The cool air caused a chill to shoot through Kathryn Hawthorne’s body, leaving goose bumps in its wake. She blinked and looked around her bedroom. There was a thread of hope inside her that maybe, just maybe, she was alone. She sat up slowly, glanced over her bare shoulder, and sighed. Krystal? Kristine. No, Krista. Whatever her name is—was still lying next to her. Auburn hair spilled over the pillow, the dark purple sheet covering most of her naked body, a tattoo of a peacock feather on the underside of her left breast sneaking out from under the material. Kathryn rolled her eyes at herself and rubbed her hands over her face. Clearly, she was a weak, weak woman who, at thirty-two, was way too old to be acting like she was twenty-one.
Maybe she was slightly taking advantage of being a celebrity in the bustling city of Chicago. She had to admit that it did have its conveniences. Kathryn didn’t want to brag—and honestly, she never did—but even after her first two or three appearances on Windy City Now! as a movie critic, she was being spotted, recognized, and fawned over. And it was crazy! She’d never needed help getting women in the past, but now she barely had to try. Last night was no exception. She’d pulled up to her Wrigleyville brownstone in a cab, bringing with her the most attractive woman at the bar.
The only problem?
The woman hadn’t left in the morning. And was obviously far from leaving.
Kathryn was absolutely not a fan of sleepovers and snuggle buddies or anything else that could lead to trusting people and relationships. Getting her heart broken into a million pieces had proven to be quite the deterrent when it came to relationships.
She looked once more at the girl in her bed and bit her lip when legit fear washed over her at the thought of waking her up. That would mean a conversation in the light of day.
Yeah, she was definitely turning into the type of person that should never let them fall asleep after having sex with them.
Kathryn slid from under the sheets and tiptoed across the wood floor to the oversized reading chair next to the floor-to-ceiling windows. In one smooth movement, she slipped into the robe that had been discarded onto the back of the chair. The morning sun crept over the top of the Chicago skyline, and if it weren’t for the woman in her bed and the start of a horrendous stress (yeah, right, it’s stress and not a hangover) headache, it would have probably shaped up to be an amazing morning.
She hurried from the bedroom, closing the door as quietly as possible and sweeping her dark hair into a loose ponytail. The smell of coffee hit her when she padded downstairs and rounded the corner into the kitchen. She was happy that in her drunken stupor she had remembered to set the timer on the coffeepot. Kathryn pulled a cup from the shelves and filled it to the brim, bringing it carefully to her lips. She let the smell of coffee fill her nose, then took a sip.
“God,” she moaned and leaned against the counter. This headache was gearing up to be a real doozy. At least she didn’t have anything to do—“Fuck fuck fuck,” she said, as the calendar caught her attention. In red ink around today’s date was “Virginia’s Birthday Party—4:00 p.m.” with a sad face scribbled in red marker. A wave of nausea washed over her. She wanted to believe it was from her hangover, but she knew it was really because she still hadn’t found her mother a gift.
Kathryn stared hopelessly at the wall of aromatherapy products that lined the walls of Skin, an upscale downtown Chicago boutique. The store was busy with the typical classy and stuck-up clientele, but not as crazy as normal, for which Kathryn was thankful. She couldn’t even imagine dealing with a crowd in her current stressed-out and hungover state. And she was thrilled that the lighting was dim and the jazz music playing in the background was low. She was nursing her headache with ibuprofen and caffeine, and she still had absolutely no idea what gift to buy. And it was only two hours until her mother’s birthday party.
Really the biggest problem with waiting until the last minute to buy Virginia Striker a gift was that she was quite possibly the most judgmental, unfriendly, uncaring woman on the face of the planet. If Kathryn couldn’t find the perfect gift, she would get an earful about it eventually. She could already hear the disdain in her mother’s voice. It wouldn’t matter what she bought the woman; it would never be good enough.
Kathryn’s stomach churned. Maybe she could just say she was ill. Technically, drinking herself into a stupor could be classified as an illness, right?
“Is there something I can help you with?”
Kathryn, irritated, turned toward the soft female voice and was immediately captivated by the woman’s smile. It lit up her entire face, and there were tiny crinkles at the corners of her eyes that seemed to tell a story. Her teeth were so white and so straight, and honestly, it was the most beautiful smile Kathryn had ever seen. She had blond hair that was pulled back in a loose French braid, the end of the braid trailing over her shoulder. The woman looked as if she didn’t belong in that store, like somehow someone plucked her out of a dream and plopped her into an aromatherapy store, thinking that if nothing else at least her smile would help relax people. It was unnerving how much Kathryn felt connected to someone she had never met before. But as they stood there, Kathryn frozen with nerves and the woman smiling as if she thought maybe Kathryn was deaf, it was clear Kathryn had no idea how to handle the encounter. She wanted to kick herself. She was normally much better at handling these types of situations. Maybe this woman caught her in a rare moment of hungover stupidity. Kathryn had to basically shake herself to remember how to speak.
