Elaina’s panicked senses rushed through Vincent as they flew over the city disembodied. A twinge of regret edged him for his choice of travel, and he tried to comfort her.
Not much further. His thought and feelings were the best he could do under the circumstances.
He admitted that the Smoke of Night hadn’t been completely necessary. They could have arrived a bit late to the gathering. But his elation at her acceptance had his excitement ruling his actions. He wanted her to experience every aspect of his life—from the Breath of Zephyrus to their common mode of travel. He hoped she understood the form of communication.
Darting into a dusty alley lined with backyard fences and shrubs, he selected the back-entrance gate at her home. As they solidified, she threw her hands around his waist and held him, her hands tracing small circular motions on his back as if making sure he was really there.
He held her head to his chest and kissed her wavy hair. “Are you okay?”
Her shaky words came out in punctuated emotion. “Oh. My. Gods.”
He peeked down at her. “We’re in the alley behind your house. Just relax.”
“Relax. Yeah, sure. You want me to relax.” She took a constricted breath. “I just felt every temperature possible, every bug in the air go through me, and somehow I heard every—what was that anyway? Static?”
Vincent furrowed his brow. “Static? Hmm, did the static make you feel anything?”
She breathed a laugh. “Feel anything? It felt like static! Tingly. Electrical. Confusing!”
“No, what I meant was did it make you think anything?”
Elaina paused a moment and looked up at him with a quirked cheek. “Were you trying to talk to me? Is that what it was? I thought of, Not much farther. Or I could have been praying that!”
Vincent laughed and pulled her into a tight embrace. “I was telling you it wasn’t much farther.”
“Well, honestly, Vince. That is not my choice of travel. Keep that in mind, huh?”
“I’ll do that.” He couldn’t keep from smiling, and his heartfelt breath of love skimmed along her hair. “Do I get to meet your family?” He glanced around at the garbage bins hiding in the little nooks of the fence lines. “Or do we stand here waiting for the trash men to pick up the rubbish?”
Releasing him, she took a few shaky steps toward the back gate. “Yeah, they’re anxious to meet you. Especially Linda. She’s my big sister. Has twin girls—don’t feel obligated to let them crawl all over you. They’re five.”
Vincent cast her a sidelong glance. “Twins?”
She smiled. “Yeah, can you believe it? As rare as that is, she had twins. They were all over the news at the time. Seems the last twins born were nobles over fifty years ago.” She unlatched the hitch. “Anyway, Mom’s cooking up steaks on the deck. Jarrett’s—well, he’s Jarrett. Probably won’t tear him away from the sports channel.” Her hands fluttered in front of her. “And Dad—okay, don’t let Dad get to you. He runs a big company and he’s used to barking commands and being in charge. He can be a bit rough around the edges, but he’s really a good dad.”
Vincent grinned at the rattled sound of her jabbering and grabbed her shoulders before she stepped through the entrance. “Settle down.” He wrapped his arms around her and kissed her neck. “There’s solid ground beneath your feet and I’m right here.” He nuzzled her ear and added with a whisper, “I promise I won’t make you travel by Smoke of Night without warning next time.”
Elaina cocked her head and half-laughed.
Closing the tall planked door behind him, Vincent scanned the lengthy yard of forsythia and honeysuckle. There wasn’t a particular pattern for the yellow and white flora. That is, unless large clumps protecting clothes lines and electrical poles was a pattern. An old doghouse that looked like it gave up the fight was buried among a bushy mass. Long growths that homed along the fence on the left were charming, as were those at the corners of the wide redwood deck just off the back door. Over all, the foliage sent a sweet scent of “welcome home,” and even cast a small bit of the serenity of Champaign. The fragrance was different but as plentiful as in his home realm. He glanced at the yellow sun high in the sky. But still not Champaign.
The short spring grass stretched over the large backyard like a carpet of glistening moss.
“Dad insists on having the greenest lawn. The sprinklers haven’t been off very long. Sorry for the wet feet.”
