t have asked that.

“Uh, no. I don’t have school on Thursdays,” she said. Frowning she considered that though she might not have classes that day, she would the following one and it would involve multiple flights of stairs.  Blocking the unnerving thought, Kate figured she had time to figure that out yet. Either way, M.T. was not calling the college on her behalf. Kate might not walk well, but her ability to speak hadn’t yet deserted her.

“Okay. Good.” M.T. nodded firmly, a woman in charge of her domain. “Let’s get you home then.” The words didn’t brook any argument. Kate was expected to meekly compel.

Taking his cue, Jake hooked a thumb over his shoulder toward the parking lot, signaling his intent to depart, as well. “Yeah, I should probably get back to the store. You’re sure you don’t need anything?” he asked again, his voice beseeching.

“I’m fine,” Kate assured him again. “Really.”

“But, you’ll call if…?”

“I’ll call,” Kate lied. She absolutely would not call Jake if she needed help with anything. That would be the epitome of humiliation. Kate McDonald was a burden to no man. (Penny and M.T. on the other hand….)

Besides, a small mean little voice in the back of her head piped in, wasn’t Jake the one who’d called in the cavalry? Not a stupid man, Jake had to have known that doing so would effectively rid him of further ‘Kate Duty’. Probably, he was anxious to wipe his hands of the whole mess, conscience cleared by the presence of her newfound caretakers—caretakers he’d seen to himself, caretakers he wasn’t numbered amongst.

Dismissing the thought as ungrateful, Kate offered him a last line of farewell before turning her attention back to Penny, who was going on and on about the dark energy which surrounded hospitals.

“We should probably get you out of here while it’s only a sore ankle,” she insisted, her eyebrows arched comically. “It’s almost a full moon. Energy has increased power during that cycle.”

Somehow Kate refrained from rolling here eye.

 

 

 

Penny hadn’t been able to stay at Kate’s long. She had a meditation session scheduled for three o’clock that afternoon and, though she’d oscillated back and forth between canceling, neither M.T. nor Kate would hear of it. The psychic needed every paying customer she could fine. Plus, Kate had explained, with some exasperation, it was only a sprained ankle. She wasn’t an invalid or anything! M.T., on the other hand, had been a little more difficult. If Kate hadn’t insisted on some alone time—she’d promised to use the time to rest, keep her foot elevated, take a nap, anything to persuade Maggie— she doubted the pastor would have left her at all.

Now, standing over her stove, spatula in hand as she scrambled the eggs, Kate began to regret her hasty decision to be left unaccompanied. For one thing, bereft of her usual mobility, she wasn’t sure how she’d pass the night. Clicking through one television show after another held little appeal and just the thought of sitting down over homework was enough to send her yawning… Conversation with Maggie would have passed the time nicely. For another, cooking was proving slow-going and less then efficient.

It was her pride, Kate knew, reaching clumsily for the milk. She hated the thought of putting anyone out, for any reason. She hated knowing her situation would prove an inconvenience to someone else…that she’d been a drain on someone’s generosity. Most especially though, she despised the notion that she was weak, lacking in some way. So she’d asked to be left alone. And that was that.

Kate was still deep in these thoughts when the buzzer on her toaster oven went off. Startled from her reverie Kate jerked, the action sending one of her crutches out from under her arm, spinning across the floor. Clanking hard against the hardwood there, it landed with a whack, just out of her reach. The fingers of one hand gripping the lip of the counter, Kate was forced to shimmy forward as best she could, closer to the fallen object. Moving with two crutches was tough. One was damn near impossible.

The buzzer sounded again.

Desperate—the toast could be smelt burning—Kate used the length of the crutch she still possessed in attempts to recover its missing counterpart. Putting this leverage to good use, she tried to hook the cushioned rubber tip of the one crutch against the adjustable hand grip of the other, in attempts to bridge this divide. She’d just about done it but, in her haste, Kate’s hand flinched, inadvertently sending the prop even farther away. Crying in frustration, she tried again, her body leaning precariously forward…!

By the time Kate had regained her crutch, the toast was past the point of no return and worse, the smoke detector had gone off. And so, college notebook in hand, Kate soon found herself standing impatiently beneath the wailing alarm, her hand waving frantically to clear the haze circulating the room. The eggs, frying forgotten on the stove, had hardened beyond consumption by this point; in consequence, small wisps of grey vapors spiraled up from underneath the pan there, floating toward the ceiling. Kate was too busy to notice.

