North of Happenstance: Chapter Fifty-Nine (THE END)

Jackson stared unblinkingly at Kate.

“I love you, Jackson,” she repeated again, her voice barely a whisper of sound. Her teeth gnawed against the side of her lip at his extended silence. “I hope that’s okay?”

Because suddenly she was terrified. She’d said those words before, of course, but never to Jackson (and he’d certainly never said them to her). Only, she’d never really meant them. Not until just now.

But then Jackson smiled and some of her fear melted away. “Yeah Kate,” he said, his voice low, husky. “It’s okay. It’s more than okay.” With a half step, he made to move toward her, his eyes soft as he neared….

Calida cleared her throat pointedly. She’d clearly been forgotten. Her interruption had the desired effect. Jerking at the sound, Jackson ceased in his movement toward Kate. His eyes shifted, swiveling to take in Calida’s expectant expression.

He smiled charmingly.

“Excuse me, Mrs. McDonald.” Shifting gears, he didn’t skip a beat; to Kate’s quiet dismay, his attention was lost now, transferred instead to the elegant woman beside her. Whatever he’d been about to say next—whatever his response to Kate’s exclamation would have to wait. “It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

Dammit.

“How kind,” Calida purred, holding out a hand, which was quickly taken in his own.

“Please, won’t you come inside?” he asked, stepping back to allow them entrance.

Calida smiled, but it held little warmth. “I’d be delighted, I’m sure.”

“No, the delight is all mine,” Jackson assured her as she stepped daintily into the foyer, Kate bringing up the silent rear. “I can’t tell you how long I’ve wanted to make your acquaintance.”

Jackson had impeccable manners.

“I only wish I could say the same,” Calida said, her eyes quick to take in everything around her. Opulent surroundings. “But as it happens, I’ve only just heard about you.” Her laugh was a tinkle of social merriment.

Jackson had to bite his lip to keep from pointing out the obvious: that until just recently, she and her daughter hadn’t been speaking at all.

Likewise, Kate shot her mother a speaking look; but Calida was too busy inspecting Jackson’s home he led them down the arched hallway off the entrance and into the main living area, to pay any notice to her daughter. As her sharp eyes gazed around the room, her usually pinched features took on an even harder look. Her long patrician nose quivered as she glanced over the gilded mirror hanging above the fireplace, the authentic Oriental rug underneath the sofa—the tasteful throw pillows and blankets, the classic sconces on the papered walls, all the trinkets and baubles scattered about. The room screamed of money and high taste.

It was abundantly clear that Jackson came from wealthy stock.

And Calida couldn’t find one damn thing wrong with the place.

Clearly it rankled. Kate smiled.

“Well,” she said sharply. Too sharply. “You have a beautiful house. What is it your family does?”

How like Calida to get right to the matter at hand. Before Kate could throw out a reproached, Jackson was answering her.

“Well, if I have my history correct, I believe the earliest Fischer’s were with the railroad industry.” He grinned openly. “But other than that, in the last fifty years or so the family has, er, rather diversified our interests.”

Calida cocked her head. “Meaning what, exactly?”

To his credit, Jackson didn’t look unnerved by her tone. “Meaning…”

“Jackson teaches English at the high school,” Kate cut in, her voice loud and deviant. Her eyes sparkled from a suddenly hot face, her very stance—arms crossed and chin raised— practically begged her mother to mock his profession, to make comment. “And he’s absolutely brilliant at it. The kids love him.”

Jackson shot Kate a quick wink.

“Oh.” Calida smiled. “How…noble of you.” The exaggeration of her pause, the stress she placed on that one word made the hairs on Kate’s neck stand at end.

She let out a huff of breath. “I should certainly say so, mother.”

Calida made a dismissive motion, “Oh don’t be so sensitive Kate, I was merely complimenting the man.” With her hands clasped behind her back, she shifted, her eyes taken with some glass ornaments placed inside a crystal bowl on the mantelpiece. Gone now was the picture of Emily that used to rest so lovingly on its rough-hewn wood. “After all, much like some must invent while others assemble, so too must one educate so another can achieve greatness…” She touched one of the glass-blown bulbs.

Turning helplessly to Jackson, Kate raised her arms impotently. “I am so sorry,” she mouthed. She could actually feel the blood drain form her face. Rude didn’t even begin to cover it…

But Jackson only shrugged, not looking the least put out by Calida’s words.

“I’ve always thought that knowledge is the best kind of power,” he said in quiet agreement.

Kate wanted to throw something. Preferably her mother, right out the door!

It wasn’t until sometime later, after Calida had swallowed her second cup of coffee that, placing the empty cup back on its saucer, she asked politely where she might find the washroom—and Kate found herself alone with Jackson for the first time. Finally.

Waiting until Calida was safely out of earshot, Kate threw Jackson a tremulous look. “Jackson. I don’t even know what to say. I’m so sorry. Really—”

“Nah,” he said, waving her words aside. “Don’t worry about it.”

“It’s just, I know she can be, ah, tough sometimes, and I’m sorry that I just thrust her on you like that….” Maybe bringing her mother over hadn’t been such a good idea after all. Calida was always going to be Calida.

Jackson moved closer to her. “Hey,” he said. “Stop apologizing. It’s okay, Kate.”

But she couldn’t seem to stop: “But surprising you this way? I mean, what was I thinking? She is not an easy woman and I should know. Only I wanted to—” the rest of Kate’s flustered words were cut short when Jackson’s head bent, his lips silencing hers in a hard kiss.

It was both unexpected and exactly what she needed.

But all too quickly, it was over and Jackson was lifting his head to stare down at her. His eyes were tender, the pads of his thumbs coming to brush away the hair at the sides of her face.  “I love you, Kathryn.”

She smiled gloriously. “Yeah. I know.”

Jacksons looked momentarily thrown. “You do?”

She nodded impishly.

He grinned then, one eyebrow raised             devilishly. “Confident, weren’t you?”

“For the last forty minutes, you’ve not only put with my mother and her rudeness and her sundry inquisitions,” Kate informed him, “but you’ve also been kind to her.”

“Ah.”

Kate smiled. “And, I figured, there could only be one explanation for that.”

“Gave myself away, huh,” he teased, rocking her gently from side to side within the circle of his arms.

Kate wrinkled her nose. “Big time.”

Jackson’s smile disappeared, and his voice, when he spoke next was somber, solemn. “Thank you,” he said, and at Kate’s quizzical look: “For bringing her here. To see me.”

“Thank you for opening the door.”

“For you? Always.”

“I’m all in, Jackson” she told assured him earnestly. “I need you to know that.”

Jackson nodded toward the hallway. “After this, how could I think anything else?”

Kate followed his line of sight. Her lips twisted. “Now perhaps you can appreciate why I ran away from home.”

“Oh, yeah. Big time.”

 

 

 

Penny was so mad she could have spit. Yanking hard on the door of the LitLiber, she crossed quickly inside the bookstore. It had taken two minutes of sitting on her cold office floor, tears flowing easily tracks down her cheeks, before it all started to make sense.

Her conversation with Jake, circling through her consciousness, snatches of his angry words splicing at random across her memories:

“Because I was surprised to not see you…this morning. My bed. You were supposed to be there when I woke up.” Jake had been so angry, so upset. And with a snap, it pulled itself into place.

He’d wanted her there. In his bed, when he woke up.

She could still see his face, twisted, distorted in fury. “Am I to take it that last night is to be forgotten? Never spoken of again?”

            His scorn and derision were nothing but a mask to hide the truth.

… “I’m done pretending.”

            “Pretending?”

            “To be your friend.”

Over and over, the past two months washed over her, pricking and poking at her:

Jake taking her to the concert.

The fact that he’d hidden knowledge of Kate and Jackson’s relationship; he’d continued on with the ruse even though he’d known it was pointless. He’ done that to be with Penny. There was no other reason.

“Well, from where I’m sitting, the view across the way doesn’t look too bad.”

            “Brunettes….. I like brunettes.”