Vincent glanced at the quirk on her face and then looked at his boots. Wet. He shook his foot. Chuckling, he slowly waved his finger and evaporated the moisture before them to provide a drier path.
Squeals and giggles drowned the chatter of tiny birds overhead. Two lively girls, their blonde ponytails positioned directly on top of their heads like fountains, darted in their direction. One stuffed a half-eaten sandwich in her mouth.
Mrs. Cantrell looked up from her steak-stabbing and closed the lid on the barbeque. She flashed the newcomers a hospitable smile, and with the hand that held the fork, waved them to come. “Have a seat. The steaks are done, and I was just helping Linda with the girls’ plates.”
The twosome darted past them and circled the hidden doghouse. “It looks like at least one has already made her choice of serving.” He narrowed his eyes to catch sight of what she carried. “Peanut butter?”
Mrs. Cantrell grumbled under her breath. “Linda, Mechenzie got into the peanut butter again!”
Long beige blinds slid aside to allow a shapely woman to step out of the sliding doors. She tossed her blonde hair out of her face with a flick of her head and set a large bowl on the table. “I swear it’s her only source of protein. Mandy, Mechenzie, stop chasing butterflies and take your seats. I’ve got baby carrots here. You can dip ’em in the peanut butter.”
More squeals and one disappeared into the bush of honeysuckle. “No butterflies, Momma, sparkles!”
The other threw her gaze at her mother as if she’d done something against approval. “There aren’t any sparkles. Mandy’s just fibbing again.”
Linda set her hands on her hips and cocked a grin. “Just get over here.”
Vincent furled his brow and leaned to Elaina. “Sparkles?”
She waved her hand in an accept it gesture. “They live in their own world half the time.”
The two dashed up the wide redwood stairs onto the deck. Selecting a seat together, one grabbed a hand full of carrots and plopped the dip onto her plate. She pushed the small bites of ready-cut steak to the far aside, but kept the mashed potatoes. The pile seemed to serve as a bunny head as she stuck little carrots in the top like ears.
Elaina’s mother wiped her hands on a towel and held one out to Vincent as they approached. “I’m Bethany, by the way.” She motioned to the two sitting across from her. “This is Mandy and Mechenzie. Just a hint,” she said with a wink. “About the only way to tell them apart is that Mechenzie’s eyes are a bit dark. So, don’t let them try to fool you.” She smiled and waved to their mother. “This is my eldest daughter, Linda.”
He accepted their welcoming gestures. “Nice to meet you all. I’m Vincent Shilo.”
Linda chuckled and settled against the deck rail. Pulling out a thin cigarette, she lit it and took a heavy puff. “Vincent Shilo.” She nodded and released a billow of smoke. “Yes, we’ve heard so much about you it’s like we’ve known you for years.”
The glass door slid open with a thud, giving way to a hefty man. His red hair was the hue of paprika, and his dark blue eyes sat close together on each side of his arched nose. He briefly scanned Vincent.
Vincent stepped to him and offered his hand. “Mr. Cantrell, I’m Vincent Shilo.”
Mr. Cantrell huffed and sat heavily in his chair. “It’s about time we meet you. Six months of dating my daughter and you only show when food’s set out on the table.”
Lowering his hand, Vincent let it swing behind him to rest on his back.
Mrs. Cantrell patted her husband’s shoulder. “Now, Ben, Vincent is our guest.” She smiled at Vincent. “You’re all Elaina talks about. We’d love to have had you over sooner.”
“Well, she’s all I think about,” he said glancing at her.
Linda sighed. “That’s so romantic. Jarrett hasn’t talked about me like that since the girls were born.” She smiled, smashing her cigarette into an ashtray on the ledge, and then took a seat by the girls. “Of course, how can I really catch his attention when all I do is chase five-year-olds and clean?” She shrugged and looked at the man sitting on the other side of the sliding doors. Reflection of the back yard in the tall glass withheld the man’s appearance, but it was obvious he lounged on the sofa with a can in his hand. “Sports manages to catch it, though.”
