Chapter 10: Kate and Natalie
Copyright© 2016 by AA Nemo
Wednesday, December 25, 2014
Warm and comfortable under the blankets, Kate lay in Jacob’s bed with Sam sprawled on top of her buzzing quietly. She looked at the bedside clock and the red numerals said it was a little after seven thirty. It was still dark but the dawn was just minutes away and it was Christmas. She smiled. Yes it was Christmas and she was safe and warm and not worrying about her next meal.
Was she happy? She thought about her feelings - maybe content was the best description because in truth, happiness for her was still associated with her past life with her parents and brother, but at least for now she’d fill in for Jessica and for Jacob and do the best she could. For all that she’d take the sense of contentment she felt this Christmas morning - contentment stemming from the fact she wasn’t cold or hungry or homeless or alone or fearful, and more importantly she had friends. In a very short time she had become the mistress of her fate. That brought a rueful smile – mistress of her fate indeed! For the last twenty days she’d been an imposter and a fraud and at any moment it could blow up in her face. Kate sighed. She was no more the mistress of her fate than a leaf in a hurricane, but at least she had a soft bed to sleep in.
Her mood changed as she thought of Jacob and Jessica.
She whispered, “Merry Christmas Jacob ... Merry Christmas Jessica. I’m sorry you’re not here, but thank you for ... for ... helping me, and helping me become the person who represents you and hopefully continues the Brandt legacy. I promise not to let you down.” Kate reached for a tissue from the box on the nightstand.
Drying her eyes she began stroking the big orange cat. He stretched and buzzed louder enjoying the attention. “Merry Christmas Sam.”
Lying in bed she thought about all the things which brought her to this place just three weeks ago; the death of her parents, her escape from her uncle, growing up on the road, the menial jobs and hardships while she moved from place to place, always looking over her shoulder. And now thanks to the deaths of two fine people she had never met she could possibly start a new life – a life that would free her from her uncle and whatever bloodhounds might still be after Kate Brice.
Sure she would have responsibilities- responsibilities to her employees and her community, but she was willing to trade her old identity for the life where she took care of people for Jacob and Jessica and where she had to be concerned more about others than herself, even though the chance of exposure and ruin would always lurk in the background. Her time on the road had made her stronger and had exposed her to a side of life that made her truly appreciate what she had here.
She looked at the clock again. “I really hate to disturb you Sam, but I’ve got to get going. There’s an excited little girl next door who is expecting me for breakfast and presents in less than an hour.” She stretched under the covers reluctant to leave the comfortable bed, spending a few moments remembering last night - Christmas Eve with Maria and her family and with Harrison, Jenny and Natalie as they attended Mass at St. Anne’s. They had been welcomed by Father Xavier and greeted by a number of people she already knew, and introduced to even more people who knew Jacob.
Sam looked at her and favored her with a large cat yawn, indifferent to the fact it was Christmas or anything else besides the gentle stroking that kept him buzzing contentedly.
“I’m sorry about the dog.” She added. “That wasn’t my fault, it was Jacob’s. He signed the lease knowing full well they were bringing a dog.” Sam had been unwilling to make peace with the large exuberant canine, and after giving him some scratches to the nose it appeared that Banner had discovered his place in the pecking order around the farm.
Kate’s smile returned when she thought about her tenants. They were genuinely nice people and almost from the first she realized she had felt an attraction for Harrison. But then her smile receded because she didn’t know what to do about that. Kate had felt the attraction growing, at least on her part. During her time on the road she hadn’t allowed herself to get attached to anyone even though there had been opportunities, especially while she spent those months at the restaurant near the University of Texas. Now that she was Jessica, well perhaps she could allow herself ... It was frustrating that she had no idea how Harrison felt.
Over the past week they’d had numerous interactions and he was always polite and attentive when she spoke but it seemed he kept her at arm’s length. Kate knew Harrison’s wife had abandoned him and Jenny after he came home from Afghanistan but little else. She also knew he’s been injured while there but she had no idea the extent of the injuries. She thought it unlikely she’d find out more over Christmas breakfast and celebration hosted by Harrison, Natalie and Jenny.