She glanced down at the woman’s gold-plated name tag and saw “Pam” neatly engraved. “Um, yeah, I think so,” she stammered, running her fingers through her dark hair and searching madly for words. “I’m trying to find a birthday present.”
“A gift? Well, this is your lucky day. Gifts just happen to be my specialty.” Pam’s eyes lit up. “Who is it for? Anyone special?”
“I would never judge. Promise,” Pam replied. She held three fingers in the air. “Girl Scouts’ honor.”
Kathryn chuckled and then said with an embarrassed tone, “My mom. Her party is in,” she checked her watch, “two hours.”
“Oh, so you’re a procrastinator? Remind me to never expect a gift on time from you, then.”
Kathryn’s mouth fell open in shock. “Hey, you said no judging! And aren’t you supposed to make me feel better about this? So I actually buy something? ‘Salesperson of the Year Award’ should clearly not go to you.”
Pam’s eyes sparkled. “A procrastinator and a comedian with a sharp tongue? Amazing.”
“Lady, you have no idea.” The corner of Kathryn’s mouth turned up, and she raised an eyebrow slightly. Kathryn felt the familiar feeling of butterflies springing to life in her stomach. She flashed her megawatt smile and reached over to touch Pam’s arm. “Do you want to hear my awesome excuse?”
“I feel like I need to now.”
Kathryn noticed Pam glance at her hand and then back up to her eyes. She wondered if she had overstepped a boundary. “I can’t stand my mom, and she’s a judgmental, mean-spirited bully.”
“Well, in that case,” Pam leaned in toward Kathryn and lowered her voice, “Bath and Body Works is just around the corner.”
“I don’t want her to hate me back, Pam.” Kathryn felt the woman’s name slip from her lips and into the air before she could think twice. She waited for a demeanor change or a freak-out or security to be called or something equally dramatic, but it didn’t seem to faze Pam. She carried on talking, pulling soaps and body care products from the shelves.
“Lavender Vanilla and Cherry Vanilla, bath foams, sugar scrubs, and lotions. It’s definitely a wonderful gift. All of these products will last her, too. A little goes a long way with the bath foams. And the sugar scrubs are incredible. Your skin feels so supple after using these products together.”
“Do you use these?” Kathryn prodded. This woman was seriously the cutest thing she had ever seen, her eyes shining and her black pants clinging to all the right places. Not to mention that the buttons on Pam’s white shirt were pulling and straining in ways that made Kathryn feel like a teenager again.
“Absolutely. Here.” Pam reached for Kathryn’s hand and pulled her toward one of the tester sinks. “Roll your sleeve up.”
Kathryn did as instructed.
Pam took some of the sugar scrub and started to massage her hand. If Kathryn didn’t know better, she would have bet a million dollars that this woman was interested. The signs were all there. Everything Kathryn looked for when she was on the prowl: the smiles, the eye contact, the touching of the hands and arms. But years of practice and more one-night stands than she could count should have conditioned her to know this was not something to get excited about. Not to mention the woman had a gold wedding band on her left hand. Just another straight woman with no idea that Kathryn would give anything to take her in the back and have her way with her, blond hair being pulled in all sorts of ways.
“That feels really nice,” Kathryn murmured, finally breaking the silence. She could tell that she was blushing. If she had to name only one weakness, it would be her insane blushing mechanism.
Pam rinsed the scrub off. She applied a thin layer of lotion and then had Kathryn test out the difference. “See?” Pam asked, her eyes darting up to Kathryn’s. “Imagine your whole body feeling that way.”
Kathryn’s eyes went wide and she pulled in a breath, which she promptly choked on. “Yeah,” she replied through a coughing spell. “That’s nice.”
“Sorry about that. I say what’s on my mind a lot.” Pam shrugged. “It sometimes catches people off guard.”
“That’s not a problem at all.” Kathryn licked her lips. “It’s refreshing. Very refreshing.”
“Good to know.” Pam glanced down at the floor before she looked back at Kathryn. “I will have our package experts get this ready for you. It was really nice working with you—” Pam held out her hand and waited for Kathryn to reciprocate the handshake.
“Kathryn.” Their hands met, and Kathryn felt her entire body warm up. It had been a long time since she had felt like this.
“Well, Kathryn, your hand feels amazing,” said Pam as she breezed past Kathryn, winking at her when she looked over her shoulder.
Kathryn took a deep breath, her gaze following Pam as she walked away. “You gotta be kidding me,” she said under her breath. Fucking straight women.
“Wine at eleven thirty on a school night? Such a good plan.”