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

“Oh my God,” Penny had cried out weakly, her head snapping upright as the thunderbolt flashed across her startled mind. “Jake has feelings for me.” Tasting the words on her lips, for a moment, Penny had smiled in dawning realization, her body curling into itself, savoring the statement as it hung in the air, her body warm, safe—

And in the next, she was swearing. “That goddamn—and he had the nerve to call me a coward!” Scrambling unsteadily to her feet, Penny’s eyes had narrowed in a pale face. “Well, we’ll see who’s cowering now.” Straightening her skirt, she’d turned toward her door. Stopping only long enough to lock up, and stick a sign on the front saying that she’d gone to lunch, Penny’s feet had taken her quickly, clipping hurriedly up the block, until she’d reached LitLiber.

Now, striding across the moderately busy store, she only just kept her lips from snarling at the passersby, only just kept her arms from pushing the oblivious customers out of her way as she blazed a trail toward his office door. Once she reached it, Penny allowed herself only enough time to anticipate the look on his face before she stormed in, throwing the door open with a bang.

Jake was bent over his desk, busily writing something down when her shadow fell across the hardwood floor, when his office door crashed angrily against the wall. Looking up sharply, the frown marring his forehead at this extravagant entrance disappeared immediately at the sight of her standing before him.

For a moment, he seemed too shocked to react at all.

At last, he seemed to find his voice. “Penny?” Rising quickly to his feet, his body held defensively, guardedly, he watched her advance into the cramped space.

“Surprised to see me?” She mocked him.

Jake didn’t comment.

Reaching the opposite side of his desk now, Penny leaned across it until her finger, the one she had pointing at him, jabbed into his chest. “You—you…” Her lips twitched, curling. She took a deep breath.

Jake, on the other hand, looked almost bored. “I, what?”

Penny’s mouth thinned. “You want me!”

Jake’s eyes widened. He hadn’t been expecting her to say that. Well good.

“Hah!” With a decided punch, she drilled her finger into his shoulder again. “You do! You want me. All this time—!”

But Jake only shook his head. He looked defeated. Tired suddenly. “What do you want, Penny?”
“I want some answers!”

“To what questions? You seem to have it all figured out.” His tone couldn’t be drier.

“So that’s it then?” Penny asked incredulously. “You’re just done. It’s over. Just like that?” She snapped her fingers. “There’s nothing left to discuss—”

“Penny…”

“You weren’t even going to tell me, were you?”

He sighed. “Please don’t do this—”

“Why not? Don’t I deserve that much at least?”

“What do you want me to say?”

“You’re just going to walk away?” Penny pleaded.

Jake raised his hands, furious now. “How could I walk away? You left first.”

“That’s not fair!”

“No? Then you didn’t slip out of my apartment this morning?”

“Yes, only…”

“I had to find you, Penny. And when I did, you had nothing to say.”
“You’re twisting things…”

“How so?”

“I needed time to think!”

“About what?”

“About what happened?”
“But I thought it didn’t mean anything to you?”

“When did I say that?”

Jake paused, nonplussed.

“Would I be here right now, fighting for you if it had meant nothing to me?”

Jake’s lips curved in quiet amusement. “Is that what you’re doing? Fighting for me?”

“Well duh!” Penny spat. There was no denying Jake’s smile now. “Which, by the way, is more than I can say for you!”

His eyes gleamed. “My savior.”

“Oh shove it, Farrow.”

His grin only widened.

“Don’t be cute. I’m not in the mood.”

He wiped the smirk off his face. “Okay. What do you want?”

“To make myself emphatically clear,” she said. “Because clearly you haven’t been paying close enough attention these last fifteen odd years.”

Jake stilled.

“I’m here to tell you—” She made a rough sound. “That I want you right back, you stupid idiot!” She pulled herself straight, her eyes narrowed on his face.

Jake whistled. “Took you long enough to admit it.”

Penny shot back. “Excuse me?”

Instead of answering her, Jake rounded the side of his desk. He took a predatory step closer to her. “Anything else?”

“Anything—? What?” Penny stuttered, at a loss.

“Anything else you’d like to make emphatically clear?” he asked innocently enough. He was almost beside her now.

“N-no.”

“Good,” he said, reaching for her…

 

 

 

A week later, smiling across the table at Penny and Maggie, Kate reached for the bottle of newly opened wine. With precision, she poured out three glasses of Chardonnay. The smell of fried catfish wafted through the room, adding to the festive scene.

“Okay, Kate I can’t take it any longer,” Penny said, taking the proffered glass from Kate’s outstretched hand.

“What?”

Penny waved around them. “Girl’s Night Dinner?” She looked at Maggie for support. “I mean, the suspense is killing me!”

M.T. nodded. “It usually means only one thing….”

“Something’s up.”

Kate laughed.

“So?” Penny persisted. “What’s the occasion?”

Kate smiled. “Do you know what today is?”

Penny rolled her eyes. “Obviously not.”

“It’s my one year anniversary in Whestleigh.”

Penny sucked in a breath. She looked over at Maggie. Then back to Kate. “No way. It can’t be.”

“On this very day last year.” Kate said softly.

“No kidding.” Penny shook her head. “So much as happened. And yet, it doesn’t seem possible it’s been a whole year.”

“We’ve come a long way,” Kate agreed.

“Well. I think this calls for a toast,” Penny said, raising her glass. Maggie and Kate quickly followed suit.

“To new homes,” Kate called.

“Here, here,” Maggie murmured, clinking glasses.

“To friendship,” Penny added, her gaze taking in the three of them.

“And love,” Kate said, blushing.

“And the muddied waters we waded to find it,” Penny echoed. To think: Kate could have fallen for Jake. Penny might have succeeded in stealing Hank from Maggie. And everyone would have been the poorer.

“To finally putting ghosts to rest,” Maggie murmured, her finger going to massage the necklace hanging round her neck.

“In more ways than one,” Kate said, thinking of her mother. She and Calida would never be close, but at least they were speaking to one another. It was a start.

“Ah yes. Ghosts. My bread and butter,” Penny chimed in, making everyone laugh.

“To the next year and what it has in store for us,” Kate shouted.

Penny smiled, her gaze switching from Kate to Maggie. “Side-by-side-by-side.”

“Amen to that!”

And for a moment, Kate’s kitchen was infused in giggles before the women took their drink of wine.

“Oh, did I tell you,” Penny said then, setting her goblet down on the table. “About my client Madeleine?”

“Is she the one who wanted a reading done on her house plant?”

“That’s the one.” Penny looked at Maggie. “She swears it’s the reincarnate of her late sister.”

“Oh goodness!”

“What’d she want you to do this time?” Kate asked, getting up from the table to check on the fish.

“Oh, get this….

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Fifty-Eight

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

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

Kate goggled, unsure.

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

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

“I’ll have you.”

“Okay.”

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

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

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

Kate frowned. “What? No…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You did?”

“Why?”

“Penny!”

“I’m just saying…”

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

“Our Jackson?”

“Well. Yeah.”

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

Kate shifted. “I think…”

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

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

Penny whistled.

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

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

“My family?” Kate had stuttered.

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

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

“I’m sure that isn’t true.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I guess,” Penny relented begrudgingly.

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

“Good luck.”

“All the lucks.”

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kate could hardly breathe. “Jackson. Hi.”

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

“No, I know,” she said. “And I’m—”

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

“Open the door, Jackson.”

“It is open.”

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

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

Taken aback, his eyes shifted back to Kate.

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

Her mother gasped softly.

Jackson’s mouth dropped open just slightly.

 

 

 

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

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

But it wasn’t working.

She just kept seeing Jake’s damn face.

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

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

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

Then she screamed.

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

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

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

“Well. Yeah,” she offered plainly.

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

Penny’s mouth dropped open.

“Jake.”

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

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

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

“No! Never…”

Jake raised a dark eyebrow. “Then what?”

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

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

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

“I should think so.”

“I just don’t know—”

“You don’t know what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nothing—”

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

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

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

“Jake. Wait.”

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

“You can’t what?”

“Wait any longer.”

“What? I don’t—”

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

“Pretending?”

“To be your friend.”

Penny felt those words all the way to her stomach.

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

So here she sat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maggie swallowed nervously. “Oh.”

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

“What is it you’d like to say?”

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

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

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

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

“Hank…”

“Tut, tut!”

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

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

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Fifty-Seven

The air in Kate’s kitchen was thick. Edgy. Sitting around her table, the morning sun shining through the bay window there, Kate’s eyes were trained determinedly on Maggie, who was busy moving around the counters, grabbing mugs and spoons and pouring out coffee for Kate and Penny…and them.