Jenny was a delight, and Natalie had become Kate’s personal assistant the day after they’d arrived. Was that just a week ago?
“Why are you doing this?” Natalie had asked when offered the job.
It was early morning on Thursday and she and Natalie were standing in the kitchen of Jacob’s home over the garage. Natalie had come over to ask Kate about what internet and cable provider they should call for service, and to get the information about getting the utilities switched over to Harrison’s name.
I’m very much attracted to your handsome brother and bribing you with a nice salary would maybe get you on my side?
But that wasn’t the real reason, nor was it how she responded.
“Natalie, I’m swamped. I’ve told you what happened and how Jacob ran things and took care of people and now I’m expected to fill his shoes. I’m still finding my way and going crazy just trying to keep track of where I’m supposed to be and what I’m supposed to be doing each day, to say nothing of who I’m meeting with. Some woman on the city council wants to meet with me next week – next week! Who on earth wants to have a meeting the week between Christmas and New Year’s?”
“Don’t you already have a lawyer, an accountant, and property managers? Don’t they take care of things? When I met Keri yesterday she seemed to know about lots of people. And what about Maria? She’s kind of appointed herself your mother, hasn’t she?”
Kate smiled at her. “I’ve got lots of people doing lots of things for me but I can’t get a handle on all of it. I need someone who can keep my calendar, do background on people I’m meeting, sit in on meetings and if necessary make notes, or be a witness if someone wants to threaten or bribe me.”
“Threaten or bribe you?” She asked incredulously.
“Well maybe not exactly like that, but it helps to have someone along – you know a second pair of eyes and ears ... someone to also bounce ideas and impressions off.”
“Okay, but no bodyguard or driver stuff, right?” Natalie smiled as she said it.
Kate deadpanned, “No, actually if I need someone like that I just call down to Hollywood and get Jason Statham to fly up.”
Kate went on, “But seriously, the position is really a hybrid. Many successful people have personal assistants and they are gatekeepers and in some way minders.”
“Well I don’t think I need a ‘minder, ‘ but I do need a gatekeeper - someone who can screen calls, texts and email and prioritize people who want access.”
“I suppose I could do that.”
“And keep my calendar, and meet with me each morning to go over the day and remind me where I have to be and who I’m meeting.”
Natalie looked at her, thinking it over. “And the pay is five hundred a week?”
“Plus the use of a car.”
“When would I start?”
“How about today?”
“Yes today. The employee Christmas party is Saturday and I need a list of all my employees and the names of their kids and ... and maybe a little background on some of the senior employees.”
“Saturday? You mean the day after tomorrow? Gee, Jessica, maybe five hundred a week isn’t enough!”
“Plus a clothing allowance.”
“Clothing allowance?” Natalie looked down at her faded jeans, scuffed western boots and her well-worn sweater. “I was going to ask what was wrong with my wardrobe, but I get it. Jessica, I’ve only known you since yesterday but you dress like I’d like to dress, so I guess we have a deal, but I don’t fetch coffee and I don’t pick up laundry!” she laughed.
Kate had been astonished when, within hours Natali, armed with Jessica’s credit card, had upgraded her own phone and then downloaded Jacob’s lengthy contact information onto Kate’s new phone and her own. Then by afternoon, after enlisting help from Keri, Alicia, and of course Maria, she put together a spread sheet with the names of all the employees who would attend the Christmas party, along with the names and approximate ages of their children. She then updated Kate’s Outlook calendar and then synced Kate’s new tablet with her own.
That same day Natalie had sent Harrison and Jenny off to find a Christmas tree and Maria had enlisted Tomás to string the colorful lights. Kate felt it was premature to decorate Jacob’s place, so they would have to make do with decorating the rental after all, an excited six year-old lived there.