Pam looked over at her best friend, Judy, who was sprawled across the oversized armchair in Pam’s living room. She swirled Chardonnay in her glass lazily as if it took all her strength. The pair always seemed to fall into the same seats when they invaded Pam’s house for their late-night chats. “Yeah, well, you’re the one with the kids. And I had a long day. A long, weird day,” Pam replied. She sank farther into the dark brown couch across from Judy, propped her feet up on the coffee table, and looked around the dimly lit living room. Her golden retriever, Dorothy, was in front of the fireplace on the wood floor, sound asleep.
“I doubt it was as weird as mine.” Judy raised her glass. “To weird days.”
“To weird days,” Pam echoed, raising her glass from her position on the couch. “What happened that made yours so weird? Have to interview another murderer on death row or…?” She secretly loved that her best friend happened to also be a top Chicago news reporter.
“Hardly,” Judy replied. “I actually…” She paused, glanced at Pam and then looked away. “I kind of,” another pause, a deep breath, “set you up on a date.”
Pam raked her fingers through her hair and let out a small, angry sigh. “You’re kidding me, right?” Her response was low, followed by a forced chuckle.
Judy instantly sat up, pulled her legs up underneath her, and leaned forward toward Pam. “Look, you need to get back out there.”
“I am back out there, Judes. I have a job. I’m making new friends. I’m happy.” Pam’s irritation was starting to bleed through her wine-soaked façade. “I don’t need a man to fill some void.”
“Pam,” Judy started, her voice calm. “That’s not it. I just,” she paused again, “I just don’t want you to miss out.”
“Oh, come on! Miss out on what?” Pam smoothed her hand over her face. “I’m fine. I’m actually better than fine.”
“Pam,” Judy started, but was immediately silenced by Pam raising her hand.
“Just stop. Okay? It’s not worth arguing with you about something that isn’t going to happen.”
“You are so fucking stubborn,” Judy said, followed by an exasperated groan. “All I want is for you to not be sleeping alone every single night.”
Pam shook her head. “Drop it, Judes. Please?”
“Fine.” Judy raised her glass to her lips, paused before taking a sip, and said, “Of course, the date I set you up on is still there if you change your mind.”
“And I’m the stubborn one?”
A laugh bubbled from Pam’s throat as she held back her anger. “You are absolutely horrible,” she said through the laugh. “Horrible!”
“Well,” Judy took a drink of her wine, “I mean, come on. You can’t tell me it wouldn’t feel nice to have sex or be intimate with someone else. Or at the very least be hit on.”
“Of course it feels nice to get hit on,” Pam responded with a huff.
“Oh, so you get hit on a lot, do you?”
“Occasionally. I mean, I’m not ugly, Judy.”
“No shit,” Judy replied. “You know what I meant.”
“I know.” Pam pulled a piece of paper from her uniform pants pocket. She hadn’t changed clothes before Judy barged in the front door asking why the hell she was at work so late. “Read this,” she said as she handed over the paper.
Judy stretched to get the white paper and inspected it. She turned it over and then back, reading the words carefully. Thank you so much for all the help. And the hand massage. Text me sometime. She glanced at Pam, who was staring straight at her. “Who is this from?” she asked, an eyebrow arched.
“Well, I was in charge of hand massages today, so whenever I could I made sure to work a complimentary massage into my sales pitch,” Pam explained. “So I honestly don’t know who it was.”
“Pam, you have to text the number.”
“Oh, my God, no. What if it’s a creep? I’m not calling a creeper customer just because I’m hard up.”
“Aha!” Judy gasped at Pam from her position on the chair. “So you admit that you’re hard up.”
Pam rolled her eyes. “Not the point. I am just showing you that I do get hit on. Just not always out loud, I guess.”
“Who could this have been? Who all did you rub today?” Judy asked, followed by a snort. “That sounds so dirty.”
“When you say it like that, you ass.” Pam thought back over her day. “Well…” She took a breath, looked up at the ceiling, and tried to tally the numbers. She thought about the ten or so people she sold product to and realized only one would have hit on her. “Well, shit.”
“I didn’t give any men hand massages today.”
Judy’s eyes almost bugged out of her head. “You were hit on by a woman,” she hissed.
“No, I was not.”
“If there were no men, that would mean it was probably a woman.” Judy sat with her eyebrow still arched to her hairline, a look of complete victory displayed on her face.
“Kathryn,” Pam whispered, her hand shooting to her mouth.
“Um, I’m sorry. Who the hell now?”
Pam’s memory flooded with the woman’s laughter and long, dark hair. “There was a younger woman that came in today, all flustered because she needed a gift for her mother. She was super friendly, very outgoing, funny. I just…” Pam’s voice trailed off as she stared at the piece of paper still in Judy’s hand. “It can’t be her, though.”