Taking the seat beside Elaina, Vincent shook his head. “Watching your girls discover life is more exciting than sports.”
Mrs. Cantrell’s eyes sparkled. “You see, Linda. Not all men are like,” she thumbed at the house, “him.” She set Ben’s plate before him. “Your father would have been more involved if his work didn’t keep him away.”
Ben snorted a scoff. “Work. You bet I’d have rather been with you three. And now, my work load just got bigger. Had a no-show. It looks like I’ll be finishing up the Dressen assignment on my own.” He set his thick fists on the table and looked directly at Vincent. “And how many kids do you have? Elaina tells me you’ve been married.”
The tone of his voice was far from congenial, more of an accusation, and Vincent grinned, having a ready explanation. “I’m a widower, Mr. Cantrell, and I haven’t been blessed with children.”
Bethany leaned her head to the side in a sympathetic gesture. “Oh, I’m so sorry, Vincent. And you’re so young too.”
“And how young would that be?” Ben had leaned an arm along the table and held a steak knife, serrated blade upward.
Elaina took Vincent’s hand. “Oh really, Daddy.”
He huffed and stabbed at his steak as Bethany placed a plate in front of Vincent. “He’s just the right age.” She winked at him and slightly shook her head as if to say, never mind him. “So, Vincent, I hope you like steak. You get the largest piece since Ben and Jarrett could probably eat the whole grill if I let them.”
Vincent smiled. “This is very gracious of you, Mrs. Cantrell.”
Elaina glanced at his plate and shook her head. “Um, Mom, Vince doesn’t eat much meat.”
Ben growled. “What kind of man doesn’t eat meat?” He stuffed his mouth with a sizable bite.
Mechenzie upped her face in a know-it-all smirk and picked a carrot off the top of her potato bunny’s head. “Meat used to be alive.” She peered at the tiny vegetable with regard. “You can’t plant a piece of meat and grow another one. Another soul has to be born.”
Vincent blinked, unable to hide his surprise. This child is five?
Her dark gray eyes looked directly at him and an overwhelming sense of almond hit his soul. Almond? Could it be her eye color? No. They were definitely gray, and didn’t vary from his for an uncomfortable moment. He made himself look away.
Bethany waved a dismissing hand. “Kenzie doesn’t like meat, either.”
Linda laughed. “We have to keep all kinds of alternatives in the cupboards.”
Vincent winked at the little one, attempting to cover his unease. “Peanut butter being among the most popular, I’d suspect.”
Mechenzie smiled back at him.
There it was again. The sense of Almond. Heat rippled under his skin. He blinked away the gaze and forked at his salad. Smelling almond was nothing. But, feeling the sense of an aroma was unheard of on Terra. In truth, the sensation was limited to the center realm—and then only through kinship or favoritism as he had for Elaina.
Pointing his fork at Vincent, Ben sneered and cocked his eye. “It’s from living up at that manor on the south side. What decent folk live shrouded lives? I don’t know one person who knows what goes on up that way. The few who take that windy road seem to forget what they were after to begin with. Then they say they don’t see a point to go back. Odd happenings if you ask me.”
“Daddy!” Elaina’s freckled cheeks turned red, and her strawberry waves threatened to dip into the steak sauce as she leaned forward. “Vincent is a Founder’s son! You don’t talk that way about the Grand Marshals.”
“Grand Marshals are all over the news, aren’t they?”
Linda rolled her eyes as she stood. “Really, Dad. They don’t seek the spotlight, so they’re shrouded? Sounds like they like their privacy is all. The Founders hold just as much respect as the Lords do. Anyone who can keep an orchard blooming year-round is worthy of respect right there. I love that hillside.”
She slid the door aside. “Vincent, don’t pay any attention to Dad. He doesn’t mean half of what he says. And you don’t have to eat the steak.” Sighing, she stepped inside. “I’m going to try to drag Jarrett away long enough to eat with us.”
“Don’t tell him what I don’t mean.” Ben took a hefty slug of his tea and set the glass down with a clunk. Cutting another chunk of steak, he lowered his voice to a murmur. “A man that don’t eat meat.”
