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HAPPY BIRTHDAY, LITLIBER

HAPPY 3RD BIRTHDAY, LITLIBER!

Oh my goodness, I can’t believe it’s been three years (3 years!) since I started this blog! I can still remember the fantastic excitement and nerves as I hit ‘publish’ for the very first time–the anticipation and the hopes as I waited for whatever would come next.

Well, it’s certainly surpassed my expectations. What started as a blog I created so I could showcase my love of writing has turned into the cornerstone of a small book publishing company I started so I could turn those stories into books; and the foundation from which I now offer freelance editing services so I can help others achieve their own successes. Through it all, LitLiber has remained constant: a place about writing, for writing.

 

Happiest of happy birthday’s, LitLiber. I love what’s happening here.

Carnival Lights: Chapter Thirty-Nine

Jason’s eyes narrowed on the words, but his expression remained unreadable.

“I fell in love with you from almost the first moment we met,” Christina said, her face flushing with the words. “But I kept putting the memory of Bill between us. Because I was still hurt, because I never wanted to be hurt again. It was an easy excuse, one I didn’t have to examine, because you made me feel things again, without even trying.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Christina saw Matthew motion to Mary—but when they each made to step out of the way, and give the two some privacy, Christina held up a hand.

“No. You don’t have to go. I put you all through this.” She turned back to Jason. “You were right when you said I played it hot-and-cold. You see, I wanted to be with you so much that it overrode my fear.”

He made a half-laugh, but there was nothing of humor in the sound. “Not for long.”

She shook her head numbly, aware that he hadn’t unbent one inch,  not even when she’d confessed her feelings. “No, never long enough,” she admitted. Shifting uneasily, she ploughed ahead. “But I’m done with that. I’m done letting Bill have any sort of control over me. He doesn’t get to be the reason my heart breaks for a second time.”

Jason’s eyes closed. “Christina…”

But she couldn’t stop. “Look, I know I screwed up. I pushed you away. I said terrible things. I never gave you a chance.”

His hands curled into tight fists down at his sides.

“I never gave us a chance.” Her eyes pleaded with his, her concentration totally alerted to every facial nuance—she was so absorbed that she didn’t see when Mary and Matthew did leave, slipping out into the kitchen. Probably, they were too embarrassed for her to stay any longer. “If you can’t, or don’t, want anything more to do with me, then that’s okay. But I promised myself I would never do what my mom did to me.”

His brow furrowed.

She lifted one shoulder. “I’d never just let the person I love walk away without a fight. You deserve a fight. So I’m here. If you want me.”

His lips twitched. “You should have gone home years ago.”

She snorted. “Don’t I know it.”

He took a short, hesitant step toward her. Christina tried not to notice how much her heart rate accelerated at the movement. Then he stopped. Far too soon, he stopped. “I don’t know Christina,” he admitted.  His hand motioned between them. “After everything, this all feels a little fast to me.”

Christina felt her throat constrict. “Fast?”

“Last week,” he ran a hand through his hair. “Last week you didn’t trust your feelings for me—or mine for you. You felt certain what we had was nothing more than a self-fulfilling prophecy. You thought you wanted me because you shouldn’t have me—because that’s how it was with Bill. And I get it, that you threw him between us to protect yourself, but it doesn’t change the fact that, at the time, you truly believed that your feelings were nothing more than illusion.”

Christina swallowed an instinctive desire to argue.

“And now, now you’re standing here telling me after one visit with your mother that’s resolved. Just like that?”

Christina took a deep breath. “No. I’m not saying that.”

He took another step toward her. “Then what are you saying?”
“That when I saw her, after all these years, all I could think about was how much I’d let myself lose that awful night she threw me out and Bill threw me over.”

He inclined his head.

“I realized,” throwing her shoulders back, Christina plunged forward. “I realized that I’m stronger than even I knew, but that strength came at the cost of my happiness, and suddenly it didn’t seem worth it anymore.”

He smiled. “Okay. That doesn’t answer my question.”

“I’m not asking you to marry me,” Christina said.

Jason raised an eyebrow. “I didn’t think…”

“I’m not saying that I’m not damaged. I am. I’m damaged.” Her voice shook a little. “But I’m healing.”

