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

The echo of the dial tone from her call with Jackson still ringing in her ears, Kate knew immediately what she had to do. Grabbing for the phone again, she quickly punched in a number she knew by memory….

“Hello, Madame Penny’s House of Intuition—”

“Penny,” Kate said breathlessly, “I need to talk to you.”

“Sure.”

“But not on the phone,” Kate insisted. “I need to talk to you in person.”

“This sounds serious.”

“It is,” Kate stumbled. “Well. I mean, it’s not like an emergency or anything. At least, I don’t think so—”

“Kate, what’s going on?”

“Can I come by the shop? Are you available at all today?”

Penny took a moment in answering. “Uh. Sure. I have a client coming at noon, but—”

Kate glanced up needlessly at the microwave clock in her kitchen. She knew what time it was. 9:06 a.m.

“Great. I’ll be there in ten minutes.”

 

 

 

“I had a feeling you’d be early,” Penny said dryly, seven minutes later, when the curtain marking the entrance to her store was pushed hurriedly aside. Kate hadn’t bothered to knock or announce her presence—which was just as well, because two cups of coffee were already set out expectantly upon the oak tabletop taking over the majority of Penny’s space.

Hair falling anyhow down her back in her rush, Kate’s appearance left something to be desire. A pair of tattered jeans and a loose-fitting green shirt thrown anyhow over her person, she nodded in greeting, before quickly taking a seat.

Penny, on the other hand, looked cool and composed, a blue patterned caftan draped elegantly over her person—smoky gray eye-shadow expertly applied to give her that ‘mysterious’ look.

“Now, to what do I owe the pleasure?”

Kate didn’t mince her words. “I need to talk to you.”

“Yeah, I kind of got that impression,” Penny returned, seemingly unperturbed by Kate’s briskness. “Please, drink. You look like you could use it.” With a wave of her hand, Penny took in the cup and saucer, a creamer of milk and a basket of sugar.

“Look Penny, you’re my best friend—”

Slightly taken aback by the boldness of this statement, Penny nonetheless glowed at this. “And you’re mine.”

Kate nodded impatiently. “And, well, we tell each other everything.”

“Yeah…”

“At least, we used to.”

Penny frowned. “Used to?”

Kate swallowed, pushing the offended mug of coffee out of her way. “I want to tell you everything.”

“Okay.”

“No secrets.”

“Kate, you’re starting to scare me here.”

“It’s just—there’s something I haven’t told you. Something I really should have, and believe me, I wanted to tell you. I did! Please, don’t think—”

Penny pursed her lips. “You’re getting a bit muddled here, dear.”

“I know.” Kate bit her lip. “It’s just, I’ve never had I friend like you. I don’t ever want to lose you. Only, I thought I had and,” Kate paused. There it was, that thing they weren’t talking about. That stupid fight—the one Kate still wasn’t completely sure was resolved between them.

“Kate, you’re never going to lose me,” Penny assured her.

“But—but I thought… you said you were done with me…”  Kate blurted out.

“Oh Kate, I didn’t mean I was done with you—I was just mad, and….and I said things that I regret.”

“You said there were things I couldn’t talk to you about anymore…” Kate hated the whine that invaded her voice.

“That was wrong of me,” Penny admitted. “I’m sorry. But Kate, I will always be your friend. Please, never doubt that. I may get mad at you, and you’ll undoubtedly get mad at me…”

“We didn’t talk to one another,” Kate clarified.

Penny nodded. “I know. And that was my fault.”

“No, not entirely. You were right, too,” Kate confessed. “I was unwilling to make a decision—spinning in circles between Jake and Jackson. And I’m sorry, because that must have been aggravating…”

Penny smiled. “Friends are honest with one another—even when it hurts. That’s what makes them so powerful, so amazing—and precious.”

“I just don’t want you to be mad at me anymore.”

“I’m not.”

“Well, you may want to table your answer until you hear what I have to say…
“Okay.” Penny waited.

Kate opened her mouth, but the words just wouldn’t come out. “The thing is, something happened—umm, something big. And, it has to do with…ah, with what we were fighting about…”

“I’m with you.”

“You remember that play I did for the LitLiber?”
“Sure. Of course.”

“Well, it was during one of the rehearsals—”

“Yes?”

“And things sort of came to ahead.”

“With the play?”

“No with me and—” Kate blew out a hard breath. “You told me I needed to start making my own decisions. To stop being so wishy-washy, and I heard you. And so I acted. Well, actually it wasn’t me who made the first move, but I did make the second one.” Kate smiled tremulously. “I made the second move and, and that’s what I wanted to talk to you about.”

“About you and Jackson, you mean?” Penny asked innocently.

Kate’s mouth dropped open. “You know about us?”

Penny grinned. “Well, I do now.”
Kate’s mouth snapped back shut. “Oh.”

Penny reached over and grabbed Kate’s closed fingers. “I had my suspicions, I’ll grant you that….”

Kate’s face crumpled. “I’m so sorry I didn’t tell you.”

Penny shrugged. “I understand.”

“No, you don’t!” Kate cried earnestly. “I wanted to tell you. Penny, I was going out of my mind with wanting to tell you.”

“Then why didn’t you?” Penny asked, and for just a second, Kate saw a glimmer of hurt underlining the words.

Kate sighed. “I didn’t know how. It was right after you and me and—and everything that happened at Maggie’s—I was practicing with Jackson and then, suddenly…we kissed.”

“You kissed?”

Kate smiled. “And all I wanted to do was call you and tell you. I knew it would make it all right between us again.”

“Well, I certainly hope that wasn’t why you kissed him…”

“No! No, I kissed him because,” Kate’s voice dropped, taking on a girlish quality. “Because—I had to kiss him. You know what I mean?”

Penny cocked her head to the side. “I think so.”

“…like—every nerve in my body reacted on instinct and I leaned into him.”

Penny grinned. “Yeah?”

“And it was perfect.”

Kate rushed on ahead, her words bubbling up her throat and out of her mouth at tremendous speed. “Only then, just when I was going to tell you about it—we were both going to Maggie’s for dinner and I thought—Now. Say it now. Only…”

“I brought up Jake,” Penny remembered. In retrospect, she could have kicked herself.

Kate sighed. “Yeah.”

“And you thought—”

“Things were so tense between us. I didn’t know how to tell you…”

“That you’d already made your choice,” Penny said. “And it was Jackson.”

Kate ducked her head. “Yeah.”

“Oh Kate,” Penny squeezed her hand. “I’m sorry.”

Kate’s head bobbed up quickly. “For what?”

“For making you feel like you couldn’t tell me everything.”

“I knew you were only trying to be supportive, that you were only encouraging me to make the right decision for me, by giving me permission to have options….”

Penny nodded, careful to keep her face neutral. It wasn’t like she hadn’t seen this coming. She’d had a feeling something was going on with Kate and Jackson. Yesterday’s excursion in the water—she’d seen the way he’d looked at her, the way she’d desperately kept herself from looking at him. She’d added it up and she’d reached the correct number.

Still…before now, she’d been able to pretend. She’d been free to call up Jake with a new scheme or machination, even while some part of her already guessed it was a dead end. She’d been able to push that to the back of her mind—after all it had only been a hunch then, nothing concrete or real— she’d been able to focus instead on finding ways, making up avenues, to keep Jake and Kate close. Hell, she’d faked a sprained ankle for the damned triathlon, knowing all along that she’d have Jake pinch hit for her.

It had been fun, hanging out with her old friend again. Having a reason to call him up, shoot the breeze, meet up for dinner or coffee. It wasn’t like Kate was the only thing they’d talked about, either. In fact, other than those first couple meetings, after Jake had shown up so randomly at Penny’s store, conversation had drifted…. After all, there was only so long someone could talk about Kate’s tone of voice when she mentioned work at LitLiber, or whether she’d brought him up in conversation or whatnot. Pretty soon they’d been talking about their shared experiences as entrepreneurs; they’d reminisced about high school; Jake had regaled Penny with stories about his college days; she’d told him funny stories about psychic work; they’d laughed.