For a moment no one spoke.

Calida McDonald and Phil Sheller were in her house. After finding them on her doorstep, Kate had remained motionless, immobile. It was only after Calida’s scathing: “Won’t you invite us in, Kate? Or do you prefer to have private conversations outside of doors? Is that how news travels in small towns?” that Kate had begrudgingly allowed them entrance. Besides, her legs were shaking so badly, she knew she’d require a chair sooner than later.

So now here they sat, huddled uncomfortably together.

“Your kitchen looks—” Calida sniffed delicately, bringing Kate’s eyes back around to her mother’s inscrutable face. “Homey.”

“You traveled all this way to make small talk?” Kate asked, mildly surprised at her own daring.

Calida’s gaze narrowed on her daughter’s mocking stare. Her chin lifted up to a haughty angle. “No,” she told her quietly, coldly. “I told you—”

“Yeah, I heard what you said,” Kate interrupted. “I just don’t have a damned clue what you’re talking about.” Sitting on the opposite side of the table, two chairs down of Calida, Penny was busy giving Kate a winning smile and a thumbs-up gesture, clearly proud of the younger woman’s bravado.

Calida smiled but it wasn’t a nice smile. “You weren’t the only person who’d had their feelings hurt, Kate. And that is why you’d run away like a petulant child, isn’t it? Because we’d somehow hurt your feelings?” The distain was only too evident in her question.

Kate felt her face heating up. “I wouldn’t have put it like that…” but she might as well have saved her breath; Calida wasn’t through.

“What you did, up-and-leaving like that—twice, I might add!—you hurt a lot of people, yourself,” Calida told her with a meaningful look.

“I wonder why I had to stoop to such drastic measures,” Kate murmured half under her breath. “You hired a private detective; you tricked me into talking to you, into confiding in you and for what? So you could do what you wanted, my feelings be damned.”

Calida stiffened. “A mother has a right to know where her child is, I should think.”

“I needed space,” Kate clarified. “But you refused me that. Though why should I be surprised? Since when has what I wanted ever counted for anything?”

“Oh, don’t be so melodramatic.”

Kate’s fist slammed against the tabletop. “This is exactly what I’m talking about!” She yelled. “You don’t listen to me—you don’t listen to what I’m saying. It just doesn’t matter to you. Whenever I try to explain myself I’m never allowed to get even one word out! So yes,” Kate seethed. “I ran away from you. I ran away from being ignored—from being told what it was I meant to say, what it was that you actually heard, despite it all.”

A stunned sort of silence met Kate’s outburst. With the timing of a saint, Maggie appeared at the edge of the table, steaming hot coffee held in her hands as she deftly doled out the cups. Wrapping her hands around the warm mug, Kate took comfort from its enveloping warmth.

“It doesn’t seem to be stopping you now,” Calida spoke softly, quietly.

“What doesn’t?”

“The ability to speak up.”

Kate smiled wanly. “I’ve had help in that department,” she admitted with a wry glance at Penny and M.T.

“Is there anything else?” Calida asked and, at Kate’s questioning look, continued: “That you’d like to say? Anything else you’d like to tell me—I promise, the floor is yours.” She opened her arms up expressively.

Kate felt her body tense, unsure if she was walking into a trap or not. With Calida, one could never been sure… “No. That’s, ah, that’s it.”

“Good. Then please allow us to have our turn.”

Yup. Definitely a trap.

“You’re right. I tricked you this summer up in Minnesota when I took you out to my club,” Calida admitted ruefully. “I piled you with alcohol and proceeded to get you relaxed—because I’d hoped you’d let something slip. And you did.”

Penny snorted into her cup.

“But it wasn’t—” Calida shook her head. “It wasn’t what you’re thinking.”

“Oh, you mean it wasn’t so you could ambush on my own front steps.”

Calida sighed softly. “Not originally, no. But then, when you were back home—”

This is my home. Whestleigh is my home,” Kate insisted.

Calida flicked her wrist dismissively. “Fine. Whatever. Back when you were in Minnesota, we’d planned to…
“Oh, I know what you’d planned,” Kate interrupted.

“We saw your car pulling up to the driveway,” Penny intoned with a quiet look at Phil, who sat silently, watching mother and daughter.

“And that’s why I left the way I did,” Kate claimed. “You just couldn’t help yourself, could you? And there I was, ready to believe everything you’d been saying—how you’d missed you, the regrets you had, and it was all a ruse.”

“No it wasn’t.” Calida was stiff, her voice scratchy.

“It was just a ploy to keep me there long enough. And just what were you hoping for? That I’d see Phil and—snap!” Kate clicked her fingers together, “—the prodigal daughter would return? That I’d fall right back into the same pattern. Just another control tactic….”

“No, what I was hoping for,” Calida said through her teeth, “was a little closure. For me. And for Phil. You owe us that.”

“So you thought a surprise attack was the best way?”
“It’s the only reason we’re sitting around your table right now, isn’t it?” Calida challenged. “This summer, I figured it was the last chance Phil had. Who knew when you’d ever come back hom—to Minneapolis again. And I knew if I so much as breathed his name you’d leave, that maybe you’d never return.”

“I assure you, the way you did it was much worse.”

Calida had the grace to look ashamed. “Isn’t that what hindsight is for?”

“With you? Doubtful.”

“Didn’t you surprise attack me?” Phil’s voice, its low tone accompanied by that gritty accusation, seemed to suck the remaining air out of the room. All eyes turned to take in his somber expression, which belied the angry outburst.

“Phil…”

“I woke up one morning—September 21st. It was a Monday, just any normal day, except you were gone. Gone.” Phil’s voice was sharp. “I looked all around the house, but it was empty. I tried your phone, but it went straight to voicemail. The car wasn’t in the garage, but your daily planner still lay on the small table in the entryway.” He shook his head. “You’d never believe the excuses I gave myself at first. She probably got up early for a run. She ran to the market to get eggs. Maybe she’s at the neighbors, helping Margie with one of her Junior League projects…”

“I left you a note,” Kate whispered.
“Yeah.” He shook his head. “It took me a minute to find that, stuck half under the blotter in my study. And when I did, at first I thought it was a practical joke. Then maybe even a ransom note.” His mouth thinned. “The alternative, that you’d actually written me this—this letter,” Phil spat out that last word. “I just couldn’t believe it.”

Kate opened her mouth to speak.

“We were engaged! We had plans. I just couldn’t believe—”

“But we didn’t love one another,” Kate protested weakly.

“Speak for yourself,” Phil said. “I loved you. I loved you desperately.”

Kate felt the pain in those words. It lanced at her heart, shaking her. “But Phil, you loved someone who wasn’t real,” Kate told him gently. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to—”

“But then you wouldn’t take my calls—wouldn’t reach out to any of my attempts at contact,” Phil went on staunchly. “And I was forced to face the facts. You really had left me. In the middle of the night. Without a word or a look or any indication that you were unhappy at all. Without giving me any chance to make you happy.”

Kate felt tears sting her eyes. She hadn’t known. She hadn’t realized—she’d always told herself she’d done them both a favor, running away as she had. She’d promised herself that he wouldn’t be hurt. Not really. Just embarrassed. Outraged with stung pride. Superficial wounds.

“It was a cowardly thing, what I did, the way I did it,” Kate confessed, palms raised in surrender. “I apologize for that, but you have to understand…”

Phil’s posture was stiff. “I was devastated Kate.”

“I know.”

“I was humiliated.” Phil made a sound deep in his throat. “Having to tell everyone, having to explain the unexplainable. The pitying glances, the gossip—you put me through hell.”

“Please forgive me, Phil,” Kate pleaded quietly. “I wasn’t the girl you thought I was.”

“Clearly not…”

“You have every right to hate me,” Kate realized with something of a shock. She’d never really stopped to think about his feelings at all before now. It was a sobering, sad reality. “You do. That’s the worst of it, too, that you never even knew me. The girl you met, she was a carefully programmed carbon copy of the real thing. You met a lie. You weren’t to know that I was playing a part; that the real Kate was hiding behind those perfect manners and that coifed hair.” She laughed hard. “You never knew the woman you’d planned to marry—and that was wrong. And I’m sorry about that.”