He still didn’t look sure.

“Look, I don’t know what more I can do to convince you,” Christina snapped, her arms flying out to the sides. “I’m standing here, my heart shaking in my mouth, telling you I love you and any second now you’re going to reject me, tell me it’s too late.” She took a deep breath. “But I’m here anyway. Risking it all. For you.”

Her voice lowered. “It took me four years to get here, and I guess it seems fast to you, but don’t all decisions seem that once they’re finally made—once that flip finally shifts?”

Jason grimaced. “But that’s just it, a week ago you were this sure that we wouldn’t make it. And now…” he shrugged, but there was a look of finality about it.

“Jason…?”

“I’m sorry, Christina,” he said, but he wouldn’t meet her eyes anymore. “I’m just, it’s too much. It’s too much.” Turning on his heel, this time he didn’t wait for her to answer. This time, he was the one who walked away.

 

 

 

Sitting at home that night, Christina stared emptily at the television screen in front of her. Tears partially blocked her vision, but she wasn’t bothered by their appearance. A dull sort of emptiness had replaced the throbbing ache in her chest by now. She was still in her sundress, that same bottle of whiskey sitting unopened on the coffee table before her.

As much as she wanted to drink her sorrow away, she knew it would get her nowhere. Plus, when it came to Jason she had a habit of doing stupid things when she drank. Snorting, she rubbed her palm roughly against her wet cheek. “Probably, I’d end up drunk texting him.”

It wasn’t like she had really been that surprised when he’d walked away. She could hardly blame him. From the word go, she’d done little to elicit his faith in her feelings. She’d done it to herself.

“At least I’ve still got Mary and Matthew,” she consoled herself. She wouldn’t let what had transpired between her and Jason get in the way of that. “We’ll make it work, somehow. At some point, I’ll stop loving him—” at the words she broke off, a small sob escaping from her raw throat.

The thought hurt. Profoundly.

She wasn’t allowed to wallow long however; the sudden buzz of her doorbell disturbed her fresh bout of sorrow. Despite herself, Christina felt a fissure of hope envelope her person. Could it be…?

Throwing her legs out underneath her, she raced to the door, her fingers scratching at the lock in her hast to open the damned thing. Swinging it open, she hardly realized she was holding her breath.

Blinking in disbelief, she swayed slightly when her eyes lifted— “Jason?”

His hair was rumpled, his eyes narrow—almost angry as they gazed at her. “Just shut up, would you?”

She wasn’t given a chance to so much as agree before his mouth came crashing down against hers. In shock, she felt the imprint of his lips with wonder. Her body reacting on instinct, she felt her arms twining around his neck. There was no room in her scattered thoughts to wonder at his intentions.

“Dammit Christina,” he muttered against her trembling lips. “Do you have any idea how aggravating you are?”

“No,” she answered dreamily. “I only know that you’re here.”

“Yeah, well…” with a growl, his nipped at her lips, “I didn’t mean to be.”

“Then why?” She asked, her stomach clenching.

“Because I’m in love with you.”

She felt his hands pressing her more firmly against his body as a fresh wave of tears coursed through her tense body. “Thank God.”

“And I couldn’t stay away.”

“Now you know how I felt all this time.”

His hands came up to frame the sides of her face, one thumb rubbing circles against the delicate skin. “I only hope I’m not too late.”

She smiled. “I think that’s my line.”

He chuckled. “I don’t think I even knew how I felt until you walked out my house last week.”

She ducked her head. “I know and I’m sorry—”

“No, let me finish,” he said. “I’ve spent the last week oscillating between missing the hell out of you and cursing your damn name.”

She smiled.

Jason shrugged. “It was so easy to handle my attraction to you all these years. I chalked it up to curiosity and tried to move on. But then, after Easter…”

“Everything changed,” she finished for him.

“In ways I wasn’t prepared for,” he admitted ruefully. “Everything grew all out of proportion and then…and then you just left.”

“Jas—”

“In a weird sort of way, it put what you went through with Bill into a different perspective. I get it a little better now, because that’s how I felt this afternoon: afraid, angry even, that if you came back you’d only leave again and I wasn’t sure I could—”

“I won’t,” she swore. “I promise I won’t do it again.”

