The scent and sizzle of steaks on the grill wafted over Mechenzie as she ran along the side of Grammy and Grandaddy’s red-wood deck. She took a big bite of her peanut butter sandwich to drown out the smell of the icky meat.
Mandy veered left and took off toward the far backend of the yard, her top-side ponytail bobbing in a frenzy.
Thrill burst through Kenzie’s chest, and she crunched her fingers into a tight fist, almost smashing the bread, as she darted after her twin. Tiny bubbles squished between her toes as her shoes soaked up the water from the sparkling grass.
The world came into sharp focus, every green blade, every tiny bug crawling on the tall fence surrounding the long backyard, every fiber of Mandy’s yellow flopping skirt. Kenzie tried to force her body to stay tight, but excitement overcame her.
In a whish, all angles came into view. The melony scent of fresh grass wafted through her alongside the sweet forsythia that hid the old dog house.
Oh, Momma’s not going to like this! Turning into a ghost always ended with her having to convince Momma Mandy was fibbing again. She managed to get away with it so far, but someday, it was bound to come out her sister told the truth.
But since it already happened…
Mechenzie zipped past her twin, tipping her grand fountain-like ponytail with her essence.
Mandy gasped, threw her gaze over her shoulder, and then shouted at Kenzie. “No fair! No fair, Kenzie!”
Laughter jolted Kenzie’s smoky body, but a distant scent caused her to halt. She searched the backside wooden gate, drawn to the bittersweet smell she couldn’t quite recognize.
Familiar, but from where?
A longing clenched the particles of her chest. Without realizing she’d returned whole, she found herself facing the planks, her feet once again in the wet grass. Her eyes misted and stung the backs of her lids as shadowed memories danced beyond her understanding. She wanted it… whatever it was. She took a step before she could stop herself. That scent… it was a part of her, and something deep inside cried to have it back.
The latch to the gate lifted, and Kenzie jolted back to the present. Mandy. She was chasing Mandy.
Without a second thought, she turned and ran to catch up with her. Silly imagination.
With a lunge forward, Kenzie turned to smoke and zipped past her sister as she passed the dog house. Whipping around to face her, she pulled herself together so fast sparks rushed down her arms and burst from her fingertips.
Mandy’s high-pitched scream echoed in Kenzie’s ears. Her sister whipped around as giggles replaced the fright, and Mechenzie stuffed her half-eaten sandwich into her mouth to allow her hands to clench into full fists as she ran.
Momma’s voice rang over the yard. “Mandy, Mechenzie, stop chasing butterflies and take your seats. I’ve got baby carrots here. You can dip them in the peanut butter.”
Mandy squealed and then disappeared into the bush of honeysuckle. “No butterflies, Momma, sparkles!”
Kenzie jerked to a stop as she quickly looked at Momma. “There aren’t any sparkles. Mandy’s just fibbing again.”
Her mother placed her hands on her hips and grinned. “Just get over here.”
Mandy seemed to have forgotten all sparks as she darted from the tall flowers and headed for the deck. Kenzie laughed and shook her head. Her sister had a brain like the wind; blowing one way one moment and another the next—and Kenzie loved her for it.
Best sister in the world!
Catching up to Mandy, Kenzie trotted up the redwood stairs beside her. Her twin slowed near the bench, looked at her, and Kenzie chose a spot. Mandy joined her.
Like the wind that can’t make up her its own mind where to sit.
Eying the yummy offerings, Mechenzie grabbed a handful of carrots and then scooped a big spoonful of peanut butter. She plopped it next to the mound of mashed potatoes Momma had put on her plate. Wrinkling her nose at the light brown pieces of meat, she decided to shove them to the far side, so she didn’t have to smell them. One-by-one, she stuck the little carrots in the top of the potatoes like an artist to create a bunny head.
“I’m Bethany, by-the-way.” said Grammy to Aunt Elaina’s boyfriend as they reached the table. “This is Mandy and Mechenzie. Just a hint… 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.”