“Sorry that I was engaged to a woman I didn’t know or that I was jilted by her?”

Kate smiled ruefully. “Both, I guess.”

“You could have talked to me.”

Kate looked down at her fingers, splayed against the table. “That’s just it. I couldn’t,” she admitted. “Talk to you. I didn’t know how. Not then. I wasn’t strong enough. I wasn’t sure who I was, only who I wasn’t.” She dared to look back up. “If I’d stayed…. if I’d waited until morning, I would have never had the courage to go. I would have let you talk me out of it. And Phil, I needed to go.”

His face twisted.
“No.” Kate shook her head. “I didn’t mean it like that. It had nothing to do with you. I mean, it did but— you, you didn’t make me unhappy, and so you couldn’t make me happy either. I had to do that. But you did nothing wrong. Nothing. I had to go for me.” Kate stalled. “And I had to do it alone. But please know that you were everything a girl could have wanted in a fiancé.”

“Just not what you wanted.”

“No.”

He nodded.

“And I’ll forever regret that weakness, that cowardice that had me sprinting away in the dead of night. Believe me when I say that. But it was the only way. At the time, it was the only way!” She took a deep breath. “And Phil, I know I don’t deserve your forgiveness, but I hope someday—”

“I forgive you, Kate.”

Kate’s heart lifted. “You do?”

Phil made an empty gesture, a half smile forming momentarily on his lips. “I’m getting married.” He gave her a dry look. “For real this time.”

Kate blinked. “You are? Oh. Oh! Ah, congratulations—” she stuttered. “I’m so glad for you.” And she was.

“Her name is Lucy, and she’s—well, she’s everything.” Throwing out a wry smile, Phil added: “And, I suppose I wouldn’t have met her if you hadn’t done what you did. So in that regard, I should probably thank you.”

“Your welcome, I guess?” Kate laughed quietly. Phil’s lips twitched. Sobering, she said then: “But seriously, Phil, you deserve nothing less than everything you want.”

Phil nodded in seeming agreement. “I was angry at you for a long time, Kate.”

“I know.”

“But I’m not anymore.” Phil told her. “I’m happy. I’m—” He shrugged again. “I came here today to put the past to bed, to end it, all the questions, the hurt and betrayal. All of it. I came to say a proper goodbye this time. I needed to do that before I married Lucy.”

Kate nodded.

“And now I have.”

“Thank you,” Kate said quietly. “For your persistence, for coming here.” And she meant it. She hadn’t known until just this moment how long she’d been waiting for this moment. Resolution. Restitution. Atonement.

Slowly, Phil rose to his feet. “Be happy Kate. I know I am.”

Gaining her own legs, Kate smiled tremulously. “I will be,” she promised him.

Edging back from the table, he came around to her side, and bending down, brushed a soft kiss against her cheek. “Goodbye Kate.”

“Goodbye Phil,” she whispered.

With a speaking look at Calida, he moved toward the door. “I’ll meet you back at the hotel then, shall I?” he asked politely, expectantly, just as though his leave-taking had been a carefully staged exit.

Then again, knowing Calida, it probably had been.

That woman nodded slowly. “Yes, that will be fine.”

And with that Phil was gone, slipping out the door, his departure as quiet as his entrance had been thunderous.

When Calida remained firmly in her seat, Kate sank despondently back into her own chair. It was only too clear that Calida, unlike Phil, was not leaving. Not yet anyway. Kate’s eyes skittered over to Penny and M.T. who sat silently at the far side of the table. Neither woman had spoken throughout the exchange. But Kate doubted they’d missed so much as a word. They’d dissect the conversation later, in private.

Calida cleared her throat. “So I suppose it’s my fault then,” she said to the quiet room. “What you said to Phil: that you weren’t allowed to be you before, well, before your little defection. I suppose I did that, made you someone else?”

Kate swallowed difficultly. “I don’t know what you want me to say…”

Calida laughed. “And wasn’t that the whole problem, Kate? That you were always waiting for me to tell you what to say?” Her voice was harsh, waspish.

“Mom…”

“No. Don’t.” Calida shook her head vigorously. “I was only ever trying to do right by you.”

“I know that,” Kate insisted. “I do.”

“But you still hate me.”

“I don’t hate you.”

“You don’t?” Calida sounded honestly surprised. “That’s not the way I’ve understood it this past year.”

“I don’t know…”

“I didn’t know where you were!” Calida cried. “I wasn’t even allowed to know that much!”

Kate cringed. “You would have just—”

“Found you?” Calida laughed weakly. “Yes and God forbid that!”

Kate looked down at her coffee. It was cold now.

“You have no idea the stress, the pain you put your father and me through. We were upset and confused and—”

“I’ve never been any match against you,” Kate cried. “Growing up, you have no idea how hard it was for me. You pushed and pushed and pushed me to be the little girl, and then the young woman, you always wanted. And for awhile I thought I wanted that too—I thought if I could just make you proud, I’d be willing to do just about anything…”

“So you disappeared?”

Kate sighed tiredly. “Somewhere along the way I lost sight of what mattered most: finding out what made me proud, finding out what I wanted.”

“I see.”

“I was so desperate for you to love me mom, but I couldn’t, not at the expense of—”

“Of your own happiness,” Calida said. “Yes. I heard you.”

“I’m sorry,” Kate said, the words sticking to the back of her throat. “I-you’re right. I was selfish. Running off like that, hiding away. I hurt people. I hurt you.” Kate licked her lips nervously. “I was so focused on me, on what I was feeling, that I never stopped to think of how my actions would affect anyone else.” She took a deep breath. “And honestly, at the time, I don’t think I really cared anyway.

“I was so frantic to get away, to find myself that I took all the resentment that had been building in me for years and…”

“I meant what I said in Minneapolis.”

Kate stopped.

Calida’s eyes were steady on Kate. “That I had regrets. That I’d missed you. That I would jump in mud-puddles with you, if only you’d let me.” Calida’s body was tense, her voice wooden, unnatural.

Kate shifted. “It’s hard to trust you.”

“I’ll admit that I made mistakes, but so did you.” Calida insisted.

But Kate wouldn’t budge an inch. “Keeping tally?”

“Dammit Kate, don’t be so obstinate!”

“Like mother, like daughter.” Kate’s lip snarled. “Guess we’re alike in some ways, after all.”

Calida’s eyes closed momentarily. “Well…” Pushing herself up from the chair, she made a face. “I can see this is getting us nowhere…”

“Don’t blame me,” Kate defended. “I didn’t ask you over.”

And suddenly Calida looked tired. “No, you didn’t.” Grabbing her coffee-cup off the table, Calida walked over to the sink.

“You don’t have to do that—” Kate protested, half-rising from her own seat.

“And you didn’t have to earn it,” Calida said gruffly as she set the porcelain cup inside the stain-less steel surround. Spinning back around then, she returned to the table, her steps sharp and quick as she grabbed her purse off the back of the chair there. Her eyes glared down at her daughter. “My love. You never had to earn that. You always had it,” she muttered as she slung it over her shoulder, before marching toward the door.

When her hand closed over the doorknob, she paused, but didn’t turn back around, to say: “So please—I’ll go. I promise I’ll leave you alone, never see you again if that’s what you really want, but at least let me know where you are. Give me that, if nothing else!”

Kate felt her throat convulse as she watched her mother turn the knob in her hand and glide through the door, and out of her life.

And then Kate was catapulting to her feet, racing after her. “Wait!” she cried, throwing the door back open wildly. Calida stopped mid-step, her neck craning over her shoulder to gaze up at Kate’s frantic features. “That’s not-that’s not what I want.”

Calida raised a quizzical eyebrow.

“Don’t. Don’t go,” Kate managed through trembling lips.

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Fifty-Six

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Over here.”

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

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

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

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

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

“No chance of that,” Kate whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your mother?”

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

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

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

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

“Then what happened?” Penny asked breathlessly.

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

Penny nodded wordlessly. That must have been a shock.

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

“I don’t know…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?”

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

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

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

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

“We walk out the front door.”

“Just like that?”
“Just like that.”

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

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

Slipping them on, Kate took a deep breath.

“Ready?” Penny asked.

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

“Yeah? What about it?”

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

“So you dress in costume?”

“If that’s what the client wants.”