“No,” he said, his lips coming down to press softly against hers. “Me neither.”

Lifting up against the crush of his mouth, Christina sighed. They weren’t finished talking—she knew that. But the conversation could wait. For a little bit, it could wait.

 

Carnival Lights: Chapter Thirty-Eight

By noon on Monday, Christina was dressed and ready to go. Pacing up and down, she considered her options. The red and yellow sundress with thin shoulder straps, bit at her skin as she prowled restlessly. Her hair, curling gently down her back, swished nervously from side to side as anxiety clawed greedily at her insides. Her eyes, expertly enhanced by aid of makeup, were clouded with fear, tension…

“It’s now or never,” she murmured to herself nonsensically—giving rise to her already heightened nerves. Grabbing for her purse, she exited her house, trying to calm her breathing with each step she took down the front porch and across the street. It didn’t help much.

The entire ride over, she rehearsed what she would say. She had her speech nicely in hand, having spent the majority of her weekend getting it perfectly prepped. Slowing down as she pulled off on their side street, she felt the butterflies in her stomach explode.

“Just breathe,” she cautioned herself as she crawled past their driveway, her eyes roaming the driveway—looking for vehicles, signs of gathering. Sure enough, Jason’s vehicle was parked out front, and the garage door holding Mary and Matthew’s SUV’s was open, showing both cars snugly parked inside.

With a crank of her hand on the wheel, she turned her car back around, and this time, she didn’t drive past their house, instead pulling up into their yard. Cutting the engine, Christina bolted out of her seatbelt, her hand jerking the door handle with enough force to make the hinge crack. Marching up to the front door, she didn’t allow herself to reconsider.

“Knock,” she scolded her fingers when they initially froze down by her side. With a twitch, they curled into a fist as she brought it down against their solid wood door.

In some ways, the reality of what happened next fully lived up to the dreams she’d been living on. It some ways.

For one thing, it wasn’t Mary who answered the door. It was Matthew.

Blinking in surprise at the sight before him, his mouth formed words but at first no sound came out as he gazed down at Christina’s strained smile.

“Umm,” twisting her fingers together in front of herself, Christina felt her own eyes wandering, unable to meet that penetrating look. Suddenly, she didn’t know what to say. Clearing her throat, she prayed for confidence: “Sorry to barge in unannounced—”

“Matthew? Who’s at the door?” But before Christina or Matthew could answer her, Mary’s short form rounded the opening.

Stopping mid-stride, that lady’s mouth fell open. “Christina?” she whispered unbelieving.

Seeing her, Christina’s eyes watered. “Hi Mar.”

“Oh honey,” Mary breathed, rushing forward on instinct.

“I’m sorry.” This wasn’t how Christina had planned to start off the conversation. Swimming in a sea of uncorked emotion, she found the rattle of her breath, the wobble in her knees distracting. “I’m so sorry—”

That’s as far as Christina got before Mary’s arms were pulling her forward, throwing Christina into that woman’s embrace.

“I was so ghastly to you both—and I didn’t mean it,” Christina cried, her body sinking into Mary’s hold. “I’m not sure if you can ever forgive—”

“Hush,” Mary insisted, her words half-smothered. “There’s nothing to forgive. You have nothing to apologize for.”

“Yes. I do.”

“No.” Mary shook her head forcefully. “If anyone needs to be forgiven it’s me. I should never have said what I do.”

Pulling back a little, Christina saw the tears she’d heard in Mary’s voice. Her eyes flitted a little to the left, including Matthew. “But you were right. I was doing everything you feared I would. Recreating my past, confusing everything—and all because I was so afraid to lose you…”

Mary squeezed a little harder. “How many times do I have to tell you, you can’t possibly lose us?”

“I know,” Christina said. “At least, I know that now. I just—I couldn’t bear the thought of having you turn your back to me. So I turned mine to you. I thought, if it was my decision, it wouldn’t hurt as much.”

“I hope you were wrong,” Mary muttered, letting Christina go at last.

Christina smiled at the disgruntled note in Mary’s voice. “Dead wrong.”

“Good, because we’ve been absolutely miserable without you. Haven’t we, Matthew?”