But that would end now. There was no reason to get together anymore. The thread that had brought them together was about to unravel. Jake was bound to know soon enough. And then, what would be the point? It wasn’t like Penny belonged in his circle of friends. No, she’d been on borrowed time with Jake. Always had been

“…Jake was your way of letting me know that no matter what choice I made, it was the right one. Only, at the time, I didn’t understand that. I thought—” Kate laughed, the sound of it bringing Penny back to the present conversation. “Well, it doesn’t matter what I thought. I’m just sorry it took me this long to figure it all out.”

Penny frowned. Kate was making her out to be someone she wasn’t: Altruistic. Selfless. Above reproach. It wasn’t quite true. “Hey,” she said, holding up a hand. “Don’t give me too much praise over here.”

“Why not?” Kate demanded. “You deserve it. You’re a great friend. The best.”

The knot in Penny’s stomach tightened uncomfortably.

“Well, I don’t know about that…”

“You’re not mad? That I didn’t tell you sooner about Jackson?”

Penny considered the question for a moment. “No. I’m not mad. I wish you felt you could have—”

“I do now.”

“I’m really happy for you, Kate.”

Kate blushed, her eyes skirting down demurely. “Thank you.”

“Jackson is one of the kindest, sweetest, most amazing people I know.”

“I’m starting to see that myself.”

A smug sort of smile started to bead across Penny’s features. Leaning back in her chair, she couldn’t stop herself from asking: “So what you’re saying is, I was right all along?”

“I knew you were going to say that!”

“Well, who’s psychic now!”

Kate laughed. “Yes, Penny, you were right.”

Nodding importantly, Penny crossed her arms. “You know, I never tire of hearing that.”

“I’m sure.”

“So perhaps next time, you’ll more seriously heed the advice of a woman with insights into the future?”

Kate glowered playfully. “Are you telling me that you knew I’d end up with Jackson all along? That you had a premonition from the beginning?”

“Would you believe me if I did?”

But Kate only shook her head. “All right, then, tell me this: is Jackson ever going to speak to me again?”

Penny’s smirk dropped off her face. “Come again?”

Kate sighed, and all the playfulness of the last minute melted off her person. With a weary note of self-deprecation, she told Penny about the conversation she’d had with Jackson earlier that morning.

“I thought he’d understand. That he, you know, would at least let me explain,” Kate said in conclusion. “I mean, usually he’s so level-headed, and, and compassionate.”

“Well, is anyone really level-headed when it comes to matters of the heart?” Penny asked.

“He made me out to be some sort of child—slinking around, keeping secrets. He basically accused me of not being one hundred percent committed to this relationship. ”

“Are you? One hundred percent committed?”

“Yes!” Kate paused as the answer popped out of her mouth. Tasting the sound of that one word her tongue, she found it to be absolutely true. “I want to be with him.”

“Maybe it’s time you showed him that.”

Kate snapped backward. “Show him? Wait… are you on his side?”

“Now Kate,” Penny soothed. “It’s not about sides.”

Kate pouted. “It sure feels like it.”

“I’m just repeating what he told you: action over words. That’s what he needs right now. And if the question is, how do you get him to realize you are committed, that you aren’t slinking around, then give the man what he wants. Show Jackson that you’re in this for the long haul, because I don’t think telling him that alone is going to do it.”

Kate slumped in her chair. “I really messed up, didn’t I?”

“Well, Kate put yourself in his position? Would you trust him at his word after yesterday?”

“No. I guess not.”

“Yeah.”

Kate sniffled. “I didn’t mean to hurt him. I didn’t—I didn’t think how it would look. I thought I’d have time to explain myself.”

“I know that.”

Wiping impatiently at her eyes, she asked: “So what do I do?”

“What they always do in a rom-com.”

“And that is?”
“Make a big romantic gesture.”

Kate blew out a breath. “Yeah? You think that will work?”

Penny winked. “Honey, he won’t stand a chance. Believe me, he wouldn’t be so upset with you if he didn’t care a whole lot.”

“Okay. Where do I start?”

Penny smiled. “Oh, I think I may have an idea or two on that…”

 

 

 

Forty minutes later, walking out of Penny’s shop, Kate’s feet took her in the direction of LitLiber; however, she didn’t walk inside the store. No, her feet carried her determinedly beyond its massive double-doors and down the side of building.

For Penny’s plan to work, Kate had to make one quick stop first.

She needed to talk to Jake.

Slowing to a stop halfway past the storefront, Kate looked up. Jake’s apartment was located directly above the bookstore, and accessed by an outside, wrought-iron staircase.

Squinting against the sun, she looked for any glint of light emanating from inside.

Wait. There—a shadow passed in front of one of the windows. He was home.

Good.

Grabbing on to the hand-rail, Kate took a deep breath before propelling her body upward….

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Forty-Nine

So Kate and Penny headed back outside to try it again. Swim Lesson 2.0

Grabbing up their towels, they walked determinedly toward the water’s edge. Staring out at the expanse of water, the tips of their toes lying against the last inches of grass there, Kate heard Penny take a deep breath, and then another. But this time, she wasn’t the only person nervous of wading inside those cool depths. Kate’s stomach clinched.

Because now she knew. She knew just how terrifying a step this all would be for Penny: letting her feet fall against the wet sand, feeling their weight sink against the surface there, letting her body break against the waves, the semi-suffocating texture of water encircling her, touching her—

Kate reached for Penny’s hand again, only this time she didn’t follow the action with a quick step forward. In fact, her fingers entwined tightly with Penny’s, this time she didn’t move at all. So instead, they just stood there, staring out ahead of them, watching the still water, neither moving.

A minute passed. And then another. Tick-tick-ticking…Kate could feel the panic stealing over her person. The confidence she’d felt earlier that afternoon, when she’d shown up like some heroic savior, was absent now, shadowed by the reality of what her presence meant. She didn’t want to screw this up again. She was no longer certain she had the capacity to help Penny…

The sound of feet crunching against the gravel driveway next door, the echo of movement where moments ago there had been only silence, caused Kate’s head to shift reflectively.

Jackson was home. Lost in her own thoughts Kate hadn’t heard the sound of his car approaching, hadn’t listened for the answering hum of an engine dying, a door opening and closing again.

Not until now…

But it was only too obvious that he’d seen them.

“Hey girls,” he called out then, his arm lifted in greet as he walked over to where they were stoically standing. “Doing a little sunbathing?” he asked, that easy smile on his face, his eyes taking in their outfits.

Sidling up to Kate’s left, the side not holding Penny’s hand, Jackson was suddenly much too close—and another kind of panic settled over Kate’s distraught nerves. Dropping Penny’s grip, she quickly skirted to stand in front of her friend. Her eyes avoided Jackson’s entirely. Instead, Kate focused on Penny, whose face seemed to be carved from stone…or ice.

“Actually,” Kate said in answer of his question, though her gaze never once left Penny, her arms folded stiffly in front of her body, “we’re thinking about going for a swim.”

That got Jackson’s attention. Slowly, his head turned to take in Penny; his eyes were soft, compassionate when the psychic slowly tilted her head in his direction.

“Is that true, Pen?” he asked, an odd note in his voice.

Penny nodded. “Yeah. Maybe. I—,” she cleared her throat. Then, with a decisive word, she amended. “Yes.”

And Jackson smiled. A big, sincere, honest-to-goodness grin split across his face. “Atta girl,” he said, his arm coming up to give her a half-hug.

“Well, don’t get too excited yet,” Penny murmured drily. “We haven’t made much progress yet.”

“That’s not true,” Kate countered. “We got in the water earlier…”

“But it didn’t end well,” Penny finished in a self-deprecating manner.

Jackson gave Penny’s shoulder squeeze. “No? What happened?”

