Pepper’s Penance Ch. 12

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Author’s Note

Pepper’s Penance is a slow burning romance that unfolds over the course of twenty-three chapters. This is not a wham-bam story. But, if you’re into that sort of thing, I think you’ll like this one.

*

Chapter 12: The Downstairs Tour

“I’ll be honest,” Pepper said, pinching the top of her taco, “I didn’t know if you’d come.”

“The sticky note thing was a little odd, even by your standards.”

“Yeah, I feel like I kinda blew it. I wasn’t entirely sure you wouldn’t punch me in the face if I showed up in person. So…”

“Pepper? Why am I here?”

Pepper set her taco down. I watched the shell flop over on each side now that she was no longer pinching it closed.

“Ash. I like you. A lot.” She sighed and shifted her glance to the tabletop. “I think you like me too. But there’s some things you’ve got to know about me. A lot of it involves Natalie and I’m not sure how you feel about that. Being my friend and my therapist can be hard. Just ask Trixie.”

Trixie popped her head up at the mention of her name, decide no food was coming, and curled up again.

I straightened up in my chair. “Pepper, I—”

“Let me get this out, okay? Before I lose my nerve.”

I nodded.

“You’re not in competition with Natalie, Ash. She’s gone. It’s been five years. I’ve had time to move on. But, I need to explain some things about myself and a lot of that involves her. I feel I owe you that. And… And I hope you’ll listen. I don’t mean to put this all on you, but I feel like I can trust you.

“Anyway, I’ll wait ’til after dinner. If you don’t want any part of it, don’t feel like you need to stick around. I’ll be happy knowing you at least got to enjoy your tacos. You know, as an apology.”

I reached out across the table and laid my hand on hers. “Best tasting apology ever. But, I’m hoping it won’t take you running away again for me to get seconds.”

Pepper grinned and finally looked up.

“If you need a shoulder to cry on, or just someone to listen, I’m here.” I squeezed her hand.

“Thanks.”

* * *

“So this is what people do in the sitting room,” Pepper said, patting the couch cushion, inviting Trixie to join us. “Huh.”

“Yeah. They sit. And they talk.” I reached out to scratch the back of Trixie’s head and then covered Pepper’s hand with mine. “What’s on your mind?”

“This house. It’s in my name. But it was illegal bahis Natalie’s first. You could say this was her penance. And for her sins, she gave her house a high school drop out, free and clear. A second chance, Ash. A second chance at having a life.”

I tried to understand how this fit with the story I knew so far. The story about Natalie teaching night school and Pepper being her student connected, but the idea of going from giving a dollar to get a drink from the vending machine to signing over the deed to a house was too much of a leap at the moment.

“You must have been really good at fractions,” I said, and then regretted it.

“There’s more than fractions. A lot more.”

Pepper took a deep breath and sighed.

“It actually doesn’t have anything to do with school. I passed the class. I got my GED, and I moved on. I enrolled in the Nursing Assistant program at the community college. The Puma Pete hoodie? I think you’ve seen it. School mascot.

“Anyway, Natalie would call or text once in a while after that, mostly to see how I was progressing academically and pep talks about the long haul. There were no more invitations for piano lessons, or lemonade, just checking in to see how I was doing.

“I always thought she must have been satisfied with my answers, because after a while the contact stopped. What I didn’t realize at the time was that she was undergoing treatment for breast cancer. Second time around.”

“Oh.” I squeezed Pepper’s hand.

“Yeah. But, I didn’t know that, because we had fallen out of contact. I assumed she wasn’t calling anymore because she was satisfied that I was making it on my own. Pretty selfish, huh? I could have called her. I could have reached out. It’s not like I didn’t have her number…”

Pepper paused. I squeezed her hand.

“You want something to drink,” she croaked, “I could use—”

“I’ll get it.” I stood up. “Lemonade okay?”

When I came back, Pepper took a long sip and reached for a coaster. I took her hand in mine again, this time resting it on my lap.

“We found each other again though. I was working at a long term care facility, doing glamorous jobs like sponge baths and bedpan duty. And there she was standing at the reception desk waiting to talk to the director. Just out of the blue. What she was there to talk about, I didn’t know.