Half afraid of what she’d find there, Christina forced her gaze up to his. But Matthew didn’t even need to speak—it was all written there, clearly on his face.

“And worried,” he added, but without any reprimand in his voice. “How was your trip?”
Christina felt her chin wobble. “It was…”

The sound of a third set of footsteps on the tiled foyer brought her up short. Her eyes—wide and searching lifted to find Jason coming into view. At the sight of her, his body seemed to almost jolt in recoil—but only for a second as he came to standing beside his father. His face was devoid of expression, his eyes shadowed under the overhead lighting.

“I went home,” she said, her eyes pleading silently with his from across the way.

But it wasn’t Jason who answered. “Yes,” Matthew replied gently. “That’s what Jackie said.”

At his voice, Christina snapped back to attention. Turning to him, she winced. “I know. And I’m sorry about that too…”

Matthew held up a hand. “It’s okay, Christina. Really. We understood.”

“How—how did it go?” Mary asked nervously.

Christina blew out a harried breath. “Better than I expected, but less than what I deserved.” With a half smile at Mary, Christina continued. “And I have you to thank for making me realize that. I have all of you to thank,” she said, her eyes zeroing in on Jason.

Still, there wasn’t so much as a flicker of response.

Digging deep from breath, Christina felt her lips quiver. “Despite that, we talked—me and my mother. I’m not sure if she’ll ever truly be able to forgive me but…she’s trying anyway. And that’s more than I hoped for.”

Mary brought a hand to her chest, but Christina wasn’t sure if it was in relief or fury.         “She’ll never be like…she’ll never be what you showed me family is supposed to be,” Christina said, shrugging uncomfortably underneath the sentimentality she didn’t often express. It was hard, being this open. “But then again, I’ll never be what she’s always thought a daughter should be.” She laughed without humor. “So, there’s that.”

Mary frowned, but at a small nudge from Matthew, she remained silent.

“It was funny—I didn’t even know how much you all had changed me, changed the way I looked at my past, until I went back there.”

Jason frowned, which was the first inclination he was even listening to her. Christina tried to take heart in that small gesture of reaction. It was something.

“Oh baby…”

“No,” Christina said, cutting Mary off. “Please, let me finish. I need to say this.”

Mary nodded.

“Going there, seeing her for the first time in years I realized a few things. Like how much I hurt for her and how little she’d hurt for me. I’d spent four years using her as the center for everything I did. But she just moved on with a new life, half-forgetting she’d ever had another.”

“I’m so sorry,” Mary whispered, tears running blindly down her cheeks.

Christina smiled. “Thank you. It wasn’t until I came face to face with that knowledge—when she saw me for the first time in years, standing on her front porch…” Christina swallowed with difficulty. Breaking down now wasn’t an option. “It wasn’t a reunion for her. It wasn’t the thing dreams were made of—because those only exist when you’ve actually dreamt for something to happen.”

Reaching forward, Matthew laid his hand on her shoulder.

“It wasn’t until I was standing there, looking at her, calling myself ten times a fool because I’d hoped—” Christina pursed her lips, taking comfort in the pressure of Matthew hand, the pain emanating off his face.  “I’d hoped a lot of nonsense. And it hit me, that all these time, despite everything I’d still been fighting for her—and she’d, she’d called it long ago.”

“And suddenly I was terrified to be like her,” Christina said.

“You could never be like that,” Mary insisted, wiping impatiently at her eyes. “Never.”

“I know,” Christina returned. “It was like this flip switched and everything made sense. I couldn’t help it, comparing everything I was seeing with her with everything I knew I would see at this moment, when I would do the same thing on your doorstep.”

Matthew’s hand reflexively clutched at her shoulder.

“You’ve always been on my side,” Christina continued. “Even when you probably didn’t agree with what I was saying or doing.”

“That’s love, baby.”

“I’m sorry it took so long for me to figure it out. It took going home for me to believe it. Don’t get me wrong,” Christina said doggedly. “My mother loves me, and I think she loves me as much as she can, but there are limits to her love, and they’re shallow and unrelenting. And really, I think that says it all. She doesn’t have the capability to love like…well, like you. And I can fight that all I want, but at the end of the day, that’s the fact.”