In an obvious attempt to change the subject, Bethany leaned across the table and grabbed the pitcher of tea. “I thought Anna was assigned to Lord Dressen’s order. She didn’t show today?”
“No.” His voice returned to its huffy regard, and he chomped bitterly on his mouthful of food. “He asked for her specifically again. I made it clear to her how important it was. Deadline’s the thirteenth and she doesn’t show. You don’t botch up a Grand Marshal’s bid. Especially this one. There’s too much riding on it.” He swallowed and stuffed his mouth with potato salad.
Lord Dressen…Anna? Vincent lowered his gaze and let it travel his plate of food unfocused. Surely, they didn’t speak of… “Lord Dressen placed an important order with your company and requested a certain person?”
Ben quickly swallowed the mouthful of food before he commented. “Of course, it was important. All of Lord Dressen’s orders are and she’s worked on enough of them to know it. But this one was urgent; had to be done on time.”
“And he wanted Anna alone to do it.”
Ben huffed. “Said he wouldn’t accept anything else.”
Vincent slowly set down his fork as he thought about the information. “Was it a big task?”
Ben peered at Vincent with a look of new interest. “Maybe not the largest, but most important. Said he’d sign us up for the new convention arena without taking other bids if this order was to his liking.”
A block formed in Vincent’s chest. “I bet she was working overtime then to get it done by the deadline.”
“Sure, she was working overtime. We paid her good for it too. Promised her a big bonus at his acceptance of the project.”
Vincent picked up his fork, set it back down, and then chose to try a drink to settle the anxiety this new information brought him. Lightly setting the glass back on the table, he looked at his host. “Would she break curfew to make sure it would be completed on time?”
Ben furrowed his brow. “Never said. She just assured me it’d be done by the deadline.” He lowered his meat-filled fork and looked at him. “You don’t think she’d disappear. You know, like they say people do for that?”
“The Grand Marshals did pass the new law.”
Mrs. Cantrell lifted a hand to her lips. “Oh, my. Not Anna.”
Ben leaned back in his chair and stretched his shoulders. His face fell and turned slightly green.
Linda snarled as she stepped back onto the deck. “He won’t budge. Elaina, would you pass the salad, I’ll make him up a plate.”
As Elaina lifted it to her sister, Linda’s eyes flashed wide. “Elaina!”
She nearly dropped the food. “What?”
Linda snatched the bowl and then grabbed her sister’s hand, holding it up to take a closer look. The pink diamond sparked on her finger. All gazes gravitated to the sizable cherishment.
Vincent couldn’t hold back a smile. His heart instantly grasped the moment as every woman on the deck, including the twins, stretched for a better look.
Ben leaned his thick arm on the table and glared. His eyes narrowed with the tightening of his brow, and gruffness returned in his voice. “And when were you going to announce this turn of events?”
“Isn’t it beautiful, Daddy?” Elaina beamed and struggled to wiggle her fingers in his direction under Linda’s tight hold. “He just proposed today in the park. He wants me to drink from his cup!”
Bethany threw her gaze to Ben. “Oh, a Chalice wedding!” She grabbed hold of his sleeve. “Honey, do you realize what this means?”
“It means this boy doesn’t even have the courtesy to speak to a girl’s parents before approaching her on the matter. That’s what this means!”
“Honestly, Ben. She’s twenty-one.” Bethany jumped from her chair. “Chalice weddings happen fast. We have so much to plan!”
Ben sent his glare to his wife. “What do you mean they happen fast? Now wait one damn minute!”
Linda tilted Elaina’s hand, allowing the girls to see the ring better. “Dad, Chalice weddings are reserved for royalty. If both are of royal blood they can take as long as they want, but Elaina isn’t. She’s expected to stay with the groom’s family until the ceremony.”
Ben jumped to a stand, hands balled into fists. “What?” He gestured toward the south. “With him and his two brothers? Up there at that manor?” He marched to Vincent, Bethany rushing with him. “You’re not taking my daughter off by herself to be with three men that nobody knows anything about!”