“It’s her,” Judy confirmed, nodding as she passed the paper back to Pam. “It’s gotta be.”
Pam reread the note, the cursive handwriting, the phone number.
“You were totally hit on by a lesbian,” Judy squealed as she threw one of the decorative pillows from the chair across the room at Pam.
Pam caught the pillow, shock still on her face as her shoulders fell. She glanced at Judy, her expression as stoic as possible, and said, “Judy, please. Giving me her phone number does not mean that she’s a lesbian.”
“Would you randomly give your number to a woman?” Judy asked. When she was met with silence she said, “Yep. Gay as the day is long.”
Pam rolled her eyes. “Real nice, Judes.”
“Did you notice anything else about her?”
“Like, did she have a T-shirt on that read ‘I’m not gay but my girlfriend is’?”
Judy’s mouth dropped open. “Did she?”
“God, no!” Pam reached up and pushed her hair away from her face. “I noticed that she seemed, I don’t know. Maybe she did seem flirtatious. Or nervous. Or perhaps a bit of both.”
“You made her nervous?”
“I mean, I don’t think so? But maybe. It’s not possible, though. I’m not intimidating at all,” Pam said as she tried to convince not only Judy but also herself.
“Maybe not intimidating, but you are really beautiful.”
Pam shook her head. “You’re nuts. Besides, she was way too young for me to be friends with.” She paused, nervous laughter spilling from her mouth. “I don’t even know what I would say to her. ‘Let’s go to Forever 21’?”
Judy echoed the laughter. “Maybe you could talk to her about barhopping?”
“Or dorm room living!”
Judy took a gulp of her wine, then a deep breath, and looked down at her hands. “I know this is kinda crazy, Pam. I mean,” she pulled her gaze back to Pam’s, “this Kathryn woman could be great for you, Pamela.”
Pam swallowed the unexplained lump in her throat. “Why would you think that?”
“I don’t know.” Judy shrugged. “Maybe because surrounding yourself with people who want to be around you is never a bad thing—regardless of the type of emotions they are feeling.” She motioned toward Pam with her glass of wine. “Even if this girl ends up being really gay,” Pam laughed and Judy continued, “that doesn’t mean you have to be gay with her. I mean, come on, we both know you’re as straight as an arrow.” Another shrug of the shoulders. “I love you, Pam. You’re my best friend. I want you to be happy. And I know you say you are, but come on, you’re not fooling anyone, especially me.”
“Judy,” Pam groaned. “I just watched my husband die. Life hasn’t exactly been a hayride.”
“It doesn’t have to be a hayride all the time,” Judy said, “but it can be one most of the time.”
Pam pulled her gaze from Judy’s and looked across the room. “I guess it can’t hurt,” she said, barely above a whisper.
Dorothy snored at the end of the bed, the clock ticked in the hallway, and the wind blew outside. “Dammit,” Pam almost yelled as she opened her eyes. She could hear every little noise, and it was driving her nuts. She checked the clock on the night table. Midnight. “Screw it.” Pam leaned over to grab her cell phone and slid her finger across the screen; the light filled the room and illuminated her face. She tapped the screen until she got to Contacts. Her heart thudded away as she scrolled through and found Kathryn.
Hi. It’s Pam. From Skin.
Pam deleted the text and sighed, groaned, and then retyped the same text. Her thumb hovered over Send. She could feel her heartbeat in her eardrums. Judy’s words from earlier about how Kathryn could be good for her echoed through her head. And then she pressed Send.
Instantly her hands became clammy. Her mouth turned dry. Her stomach filled with butterflies when her phone screen lit up and New Message from Kathryn appeared on the screen. She closed her eyes, counted to three, opened her eyes, and clicked on the message.
Hey there. I’m surprised to hear from you.
Not as surprised as I am to actually be doing this.
Not the adventurous type?
Pam shook her head, typed, Not typically, and hit Send.
Somehow, I don’t believe that. You did just give me your phone number, Kathryn.
And you texted me. I’d say you’re more adventurous than you think.
Maybe you’re right.
I’m rarely wrong.
Pam rolled her eyes. Oh, really? she texted, pressed Send, and then typed out, Why did you give me your number?
I want to get to know you.
Pam’s breath caught in her throat upon reading that text. Why?
The same reason you want to get to know me.
And why is that?
Because I’m interesting. And nice. And because you only live once.
It was weird to see it said so plainly. Fine, Pam typed and pressed Send. Coffee tomorrow?
Yes. Starbucks on Michigan Ave.
I’ll see you there.
Okay. Sleep well.
Pam finally released the breath she didn’t even realize she had been holding. She rested her phone on the nightstand and closed her eyes. “Now go to sleep,” she said to herself, even though she knew damn well she wouldn’t.