By the time the Christmas party started on Saturday afternoon Kate felt pretty comfortable. Natalie had even provided a slide show on Kate’s tablet with the photos of many of the attendees, and more importantly she had forced Kate to watch it while Natalie filled in details. Somehow Natalie had also managed to get into town and use up a chunk of her clothing allowance. When Kate arrived at the party Natalie was already there and she was dressed in a red cashmere sweater, perfectly fitted skinny jeans and black low-heel boots. Her glossy dark hair was pulled back in a ponytail and she was stunning. That was not lost on any number of the young and not so young men in attendance.
Kate was amused as she watched Natalie bustle around, and when Keri commented on ‘Natalie the dynamo, ‘ Kate laughed and said, “I think I’ve created a monster, but in just two days she’s become indispensable!”
Keri laughed with her and added, “How do you think I keep my job with Joe?”
Kate knew better. Keri was in love with Joe Foss and the more Kate was around the two of them and his twin girls it became obvious that Joe felt the same – he was just deluding himself if he thought any different. Kate wondered what it would take to get Joe to finally recognize they were destined to be together and to act.
Thanks to a lot of hard work by Natalie, Keri, Alicia and Maria, the Christmas party had been a wonderful event. Kate was surprised and pleased to see how the families accepted her as the new ‘Jefe.’ The fact she spoke some semblance of American Spanish hastened that acceptance.
In the days that had followed her hiring Natalie had more than proven her worth, even outside the Christmas party. She had taken her duties as gatekeeper seriously and suddenly Kate’s cell phone had all but stopped ringing. Natalie then had arranged for them to meet for coffee (tea for Kate) each morning at the place above the garage where they would go over the day’s activities and talk about requests for appointments and then plug them into Kate’s calendar. Kate had considered asking Natalie to join her on her morning walks but it was too soon. She enjoyed the solitude and the opportunity to let her mind wander. Her new freedom was very liberating.
Looking at the clock, Kate stopped her musing, pulled back the blankets and thanked Jacob again for heated floors as she made her way to the bath just off the bedroom. No time for a walk this morning since they had been out late last evening at Mass at St. Anne’s, she had given herself permission to sleep in.
“Jessica! Look what Santa brought – a new bike!” These excited words greeted Kate as she descended the stairs outside the apartment. Her heart beat a little faster as Harrison caught her eye. He smiled and nodded and then turned his attention back to Jenny as he watched her ride circles on the wide patch of gravel drive near the garage doors. Kate had taken great care with her appearance this morning, her shampooed and brushed hair framed her face. It was still pretty short but the professional color ensured it was uniformly blonde and the cut was flattering, even if she did say so herself. She wore a soft wine-dark cashmere sweater over a new pair of expensive skinny jeans, and black ankle boots with a modest heel. Harrison wore a soft-looking red plaid flannel shirt, faded 501’s, boots and a broad grin as he watched his laughing daughter. Jenny’s pink helmet was quite the contrast to the shiny black of the bicycle as she seemed to test the limits of her Christmas present. Banner seemed content to sit under the big tree in front of the house and watch the activity from a safe distance.
Just before she reached the bottom of the stairs her thoughts were interrupted as Natalie came out the door of the rental house into the breezeway, coffee mug in hand. She moved to stand next to Harrison and then looped one arm around his waist. She acknowledged Kate with a smile.
This morning Natalie wore a gray ‘U of M’ sweatshirt over nice jeans and flats. Her dark hair was pulled back in her usual ponytail. The sweatshirt was pretty big and was certainly one that belonged to Harrison. Kate wondered if it smelled like Harrison. Stop it! she told herself as she walked toward them. Kate wondered if he realized how handsome he was and the effect he had on her – and alas, other women too.