“Usually, when I talked to the director, it was because illegal bahis siteleri something went missing in one of the residents’ rooms. That wasn’t my style anymore, but it didn’t stop the fingers from being pointed.

“So there we were, standing there staring at each other after not having spoken for a year. I remember her looking me over from head to toe in my scrubs and saying something like, ‘You’ve done well for yourself.’

“I didn’t want to tell her that doing well for myself consisted mostly of bedpans and sponge baths, but even if I had, I think she still would have smiled and told me how proud she was to see one of her former students in a respectable line of work. She was always upbeat and positive like that.

“She even managed to keep a smile when she told me why she was there. I assumed it was to visit a parent or relative. ‘I’ll be undergoing another round of treatment’ she said, ‘and there are just some things I can’t do for myself.’

“She went on to explain about the chemo and the radiation and surgery. I nearly cried. I confessed my regrets for not calling her to check up—how I thought she was satisfied I was making it on my own and that’s why she broke contact.

“She held me in her arms and told me that was precisely the reason, and that here she was looking at proof that I’d graduated from her class and gone on to do great things.

“‘I change a lot of bedpans,’ I said.

“‘You care for people,’ was her answer.”

Pepper stopped there, sniffled and reached for her lemonade. “This is good,” she said, looking at me. “And to think, I used to drink the powdered kind.”

I squeezed her hand a little tighter.

“Well,” she said, “I stood there in the lobby, blubbering about how could have at least called to check in, when out popped the director to tell Natalie there was no room at the inn—that all the rooms were booked during the time she needed one.

“‘I’ll do it,’ I told her, still leaning on her shoulder. ‘I’ll come to your house after work and make sure you have whatever you need. I don’t cook very much, but I’m good with post-surgery stuff like soup and Jello. I can get you microwavable meals, clean up, whatever you need.

“Natalie rubbed her hand in gentle circles over my back. ‘Thank you dear, but I’ll need more round the clock care this time. I couldn’t ask you to do that, you’d work yourself to the bone.’

“I canlı bahis siteleri looked at the director. ‘I’d like to apply for leave,’ I told her. And then to Natalie I said, ‘How long do you need me?’

“‘Six weeks,’ she said, and hugged me tight. We stood there in the lobby, Natalie staining my scrubs with her tears and me staining her blouse with mine.”

Pepper paused again.

“And that’s how you ended up living here?” I said.

“Yep.” She sniffled. “And for that six weeks, Natalie gave me a room of my own, a weekly stipend, and paid my tuition for culinary classes.”

“Culinary classes?”

“Natalie had refined tastes. That’s part of the reason why I never understood what she saw in me. She took me in on the offer of soup, Jello, and microwave meals, but after a week she announced that I was to go to culinary school. Just out of the blue one day.

“‘Pepper, I appreciate everything you do for me,’ she said, ‘but I have reached my limit on frozen dinners. I would like you to hone your culinary skills and I’m willing to foot the bill.’

“She pulled out the continuing education catalog that comes in the mail from the community college. She had the page marked, the courses circled and everything. ‘Please don’t take this as an affront to your cooking, dear.’

“I assured her that I wouldn’t and that I would make whatever it was that she wanted to eat for breakfast lunch and dinner. Particularly since she was willing to pay for the classes.

“But what didn’t dawn on my at the time was the schedule of those classes. Just the introductory part of the culinary program was a year’s worth of schooling. I had signed up for six weeks of care, or so I thought.

“Natalie knew the truth. She knew she wasn’t getting any better. And after the next round of chemo failed to put her cancer into remission I started to suspect as well.”

“Pepper, I… I don’t know what…” I held her hand. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

“Ash.” Pepper’s red rimmed eyes were studying the couch cushions. She reached out and touched her fingertips to my cheek. “Do you… Would you consider spending the night? I could really use—”

I squeezed her hand again. “I’ve got to get up early to open the store.”

She sniffled and sighed. “That’s okay. I understand. It was probably a dumb idea.”

“So if you think I’m trying to sneak off at eight in the morning, I’m actually just going to work.” I grinned.

Pepper looked up, her eyes wavering for a moment. Then I felt her hand behind my neck as she pulled me in for a kiss.

A hot tear landed just below my neck. I’m not sure which one of us it was from.

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