“It’s nothing big,” Kathryn said into her phone as she headed out of the television recording studio. The air was cold and damp, and winter had arrived with full force, but that didn’t stop the constant crowds on the streets.
“Who are you meeting, then? Is it someone you’re interviewing?”
“No, Sydney,” Kathryn replied, calmly, even though she was getting irritated with the questions. “If I was interviewing anyone it’d be a celebrity, and I doubt I’d be nervous.”
“Wait, why are you nervous? It’s not for work? What is it for, then?”
“Y’know, for a best friend you sure are annoying.”
Sydney’s laugh was so loud and sharp that it sounded like a bark. “You love me and you know it! Now, who are you meeting?”
“No one. Don’t worry about it.” Kathryn rounded the corner of Illinois Street and took a right onto Michigan Avenue, maneuvering through the throngs of tourists with ease. “Just a friend,” she added.
“Whatever, I know every single one of your friends, so it’s obviously not a friend,” Sydney said. “Text me if you need saving so I can call you. And then I can come over tonight to discuss over beer and popcorn.”
“It’s not a blind date. I don’t think I need the fake emergency phone call.”
“You’re gonna tell me about this later. I hope you know that.”
“God, Syd,” Kathryn huffed and gripped her phone tighter. “It’s this woman I met at that boutique. I’m meeting her for coffee. She’s straight. It’s not a big deal.”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” came Sydney’s exasperated voice. “Another fucking straight woman?”
“Stop. It’s not like that. I literally just want to be friends with her. I swear.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t believe you. So good luck with that.” Sydney scoffed, her irritation coming through loud and clear. “You realize I’ll be there picking up the pieces when this goes badly.”
“Always,” Kathryn said. “I’m at the coffee shop. I’ll talk to you later. Love you.”
“Love you, too, you whore.”
Kathryn disconnected the call and slid her cell phone into the pocket of her navy-blue peacoat. There had been several moments since the prior night when she wanted to come up with an excuse to stand Pam up. But she didn’t. And when Kathryn finally walked into the coffee shop, her mind was racing, stumbling over itself asking a million questions. Were things going to feel uncomfortable? Were they going to sit in complete silence? Were they destined to only have a salesperson-and-customer relationship? Which sounded so stupid in Kathryn’s mind, but dammit, it was a real fear! Was Pam going to be one of those straight women that only wanted to experiment? She rolled her eyes and took a deep breath. Settle the fuck down, Kathryn. She knew she’d have to wait to get the answers, but it didn’t mean she wasn’t going to torture herself trying to figure them out.
Kathryn looked around and noticed that the coffee shop was packed with people. College kids were hunched over their laptops, sitting at long, reclaimed barn wood tables. Old retired men read copies of the Wall Street Journal and the Chicago Tribune along the bar tops at the windows. Soccer moms dressed in yoga gear were perched in overstuffed armchairs, bobbing their crossed legs, downing lattes. The workers shouted names and orders over the bustle, making Kathryn feel slightly more at ease. Maybe all of this was exactly what she needed to be able to focus and not freak out. The busier the better.
She noticed Pam toward the farthest corner of the coffee shop, a dark green mug in front of her at a small circular table. She had her head down and her legs crossed, and her fingers were drumming lightly on the table. The sunlight streamed through the window across Pam’s long, blond hair and Kathryn watched from her vantage point as she moved her hair away from her face. Kathryn’s heart leapt into her throat when Pam’s blue eyes looked up and found hers. A small smile spread across Pam’s lips, and Kathryn froze. She really needed to start knowing how to handle that incredible smile if she was going to try and just be friends with this woman. C’mon, Kathryn, walk. One foot in front of the other.
“Hi,” Pam said casually when Kathryn approached the table.
Kathryn shrugged her coat off her shoulders and draped it over the back of the chair opposite Pam’s. “Hi there,” she responded, sitting and crossing her legs in one fluid motion. “Chai tea latte, please,” she said to the waitress, wondering if it was obvious that she felt nauseous.
“Did your mother like her gift?”
Kathryn tilted her head, impressed that Pam remembered. “Yes, she did, actually. I got her a sweater from Burberry, too. She would have died had I showed up with only aromatherapy stuff.”
“Ahhh, I see,” Pam said.
Instantly Kathryn was filled with regret. Why the heck did she put her phone number on that tip card? All she wanted to do was take her drink to go.
“Look,” Kathryn cut Pam off. “I’m sorry about giving you my number.” She stretched her fingers and realized once again the effect this woman had on her. No one she had ever met made her hands literally tremble, and she had met all sorts of people. And she had slept with a lot of women, even some men, and never had this happened. “I don’t know why I did it. But I could tell from our text conversation that it probably wasn’t the best thing to do.”