“I ran out screaming bloody murder.”

Kate ducked her head in shame.

But Jackson didn’t miss a beat. “But you’re back here, ready to try it again anyway?” he asked, that soft note still there in his voice.

Kate bit her lip. The way he was talking—in that protective, loving way—it made him almost irresistible. She wished he’d knock it off.

“I guess.”

“Well then,” he said slowly, “I’m not just excited. I’m proud of you, too.”

Then Kate could feel Jackson looking at her next, and she’d just bet that look was in his eyes—the one that said he thought she was amazing and beautiful, and that he was proud of her too, that she was a good friend for doing this, yada, yada, yada. She’d seen that particular look before (he’d worn it two nights ago when they’d gone fishing after dark; and the day prior, when she’d made that corny joke; and the time they’d kissed under that tree before the triathlon, it had been out in full wattage then….)—the one he personally seemed to specialize in, that chased all the butterflies loose in her stomach.

That look made her knees weak. That look made her want to throw her arms around him…it made it difficult for her to breathe properly. Suddenly, she wished there was more fabric to her bathing suit. She wished she could shield her body inside that towel lying down by her feet.

If Penny got a hold of that look on his face, if she got even a hint of Kate’s answering response…well, hell, it didn’t dare thinking about.

Staring determinedly at the ground, Kate hunched her shoulders against a pretend chill in the air. “Well I guess—”

“Got any advice?” Penny asked then, cutting over whatever Kate had been about to say.

Jackson seemed to consider this carefully. “I’ve got a couple actually…”

“Shoot.”

“Number one: we should get you a life jacket.”

Kate wanted to smack her hand against her forehead at the words. Well, duh. Of course! She should have thought of that.

“It’ll make you feel safer and that’s a big part of getting comfortable, gaining confidence…”

“Oh.” Penny’s face fell for a moment. “I’m not sure I have any—we used to, but I think I threw them away a few summers ago. They were pretty tattered.”

Jackson dropped his arm from around her shoulders. “No worries. I have a spare. Let me go and get it.”

And once that was done, and Penny was safely suited up, Jackson offered his second piece of advice. “Well, actually, it’s not so much advice as it is a request…?”

“And what’s that?” Penny asked eagerly. Kate hated herself for the smidge of resentment and jealous creeping over her person. Penny hadn’t sounded or looked anywhere near as calm and unaffected as she did now, with Jackson.

Kate was failing miserably.

“Let me help.”

Kate’s head snapped back at the quiet plea. Penny, too, looked startled. “You already have—”

Jackson waved her words away. “I want to be here, I want to watch you beat this. I know how hard it is for you, just being close to the water. And I know why.” He stops to let the intimacy of this statement resonant. I suppose he has a point. “And…I’d really like to help you get this back.”

Penny’s head rotated slowly. “Kate?” she asked quietly, nervously, waiting for permission.

Kate smiled at her friend, and she swallowed her pride. “I think that sounds like a great idea.” Then, rising her eyes to Jackson, she smiled flatly, in what she hoped was a casual, friendly sort of way. “Thank you. I’m sure we’d appreciate all the help we could get.”

And then, they were each holding on to one of Penny’s hands, with an absolute promise from each they’d let go it she asked, or panicked, or felt like she needed to run away. Slowly, with Jackson talking the quiet lead, they walked out into the water, just up to their ankles. After each step Jackson would stop, tell Penny to breathe, let her body relax, absorb the water—the feel of it playing against her skin. He’d wait until she felt fully in control before moving forward. It took a long time, but finally he had Penny in as far as mid-thigh…

“Well, how do you feel?”

Penny considered the question for a moment. “I feel fine. But that probably has a lot to do with you and Kate being beside me.”

Jackson chuckled. “Fair enough. But what about if Kate and I let go?”

Penny’s face whitened, her fingers tightening….

“No, no, no—” Jackson said, as though he’d read her thoughts. “I’m not talking about you going out on your own. I’m saying, right here, right where we are now, can you stand on your own and feel okay? It’s absolutely fine if the answer is no Penny. This isn’t a test, I’m just trying to gauge your reaction…”

Penny wiggled her toes against the sandy bottom. “We won’t go any further out?”

“No. Not unless you want to.”

“And you’ll give me your hand back if I want it?”

“Without question.”

Then, slowly, inch by inch, she let go of Jackson and Kate’s grip. Her arms stayed out, angled at her sides, as though to keep her equilibrium. For a second no one spoke, and then Penny lowered her arms.

“Yes.”

Kate breathed a sigh of relief.

Penny lit up like a Christmas tree. Or a firework.

Jackson took a couple careful steps backward, making sure to keep himself perfectly parallel to Kate and Penny. “Okay,” he called. “Can you walk from Kate to me? It’s a straight line, and I promise you’re not going any deeper in the lake.”

Penny took a deep breath. “Okay,” she said. Slowly she moved toward Jackson.

“You did great!” he cried, once she’d reached him. “Do it a couple more times, Penny. Get comfortable. Let your body adjust to the feel of water on your legs. Don’t worry about your arms right now,” he rushed to say, when the words began trembling out of Penny’s mouth. “We’ll save that for another day.”

“Another day?” Penny blinked.

Jackson smiled. “Yeah. I think we’ve gone in far enough for today. Don’t you, Kate?” He asked, calling the question down the line.

And Kate knew when she’d been licked. As much as she wanted to let Jackson’s take-charge attitude sting her pride, she was also humbled by his approach, grateful for his appearance this afternoon. He was better at this than she was. He was doing it right. And so her pride could go hang.

“Oh yeah. Another day.” She smiled over at Penny, who was making her clumsy way back toward Kate. “Penny, you’re doing so well. So well!”

And so, for the next twenty minutes,  Penny did as Jackson instructed: she moved in the water—back and forth, from side-to-side, her toes curling against the swaying sand, her legs building confidence in the heavy, buffeted water as she circled this small stretch of lake…and she laughed (laughed!) and smiled.

Afterward, Penny insisted that she walk out of the water all by herself (after all, it only got shallower from there on in). Hanging back to watch, Kate felt Jackson cozy up beside her in the water. Out of her peripheral vision, she watched, horror-struck, as his arm came sweeping up, ready to land against her shoulders.

Ducking quickly out of reach, Kate made a shivering motion, her arms quickly going to imprison her body. “Brr!” she called out suddenly, and, rubbing her hands up and down her arms ruthlessly, she scooted out after Penny, who was just then gaining solid ground, her fingers already reaching for the towel ready on the grass there. “Grab mine too, will you Penny?” Kate shouted, her voice breaking out loudly, frantically.

Wrapping the sun-warmed material around her body, Kate kept her voice carefully light. “You did amazing out there today, Penny. Truly amazing.”

Penny blushed. “It wasn’t anything a five year old couldn’t have done.”

“Not true—”

The sudden re-emergence of Jackson, his great strong arms reaching around Penny to engulf her in a gigantic hug, his body lifting hers off the ground in his exuberance, stopped Kate in her tracks.

Penny giggled.

“You! I’m so damned proud…you did it! Look at what you accomplished…” He told a still laughing Penny, whose hands were futilely swatting at Jackson’s shoulders as she pleaded with him to put her back down.

“Stop it, the both of you,” Penny insisted, but there was no denying the sparkle in her eyes, the pride in her smile. “It wasn’t all that much.”

“Yes it was.”

“Don’t be so modest…”

Penny pursed her lips. “Okay,” she relented. “It was kind of huge.”

And Jackson hugged her again, but this time, when he released her, before Kate had time to react, those impossibly strong, masculine arms had engulfed her in a hug.

“We did it, coach!” He said moments before he brought her into his body.