Kenzie clamped her lips shut and giggled. That was always her doing. Though, Mandy got the blame most of the time. Mandy could never come up with the stories to make it all believable. A sprite of pride burst in her chest at that fact.
Grammy smiled and waved to Momma. “This is my eldest daughter, Linda.”
The cute guy waved when Momma nodded to him. “Nice to meet you all. I’m Vincent Shilo.”
Momma chuckled and settled against the deck rail. Pulling out a skinny cigarette, she lit it and took a big puff. “Vincent Shilo.” She nodded, and smoke floated around her face. “Yes, we’ve heard so much about you it’s like we’ve known you for years.”
The glass door slid open, and Grandaddy stepped onto the big, red deck. He looked at Vincent who held out his hand. “Mr. Cantrell, I’m Vincent Shilo.”
Grandaddy huffed and plopped into 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.”
Kenzie plucked a carrot from her bunny’s head and swirled it in the peanut butter as she watched. Something about Elaina’s boyfriend made tingles run up her neck and over her head. She scrunched her shoulders to make it stop, but as he lowered his hand and let it swing behind him, the tingles turned to goosebumps that showed on her arms. That simple way he moved seemed so familiar; like she’d seen it so many times before.
Grammy patted Grandaddy’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.
Kenzie sighed. Wow. That’s so nice!
Momma sighed too. “That’s so romantic. Jarrett hasn’t talked about me like that since the girls were born.” She smiled as she smashed her cigarette into an ashtray and then took a seat by her.
Kenzie scooted a bit to give her more room and then took a bite of peanut butter-covered carrot.
“Of course, how can I really catch his attention when all I do is chase five-year-olds and clean?” Momma was saying. She looked at the sliding doors. “Sports manage to catch it, though.”
Vincent sat beside Aunt Elaina and shook his head. “Watching your girls discover life is more exciting than sports.”
Mechenzie paused chomping on her carrot and stared at the cute guy… no, Vincent. Wow, again. Where did this man come from? Surely, not from anywhere she knew of. But deep in her heart, she knew that was how it should be.
Granny waved at Momma. “You see, Linda. Not all men are like,” she thumbed at the house, “him. Your father would have been more involved if his work didn’t keep him away.”
Grandaddy snorted, and Kenzie smiled, holding back a giggle as she chomped on her carrot again.
“Work,” he said. “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 fists on the table and looked right at Vincent. “And how many kids do you have? Elaina tells me you’ve been married.”
Kenzie’s attention snapped back at the man. Was he a daddy?
Vincent grinned. “I’m a widower, Mr. Cantrell, and I haven’t been blessed with children.”
Granny leaned her head to the side. “Oh, I’m so sorry, Vincent. And you’re so young too.”
“And how young would that be?” Grandaddy leaned an arm along the table and held his knife upward.
Aunt Elaina took Vincent’s hand. “Oh really, Daddy.”
As Granny placed a plate in front of Vincent, Momma leaned over and whispered to Kenzie. “Eat, missy, or I’ll hide the peanut butter, so you can’t eat sandwiches before dinner again.”
Wiggling in her seat, Kenzie forced herself to pick up her fork. She stabbed at the pile of salad and then stuffed a little tomato into her mouth. It squirted over her tongue as she bit down on it.
“He’s just the right age,” Grammy said. “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.”
Aunt Elaina shook her head. “Um, Mom, Vince doesn’t eat much meat.”
Grandaddy growled, and Kenzie scrunched her shoulders again with a giggle. She just loved Grandaddy and his funny sounds.
“What kind of man doesn’t eat meat?” He asked and then stuffed his mouth with a big chunk.
Funny sounds or not, Kenzie couldn’t resist commenting on the subject. She plucked a carrot off the top of her potato bunny’s head. “Meat used to be alive.” She looked at the tiny vegetable, imagining it with a head and tiny legs. “You can’t plant a piece of meat and grow another one. Another soul has to be born.”