That’s when the knock sounded at the door.

Sighing impatiently, Kate was almost glad for the disruption. It was probably Penny, finished with her client. Thank god. Kate could use a little help here. Unwilling to leave her station, Kate called out loudly, when the rapping at the door only continued to intensify in volume: “Just come in already. Doors open.”

Only, it wasn’t Penny who answered back. It wasn’t Penny who, bidden entrance, came

trudging up the split entryway, her voice fighting to be heard above the din: “Is everything all right in there?”

Kate cringed, her stomach dropping. No, it definitely wasn’t Penny at the door. It was Anne Ganthy. Kate could pick her querulous voice out of a crowd.

“Just peachy!” Kate hollered back, her own voice dripping with distain. Please go away. Please go away.

“Well!” Anne huffed, sailing into view then, “how rude! Your alarms have been going off for quite some time…do you have any idea how loud and irritating—what are you doing?” she accused, stopping abruptly at the sorry sight before her. Kate, wobbling against the kitchen chair, her bandaged foot dangling off to one side, looked anything but composed.

Composure wasn’t really any option anyway. By this point, the excess smoke had spilled out from the kitchen into the living room and downstairs bathroom, coating the main floor in a fine mist. Kate’s battle against the detector had failed. Instead of just one, now three alarms, from each respective room, were a-singing. Hence, Anne’s apparent desire to drop in.

Kate growled. “I’m doing the best I can here,” she shouted, her overwhelming frustration leaving no room for manners or niceties. “You want silence? Then start fanning!”

“Oh for goodness sakes,” Anne cried, marching over to the kitchen window. Cracking it open, it was then she noticed that the stove was still on, and the enamel frying pan, lying negligently against one of the burners, was melting from overexposure.

Watching her neatly dispose of this fire hazard, Kate grimaced.

“Well get done from there,” Anne demanded then, after relocating the demolished skillet onto a safe surface, turning her attention toward Kate once more. “Before you hurt yourself more than it seems you already have.”

Mute, Kate followed this order. It seemed pointless to argue.

“I’m going to open some more windows, try to get some fresh air in here,” Anne informed her, scuttling off without so much as a by-your-leave.

Steering herself back to the counter, Kate took the liberty of seeing to the toaster oven. The contents inside had to be scraped out. She was in the process of doing this when Anne came back. The smoke detectors had since silenced themselves and, with the cool breeze of the afternoon wafting throughout the house, the room was soon cleared of the cloudy residue her disastrous attempt at dinner had created.

Head hanging low, Kate addressed Anne. “I’m very sorry to have disturbed you. I-I sprained my ankle this afternoon…”

“And lost your ability to cook along the way?” Anne asked crossly.

Kate shrugged. “I hadn’t realized how much it’d hamper the process.”

“Humph.” Anne didn’t look to be in a forgiving mood. Nothing unusual there.

“I know how much you value your peace and quiet….”

“That’s right I do. I’ve almost forgotten what that’s like, since you’ve moved to town,” that woman acknowledged, her hands on her hips now. Then, reluctantly, she nodded toward Kate’s ankle. “What did you do to yourself anyway?”

“I tripped at work this afternoon. It’s nothing serious.”

“Apparently it’s the reason you almost burnt your house down just now. I’d say that’s serious.” Anne wasn’t going to give so much as an inch.

“I’ll order take-out from now on. I promise.”

“Humph,” Anne said again. “That’s no way to eat.”

Kate didn’t have any response to this.

“I’m making chicken parmesan for supper. It’s nothing fancy but it’s isn’t scorched either.” Anne’s face puckered with obvious discomfort.

Kate tilted her head to one side. Was that an invitation? “Oh?”

Anne huffed. “I eat promptly at 6:00pm. Shall I set the table for two?”

Kate could hardly believe her ears. “That’s very kind of you—”

Anne waved Kate’s words aside uneasily. “Simply sparing myself the trouble of standing guard outside your house with a fire extinguisher.”

Kate hid a smile. Behind that crotchety scowl beat the heart of a woman who had, at least a smidge of, kindness inside her. Besides, Kate had the feeling Anne was a good cook. And hadn’t she only just been thinking how nice it would be to have a little conversation….

“Six is perfect. Thank you.”