Mumbling incoherently, her arms going slack at her sides, her back poker straight in protest, Kate held her breath, trying not to breath in the scent of his wet skin, not to act on the pull of attraction between their scantily clad bodies…

Training her eyes to some far-off distance, Kate waited stiffly, until finally, she felt his arms drop away. And even though she could sense his eyes on her, could almost feel the insistent magnetism of them drawing her gaze, Kate refused to meet that look. She knew he would be confused, hurt…probably even a little angry at her rejection.

But she wasn’t rejecting him. Not really. It’s just…it was complicated, what with Penny and everything that had gone on with them recently. She and Kate were finally talking again.

They were almost there, back to where they’d been before…they were so close. Too close to muck it all up now.

And if Kate did what she really wanted to do, throw her arms around Jackson’s shoulders and kiss him passionate gratitude, well, muck it up would be too timid a phrase…. She and Penny would be finished. Over.

Because Kate still hadn’t told Penny about Jackson. It wasn’t like she’d meant to keep it a secret. At first, they’d been fighting; and then Penny had started in on her not-so-subtle hints about Jake; add to that Maggie’s lost necklace and…well, the longer Kate went without talking to her, the harder it was to start.

So, backing hurriedly away from Jackson, Kate kept her eyes downcast. A wooden smile etched over her face. And all the while, she wished he’d go away.

Apparently, Jackson read minds, because that’s what he did.

“All right,” he said, taking in Penny’s beaming face. “I’ll leave you two to celebrate this major victory. I’m guessing champagne is in order—”

“Leave us?” Penny asked, clearly oblivious to the tension radiating between Jackson and Kate. “Don’t you want a glass yourself? You were a pretty big factor in all this?”
Jackson smiled. “Another time. Unfortunately, I’ve got a meeting at school this evening.”

“It’s summer…”

Jackson grinned. “Only for a few more weeks. I’ve got a syllabus to get ready, a classroom to prepare, the school calendar to consult….”

Penny sighed dramatically. “Okay. Fine. But I’m holding you to your promise. We’ll celebrate another time. My treat.”

“Deal.”

And then he was gone.

 

 

 

She’d explain everything. He’d understand. She’d explain everything. He’d understand.

This had become Kate’s overnight mantra, as she’d tossed and turned, guilt churning away at her stomach…. What if she’d managed to save her friendship with Penny only to ruin her relationship with Jackson?

A pain so hard it caused her to sit bolt-upright in bed, clenched in Kate’s stomach.

No, no. Jackson would understand.

She’d call him and explain everything. He’d understand.

The next morning, blue smudges under her eyes attesting to her lack of sleep, Kate reached for her phone… Of course he’d understand, this was Jackson, after all.

But when he answered, Kate knew she’d been kidding herself.

“Kate. What’s up?” he asked, no preamble, no welcome. His voice was curt. It was unlike any greeting he’d ever given her before.

Kate straightened her shoulders. Okay, so she’d ruffled his feathers more than she’d thought. That was fine. She could handle this. “Hey…listen, I wanted to talk to you about yesterday—”

“What about it?”

“Uh, well…first of all, I wanted to thank you for helping me with Penny.”

Silence met her words.

Kate cleared her throat. “Right. Well, I-I just, you were really great with her.”

Jackson sighed loudly. “You don’t need to thank me. I’d do anything for Penny.”

“No, I know,” Kate amended quickly. “Of course. I just…”

“Kate, I’m kind of in the middle of something here…” Taking the phone off her ear, Kate stared at the device as though it had sprouted wings. Where was the compassion and softness of yesterday? “Was there anything else—?”

She screwed up the last of her courage. “Yes, actually there was. I wanted to apologize.”

A beat of silence and then, “Okay.”

“It’s just, I’m sorry if I can across a little…” Kate struggled to find the word.

“Cold? Unfriendly? Distant?” Jackson, however, didn’t seem to be having any troubles in that area.

“I don’t know if I’d said that…”

“I would.”

“Oh.”

Jackson sucked in a breath. “Why then?”

“Why?”

“Were you were being so…whatever?” Kate had never heard that particular emotion seep into Jackson’s voice. Hard mockery.

Kate decided on the truth. “Because I haven’t told Penny about us yet, and I didn’t want her to find out that way.”

“Wait—you haven’t told her? Why? I mean, I thought she was your best friend?”

“She is…”

“And?” Jackson’s voice was tight, suspicious.

Kate winced. “It’s sort of difficult to explain…”

“It’s difficult to explain that we’re dating?”

“No, not that—”

“Then what?”

Kate felt her teeth clench. “I—the thing is, Penny and I…”

Jackson made a sound. “Look Kate, I know we haven’t been seeing each other for very long—”

“It’s not what you’re—”

“But I thought we were on the same page,” Jackson said. “We talked about being exclusive, and we spend almost everything evening together—”

“Yes, I know…”

Jackson sighed wearily. “I’m looking for something serious, Kate. I thought you were too.”

“I am.”

“It doesn’t sound like it. And it certainly didn’t seem like it yesterday. I have no interest in juvenile theatrics—hot one day, cold the next…”

“That’s not fair!”

“No? Then why haven’t you told Penny?”

The phone pressed hot against Kate’s ear.

Jackson tried again. “How about Jake? Does he know you’re taken?”

Kate’s mouth went dry. She knew Jake was a sore spot for Jackson.

“I see.”

“I don’t think you do?”

“Then tell me, why the secrecy? If you’re not holding back Kate, then what’s going on?”

“Nothing! That’s what I’m trying to explain,” Kate cried desperately.

“Yeah,” Jackson said quietly. “I’m just not sure I want to listen to you try.”

“Jackson.”

“Actions over words, Kate.”

“Wait—”

She could practically see him shaking his head. “I’ve got to go.”

“Jackson, just wait a minute!

But he’d already hung up.

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Forty-Four

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kate smiled.

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

“Sure.”

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

“Yeah?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah.”
“We kissed.”

“Ah!”

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

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

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

M.T. smiled. “Ah.”

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

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

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

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

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

“No, of course not,” Kate proclaimed.

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

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

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

“Thank you,” Kate whispered.

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

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

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

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

“Yeah?”

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

 

 

 

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

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

No, it was Penny.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You think so?”

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

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

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

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

“Curious?”

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

Penny sighed. Loudly.

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

“Don’t.”

“Don’t what?”

“Don’t nose in on my business.”

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

“An invitation?”

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

“I know.”

The sisters stared at one another.

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

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

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

“Okay. Here it comes…”

“Here what comes?”

“The lecture.”

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

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

“Jake?”
“Yeah.”

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

“I’m not doing that.”

“Right.”

“Right.”

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

“Oh,” Penny said. “Yeah. Sure.”

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

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

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

“What did you talk about?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Why would she?”

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

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

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

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

“You’re third-degreeing me again.”

“You started it.”

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

“Hazards of the trade, I suspect.”

“So?”

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

“Did she?”

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

“Talk about it!”

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

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

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

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

“I said a lot of things.”

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

“Yeah?”

“And what did I say back.”

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

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

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

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

“Traitor.”

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

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

“She is.”

“How do you know?”

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

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

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

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Forty-Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is everything all right?” Penny asked then.

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey Mags…”

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

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

“Oh.”

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

God, Penny will be over the moon.

 

 

 

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

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

Penny smiled at her reflection.

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

Penny dropped her eyes from the mirror.

Yeah. She supposed it did.

Jake and Kate.

She’d get used to it.

She’d learn to love it.

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

Kate. “Hey.”

Penny. “Hi.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kate wished for the radio.

 

 

 

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

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

“Cheers,” Kate said weakly.

“Ditto,” Penny said shyly.

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

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

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

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

“Is what it?” M.T. asked innocently.

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

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

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

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

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

M.T. bit her lip.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course I am…”

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

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

“Oh, shut up Penny.”

“No, you shut up.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh believe it, babe.”

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

“What?”

“Wait. Hank?”

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

“What are you talking about?”

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

Kate’s brow furrowed.

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

“Ew.”

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

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

M.T. “Had sex?”