Natalie stood with one arm around Harrison’s slim waist as she sipped coffee from the porcelain mug she had brought from the house. As they watched Jenny on her new bike, she took the opportunity to snuggle against his chest. He put one arm around her shoulders and hugged her. He smiled at her and it made her feel very safe. She could make out a faint smell of his aftershave – it was nice. It was cool this morning and she had worn Harrison’s sweatshirt as her ‘cooking breakfast’ outfit. She would change into something nicer before going over to the church hall this afternoon to help out with feeding the poor and anyone who might not have a place to be on Christmas.
As she watched Jessica approach, she called out, “Hi Jessica, Merry Christmas!” And when Jessica got close she stepped away from Harrison and hugged her, careful not to get hot coffee on both of them. Jessica seemed a little surprised and tensed slightly before giving in to the hug and returning it. Natalie felt Jessica’s warmth and she wore a subtle scent that reminded Natalie of the short-lived jasmine flowers that grew in her grandmother’s garden back in Montana.
“Merry Christmas Natalie.” Jessica replied as she stepped back from the hug.
Natalie was startled and amused by the realization that if she was into girls, Jessica would be just her type! She had to stifle a laugh, but that did cause her to wonder about Jessica and her apparent lack of what? A past? In the week Natalie had known her, even sharing many hours together in close proximity, Jessica remained an enigma. She never talked about relationships, her family, college, growing up, her trips with Jacob, or anything that might have hinted at someone special. In fact it was Keri who told her the story of Jacob and Jessica’s trip to Italy and the silver BMW. It was almost as if Jessica had cut herself off completely from the past to concentrate solely on her new life here in California. Of course, Jessica was, like her, an orphan, but Natalie had Jenny and Harrison. Jessica had no family left. Perhaps her inability or unwillingness to talk about her past was a defense mechanism.
Natalie’s thoughts were interrupted when Jessica turned and moved to Harrison and put her arms around his neck and said, “Merry Christmas Harrison,” and gave him a brief hug. Natalie was almost as surprised as her brother and she stifled a giggle as she saw his startled face, but then she saw something else - there was something in Harrison’s eyes for just a few seconds as he processed what was happening. Natalie watched as puzzlement turned to pleasure and he put his hands on Jessica’s slim hips and pulled her gently to him.
Funny thing was that even though the hug was a brief one, it had obviously affected both of them, even though they quickly moved apart – but not too far she noticed. As they disengaged, each looking slightly embarrassed - suddenly they were both very interested in watching Jenny ride her bike.
Oh my, didn’t see that coming.
She had seen Jessica’s interest even though she tried to hide it, but Harrison? Had Harrison ever even looked at Cindy the way he just looked at Jessica?
A range of emotions swept over Natalie. In the past week Jessica had become more than an employer – she had become a friend, but Harrison was her injured and vulnerable brother and she felt very protective and maybe a little jealous.
Jenny rode her bike over to them and stopped in front of Harrison. She was one excited girl. As she got off the bike Harrison leaned over and picked her up and hugged her. She giggled.
They did manage to convince her perhaps she could postpone more riding for the time being because they had a guest and there were other presents still waiting along with breakfast. So Jenny relented although she insisted on bringing the bike back into the house.
About an hour later they were sitting in the living room, having finished Natalie’s wonderful ranch-style breakfast – which had Kate wondering if she’d ever need to eat again when they began exchanging gifts that had been neatly placed under a beautifully decorated Christmas tree. She did notice there weren’t very many, but the love that filled the room made up for any lack of material things.
Kate held her memories and emotions in check as she looked at the tree and the decorations around the house that Natalie had lovingly placed. Kate’s mother had been what her father lovingly described as the ‘Crazy Christmas woman, ‘ for all the decorations she expertly placed on the tree and throughout the house and in the yard, and for the frenzied baking of Christmas breads, and tins and tins of cookies. Kate also tried to put aside her feelings about the hug she had given Harrison and his unexpectedly receptive response. She decided she needed a little time to process that information.
Somehow they had managed to convince Jenny that everyone was starving and that the rest of the presents could wait until after breakfast. Since Jenny had already received her ‘Santa’ gift and Jessica was a breakfast guest she had agreed.