Pam’s sharp intake of breath said it all. “Oh, my goodness, don’t be sorry.” She looked down at her lap before finishing with, “This has just never happened to me before.”
“I find that hard to believe,” Kathryn said slyly, glancing up through the small curtain of her hair that had snuck from behind her ear. The long-sleeved dark-green shirt Pam was wearing was tight across the chest, and Kathryn was trying her hardest to not be inappropriate.
“Well, I mean,” Pam started, raising her gaze to meet Kathryn’s, “I’ve received quite a few phone numbers from men since I began working at Skin.”
“Quite a few, eh?”
“No, I mean, not like that,” Pam said, stumbling over her words. “I meant, because I was married for twenty-one years. The wedding ring sort of gave off a bad vibe for potential romances. It’s kind of why I still have it on.”
Kathryn hid her anxiety as she looked fully at Pam. “You think this is a potential romance?”
“Well, I don’t, I mean, you know,” Pam stuttered and leaned forward a little over the table. “You are gay, aren’t you?”
“Wow,” Kathryn exclaimed. She was in shock from the way that question just came out of Pam, but at the same time Pam’s abrasiveness intrigued her.
Pam’s face instantly fell. “God, I am so rude.”
“Rude? No,” Kathryn said as she put her game face on. “Maybe lacking tact, yes.”
“I never said I had tact.”
“True,” Kathryn replied. “So.” She paused and leaned back in the chair. “You think I’m gay, hmm?”
“Um,” Pam furrowed her brow, pursed her lips, “I’m not sure now,” she finished.
“Well, your gaydar is spot-on, considering that most straight women don’t come equipped with such tools. I am a lesbian.” Kathryn smoothed a wrinkle in her navy-blue fitted slacks. “But I just wanted a friendship. We seemed like we had a nice connection. You made me laugh. Making friends as an adult seems hard most of the time, but with you, I don’t know. It was easy to talk to you. I’m really sorry, though. I read everything wrong, which is so unlike me.” She wondered if her explanation was believable seeing as how she couldn’t believe it herself. She didn’t just want a friendship. She wanted more. Kathryn always wanted more, especially when the woman was as unattainable as Pam certainly seemed.
Pam’s laugh was coated with embarrassment. “Oh, my God,” she said as she covered her face with her hands. “I am so embarrassed!”
“It’s really okay.”
“No, it’s not!” Pam leaned forward, “My best friend, who, by the way, is a complete spastic lunatic and has no real basis for anything she ever says, basically called my attention to the possibility that you’re gay, and from there I just assumed. Goodness, can you tell that I ramble when I’m nervous?” She took a deep breath. “I’m so sorry.”
Kathryn leaned forward a bit, her hair falling over her shoulder. “If I wanted to ask you out,” she said, her voice low, almost seductive, “I would have just asked you out. And besides, I knew you weren’t interested.”
“It’s not that I’m not interested.” Pam corrected her. “I’m just—”
“Straight,” Kathryn finished the sentence for Pam. “I know. I promise. I got it.”
“I really am sorry,” Pam assured her.
“Don’t be. I swear that it’s okay. I’m sort of shocked that you could tell that I was gay just by giving you my phone number, though. That is one hell of a way to be outed.”
“Maybe it was the hundred-dollar-bill tip?” Pam asked, a shrug following her question.
“Maybe.” Kathryn smiled and shrugged. “Lesson learned, I guess.”
Pam took a sip of her coffee and set it on the table, both hands encircling the warm mug. “So…”
Kathryn cleared her throat, leaned back, and crossed her legs. “I guess we should settle up here and go our separate ways.”
“Yeah, I guess so. I’m sorry for, you know, not knowing how to handle any of this. It’s just been so long since…” She looked down at her hands. “I just don’t know how to manage this.”
Kathryn could see Pam’s hands shaking, and it made her sad that nothing about this first meeting was going the way she wanted it to go. “Y’know,” she said as she decided to take one last chance, “you realize that you could just try to relax and be my friend, right?”
Pam’s eyes snapped up to Kathryn’s. “What do you mean? I’m fine. I can be your friend.”
Kathryn huffed before saying, “Okay,” with such an air of sarcasm it dripped from the word.
“I can!” Pam protested as she pushed the sleeves of her shirt to her elbows. “You have no idea what I’m capable of.”
Kathryn arched her eyebrow, questioning Pam’s words without even opening her mouth. “Fine,” she said, trying not to laugh. “Then let’s actually try to be friends.”
“Fine!” Pam exclaimed. She crossed her arms. “Ask me a question, then. Something you’d ask a friend.”
“Oh, my God,” Kathryn pushed out. She tried to sound aggravated, but she was secretly very pleased with her reverse psychology method. “Let’s see.” She tapped her fingers on the table and tilted her head. “You kept using the past tense when you were referring to your marriage. What does that mean?”