Penny.“Yeah.”

M.T. “Yeah.”

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

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

Penny scowled. “What’s a while?”

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

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

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

“What did you say?” Kate asked softly.

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

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

“I know.”

“And all this time…?”

“All this time.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes and no…”

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

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

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

“Maybe. Maybe not.”

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

M.T. blinked. “What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wow,” Kate whispered.

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

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

“Okay?”

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

Penny smiled. “Oh yeah.”

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

“That’s why we’re here.”

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

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Thirty-Five

Kate’s knees felt like jelly as she walked the length of the LitLiber bookstore toward the small, multi-purpose room located in the building’s rear. Her hands felt sweaty as her eyes looked searchingly toward the windows overlooking the white-walled room. The blinds were up and she had a clear view of Jackson standing there.

Automatically, her hand went up to brush back her excruciatingly styled hair (and if she were wearing more make-up than usual, and if her attire was a little dressier than was absolutely necessary, Kate chose not to pretend otherwise). Tonight marked the first play rehearsal…and she felt like puking.

Grabbing the doorknob in her damp palms, Kate twisted it, pushing the door open….only it wasn’t just Jackson whose eyes swiveled in her direction. Two other pair followed suit. Stumbling, blinking stupidly, Kate felt her mouth gape open—just who in the hell were they?

“Kate, good you’re here,” Jackson said, his eyes taking her in quickly and then moving away again to settle more firmly on the other two, mysterious occupants in the room. “Let me introduce you,” he said, waving to the man and woman standing composedly beside him. “This is Gary Park and his wife Allison. They’ll also be in the play.”

Kate nodded. “How do you do?” she asked politely, recovering quickly.

“Gar, Allie, this is Kate McDonald,” he said in return.

“Pleasure to meet you,” Allison said. A tall, willowy woman with honey blonde hair, she looked the exact opposite of Kate—coolly composed.

Kate hadn’t counted on there being anyone else in the room. She hadn’t stopped to consider that she might not be the only person in the play; that she might have cast members. She’d been so anxious and nervous, her thoughts so precisely stuck on Jackson, that she’d thought of only him…and her. Him and her. Together. Alone.

Jackson smiled, handing over a script to Kate. “Now that we’re all here, let’s talk a bit about logistics…”

Kate tried to listen as he prattled on about schedules, staging and blocking, and showtimes, but it was no use. She was too preoccupied with not looking directly at Jackson, not looking consciously disappointed, or interested, or anything…she needed to appear low-key, chill. Totally unfazed. She was too busy trying to look like she was paying attention to actually be doing that.

“…and we’ll end the performance by inviting the kids to circle around for LitLiber’s very own Reading Hour.” Jackson turned to lock gazes with Kate, who kept her eyes somewhere distinctly over his left shoulder. “As staff here, Jake asked that you personally handle that aspect of the show.”

Mute, Kate nodded in agreement.

Jackson cleared his throat, clapping his hands together. “All right. So, let’s just do a quick run-through of the play, and we’ll take it from there, okay?”

“Sure,” Gary seconded. Ruffling the pages of his script, he quickly turned to page one. Allison and Kate followed suit.

 

 

 

One hour later and Kate no longer felt like puking. Instead, she felt like crying. Gary and Allison, it turned out, performed regularly in community theatre, and it showed. They had their lines, facial expressions, and walking cues down pat within the first half an hour. Kate was playing a pathetic, clumsy attempt at catch-up.

“Okay. Let’s stop here—” Jackson said, in the middle of one of Kate’s more bumbling reads. Feeling her face flush, she dropped her script down to her sides. Gary and Allison nodded in quick agreement.

“Now that we’ve got a feel for the play as a whole, let’s pair up—use the time focus a bit more exclusively on one another’s individual lines and parts.” Jackson glanced at the three of them. “Gar, Allie, why don’t you work together. Kate, you’re with me.” Was it just her imagination, or did both Gary and Allison send Jackson a vaguely sympatric look…?

Feeling her shoulders tightening, Kate watched the other actors move off to the edge of the room, scripts open and ready…“I’m sorry,” she whispered when Jackson came up to her. She hated how choked her voice sounded. “I know I’m not doing very well…”

Jackson waved dismissively. “You’re doing fine. It’s a first read-through with the script—”

“That hasn’t held up Gary and Allison,” Kate pointed out. She felt her lips quiver a little over the words.

Jackson shrugged. “They’re more seasoned, that’s all.”

Covering her face with her hands, Kate nodded wearily. “It’s not too late, you know, to find someone else.”

“Kate…”

“I don’t want to ruin the show.” She didn’t want to make an ass out of herself, with half the town watching.

“Kate.” At the firm note in Jackson’s voice, she lowered her hands. “I know it’s scary, but you can’t get defeated. Acting isn’t easy, but this—,” he said, waving a hand up and down, indicating her person, “doesn’t help. You’ve got to be open to learning, and fumbling. You can’t be so prideful.”

For the second time in as many minutes Kate felt her body engulfed in the flames of embarrassment. She was stomping around like a child, and Jackson had more-or-less just pointed it out.

Sighing, her bangs ruffling against her forehead, Kate hoped her cheeks weren’t as red as they felt. “You’re right. Okay, I can do this.” She smiled self-consciously. “Temper tantrum over.”

“That’s my girl,” Jackson said with a wink.

Kate felt that wink all the way to the pit of her stomach. Jackson, however, didn’t seem to be sharing in her feelings. Opening the script, he pointed to page three. “Let’s start at the top here—”

“All right.” Staring down at the typed words, Kate tried to focus. “Reading? No way—what’s so fun about books?”

“Okay,” Jackson said, cutting her short there. “That’s better, but I want you to really emphasis your almost scornful disbelief in this moment—like you’re mocking Gary and Allison. Because, when they answer you back, when they tell you all about the places they’ve been, the people they’ve met through the imaginative world of books, you can’t help but be a little impressed, intrigued even. Against your will, you find yourself wanting to know more.”

Kate nodded uncertainly. “Okay—”

“Just remember: that shift in perspective needs to be impactful. You go from someone who thinks books are totally lame to someone who falls in love with reading. This experience—from one reaction to the next, needs to be big. It needs to be felt.” Jackson was leaning in close to Kate now. Her nose crinkled just the tiniest bit. He smelled really nice.

Nodding jerkily, Kate focused her attention to the topic at hand. “All right—let me try it again.” Taking a deep breath, she screwed up her features to a look of incredulity. “Reading? No way—what’s so fun about books?”

“That’s it, right there!” Jackson reached out, grabbing hold of Kate’s hand. His eyes were playful, but his voice was serious enough: “See, I knew you could do it.” Kate’s stomach twisted, constricted. She wasn’t sure if it was the headiness of success or the effects of his touch.

The opening of the door just then surprised them both into looking up. Jake stood there, just inside the entryway. His eyes flickered with unerringly precision toward their joined grip, their entwined fingers… His lips turned down.  Kate’s eyes followed his line of sight. So did Jackson’s.

“Jake—what’s up?” Instead of letting her go, as Kate had expected, Jackson’s hand, if anything, pressed even tighter against hers’.

Deliberately rising his gaze, Jake opened the door a bit wider. “I didn’t mean to interrupt—” his tone was loaded with meaning. “But I was hoping to talk to Kate real quick…?”

Jackson shrugged. “Sure, we’re almost done here anyway.” And then, with a final squeeze, he loosened his hold. “I’ll see you Wednesday night for our next rehearsal, right?”

“Ah—that’s actually what I was coming to see Kate about,” Jake said quickly—too quickly— “The thing is…we’re going to be a bit, uh, short-handed that evening, and I was hoping she’d be willing to work a shift here instead?” There was no disguising the satisfaction in his voice.

Kate looked between the men. “Well…um—I guess that’s up to Jackson? What do you think?”

“If Jake needs you…”

“And I do,” the other man was fast to reinforce.