“I’m sorry,” Mary said again.

Christina waved it away. “Don’t be. I can’t pretend to be someone I’m not. I can’t be afraid to err. But mostly, I can’t rewrite history.”

“No.”

Christina took a deep breath. Jason still hadn’t spoken. Looking up at him again took great effort, because what she would say next mattered most of all. But she did look at him. His eyelids seemed to flinch at the contact, but Christina only straightened her shoulders.

“I also realized that…that Jason, you were right.” At the words, Matthew and Mary exchanged glances. “You told me I was hiding behind my mistakes, not because I couldn’t forgive myself but because I wouldn’t.”

He inclined his head.

“…You said I wouldn’t forgive myself because I liked it that way. If I couldn’t let go of my past then I couldn’t let someone in again, and if I couldn’t do that, well then I couldn’t be hurt again by someone who was supposed to love me, and protect me.” Christina’s voice cracked a little. “I think I knew you were right even when you said the words.”

 

Carnival Lights: Chapter Thirty-Seven

Saturday and Sunday saw Christina reaching reflexively for her phone, her fingers flying across the keyboard as she’d type out copious versions of: “I’m so sorry. I was a jerk. I miss you—” only to have each and every missive quickly deleted.

Her eyes grew dizzy staring down at Mary’s contact name. She wanted to reach out. She wanted to say something. But mostly, she wanted to know if she’d been right—if she’d be welcome come Monday afternoon. Faith was a hard thing to believe it, it turned out.

But there was something else, something she almost didn’t want to admit to herself. Because as much as she knew she needed to be the one who reached out first—after all, hadn’t she been the one to leave them, to lash out and run away? Still. She couldn’t help a small flicker of hope that seek her out, wonder what she was doing.

She knew it shouldn’t have, but it hurt, each hour that passed without so much as a by your leave. It felt so similar to four years ago…

“No. Banish the thought,” she could be heard telling herself.

They didn’t know she was back home. That was all. Otherwise, they would have called.

The only information they’d been able to glean was what they’d learned from Jackie, and admittedly Christina hadn’t told her much either.

It was at that reminder that finally Christina’s hand twitched, scrolling down to another name on her contact list. She had to call someone, talk to someone… It was Sunday afternoon by this point, and after going half-crazy at the mere idea of crashing Mary and Matthew’s home, after hours spent drafting and redrafting text message that she was never quite brave enough to send, she knew she needed some sort of distraction. So she called the only person who would understand. And who might unwittingly give her some reassurance.

“So you’re back.”

Sitting cross-legged on her couch, Christina pushed the phone more comfortably against her ear.

“Yeah.”

“Thank God,” Jackie sighed.

“Miss me?” Christina joked darkly. She looked around her darkened livingroom, the slight glare of passing headlights from a car going past splashed across one wall of the room.

“More like terrified you weren’t coming back.”

Christina rolled her eyes. “Ever the dramatic one.”

“You should have seen your face last Sunday.”

Christina swallowed the immediate retort on her tongue. “Yeah, sorry about that.”

“Everything OK?”

“I hope so.”

“Prevaricating again?”

Christina laughed at the irritation present in her usually chill friend. “No. No, at least. I’ll tell you all about it. Just, not now.”

Jackie made a noncommittal sound.

“How was work?”
If the question was unusual—and it most certainly was—Jackie didn’t make comment of it, at least not directly. She sighed. “So you’re still fighting with Mr. Gordman then.”

Christina sputtered. “What? No…”

“Clearly you are,” came the dry response. “Otherwise, you’d already know how work went.”

Rubbing one hand against the side of her forehead, Christina wondered if she hadn’t made a mistake after all, calling Jackie.

“You should have seen him this week,” Jackie went on to say. “He wouldn’t even hear of hiring a temp to do your work.”

Christina’s brow furrowed. “What? Why?” He always used a temp.

“He said that if you weren’t there, he’d just do it all himself. He didn’t trust anyone to do your job.”

“Oh please…”

“I’m serious. He stayed late every night, filling in for you.”

Christina made a face. “He probably put everything in wrong.”

“Probably.” There was the slightest hesitation on the other end of the phone. “What happened, Christina?”