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

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

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

“Yeah—”

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

“About what you’re going to do?”

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

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

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

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

Maggie smiled tightly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mother.”

“Calida.”

“Mrs. McDonald.”

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

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

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

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

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

“He’s here, too?”

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

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

They were good.

“You followed us?” Kate asked.

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

“Then how—?”

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

Kate bit her lip.

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

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

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

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

Kate goggled. “Me?”

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

Penny had a sinking feeling about that.

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

“What did I say?” Kate whispered.

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

Kate blinked. “That’s it?”

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

Penny cringed.

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

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

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

“We found you.”

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

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

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Fifty-Three

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

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

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

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

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

M.T. nodded. “That’s true.”

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

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

“What if it turns out badly?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kate nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Janessa shrugged. “Yeah.”

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

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

Kate gulped.

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

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

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

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

And that had been that.

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

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

Janessa shrugged. “Whatever.”

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

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

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

“Think she’ll be okay?”

“Janessa?” M.T. asked.

Penny hitched one shoulder. “Her too.”

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

 

 

 

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

Janessa wasn’t in a chatting mood.

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

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

Bit by bit, Janessa turned into a stone.

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

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

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

Rinse and repeat.

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

The untold story of Paul Cooper.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So that’s how they were doing it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul frowned. “You okay, kid?”

“Umm…”

“Speak up. I can’t hear you.”

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you—do you know who I am?”

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

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

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

An uncomfortable silence descended for a moment.

“Your mom sick or something?”

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

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

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

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

“Oh.” His face hardened ever so slightly.

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

He sighed. “I see.”

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

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

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

“Sometimes it’s better than the truth.”

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

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

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

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

“What I’ve done?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I love you, Kate.”

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

North of Happenstance: Chapter Fifty-Two

With a painful flick of her wrist, Penny thrust on the light switch as she entered her shop. Grimacing at the assaulting yellow glow of the overhead bulbs, her hand instinctively coming to rest against her temple, her mouth letting out a whoosh of breath, Penny slowly steered her way toward the coffee…. God, she’d forgotten how terrible a hangover really was…

Last night had been—well, it had been one of the best nights in her life. There she’d been, sitting up in bed, fully clothed in a pair of leggings and a dark blue tunic with a splash of dark green fabric around the hem, staring out her window, wondering what in the world Jake had up his sleeve—

And then he’d shown up, and he’d snuck her out to his truck—and Stink Pig had been just as good as Penny remembered, and with the tequila flowing, they’d practically sparkled on the stage. And she’d danced: fast, slow, off-beat and everything in between. And she’d drank: cocktails, classics, hard stuff, and beer. But best of all, Jake had danced right along with her, meeting her drink for drink….

Cringing now, as she made her way gingerly toward her desk, Penny considered that perhaps there had been a wee bit too much drinking. Then again…smiling softly, she eased her computer bag open and pulled out her tablet computer. Nah. Never mind. Come to think of it: the hangover was worth it, after all. She wouldn’t have changed a single thing.

High on that thought, Penny opened up her email account, her eyes glancing absently down at the inbox, scrolling quickly through the subject headings, and rifling through the junk mail and advertisements, the email subscription posts and newsletters…yawning, her finger inched toward the delete button.

Save on your house loan….

Delete.

Intuitive: How to Market—

Delete.

LitLiber, Chapter Fifty-Two…

Oh. Better keep that…. Mark Unread.

Case: COOPER, FATHER FOUND

            Wait. What?

            Freezing at the words, typed in Courier New, typed in ALL CAPS, Penny’s eyes widened disbelievingly. Opening up the email, her fingers clumsy on the screen—from the fear and dread of it all, the rising anticipation and excitement, Penny  held her breath, unsure what she was waiting for exactly, what she expected to find within its body…

Her mouth moving frantically to silently sound out the words she read in her head, Penny’s stomach knotted up tight, her fingers shook a little—and her headache from before was lost, forgotten in the overwhelming news staring back at her.

She’d found Janessa’s dad.

Well, okay, actually the private investigator Penny had hired found him. (But really, what more could Janessa expect of the psychic? Penny hadn’t gotten any visions, any vibrations on the man. What else was there to do besides hire the assignment out?)

            Her breath coming slow, sputtering in the aftershock of what she’d just uncovered, Penny placed her tablet slowly, carefully down on the table…pushing it out of sight, her eyes shifted, taking in the busy sidewalk facing her storefront.

Breathe Penny.

Think Penny.

It was barely eight o’clock in the morning. Men and women, in all styles of clothing, from business professional to grungy, and casual, even touristy, walked past, their day only just beginning, fresh and ready to start a brand new day….

With a half wail, Penny realized that Janessa would be in school right about now, probably just sitting down to first period. It would be cruel to text her—to make her way some seven hours before coming over, to sit all day wondering, hoping, dreaming about the information (the potentially life-altering information) displayed oh-so-coolly across Penny’s computer screen.

Person: Mr. Paul D. Cooper. Age: 42 Occupation: UNKNOWN

Home Address: 13 Crabtree Way ——— (To Be Released Confidentially)

City: Coventon State: CT

 

Her eyes skimmed over the other details that the private investigator had seen able to report via electronic correspondence. It wasn’t much. Other information would be made available at another time, in a private, secured setting, if the client so-desired.

“Well,” Penny murmured to herself. “I guess that’s that.” Standing up, she moved to pour herself another cup of coffee.

 

 

 

As it happened, Penny hadn’t been able to wait until three o’clock to talk to Janessa. She’d barely been resigned to wait until lunchtime, the knowledge of what she had at her fingertips nearly splitting her in two. But, luckily, Whestleigh High offered off-campus school lunch periods, which meant that Janessa wouldn’t be breaking any rules if she stopped in at Penny’s between 12:00am and 1:00pm….

Which is exactly why she’d sent the text message at 11:55 am— Janessa, it’s Penny. I have news about your dad. We need to talk. Lunch?

The clock had no sooner ticked past 12:06 am then Penny  heard the front door click open, followed closely by the echo of heavy footsteps and slightly labored breathing before the thick curtain separating Penny’s shop from the outside hallway was thrust wide open, emitting the dark, snarly head of one Janessa Cooper.

“You found him,” Janessa wheezed, her breath coming out sticky and hot, the sound hitching unevenly out of her mouth. Her large blue eyes shined with so much feeling that Penny’s heart gave a great, hard lurch.

“Janessa, come, sit down,” Penny invited, waving the jumpy teenager towards a chair.

“Tell me,” Janessa insisted, not bothering to move so much as an inch. “You did find him, right?”

Penny sighed. “Yes. I found him.”

“Oh my God. I can’t believe it,” Janessa stated. “I can’t believe it.” The words, repeated, came out more slowly this time, as the full weight of the meaning seemed to settle down against her shoulders.

“I hired a private investigator to locate your father—”

“You did?”

Penny shrugged. “Psychic didn’t get a vision, okay? So I outsourced.”

Janessa nodded numbly. “Okay.”

“And, honey please sit down,” Penny pleaded.

With a lumbering step, as though she could no longer feel her feet, Janessa made her way to the small table in the center of Penny’s office, her body slipping untidily into the seat.

“I was sent an email with some information on your dad—”

“Do you know where he lives?” Janessa’s voice was soft, barely there, so light Penny almost couldn’t hear her.

Penny nodded. “Yes. That is…I don’t have his home address. But I can get it, if you’d like.”

Janessa nodded slowly.

“Where is he?”
“Pretty close by, actually,” Penny advised. “He’s in Coventon—which is about three and half hours from here.”

“You mean, he’s in Connecticut?” Janessa’s question was sharp, her head bobbing up quickly at the words, her blue eyes staring Penny down hard.

“Uh…yes?”

“All this time…” Janessa bit her lip. “He’s been here.”

Penny’s fingers fidgeting, she wasn’t sure how to respond. “Would you like to read the email?”

At Janessa’s slow, silent nod, Penny quickly pulled it up. Pushing her tablet into the younger girl’s hands, the email already on prominent display there, she stood back, biting her lip anxiously as Janessa’s eyes scrolled carefully, almost fearfully down the page.

One minute past in this fashion.

Then another.