“Then by all means, take the shift,” Jackson answered good-naturedly. “Though, since I’m not keen on anyone skipping rehearsals entirely, how about a make-up date on Thursday evening?” Jackson’s eyes never left Jake’s. “We could meet at my house; it’ll be less distracting there.”

Kate felt strange. Something unsaid was definitely being said between Jake and Jackson…and she had a terrible, horrible feeling it had everything to do with her.

“Uh—sure?” Kate faltered, stuck between a rock and a hard place. “That-a, that works.”

Jake looked pissed.

Jackson looked smug.

“Was there anything else?” Jackson asked pointedly.

“No,” Jake said, his voice clipped. “That was all.”

 

 

 

Exiting the LitLiber some twenty minutes later, Kate’s feet took her quickly down the sidewalk. Head turned, eyes sharp …Kate let out a soft breath when she spied what she was desperate to see: the faint amber-glow emitting out the window belonging to Madame Penny’s House of Intuition. Penny was still at work. Kate had rarely been so glad of that fact. She needed someone to talk to.

Things with Jake and Jackson had taken an unexpected turn. Kate had only just started to get comfortable with the knowledge that each of them liked her and now—and now she had to worry about each of them knowing that the other liked her, too? It was complicated and confusing.

It was as Kate was on the verge of crossing the street when the door to Penny’s shop opened and, mouth dropping open, Kate saw none other than Janessa, her sixteen year old mentee, come barreling out of it and onto the street. Standing back, frozen with consternation, Kate watched as the teenager disappeared quickly down the street.

What in the world had Janessa been doing at Penny’s?

Doubling up her steps, Kate was determined to find out. Reaching the curb, she lunged forward. Wasting no time, she quickly found herself inside the building Janessa had only just left, halfway down the hallway which led to Penny’s office (which was technically the utility as the back of large florist shop) and the bathrooms. Rapping her knuckles hard against the wall beside the curtained doorway there, she waited…

“Come in,” Penny called in the sultry, husky tone she adopted for her office hours. “Oh—Kate, what a surprise,” she added when the younger woman poked her head inside.

“Yeah, hey,” Kate greeted distractedly. Nodding toward the street outside, she asked: “Did I just see Janessa leaving from here?”

“Probably,” Penny supplied. Then, with a flourished wave of her hand, she gave Kate a knowing look. “Now tell me, how were rehearsals?”

But Kate shook her head. That could wait. “Probably? What was she doing in here?”

Penny shrugged dismissively. “Answering her curiosity, I suppose.”

“Riddles, Penny?”

The psychic laughed. “Of course not. She merely came by to enquire about job-shadowing me.”

“What?”

“I know, I know,” the psychic mused, “I told her that my particular craft is not something just anyone can take up—but she seemed determined. It’s a school project or something—she has to write a report about a profession she finds interesting.”

“And she chose you?” Kate asked, her mouth feeling like sawdust.

Penny shrugged. “I guess so.”

“So—you’re actually going to do it? Let her come in and watch you at work?”

Penny shrugged. “Once I get permission from my clients, yes.”

Kate nodded robotically. “Oh.”

Penny’s head tilted a little to one side. “That is—are you okay with that?”

“Me? Of course I’m okay with that.” Kate’s voice came out a little loudly. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

Penny gave her another knowing look. “I’m sure I don’t know.”

Lowering her eyes, Kate watched her foot scrub against the floor. “Well, good. Great. That will be fun for you.” Kate’s voice was flat, monotone.

“Yes…”

“How did she—that is, do you two know each other?”

Penny’s gaze was starting to unnerve Kate. “Not before today, no. She’d heard of me from you.”

“Oh. Right. That makes sense.”

“And you don’t mind, that she asked me?”

“Again,” Kate said, her voice cutting, “why would I mind? Besides, it’s her choice. She can pick whomever she wants.”

“Okay.”

 

 

 

But Kate did mind. Rushing quickly out of Penny’s office, on some plea of household work to get done, Kate fumed all the way back home. Janessa had picked Penny? Penny? A psychic? And why hadn’t Kate even known about the project? Why hadn’t Janessa talked to her?

“People used to job-shadow me all the time. So much so that I used to get sick of it,” Kate mumbled to herself as she rounded Eveleth Ave. “And I was good at it, too. I could get the kids interested and I explained things in a way that clicked. I got so many requests I actually had to turn kids down.” She sighed. “Of course. That was then. Who wants to walk around behind me now, watching how I rearrange books on shelves? Clearly not Janessa.”

And that hurt. For some stupid reason, it hurt that Janessa hadn’t thought of her. “I mean, it’s not like I blame her—it’s just…”

Kate kicked at a rock. “I’m supposed to be someone she looks up to, and-and I’m used to being that kind of person, someone that people actually want to emulate.” And she hadn’t realized, not until just that moment, how far she’d fallen from that esteemed position. It was the first time since moving to Whestleigh that Kate felt the slightest, smallest bit…well ashamed. Ashamed of her modest employment, ashamed of her lack of influence and power, of her role-model-esque persona—for the first time, she truly wondered if she hadn’t taken two steps back in life.

“Have you taken to talking to yourself now?” Anne Ganthy’s voice, coming from somewhere behind Kate, said, startling the young woman. Turning around, Kate bit back a groan. “I assure you, it’s much more productive if you have someone to answer you back.”

Kate smiled tightly. “I suppose that depends on who’s listening…”

“Since it seems I have no other choice…” Ganthy said drily, indicating the block-and-a-half they still had to go before parting, “why don’t you fill me in?”

Kate sighed. And then, surprisingly, she did: “Have you ever viewed your life through someone else’s eyes and suddenly questioned everything about it?”

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Twelve

Kate took a deep breath, and then another. Her dress felt too tight, but then, modern image had it that Romeo’s Juliet was something of a stunner. Hence, she couldn’t be seen in anything that billowed too loosely. She would have to make do with what little airway she was afforded.

The backstage of Whestleigh High School’s theater department reeked of body odor and fear, but Kate wasn’t positive they weren’t side-effects of her own person. Today was the day: the group theatre project for her Shakespeare class; the one-act revival of Romeo and Juliet.

Kate looked up at the clock hanging beside the left wing entrance. It was 7:50 a.m. They’d been instructed to show up at quarter to eight to have a quick meet-and-greet with the school’s theater director. Kate considered that at least she’d been lucky to have gotten Whestleigh High School as the locale for this so-called production. Unlike her classmates, most of whom lived on campus at Cordwyn—a twenty minute commute—she’d had a comparatively restful morning.

But she probably shouldn’t have eaten that second muffin for breakfast this morning. She’d wanted to make sure she left on a full stomach. Now, an hour later, the contents stirring rebelliously, Kate wondered if that hadn’t been such a good idea. Pinning a smile on her face, she reminded herself that she was fine. She wasn’t going to vomit. She wasn’t going to pass out. These were just a bunch of kids for goodness sakes, what did she care for their critic?

Her mantra sort of helped.

That is, until the teacher worked in. At first, shrouded in the shadows of the dimly lit room, Kate couldn’t make out his features but after the first couple of steps, his patrician nose, sandy blonde hair, those wide shoulders came into striking view…and she wanted to barf all over again, but for an entirely different reason.

If memory served her correctly, and admittedly she’d been pretty drunk that night, the man making his hurried way toward their ragtag troupe of actors was none of than Madame Penny’s next door neighbor. What had Penny said his name was? Jackson?

If Kate prayed that his recall wouldn’t extend to that evening, she was doomed for disappointed. No sooner had he reached their little group then his eyes, scanning what should have been the faces of relative strangers, twinkled knowingly, deliberately upon contact with her own diverted countenance.

Just as quickly, however, his eyes moved on, brushing past her, leaving Kate wondering if she hadn’t just imagined the humor she’d read in them moments ago.