“Oh.” Pam’s face fell. “That’s pretty deep for such a new friendship.”
“Whoa, I’m sorry.” The instant guilt Kathryn felt for asking the question when she saw how Pam’s demeanor instantly changed was almost palpable. “We seriously do not have to talk about that. I am being an ass.”
“No, really, it’s okay.” Pam composed herself. “He, uh, he passed three months ago. Pancreatic cancer.”
Kathryn, without thinking, leaned forward and gently placed her hand over Pam’s as she fidgeted with a napkin. “Oh, shit,” she whispered.
Pam’s eyes became wet.
“Are you okay?”
Pam nodded, somewhat unconvincingly. Kathryn squeezed Pam’s hand lightly and felt her breath catch in her throat when Pam squeezed back.
“Yeah, I’m okay.” Pam looked up from her lap. “It was hard. I mean, twenty-one years of marriage? Of course it was hard. We had been together since high school, so I was pretty used to him always being around. Always being there, and then for him to not be? It’s just hard. There’s no other way to say it.”
“It’s not easy losing your lover and your best friend.”
“Yeah. Actually, he was an asshole most of the time.” She shook her head as if trying not to laugh. “In high school, he always thought that if he was persistent enough, I’d eventually go out with him.”
“Persistence pays off then, eh?” Kathryn responded with a gentle squeeze of Pam’s hand before she finally pulled away. “Here, I have a much easier question. Do you have a favorite movie?”
“That really isn’t an easier question,” Pam replied, bringing her mug to her lips. “But if I had to pick, it’d be The Big Chill.”
“That might be the most perfect answer ever,” Kathryn said with an ease and confidence she hadn’t meant to show.
“What’s yours?” Pam asked. “And don’t say it’s the same movie as mine.”
“Never!” Kathryn bit her bottom lip. “Honestly? I am totally old school. I love Star Wars. All of them.” She launched into a tirade about the new trilogy versus the old trilogy, hardly stopping to take a breath. When she finally finished, Pam’s wide-eyed stare was enough to remind Kathryn just how much of a Star Wars nerd she really was. “Clearly more than you were wanting. I’m such a geek.”
“I am seriously very okay with you being a geek,” Pam responded.
Kathryn pulled out her signature lopsided smirk and said, “This is the start of a very beautiful friendship.”
“We’ll see how well you do in the next round,” Pam answered with her own smirk, holding up her mug to signify a toast. “May the Force be with you.”
Kathryn leaned forward and raised her own mug to clink it with Pam’s. “And also with you.” She watched over the rim of her mug as Pam took a sip of her coffee. Every time she looked at Pam, she found it harder and harder to not get lost in the sea of her blue eyes. They were calming in a way Kathryn hadn’t experienced in quite some time, but they also terrified her—in the way a wave can when it comes crashing down on you. Unexpectedly.
Yep, Kathryn was already in over her head. And for some reason, she wasn’t even upset about it.
“I’ll take an Old Style.”
“Really, Dad? An Old Style?”
Bill Hawthorne studied Kathryn, his eyebrows raised to his receding hairline. “A tiger never changes his stripes, kiddo.”
“True that.” Kathryn and her father were seated at the bar of the Old Town Ale House, a Chicago staple that had more history than most bars even hope to have. The walls were littered with hand-drawn pictures of naked celebrities and politicians, each with a price tag if someone really felt the need to own a piece of history. It still reeked of cigarettes and old beer that had been spilled by one too many Second City alums like Jim Belushi and Chris Farley. Kathryn glanced over at the bartender Joe, who had worked at the establishment for what seemed like forever. “I’ll take Grey Goose on the rocks with a lime.”
“No beer for you?”
“No, I need something a little stronger today, Dad.” Kathryn rubbed her temples and fought back the urge to spill her guts about the recent events. She generally told her father everything, but lately, when it came to her love life, she felt as if that was a little too much sharing. And it was a bit too early to start crying into her drink, although the rest of the bar patrons probably wouldn’t have judged her.
Bill chuckled. “Lady problems.” It wasn’t a question. It was clearly a statement. He knew his daughter entirely too well.
“Psh, problems? Never.” Kathryn watched the snow starting to fall outside through the grimy windows of the pub. It was too early for snow, but for some strange reason, she wasn’t as annoyed as she typically was with the weather.
“Don’t lie to your father, KB. It’s not a good habit to get into.”
A puff of air escaped from Kathryn’s throat as she brought her freshly delivered drink up to her lips. He had never stopped calling her KB. Kathryn Barbara, named after her grandmother. “You know me way too well. You know that, right?” She moved her gaze over to her father before taking a drink. He looked adorable in his Cubs hat and sweatshirt, his golfing tan finally fading due to the temperature change and the colder months. The retired life was treating him well.