Followed closely by a third minute…

Penny wasn’t sure what to say, what to do next. Janessa’s eyes still hadn’t unglued themselves from the bluish-glare of the computer screen, but Penny hardly thought the girl was still reading anything. The email was relatively short after all—a veritable bullet-list of highlights documenting Paul Cooper’s life, and it certainly wasn’t three minutes worth of reading.

“Janessa?” Penny asked tentatively in the silence.

At the sound of her name, Janessa’s head snapped up. Her eyes stared groggily up at Penny.

“Are you okay?”

Janessa didn’t speak.

“Look, I know it’s a lot to take in…” Penny said, her fingers clasped together in front of her body. “You don’t have to make any decisions today. Just—maybe just let information fully digest….”

Janessa rolled her eyes.

Penny tried to smile. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“Talk about what?” Janessa returned with a definitive tilt of her chin, an edge in her voice; anger simmered just below the question.

“About how you’re feeling? I can only imagine how…how—”

“You can’t imagine anything,” Janessa accused. “You don’t know anything.”

Penny swallowed difficultly. “No, of course you’re right. But if you want—I’m a very good listener. Maybe I can help you—”

“I don’t need your help!” Janessa screamed, her fist banging hard against the tabletop. Her mouth contorting into an ugly line, her face blossoming red, she stood up, the abrupt action shoving her chair back so hard it almost toppled over.

Wincing at the sound breaking out against her four walls, Penny held up her hands. “I’m sorry—Janessa, please…”

“God, just leave me alone,” Janessa sneered, pushing herself off the table and brushing past Penny, her shoulder hitting the psychic as she did so: “After all,” she added, reaching for the curtain. Her words were thick with tears. “I’m used to it, aren’t I?”

Watching her storm out of the office, terribly aware that her company was the last thing Janessa wanted or probably needed right now, Penny nonetheless knew what she had to do…. Reaching for her phone, she let out a momentary sigh as she punched in the well-remembered number. She’d have a lot of explaining to do, but she was willing even to withstand the lectures, the dramatic bits, everything…for Janessa.

 

 

 

Running, her feet skipping, slithering against the sidewalk, Janessa’s breath rasping harshly up her throat and out her parched mouth, the teenager let the tears she couldn’t shed in Penny’s office fall down her face.

Her stomach burned. It burned so hot she felt like she’d explode from the pressure, like she’d die if she couldn’t just let herself cool down. Running, frantic to get away, to hide away, Janessa’s body moving automatically, her steps steered her toward the only place she’d ever felt truly at home—

She ran to Good Shepherd Church.

Wrenching the door open at the side of the building, her shoulders quaking, eyes bloodshot now, and still the tears came streaming down her face—Janessa shot her body through the vestibule and out into the dim, hushed hallway.

A little after noon on a weekday, the building was silent except for the quiet hum of the fluorescent lights flicking haphazardly from the speckled ceiling tiles, and the slight click-clack echo of someone typing…

“Well, good afternoon darling,” Heather, the church secretary, called out then, looking up over her computer as Janessa came shortly into view. Guess that explained the typing noise…. “What can I do for you?”

Wiping the sleeve of her zippy under her nose, Janessa dropped her eyes. “I need Pastor Thayer.” And at the exaggerated silence that passed, Janessa added roughly, her eyes studying the flooring: “Please.”

Taking one good, hard look at the girl decided Heather’s answer. “Well, now, of course. Why don’t you just came in here and take a seat, while I go and get her.” Without another word, Heather was up on her feet, and shoeing Janessa into one of two chairs stationed just inside the office there. “Won’t be a minute,” she said, her feet taking her quickly down the hall.

Knocking quietly, Heather stuck her head inside M.T.’s outer office, taking a moment to smile demurely at the Parish Planning Council, all five of them, stationed around the oval table there, heads bent in serious discussion.

“I’m so sorry to interrupt,” Heather said, “But I’m afraid Pastor Thayer is needed out in the office.”

“Is it urgent?” Gary, the head of the council, asked, turning his head to inquire nicely of Heather. “We’re right in the middle of the education board budget line….”

“I’m afraid it is,” Heather insisted. After all, the congregation should always come first.

And at that, Pastor Thayer rose graciously to her feet and, following behind Heather, soon found herself staring down at a surly, stony-faced expression—not quite what she had expected upon absconding from the PPC meeting….

“Janessa?” M.T. asked, putting a smile on her face as she greeted the girl. “What a wonderful surprise!” Reaching out her hand, she beckoned: “Come—let’s have some lunch…”

“Now tell me, to what do I owe the pleasure of your company this fine afternoon?” M.T. asked, putting a can of soup to heat on the oven. They hadn’t spoken once on the trip from the office to the kitchen. M.T. had wisely given Janessa that time to marshal her thoughts, regain her equilibrium, brush aside the track of tears smudged against the cheeks…

But when Janessa didn’t immediately answer, M.T. started to wonder if she hadn’t made a mistake, letting her keep quiet this long. Janessa frequently needed more prodding than most… But when she turned around, Maggie found the girl standing there, shoulders arching roundly, lips vibrating as large, silent tears—heavy, noiseless sobs—racked her body.

And within seconds, Janessa found herself cocooned in the arms she’d been dreaming about since she’d read that stupid, stupid email.

“What happened?” M.T. asked, her hands caressing Janessa’s disheveled hair. “What happened?”

And, within a matter of minutes, the whole sorry tale was revealed to Maggie, in between bouts of tears and sniffs and gargled words….

“I don’t know why I even care,” Janessa said then. “It’s not like he does. I mean, he’s three and a half hours away. All this time, and I haven’t seen him—” a wail followed the words, quickly covered up. “I thought—all my life, I thought he was dead.”

“I’m so sorry you’re hurting—”

“Why did he leave? Why didn’t he ever come back to see me?” And then: “Why doesn’t he love me?”

And for the second time since she’d shown up at the church, Janessa felt M.T.’s arms wrap themselves around her shaking body.

“Oh Janessa—oh, sweetheart….”

Pushing herself out of Maggie’s grasp, Janessa shook her head. “I thought I’d be so happy. You know, once I found out that he was alive and all. I thought—once I find out where he is, it’ll all—I don’t know. I thought….”

Janessa sighed a watery sigh.

“But I was wrong. I don’t feel better. I don’t. It just hurts more.”

M.T. nodded.

“Why?” Janessa wailed. “Why didn’t he want me?”

“Oh, sweetheart, I’m sure it’s not as simple as that—”

“Then why has he never tried to contact me? Why did he let me believe he was dead?”

M.T. bit her lip. “I can’t answer that question.”

Janessa’s lips quivered again.

“But I can tell you this,” M.T. said. “He sure missed out on getting to know a wonderful, special girl.”

Janessa snorted. “Whatever. You have to say that. You’re a pastor.”

M.T. laughed. “No, it’s my pleasure to say that, because it’s the truth.”

Janessa looked down at the floor, her feet scabbing nervously at the checkered tile. “What should I do?” Then, in an instant, those blue eyes were raised, staring imploringly up at Maggie.

“Have you talked to your mother?” M.T. asked quietly. She knew Janessa and her mom had a rocky, tumultuous relationship, but still, this was important— “Does she know about this?”

“Oh yeah,” Janessa scoffed. “She told me good luck and if I found him, to tell the bastard he owed her ten years back child support.”

“Oh.”

“So?” blowing out a huge breath, Janessa carefully considered her next words.

“So?”

“What should I do?”

But the pastor was too seasoned at her job to be easily manipulated into making someone else’s decisions. “What do you want to do?”

Janessa made a disgusted face. “I knew you were going to say that.”

Maggie only smiled. “All right, well answer me this: Why did you ask Penny to find your father?”
“What?” Rearing her head back, Janessa seemed caught off guard by the question.

“Why?”

“I don’t know…”

“I think you do.”

“So you think I should do it, go and see him—”

Maggie interrupted her firmly. “I think you should ask yourself if you still want to.”

 

 

 

At the sound of knocking at her front door, Kate jumped to her feet, her steps haphazard, frantic as she slipped from her living room, and slid past her kitchen, practically falling into the parlor room, her voice ringing out urgently as she went: “I’m coming, I’m coming—hold on!”

Throwing the door open, a big, tremulous smile etched across her face, Kate started down at the person she’d feared would never show up, the person she wanted to see most in the world right now.