“Now, honey.” Bethany lightly held his elbow as if not to press too hard on his thick skin. Instead, she brushed her fingertips along the wiry hairs of his forearm.
A growl rumbled in his throat, and he bared his teeth with a snarl.
Vincent stood and deliberately wrapped his fingers into a fist to control any instantaneous show of magical force. He stood at least a foot and a half taller than the man, but appearance didn’t seem to intimidate his betrothed’s father in the least. Vincent fixed his gaze on the two beady eyes staring him down.
Elaina gasped and scrambled to a stand, wrapping her arms around Vincent’s waist. He could feel her trembling and knew she must be worried about his magical ability, were this to escalate into a physical confrontation. “Daddy, please, I love him!”
Bethany peeked at Vincent and lowered her tone to a soothing melody as she spoke to her husband. “These men are Royals, Ben. Royals. And Elaina loves him. She has a chance for a wonderful life. Don’t take this from her.”
The sliding back door wheeled open, and a tall man leaned on the frame. He folded his arms and shook the long blond curls from his face. Taking a drink from his beer can, he snorted with a cocked grin. His blue eyes twinkled with amusement. “I don’t know who’s the stupidest here. Dad for standing up to a Royal, or a kid standing up to Dad.”
Vincent’s blood rushed to his head at the use of the word kid. Small sparks danced in his cuffed fingers. With a steady voice, he held his temper and spoke to his future father-in-law. “Mr. Cantrell, it was an oversight on my part not to honor you as the head of your home and consult with you about my plans to propose to your daughter. I love her, and I want her to be my wife.
“As far as her coming to stay with us at the manor until the ceremony, it’s common law. But I can understand your concern for Elaina’s safety. As Founders, we have the option of a promising. This promising allows Elaina to choose to join us at the manor until the wedding or stay with her family. I assure you, I only want what’s best for her. I’ll leave the decision to her.”
Ben lifted his layered chin, and his glare eased. “Well, then.” He pulled his pipe from his shirt pocket, turned and stuffed it with fresh tobacco. “It takes a big man to see where he’s done wrong and own up to it.” He lit the bowl and caused a few puffs of mint tainted smoke to linger in the air. “So, when does this wedding have to take place?”
“I’ll call the officiator and set the appointment. It should be within the month. There’ll be no preparations to worry about. Only immediate family attends the Chalice ceremony. We’ll take care of this event. There should be a celebration planned for the following week to announce the union. You may invite whomever you’d like to attend.” He looked at Bethany. “We’ll cover all expenses. I only ask you take care to request the best.”
The door slammed as Jarrett retreated into the house, and Linda quickly followed. Bethany threw her hands around Ben’s neck, and Vincent could have sworn he saw a grin on the man’s face as she pressed a big kiss to his cheek.
Pulling Elaina aside, Vincent framed her face with his hands. “Now that I know you’re to be mine, I don’t want to wake up without you beside me. I want you at the manor,” he breathed. He removed his watch and slipped it onto her wrist. “Call me. Just say my name and I’ll answer. Do whatever you can to talk him into letting you stay.”
Her blue eyes sparkled. “I’ll start packing.”
With a smile, he pulled her into a kiss. The twins giggled, throwing their hands over their faces.
“I’ll let myself out the way we came in. But I’ll send a car for you.”
“I’ll be waiting.”
Vincent brushed the diamond ring with his thumb, relishing the fact it now belonged to her. He hopped down the redwood stairs, and joy sent a spring to his steps as he walked across the mossy grass. The tiny birds above seemed to sing along with the elated rhythm of his heart. A soft breeze blew, lifting his waves to dance around his face.
Ben’s voice drifted to him from a distance. “I’d better reassign the Dressen order. I just hope he accepts it even if Anna didn’t complete it herself.”
A sour knot clenched Vincent’s stomach, hampering his enthusiasm. With all that had occurred, that information had slipped far to the back of his mind.