When Kate took a red ribbon off a rolled piece of white heavy art paper and discovered Jenny’s gift, she was astonished. It was a detailed black and white pencil drawing of Sam asleep on the cushioned window seat with Banner in the background looking in the window. She was amazed it had been done by a six-year old. Jenny had also beautifully captured the ‘pitiful dog’ look on Banner’s face as he stared at the cat from outside.
Kate reached out and hugged Jenny. “Jenny, this is wonderful! I love it! And look at poor Banner. I think I can actually see the scratches on his nose! Where did you learn to draw like this?”
Jenny seemed shy for a second or two and then turned and pointed at Harrison. “Daddy taught me.”
Harrison smiled. “I think the only thing I did was to put a crayon in her hand when she was about two!”
Natalie chimed in, “Harrison is just being modest. He does pretty well as an artist himself, and in this case the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.” she laughed. “Of course I can’t even draw good stick figures!”
He smiled and shook his head.
“Harrison, why don’t you give Jessica her present now and let her be the judge?”
Jenny did the honors and handed her a red foil-wrapped square, from which she uncovered another amazingly detailed black and white pencil drawing, but this one had a simple black frame. It was an almost photographic representation of her well-used white truck, dirt on its flanks fresh from the fields, nose to nose with the top-down gleaming silver BMW. They were positioned just outside the garage.
Harrison looked a little uncertain.
She didn’t know what possessed her but she got out of her chair and moved to the sofa and sat beside Harrison – close enough where she could feel the warmth of his thigh against hers, and looked at him and said, “Harrison it’s magical ... It perfectly illustrates my life,” she laughed and continued, “Sophisticated business woman about town, and farmer and grape grower! Thank you.” She also realized that from now on every time she saw that picture she’d think about how to her it was a metaphor for her past and present lives. She also had a quick vision of that picture adorning her cell in a California prison for women. She quashed that disquieting thought and turned and hugged Harrison and this time there was no hesitation as he responded with a hug of his own.
With her arms still around his neck and his around her waist, he smiled and said, “You’re welcome. I hoped you’d like it.”
“I love it!” Then without further thought she leaned in and kissed him quickly and lightly on the lips.
There was no doubt in Kate’s mind that she wanted more and from the look on Harrison’s face she could tell he agreed.
Suddenly Kate realized she was being stared at. Jenny was now standing a few feet away near the tree with a thoughtful look on her face. Natalie on the other hand seemed what? Her happiness had evaporated and her expression seemed guarded, without a hint of a smile. Kate didn’t know what to do. She slowly and reluctantly disengaged, taking her arms from around Harrison’s neck, but she was quick to notice that his arm stayed where it was around her waist. She slowly relaxed against him letting his warmth flow into her. She just wanted to close her eyes and enjoy the feeling.
Jenny looked from one to the other and said, “Jessica, I’m glad you like my daddy ‘cause I think he likes you too.”
Harrison laughed and Kate was glad to see that there was even a trace of a smile on Natalie’s lips. She got the feeling that sometime soon she and Natalie were going to have a serious discussion about Harrison, but for now peace prevailed.
Kate didn’t want to move from her position so she had Jenny bring the gift she’d got for Harrison. It was an iPad and actually Natalie had suggested it and done the purchasing last week when she had picked up a new tablet for Jessica and a new phone for herself.
She felt the loss of warmth as he took his arm from around her to unwrap the gold paper that covered the gift.
It was obvious that he was surprised and pleased.
Kate jumped in before he could say anything else, “Natalie assured me that a tablet was an essential for all new teachers.”
Harrison smiled, and said, “Thank you Jessica,” and with a laugh he said “And thank you Natalie for being so observant.”
This time it was Kate’s turn to be surprised as Harrison put his arm back around her and gave her a kiss. She noted with pleasure that Harrison was an amazing kisser and her now somewhat addled brain also took note that his kiss was much longer than the one she had given him, and at the same time she wondered how she could have some more.