“Janessa,” she breathed.

The teenager was pulling nervously at a loose string on the sleeve of her shirt. “Hey Kate.”

Stepping back, Kate tried to wave the girl forward. “Hey—won’t you come inside?”

“Nah,” Janessa said, shaking her head. “I’d better stay here.”

“Oh, okay,” Kate said slowly, nervously. Resting her shoulder against the door jamb, she waited, but when Janessa only stood there, Kate said: “What’s up?”

She tried to play it cool.

“I-uh,” Janessa’s mouth opened, but the words seemed to get stuck, lodged somewhere inside her throat.

“Is everything okay?” Kate probed, though she already knew the answer to that question. Still, she wanted Janessa to feel like she could talk—she wanted Janessa to talk.

“Have you ever been to a place called Coventon?”

Kate only just managed to keep a blank face. Of course, she knew what was going on here—Penny  had called her a few hours ago, guiltily filing her in on everything that had been going on between her and the young teenager these past few weeks or so; and after that, M.T. had called, wanting to give Kate the news that Janessa was fine. She was upset, but she was fine. And so Kate had waited. And she’d prayed that, after all, Janessa would finally come to her. That she’d finally want Kate.

“No, I’ve never been there. I’ve heard of it though…”

Janessa’s eyes were trained on the floor, where her feet were fidgeting restlessly, kicking at the air. “Do you want to go there—with me?”

Closing her eyes on a rush of love, and relief, and answered hopes, at first all Kate could do was nod her head in acceptance. “Yes,” she finally said, her voice barely above a whisper. “I’d love to.”

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Fifty-One

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

Grimacing, he pushed them out of his sight.

Kate had the absolute worst timing.

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

Because Jake didn’t want Kate anymore.

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

But he wouldn’t have that excuse anymore.

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

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

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

“No…”

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

Fidgeting, she’d moved into his living room.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, don’t be.”

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

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

“Stop being so nice to me…”

“No, I’ll never do that—”

Kate gave a watery snort.

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Be there in five minutes.”

“I thought so,” she’d laughed.

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

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

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

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

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

“Are they actually any good?”

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

“Drinking your first illegal beer…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The tickets stared up at him mockingly.

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

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

“Penny, its Jake…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

So Jake lied.

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

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

Jake grinned. “What are you doing tonight?”

“No plans,” Penny said.

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

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

“Could you replicate it?”

“What?”

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

“Before I go to bed?”
“Yeah.”

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

“Oh, and Penny…”

“Yeah?”

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

“The window…?”
“I’ll see you later.”

Penny laughed again. “See you later.”

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

His heart kicked up a little. Twelve hours.

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

He wondered what outfit Penny was going to wear.

His grin only widened.

Twelve hours.

Time couldn’t pass soon enough.

 

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-Eight

It wasn’t until Maggie lost her necklace that Kate really realized it; in a way, she supposed she’d always known. She’d seen it, she’d just never thought about it. She’d never considered how bad it was until that day….

The way she’d forced Kate to stay back with M.T. when everyone else was scavenging for the lost piece of jewelry, to sit there next to Maggie holding her hand while everyone else dove in the cool waters…watching, waiting; they hadn’t both needed to be there, one would have sufficed…

But Penny had felt guilty. She’d felt impotent with helplessness. To have Kate go out there, to have Kate do what Penny could not—no, that could not happen. That did not happen. It was hard enough, succumbing so fully to her fears, she couldn’t be bested by Kate’s heroics, too.

It should have been so obvious. Even before the necklace, Kate had noticed things, like how Penny loved to look out and view it, but she kept herself at a good distance from its edge. How there’d always been this expression on her face whenever she got too close—of whispered reverence and total, abject revulsion and distrust.

Except.

Except, on the other hand, Penny lived on water. She should, in theory, by an avid swimmer. Or, at the very least, she should be able to swim.

But Penny did not swim. She could not swim. She was terrified of swimming.

“And I’d always been fine with that,” Penny had confided to Kate. They’d been sitting out on the patio of Margarita Joe’s, and Penny had probably more than enough tequila for the evening…. “But then, when Mags lost her necklace and I-I…I couldn’t help. I wanted to Kate, I really wanted to rush into that water, but I couldn’t.” Penny shook her head soulfully. “I despised myself for that fear. I hated the fact that it was going to keep me from helping one of the people I love most in the world.”

Kate silently wondered if that wasn’t the reason for the new necklace, the one Penny had bought for M.T. She wondered if Penny’s obsessive, manic urge to replace the lost one, replicate it, hadn’t stemmed from her longing to just do something, anything, to help in whatever way she could—and maybe avail herself of the failure she felt over not being able to swim out to find the old one. It was as though Penny thought that it was because she couldn’t swim that it hadn’t been found, as though some part of its missing were her fault.

“It’s not your fault, you know,” Kate had tried to reassure her. “That it hasn’t been found. We’ve been diving for days now and no one’s seen heads or tails of it.” Kate licked the salt off the rim of her glass. “What I’m saying is, whether you could swim or not, it’d still be lost.”

Penny shrugged, her lips pursed. “I know. I know, but it doesn’t make me feel any less pathetic.”

“I know what will make you feel better,” Kate said before ordering them another round of margaritas.

“Yes, because alcohol is usually such a pick-me-up.” Penny chuckled.

“No, not that,” Kate returned, batting her hands at the words. Smiling hazily in Penny’s direction, she offered the psychic a big, toothy grin. Now she came to think of it, Kate may have had one too many drinks, as well. “No. This.”

“This what?”

Kate cleared her throat. “I’ll teach you how to swim.”

Penny’s eyes shone bright in the neon-lighting shining over the outside seating. “Really?” she breathed.

“I’m a great swimmer,” Kate assured her. “In fact, it’s kind of a requirement, where I’m from.”

Penny laughed.

“Right?” Kate snickered. “Because I come from the land of 10,000 lakes…” Another guffaw.

Penny stopped, a quizzical look on her face. “Oh! Wait—” she sounded out, in dawning realization. She pointed a knowing finger in Kate’s direction. “I get it. The land of ten thousand lakes.”

And then they fell into peals of laughter yet again.

 

 

 

The rest of the night was kind of a blur, but when Kate woke up the next morning three things remained perfectly clear:
1. Penny telling Kate that M.T. was one of the people she loved most in the world.

  1. Kate promising Penny she’d teach her how to swim.
  2. The girls deciding that the first lesson would commence that afternoon, at three pm.

 

 

 

“What are you doing here?” Penny asked uneasily, opening the front door to her house at Kate’s insistent knock. Her eyes darted out nervously toward the water’s edge.

“Swimming lessons,” Kate told her.

Penny’s mouth pulled down…

“You do remember agreeing to this, don’t you?” Kate teased.

“Oh—well, yeah, I guess….”

“Then let’s get to it.”

“I thought we were just talking though,” Penny stuttered, her cheeks getting uncomfortably red. “You know how people do…”

Kate tilted her head to the side. “Just talking? But we made a schedule, Penny.”

“Yeah,” Penny ran her teeth over her lower lip. “But, you know, there was a lot of alcohol involved.”

Kate waved away the words dismissively. “So what?”

Penny fidgeted, her fingers playing frantically with the doorknob she still had in her grasp. “I’m not too sure about this…”

“Did you mean what you said yesterday?” Kate asked stubbornly. Her head ached and her body felt like garbage, but she’d drug herself out of bed, and underneath her icepack, to help Penny. She would not be turned away now. “Regardless of the alcohol, did you mean it when you said you hated not being able to jump in that water and help Maggie—that you despised yourself for giving into your fear? That you felt like a coward and worse than that, you felt ashamed—everything Maggie has done for you and you couldn’t get over one small phobia…”

“Okay!” Penny shouted. “Yes. I meant it. Okay. Stop.”

Kate nodded grimly. “Then put on your bathing suit and let’s go out there.”

“Kate…”

The blonde shook her head determinedly. “Penny, I’m not going to let anything happen to you. I promise.”

Penny sucked in her lip.

“I know you’re scared,” Kate continued. “But I will be with you the entire time. I will hold your hand the entire time. I won’t let you go.”

Penny blew out a deep, hard breath. Then, with a quick jerk of her head, she turned on her heel, and made for her bedroom.