Vincent blinked and looked right at her. His blacker than black eyes looked so odd, staring into hers. But it seemed like she could see the whole world in them. The bittersweet scent she had smelled earlier poured over her insides like liquid candy. He looked away too soon.
Granny waved her hand. “Kenzie doesn’t like meat, either.”
Momma laughed. “We have to keep all kinds of alternatives in the cupboards.”
Vincent winked. “Peanut butter being among the most popular, I’d suspect.”
A big smile spread across Mechenzie’s face. She couldn’t help it. She liked this guy. He didn’t eat meat, something about him made her insides feel like sugar, and she could see so many worlds in his eyes. She could bet he believed in souls. Yes, he did. She could see it on his face, feel it. She just knew he did.
Again, he looked away too soon.
Pointing his fork at Vincent, Grandaddy sneered. “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 say they don’t see a point to go back. Odd happenings if you ask me.”
“Daddy!” Aunt Elaina turned red, and she leaned forward. “Vincent is a Founder’s son!”
Echoes of memories seemed to swirl around the back of Mechenzie’s head. None of it made sense: A blue sun, a huge white room, and deep, deep love. Love so deep that when it slowly went away, she rubbed her fist over her stomach to make the emptiness leave.
Momma stood, and Kenzie shivered as her attention slipped back to dinner.
“Really, Dad,” Momma said. “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.”
Her hand slid across Kenzie’s back, and she leaned close to hear ear, speaking softly. “Are you okay, Kenzie May?”
Mechenzie blinked several times, trying to clear her head of the little pieces of memories she didn’t understand. Resting her elbow on the table to brace her head, she slouched toward her plate. A little nod seemed to tell her mother yes, though she wasn’t really sure.
“Okay.” Momma rubbed her back with three small circles and then headed inside, saying something to Vincent about the steak and Daddy.
Grandaddy’s scruffy voice spoke and then Granny’s muffled next to it. They sounded like they were in a tunnel and came from a million miles away. Then, as if her heart heard every word, Vincent spoke as clear as the crystal chimes Granny had hanging by her kitchen window.
“Lord Dressen placed an important order with your company and requested a certain person?”
Kenzie looked at Aunt Elaina’s boyfriend, and it was as if she knew him for the longest time. Every highlight the sun painted in his black, black, black hair. The waves that fell to his neck and shoulders caused her heart to flip flop, and she knew she’d ruffled it on top of his head at one time… or more. His strong chin, low brow, and those darker than midnight eyes…
“And he wanted Anna alone to do it,” he said, looking at Grandaddy.
His voice rang like a bell through her chest. So ordinary, like she’d heard it every day. What was the word Momma had used when she tucked her and Mandy in bed? Cherried? No, cherished. Yes! That was it!
Kenzie took a deep breath of melony-fresh-grass and forsythia-flower scented air. She cherished him! Above anything in the world, she cherished Vincent.
Wrinkling her nose, she blinked toward Mandy, to see if she noticed anything weird going on.
Mandy chomped on a piece of meat that had been cut a little too big. Juice dribbled over her bottom lip to her chin as she switched it to the other side of her mouth.
Eww. Are Momma and Daddy sure I’m not adopted?
No, Mandy was happily eating her dinner with no sign of worry. Mechenzie’s mind settled as she considered her twin, and the odd images disappeared.
Grandaddy’s voice came to her clearly. “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.”
“I bet she was working overtime then to get it done by the deadline,” said Vincent, but Kenzie kept her eyes looking straight ahead. No way did she want to feel like she just felt again. It was confusing, and though she wouldn’t admit it to Mandy, a little scary.
“Sure, she was working overtime. We paid her good for it too. Promised her a big bonus at his acceptance of the project.”
Vincent did something, but Kenzie held very still, sure to make her attention stay on her bunny potato head.