“I know, honey. What’s going on, though? You know you can’t talk to your mother about these things.”
“Don’t I know it.” Kathryn’s knee bobbed up and down on the rung of the old bar stool, a nervous habit that came out whenever she was stressed. Maybe she did need to talk about it. “I met a woman that I really like.”
“That’s good, KB!”
“No, it’s not.” Kathryn looked down at her hands. “She’s straight. Like, just buried her dead husband, was married for years, still wears her wedding band straight.”
Bill nudged her arm with his elbow and waggled his bushy gray eyebrows at her, “You get that from me, don’t you? Always on the prowl and always after something you can’t have.”
Kathryn started to laugh. “Dad, seriously?”
“Well, you know the ladies always loved ol’ Bill Hawthorne. When you got it, you got it!”
“Oh, my God, Dad. You are relentless!”
He let out a boisterous laugh eerily similar to his daughter’s and put his hand on his belly. “I think this scares them away these days. Not as slim and trim as I used to be.”
“Still as handsome as ever, though.” Kathryn slugged him lightly on the arm.
“KB, honey, you know these things pass with time. You’ll get past it. This whole straight woman thing has happened before.”
“I know, Dad, and I’m still not over it.” Kathryn sighed as she remembered her last relationship and the heartbreak and trying to pick up the pieces and never actually succeeding.
“Well, that last one was a good catch. Married, but good.” He nodded at Kathryn. “Did you say her husband is dead?”
“Hell, KB, how old is she? Sixty-five? That’s more my type!”
Kathryn laughed heartily, the sound echoing in the unusually quiet bar. “Dad! No! I think she’s in her early forties or something. I don’t even know how old she is yet—that’s how new this whole predicament is.”
“Well, he’s dead, right?”
“Well? He is, right?”
Kathryn studied her father’s facial expression. He was serious. “Yes, he’s dead.”
“And just because she still has her wedding ring on doesn’t mean a goddamned thing,” he said with a solemn expression.
Kathryn’s view shifted to his left hand. To the ring he never took off. Even though her mom and dad had been divorced for years. “Dad,” Kathryn whispered.
“No, honey, look. I don’t love your mother anymore. I haven’t in a long time. A looooong time. Long, long, loooong time.” His face softened when his daughter chuckled. “But I feel lost without this ring on. I don’t know why. Believe me, I’ve tried, and I just feel better when I leave it on. I’m not saying this woman won’t take that ring off one day. I’m just saying perhaps it’s easier right now for her to leave it on. No questions, no comments, no concerns. Sometimes it’s just easier. That’s all.”
“So, you’re saying that it might mean nothing that she has that ring still on.”
“That’s exactly what I’m saying.” Bill swiveled his bar stool to face his daughter. “Look, KB, you’re a beautiful young woman. You have so much going for you. You’re smart, you’re funny, you were on the radio and now you’re on TV, in the greatest city in these United States. That’s pretty impressive.” He took a long drink of his beer. “Oh, and you have a great house—thanks to that devil of a mother and her little pony boy. Not a lot of thirty-two-year-olds can say that. You are the whole package.”
“Dad, none of that is really that big a deal.” She knew it was a big deal, though. It was starting to become more and more apparent that her accolades were not just well deserved but also really amazing considering her age. Kathryn continued to not let it go to her head, but really, why shouldn’t she let her accomplishments speak for themselves?
“KB, come on now. Stop acting like you’re not allowed to be okay. Accept the friggin’ compliment.”
Kathryn raised her glass. “Fine. I’m awesome,” she said with a low drawl that was laced with sarcasm.
“Don’t get carried away. I’m not saying she’s going to fall in love with you.” Bill looked over the top of his glasses. “I’m saying how could she not?”
Kathryn’s heart felt like it was going to explode. Instantly she felt tears spring to her eyes. She wanted to crawl under the bar.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake, don’t you dare start crying. We’re at my stomping grounds!” he hissed. “You’re gonna give me a bad name.” He swiveled his stool back around to face the bar, glancing at Kathryn’s reflection in the mirror behind the bar and locking eyes with her. He held his beer up and they exchanged a silent toast as Kathryn composed herself.
Kathryn was so happy that she kept her tears at bay. She loved her dad more than anything in the world, and sometimes his harsh abrasiveness was exactly what she needed. It seemed every time she’d turned around since what she lovingly referred to as “the heartbreak of the century,” she was always tearing up or blubbering like a fool, and it was unacceptable. It was why she kept every single woman at arm’s length. She pulled a deep breath into her lungs. Things were going to be different now. They had to be. “So, the Bears. What in the world is going on with them this season?” Kathryn asked while glancing at her dad, who was moving on to his next beer.
Bill cleared his throat. “I smell a Super Bowl victory on the horizon!”