Kate smiled in quiet triumph. She wanted to do this for the psychic. It was important. Kate and Penny still hadn’t really talked about the incident… and it was still there, between them, that fizzle of angry words and hurt feelings. Jake and Jackson. And Kate and Penny.

Kate sighed. They hadn’t really talked about it—this topic they consciously ignored, but it weighed down on their friendship all the same; there, between them, laying unsaid in the midst of conversation, was that fight. That fight they were determined not to bring up. To forget. To pretend  never happened.

Only it did happen and no one had forgotten anything.

It’s not that Kate wanted a rematch. She didn’t want to argue at all. She just wanted her friend back. She’d missed Penny. And so she was going to teach her how to swim.

She was going to do for her what Penny had frequently done for Kate. Help her heal, help her find her strength. It was time Kate gave back. It was time she followed Maggie’s heed: this time, it was Penny who would come first. Penny, whose feelings and upsets would take first priority. It was past time that Kate showed Penny she could be a good friend, too.

“Ready?” Kate called when Penny reemerged some minutes later, a brightly colored towel tied tightly around her waist, her face a few shades too pale.

Penny nodded sharply. Speech seemed to be beyond the psychic as the women let themselves out of the house and walked the short distance down to the water’s edge.

Clutching the towel tighter around her person, Penny stared down at the wet sandy shore, staring as if mesmerized at the water lapping gently there. Her knuckles were white, her breathing not quite controlled.

“Penny?” Kate asked. “Here, let me take your towel.” Carefully, she took hold of the microfiber material, pulling it free from Penny’s hold.

Throwing the thing down on the grass, she grabbed for Penny’s hand. It was ice cold in her grip. “Ready?” Kate asked, with a sideways smile. She squeezed reassuringly before taking one step and then another forward.

Penny came along reluctantly, her eyes wide, unnerved.

“Remember, I’ll be with you the whole time,” Kate counseled. Penny looked strange. “Just hold on tight and take one more step forward and…there!” Kate squealed. “You’re officially in the water now.”

And Penny was. At least, the bottoms of her feet were in the water. But it was a start. And slowly, Kate walked Penny onward. Further. Further, until the girls were in the water up past their knees. Penny still hadn’t spoken, her jaw seeming permanently clenched as she allowed herself to be persuaded deeper and deeper.

Everything had been going just fine until that sixth step… when the sand dropped away unexpectedly by a foot or so. One minute the girls were standing mid-thigh and the next thing Kate knew, they were waist-deep in the cool, calm lake.

That’s when Penny panicked. And it wasn’t just a howl of surprise at the abrupt submergence, either. It was a flat-out freak-out.

“No, no, no, no, no…!” Shaking her head frantically, Penny’s voice came out hoarse and high-pitched. Throwing off Kate’s hold, she scrambled backward, her arms splashing frantically against the surface of the water, her feet almost tripping in her haste to get away. Tears filled her eyes as great heaving huffs off air exploded out of her lungs.

“No, no, no, no, no!” she kept saying, her voice rising louder and louder, more frantic and frenzied.  Then, at last, her feet found grass. But Penny was in such a state, she didn’t seem to realize she was safe, free… She just kept screaming, her legs propelling, pushing in retreat.

“Penny—wait,” Kate called, running after her. Her long legs were on Penny in a second. Reaching out Kate’s fingers just brushed the back of her swimsuit.

“No!” Whipping around, Penny railed on her. “I told you—I said I didn’t want to do this! Why didn’t you just listen to me!”

“No, you said you weren’t sure—”

“Shut up Kate! Just shut up.”

Kate’s head snapped back at the words.

“You pushed me to do this. But I’m not—I don’t want to do this, okay?”

“Okay,” Kate relented, stunned by the accusation in Penny’s voice, hurt beyond consideration. Blinking back her own tears, Kate apologized. “I’m sorry—I didn’t mean…”

“Just leave it,” Penny barked, throwing her arms out wide to encompass the lake before them. “Just leave it alone. I’m not—” Whipping furtively against the tears streaming down her face, Penny just shook her head. Picking up her towel, she started back up for her house.

The broken, half-suppressed sob that accompanied Penny’s scurry, however, was what cut Kate the deepest.

 

 

 

Kate cracked open the front door. “Penny?” she called, rapping her knuckle softly against its sturdy frame.

She received no answer. Straightening her shoulders, even when every part of her body insisted that she turn around, shut the door behind her and leave Penny alone, Kate walked inside the psychic’s dimly lit living room.

“Penny?” She called again. Listening, stretching her ears for sound, Kate prayed for an answer, any answer…

And then, suddenly, Penny was standing there in front of Kate, having emerged from the kitchen; a caftan was draped comfortingly across her body, a ceramic mug in her hands. For a moment, Kate and Penny stared at one another. Then, holding up the steaming cup, Penny asked gruffly. “Want a cup?”
Kate smiled tremendously, letting out the breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. “I would love one.”

Silence descended as the girls made their way into the peach-hued room, Penny busy taking down a mug from the cupboard, Kate struggling with what to say…

“I’m sorry,” Penny breathed then, breaking the silence. Her back was to Kate as she reached for the carafe, pouring out a cup of coffee.

“You’re sorry?” Kate blinked. “No, I’m sorry!”

“I freaked out,” Penny said, turning then, her eyes wet. “I—I told you to shut up! I can’t believe I said that…”  Penny handed over the steaming cup. Kate took it gratefully.

“You probably had every right too,” Kate conceded. “I was pushing you. And I should have listened when you expressed doubts.”

“No, you were trying to help. I know that. I just…I lashed out.”

“It’s okay.”

Penny nodded, bringing her coffee up to her mouth. Kate mirrored her. For a second neither of them spoke, each busy drinking the beverage in their hands, neither knowing exactly where to go from here…

“I used to swim,” Penny said. “When I was a little girl; I’d go out with Maggie. I was never very good, but I could float.”

“What happened?” Kate asked softly, because clearly something had.

“My mother was a drunk.” The words slapped hard against the air, as unexpected as they were harsh. “Did you know that?” Penny asked, her voice oddly conversational. “It didn’t really start to show until after Maggie’s dad died, until after she’d left…”

Kate swallowed difficultly.

“And one day, after she’d had too many, she decided she wanted to lie out in the sun on the dock,” Penny murmured. “I guess she passed out because when I found her, she was face down in the water, unconscious.”

Kate’s hand went up to cover her mouth involuntarily. Oh God.

Penny laughed without mirth. “I remember it so well. I was up in my bedroom, watching TV and suddenly this strange feeling came over me—like when you get water up your nose and it burns! And I heard this voice whispering in my head: The lake! The lake! Get to the lake! And I knew. I just knew what had happened.”

Penny hitched a shoulder.

“I ran outside, my feet slipping, smacking against the dock. I remember that sound so well. And when I saw her—I just screamed.” Penny shook her head. “I screamed and screamed and screamed. And next thing I remember, Jackson and his grandfather came running outside, and then they were in the water, lifting her out. And then Jackson was calling an ambulance while Mr. Fischer was giving my mother mouth-to-mouth…”

“Oh Penny, that must have been so terrifying.”

Penny scratched at something on her nose. “She almost died, Kate. If I hadn’t listened to that voice…If I hadn’t gone out there when I did…”

Kate stroked a hand down Penny’s arm. “I know.”

Penny smiled. “It was the first time I realized I had the gift.” She laughed bitterly. “What a way to find out, huh?”

Kate bit down hard. “I’m so sorry.”

“I never went back in the water again.”

“Of course,” Kate nodded. “I understand.”

“…I tried, but I couldn’t. Every time I—, well, you saw what happens.”

Kate blinked back tears.

“I loved my mother,” Penny said, “but she took so much away from me. She took my childhood away from me. And all she left in its place was scars and fears, lots of them—would she kill herself today? Would I make it home in time to save her? Would she remember my name…?”

“I-I,” but Kate didn’t know what to say.

With an abrupt start, Penny put down her mug. “And you know, I’m sick of it.” She spoke so softly, Kate wasn’t sure if Penny was talking to her or to herself. “I’m sick of being afraid.”

Kate stared at her uncertainly.

Penny lifted a steely gaze to Kate. “I meant what I said yesterday. I want to swim. I do. Can we—can we try again?”