Blowing out her breath, Christina shrugged. “I fell in love with the wrong guy.”

“With Jason, you mean?”

“Yes. No, I mean…” Christina sorted out her thoughts. “A long time ago I fell for the wrong guy.”

“Yeah,” Jackie said, her voice soft, understanding. “I sort of figured—”

“And then I took it out on the wrong guy.”

“Jason.” This time it wasn’t a question.

“And Matthew. And Mary.”

“So you’re hiding.”

“Pretty much.”

The phone was silent for a minute. “You sound better this week.”

“I feel better,” Christina said, and she knew it was true. She felt steady, sure of herself. Except… “I—Jackie, I said some pretty terrible things to them. All of them. Right before I left.” Her lips twisted painfully. “I’m not sure actually that they even want to hear from me.”

“I’ve never pegged you as a coward.”

Christina sat up with a jerk. “I’m not! I’m just, I’m trying to figure out what to do, how to make it up to them.”

“Do you remember what you said to me, when Max and I first starting dating and I realized I’d made a big mistake by pushing him away?”
“Not exactly…”

“Well, I do. You told me that all those grand gestures in romantic comedies—how had you put it, with the man standing there holding a rose as fireworks exploded in the sky and limousines did synchronized turns in the parking lot?—you told me that was all bullshit. That I should just be real.”

“I should be a motivation speaker,” Christina joked.

“You were right. So I called him that night and I just talked to him. I told him what I was feeling.”

Christina squirmed a little in her seat. It was always so easy, doling out the advice.

“Take your own council,” Jackie instructed then, as Christina knew she would.

“Right.” Christina looked longingly over at the chest to the right of her couch. Just thinking about going to the Gordman’s tomorrow had her tongue itching for a drink of whiskey….

“Look, no one likes to be the one who has to apologize.”

“It’s not that.”

“Then what is it?”

Christina wasn’t sure how much to share. It wasn’t in her nature. “What if it’s not enough? My apology?”
Jackie digested this for a moment. When she spoke next, her voice was challenging. “Well, then what will you have really lost?”

Christina pulled a face. “I’m not following…”

“It seems to me, if you do nothing, you’ve lost them anyway.”

 

 

 

Monday morning came with the blink of restless sleep. Groaning, Christina turned to her alarm clock. It was far too early…not quite five o’clock in the morning, but after half an hour spent tossing and turning, she gave up hope and lay there instead looking up at her ceiling. The pure whiteness of it offered a brilliant backdrop for her daydreams, which all consisted of her forthcoming confrontation.

She’d walk up to the house and before she could even knock, the door would be flung open and Mary, standing there with an apron tied around her waist, would run forward, throwing her arms around Jackie—

Half-strangled, wet laughter would float out of her mouth. Then she’d feel the weight of Matthew’s hand against her back, his voice in her ear as he’d whisper: “Glad to have you here.”

It was only when Mary finally pried herself away that Christina would spy Jason standing there, a little ways back.

“I’m sorry,” she’d mouth to him over Mary’s shoulder…and then, in an instant, she’d be in his arms, her mouth crushed under his—Mary and Matthew quietly giving them their privacy….

“Yeah right,” Christina muttered, throwing her blankets off and rolling out of bed. Shuffling to the bathroom, she put a firm hold on these dreams as she turned on the shower.

 

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-Five

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

Stretching, Penny let her eyes slowly slip open.

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

This wasn’t her duvet.

This wasn’t her bed.

This wasn’t her house.

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

What happened last night—?!

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

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

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

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

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

“Penny—” Jake growled warningly.

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

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

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

“So am I.”

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

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

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

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

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

Jake looked uncomfortable. Taken aback.

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

“Bedmate?” Jake grinned.

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

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

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

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

“Okay?”

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

Penny gave him a look. “Really?”

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

Jaw swallowed hard.

Penny raised an expectant eyebrow.

A second passed in silence. Then another.

“Jake?”

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

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

“Preferences change.”

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

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

Penny nodded eagerly. “Go on.”

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

“Different how—?”

But Jake was on a roll by then:

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

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

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

“Jake?”

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

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

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

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

“Penny.”

“Yeah?”

“Look at me.”

Slowly, she raised her eyes.