“Good morning everyone,” he announced then, his voice infused with sudden energy. “Let me introduce myself. My name is Jackson Fischer. I’m the resident English teacher and, subsequently, the theatre director here at Whestleigh. I want to take a moment to both welcome and thank you for taking the time to rehearse this scene with our students today. We’re really excited to have you!”

Out of her peripheral vision Kate say the rest of the group smilingly nod at his preamble. Like a robot, she followed suit.

“Now let me see,” he said then, looking down at a piece of paper he’d been quietly holding in his hand, “who is our Romeo today?”

“That would be me.” The guy to Kate’s immediate left held up his hand.

“Ah, Guy Patterson, correct?” Mr. Fischer clarified.

“Yes.”

“And who is our esteemed Mercutio?”

Going down his list exactingly, Jackson called out each individual player, until all had been properly identified themselves. At last, he turned to Kate, who remained the only unannounced attendant.

“That leaves our beloved Juliet,” he said, with a pointed look in her direction, “which means you must be Kate McDonald.”

“Yes,” she said simply, exerting all her energy to keep a rising blush at bay.

“It’s so nice to be properly introduced.” Though the statement was said in benefit of the entire cast, Mr. Fischer’s eyes never strayed from Kate’s downward cast expression. He was baiting her.

Before she could come up with a witty comeback, something that wouldn’t give her away, he spoke up again. He didn’t seem to require much feedback with his commentary, which was probably the teacher in him—used to being listened to.

“Before the students arrive, let’s quickly run over how the day will progress. You will perform for three different classes today: first period, second period, and fourth period. I apologize about the small gap of time in the middle, but at least you won’t be stuck here all day,” he said with a smile at the group.

“I will introduce today’s exercise at the start of each class, a matter of five to ten minutes. I’ll end each speech with this address “Now, without further ado….” When the curtain goes up, you’re on. Following the performance, should time permit, I would like to open the floor for a round of Q&A. This is a rare opportunity not to be missed, granting the audience a session with their actors,” Fishcer said, waving his arm expressively. “Of course,” he added, “it will be limited to the arena of the theatrical process and experience.”

“Sounds great,” Amanda Steven’s said, buttering up to the teacher as though she were still in the seventh grade. Kate rolled her heavily made-up eyes. Either she really wanted an A on this project or the girl was hot for teacher. Not that Kate would entirely blame her…at least on the latter assumption. Even Kate could admit, though she didn’t want to, that Jackson was a damn good looking man.

His slacks hugged his toned gluts to perfection and his polo shirt displayed just the right amount of upper body muscle without being labeled too-tight. And both were pressed with an expert hand (even his nails were nicely groomed!) His eyes were alert, signaling a man who had slept well the night.

Kate shook her head. She had more important things to think about Jackson Fischer’s sleeping habits…boxers, briefs, buff? Telling herself to get a grip, she deliberately shifted her body, changing her line of sight. She now had a fantastic view of the stage curtain, fluttering slightly from a nearby window.

Jackson kept talking, but Kate had now tuned out. Hopefully it wasn’t necessary information, because she just couldn’t summon the strength to listen to him anymore.

 

 

 

It made it so much worse, knowing that he was watching. Kate wasn’t sure why she’d given Jackson the power to increase her nervousness, she wasn’t sure why she cared that he was an audience member. She barely knew the man. Other than one drunken swim she’d have never known of his prior existence.

With or without reason, the fact remained: he was in the audience, watching her…and it had an effect. She suddenly felt seven years old again, her throat constricted, her hands batting against her collarbone, hoping to pat the airway back open.

This extra-sensory awareness of Jackson Fischer’s presence couldn’t have come with a more inconvenient scene, Kate knew as she walked quietly on the stage. In less than thirty seconds, the stage crew would draw the curtain, announcing the beginning of the production. In another five minutes she would kiss Guy Patterson, but all the while she would be thinking of Jackson Fischer. How freaking messed up was that?

But somehow, she made it through—through the kiss, the embarrassing succession of sexual entendres shortly following thereafter, even the flat marriage conducted between herself and ‘Romeo’—somehow she made it through to the conclusion of Act II, constituting the end of her first performance of the day.

One down, two to go.

Now, sitting in the chairs that Mr. Fischer had oh-so-thoughtfully provided for the players, she turned her attention to the students crouched in the theatre seats before them, waiting as the first round of questions began.

“Is it embarrassing, when, you know, you have to kiss someone on stage? Like, pretending to be in love or something?” A lot of girlish giggles followed this question, bravely articulated by a young lady whose face now flamed fire-engine red.

Guy Patterson fielded that question, for all the world as though he were some seasoned actor, and not someone who just last week asked Kate which side ‘stage left’ presided upon. Still, she kept a straight face as he fumbled his way through.

“Once you are in character, all reality is striped clean. I’m not kissing Kate,” he said, pointing at her to further his point, “I’m playing a part, I’m embodying someone else, who’s kissing someone embodying yet another someone else.”

Well, if that doesn’t clear things up, Kate thought humorously, her eyes scanning the furred eyebrows of the puzzled expressions circling around her. That got a little muddled.

“Honestly,” Kate said, piping up, “it is a little awkward…at least, at first. But, as Guy was saying, since we’re both playing a part, it’s easier to move past the weirdness of it all. By that I mean, I don’t consider that I’m kissing Guy when we’re on stage, rather that Juliet is kissing Romeo. I’m in character. Does that make sense? We’re telling someone else’s story through our action. Knowing that helps to make it less… uncomfortable.” Kate doubted that helped much, but she was glad to see some of the creases marring these confused foreheads iron out.

“Now Guy, you said you are, and I quote ‘embodying someone else.’ That’s a very important aspect of acting. Could you expand upon what that means further?” This question came directly from Mr. Fischer. Heaving a slow sigh of relief, Kate sat back further in her chair. She was off the hook this time.

To give him credit, Guy did his best to describe the process of getting into character. Unfortunately, it’s a more-or-less abstract concept. It’s not only hard to explain and, as such, digest, but each person undergoes that transformation differently; certainly Kate doesn’t do what Guy explained: closing his eyes and envisioning his character standing in front of a mirror, the background of which, besides showing his own reflection, playing out a reel of this newfound life, the character’s favorite meal, moments in his past that shaped his person, love interests…the whole shebang. That Romeo’s favorite dish and his first kiss were never spoken of in Shakespeare’s work hardly mattered, Guy defended. These nuances were created in effect, a tool for Guy to better understand his new persona, to make his character feel real by ‘living’ their life story.

Kate simply read the script and tried to emulate the person as they were written, copying her behavior to their language, her tone to their meaning, her message to that of playwrights hand. Of course, she’d never considered herself much of an actor either, so it was probably best that she hadn’t been called on to answer that one anyway.

“I tried acting once but I was so conscious that I was acting, you know that I was still really just me underneath it all and it felt…I don’t know, fake like a cheap imitation or—” a young girl started to say then. She was sitting two rows back, her face half hidden behind a curtain of hair. “How do you break out of that? I mean, like so you can embrace the imaginary so completely that it feels real.”

Kate blinked. So did Guy Patterson.

Instead, it was Shelly Bibbon, who played the Nurse Maid, who answered this profoundly insightful question. “It takes a lot of practice. You have to be able to compartmentalize in a way, to mentally lock away the, you underneath all that acting, until the job is over. It takes a lot of discipline but the more you act, the better you get at it. The self-conscious awareness that you’re only acting slowly fades as you continue to embrace other identities. Then, after a while, this freedom of expression takes over, where you are able to be anybody you want to be, and that doesn’t feel false anymore. If feels like a super power.”

Jackson Fischer spoke next, his words indicating the end of the class hour: “What a great exercise. I challenge everyone: when you leave here, I want you to pretend to be someone you’re not. Keep it small: if you’re shy be a little loud, if you’re crazy-expressive be really observant. Be appropriate: this isn’t an excused free-for-all…unacceptable conduct will not be tolerated. The same rules and consequences will be expected and enforced,” Mr. Fischer said in rider to this announcement. “Leave here today as your alter ego, the person you’d be if only you weren’t you…stretch your imaginative prowess.