“Do you know what else I like?”

Penny shook her head slowly. “No.”

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

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

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

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

“How beautiful you are?”

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

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

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

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

“No?”

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jake reaching for her hand as they walked outside.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh God he was gorgeous.

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

Dammit, what had she been thinking?

What had he been thinking?

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

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

There is only so much disbelief the mind can handle.

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

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

God.

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

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

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

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

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

She’d slept with Jake.

The moment she’d been waiting for—

And now it was over.

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

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

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

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

Poetic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please!

Please—

But it was only Kate.

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

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

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

“Hello? Kate?”

“Penny? Penny! Are you there?”

“Yes. Yeah. What’s up?”

“Where are you?”

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

“Can you get away?”

“Now?”

“Yes now!”

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

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

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

A slight pause. “They found me.”

“Who found you?”

“My parents. Phil.”

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

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

“I’ll be there in two minutes.”

“Hurry Penny.”

 

North of Happenstance: Chapter Fifty-Four

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

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

Hank Burke.

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

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

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

He nodded formally. “Penny.”

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

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

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

The nerve.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah…”

“Do you still have feelings for him?”

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

“So what does it really matter?”

“It doesn’t.”

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

….

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

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

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

Hank shifted from one foot to the next.

Penny waited him out.

Hank opened his mouth. “Penny…”

“Hank…”

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

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

Penny nodded.

“But you mean a whole lot to Maggie.”

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

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

Spit it out, Penny thought impatiently.”

“I want to marry her, Penny.”

Whoa.

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

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

“Permission?”

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

“You want to marry Maggie?” Penny repeated.

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

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

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

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

Penny nodded silently.

“But—I’m sure.”

“And Maggie, how does she feel?”

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

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

“Seven months.”

“Well. Yeah.” Her voice was skeptical.

Hank sighed. “The thing is…”

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

“I’m losing her, Penny.”

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

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

“Oh.” This old thing again.

“At least, that’s what she thinks.”

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

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

Penny shrugged. “Yeah. She has.”

“And?”

“And what?”

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

Penny nodded slowly. “She did.”

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

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

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

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

“No more than anyone else.”

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

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

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

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

“Especially her dating life.”

“Yeah.”

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

Hank’s face flushed.

“So that’s why.”

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

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

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

“I guess,” Hank mumbled.

“Hank…”

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

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

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

“Okay.”

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

Penny nodded. “Bracing for the inevitable.”

“I can’t get through to her.”

“Self-fulfilling prophecy.”

“Yeah. I guess.”

“Will you? Get tired of it?”

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

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

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

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

“You’re twisting it.”

“Maybe.”

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

Penny smiled. “Yeah?”

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

Penny considered this.

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

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

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

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

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

“Conjugal purposes?”

Hank blushed. “That either.”

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

“So what do I do?”

“Wait.”

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

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

“A fool who’s in love.”

Hank coughed.

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

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

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

“I do.”

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

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

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

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

“Yeah?”

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

Hank smiled. “I’ll hold you to it.”

“Bye.”

“Goodbye Penny.”

 

 

 

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

Hank wanted to marry Maggie.

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

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

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

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

Squirming in her seat, Penny felt her glee blossom.

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

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

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

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

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

Frowning, Penny straightened slowly in her chair.

Who did she have?

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

Zip. Zilch. Nada.

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

But the words rang a bit hollowly in her mouth.

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

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

Because Penny couldn’t share in it.

Because she desperately wanted it.

Because she didn’t have it.

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

 

 

 

“Hello?”

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

“Yeah. I know. What’s up?”

“You doing anything tonight?”

“Uh. No—”

“Want to?”

A quiet chuckle. “With you?”

“Well, who else?”

“Yeah. What did you have in mind?”

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

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

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

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

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

Jake grinned. “Half an hour then.”

“’Kay. Bye.”

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s not nothing.”

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

Penny blinked. “Why not?”

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

“Yup. Got lots of those lately.”

“And that’s a problem?”

“No—”

“But?”

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

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

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

“I get that.”

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

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

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

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

“She did?”

“Yeah. A few days ago.”

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

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

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

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

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

Jake smiled down at his beer. “Yeah.”

“I don’t understand.”

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