“I’m sure Kate would agree with me on this,” he said then, and suddenly he was looking straight at her, causing a swift shuffle of heads to follow in wake. Damn him, she could’ve sworn he threw a wink her way before explaining that cryptic little opener: “sometimes it’s necessary to shed our ordinary self for someone new, to thrust out our common appearance and personality, even if it’s just a little bit, and do something different to make us feel alive in a new kind of way. Be daring! Right Kate?”

Gritting her teeth so hard, Kate was surprised her jaw didn’t creak when she answered him. That louse, he definitely winked. “Hmm. Yeah. Right.” The clipped note of her voice didn’t invite further discussion. God, you get drunk one time and sort-of/kind-of go skinny dipping and you can never hear the end of it!

Mr. Fischer turned his gaze back to his students, dismissing her glare as though it weren’t even there, as though it mattered that much to him. “Because that,” he said slowly, dramatically, “is what acting is really about.” On that note he sent them on their way, but not before reminding them once again to relish their assignment for the day—self-transformation!

“Well guys, how did you think that went?” he asked after the door banged shut after the last student.

“That was great! The students were so receptive to what we did. It was great, getting feedback on their experience,” Amanda Steven’s gushed, kissing up to the teacher for all she was worth. Kate hunched her shoulders, hoping her nonverbal message would be clear to Mr. Fischer: she was done sharing, for the moment at any rate.

Mr. Fischer smiled angelically, obviously pleased with her answer. “Great. Well, you’ve got about ten minutes before the next class will get here. Its home room second period so everything gets delayed a little. Take this moment to hit up the bathroom or grab a drink of water,” he said briskly, moving toward the door himself. “I’ve got to run back to my classroom to take attendance. Be back shortly.”

Then he was gone.

Jumping off her chair, Kate lowered herself off the stage and onto the ground floor of the auditorium. Her throat felt a little parched and in her frenzy this morning she’d forgotten her water bottle at home. Walking up the center aisle, Kate had her sites sit on the door Mr. Jackson had just exited. There was probably a water foundation nearby. She’d just about reached the end of the rows, her feet moving quickly, when a hand snaked out suddenly, indistinguishable in the low lighting there, the fingers grabbing onto, and holding fast, a stray piece of ribbon hanging loose on Kate’s dress. The action effective thwarted her process.

Letting out a small squeak in surprise, Kate stopped mid-step, her eyes searching through the darkness until they made out a silhouette attached to the otherwise foreign arm holding her hostage: big hair, chunky scarf, bangles running up the fellow wrist.

“Penny,” Kate breathed in recognition, “Jesus, you scared me half to death.” Kate’s left hand landed with a pause against her chest, over her fast-beating heart. “What are you doing here?”

“Well, I wasn’t going to miss out on your first performance. I mean what kind of friend would I be, if I didn’t support you in this?” she asked, perfectly serious.

Kate wasn’t sure if she wanted to laugh or scream.

“Penny, this isn’t a public show.” Kate wouldn’t have set one foot on that stage if it were. High school kids were one thing; she didn’t even compare to their self-experimentation-scientific-study case of weirdness. They weren’t her peers. Everyone else, well that was an entirely different matter.

“It’s for the students. Only,” she said bluntly. Her mind wandered, wondering at the school’s security. Did they let just anyone off the street into the building? What about the student’s safety?

No sooner had that thought raced through her mind then she noticed the lanyard hanging around Penny’s neck, the word: VISTOR clearly marked across the front, with the school’s logo watermarked behind it. The woman apparently had connections, Kate mused.

“Oh, I know, but when I found out that you were performing at Whestleigh High, well…what else could I do? I asked Jackson if I could get a ticket to the show and he offered to allow me entrance as his personal guest, especially after I explained that it was you I wanted to see. I mean, there has to be some perks to living next door to a teacher, right?” Penny explained, but Kate was hardly paying attention anymore.

So he knew already that I was going to be part of the cast, did he? No wonder he hadn’t seemed that taken aback. He’d probably been relishing that first moment of contact. The jerk.

Shaking her head, Kate decided that it didn’t matter. Jackson Fischer didn’t matter. “Well, what did you think?”

Penny made a slight face. “Eh. I thought the kiss was so-so.”

Kate nodded her head. She had to agree.

“I mean, there was more chemistry between you and Jackson than old what’s-his-name.”

“Romeo,” Kate supplied absently.

“Yeah him. Next time, trying imaging Jackson during that part,” Penny said outrageously.

Kate shook her head. “Penny!”

“I’m just call it as I see it. You two have chemistry.”

“No, we do  not,” Kate argued, cringing inwardly at her overly hot denial. Don’t get too defensive, she reminded herself, that’ll only make you look guilty.

“Oh, yes you do. I saw the look that passed between the two of you when he brought up shedding one’s inhibitions,” Madame Penny said then, fanning herself in response. “It was…hot.”

“I think you misread what was happening. If I was sending him anything hot it was via death ray. He was all but mocking me in front of everyone, and not very subtly either.”

“Oh whatever Kate. Lighten up. You did that night,” Penny scolded her softly.

“Fine. I’ll let it go, but I’m not going to agree with you about any attraction there,” Kate said huffily, crossing her arms over her chest looking for all the world anything but ‘light.’

“No?” Madame Penny asked. “Girl, he’s gorgeous. You’ve as much as admitted yourself. Most of your little crew of there is already half-in-love with him, and that includes a couple dudes.”

“They can have him,” Kate said sweetly.

“Tough crowd,” Madame Penny said under her breath.

“Not really,” Kate defended herself, “it’s just, I’ve seen it all before. Sure, his blonde hair offsets his tan beautifully, giving him the all-American Male look. Couple that off with those brown eyes and yes, he’s sure to set some hearts a-flutter,” Kate said, taking a mental stock of his assets.

“Don’t forget his muscles,” Penny said helpfully.

“Yes, those too. Well-defined and nicely proportioned,” Kate said, getting a little lost in her point.

“And he’s great with kids…surely a huge turn-on for most women,” Penny supplied helpfully.

Kate nodded her head eagerly, having pulled herself together once more. “He’s polished, clean, well put together.” Somehow, these traits were made to sound negative.

“And that’s a problem?” Penny asked, sounding baffled.

“It’s just—,” Kate shrugged, “He might as well be Phil.”

Penny went ramrod straight at those words. “Phil?” she asked, cautiously probing.

Mentally reigning herself back in control, Kate smiled. “It’s neither here nor there. I’m just saying, I’m not attracted to Jackson Fischer. I-I can’t be attracted to him,” she said, more for her benefit than Penny’s. What was that saying, if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck…any relationship would end much the same. Suddenly the smiled twisted. There was an edge to the lines around her mouth, a stubborn set to her jaw. She was done.

“You aren’t going to enlarge upon that statement are you?” Penny asked, resigned to the answer even before Kate spoke.

“No, I’m not.”

“Someday,” Penny said half to herself.

“I’ve got to get back, the second show starts soon,” Kate said roughly, without bothering to answer.

Turning around, her search for water was now an abandoned subject, Kate returned to the stage. She’d run out of time. It was left to borrow from Guy; he’d brought a large container, plus she had a sinking suspicion he’d enjoyed that stage kiss more than he was supposed to.

Out of her peripheral vision she saw Jackson come back in the room, lean down over Penny’s chair and whisper something in her ear. The psychic’s low laughter could be heard all the way across the hall. Kate couldn’t help wondering what they were talking about. Or who…?

Shrugging, she told herself she didn’t care. She didn’t care about Jackson Fischer.

She didn’t care about Jackson Fischer.

If she said it often enough, she bet she’d come to believe it too.