“Would she break curfew to make sure it would be completed on time,” asked Vincent.
“Never said. She just assured me it’d be done by the deadline.” Grandaddy sounded worried, and Kenzie couldn’t keep from looking at him.
He’d put down his fork and frowned at the guest when she 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.”
Don’t look at him, Kenzie. Don’t look at Vincent. His name felt like a ghost floating in her mind.
Grammy lifted a hand to her lips. “Oh, my. Not Anna.”
Grandaddy leaned back in his chair and stretched his shoulders. His face turned slightly green.
Maybe he was feeling the weirdness, too.
Momma scowled 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 Aunt Elaina lifted the bowl to her, Momma’s voice rose. “Elaina!”
Momma grabbed the bowl and then grabbed Aunt Elaina’s hand, holding it up. Something pink sparkled on her finger, and Kenzie quickly pulled her knees beneath her on the bench to get a better look.
Grandaddy’s voice boomed, and Kenzie spared him a glance. “And when were you going to announce this turn of events?”
“Isn’t it beautiful, Daddy?” Aunt Elaina smiled so hard her eyes arched. She wiggled her fingers in his direction. “He just proposed today in the park. He wants me to drink from his cup!”
“Oh, a Chalice wedding!” Granny grabbed hold of Grandaddy’s 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!”
Mechenzie’s attention skipped from the beautiful shining ring to her grandparents. She knew when Grandaddy was about to get loud and angry, and he was definitely about to get loud and angry.
“Honestly, Ben. She’s twenty-one.” Grammy jumped from her chair. “Chalice weddings happen fast. We have so much to plan!”
“What do you mean they happen fast? Now just wait one minute!”
Momma tilted Aunt Elaina’s hand towards Mechenzie. She probably wanted her to look at it instead of the noisy arguing happening beside her. But Kenzie wanted to see what was about to happen. How else would she know how to deal with things if she didn’t watch and learn? And who better to learn from than Grandaddy? He was the A-plus best at arguing and getting his way.
Momma peeked over her shoulder. “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.”
Grandaddy jumped to a stand, hands balled into fists. “What?”
Oh, here it comes!
Kenzie’s knee tipped the top of the table as she wished to get closer, but remembered it wasn’t allowed. She chose to stand on the bench for a better look.
He pointed toward town. “With him and his two brothers? Up there at that manor?” As he marched toward Vincent who stood, Granny rushed with him. “You’re not taking my daughter off by herself to be with three men that nobody knows anything about!”
“Now, honey.” Granny held his elbow and brushed along his forearm her fingers.
A growl rumbled in his throat, and he bared his teeth with a snarl.
Ooooh, it’s coming now!
Kenzie tipped to her toes and leaned her hand on Mandy’s back for support.
Vincent stepped and stood in front of Grandaddy, fingers wrapped into fists too. He was a lot taller than her grandfather, but that never bothered him before. They stared at each other’s eyes, and for a second, Kenzie wondered if Grandaddy would feel the way she did earlier. Maybe Vincent had some magical powers to make you feel all weird.
Aunt Elaina hurried to Vincent’s side. “Daddy, please, I love him!”
Granny tilted her head and peeked at Grandaddy. “These men are Royals, Ben. Royals. And Elaina loves him. She has a chance at a wonderful life. Don’t take this from her.”
Wow. They’re Royals? Kenzie spared a glance at the tall, very handsome guy staring down at her grandfather. Maybe that’s why I felt so weird. He’s so much specialer than I am.
The sliding glass door opened, and Daddy leaned on the frame. He took a drink from his can and then he snorted.
Kenzie smiled. She loved it when men made funny noises.
“I don’t know who’s the stupidest here,” he said. “Dad for standing up to a Royal, or a kid standing up to Dad.”
Kenzie looked back at Vincent as she hopped down from the bench. Skirting around the table, she tried to move so nobody noticed. A little voice inside her said this was not going to be good. Her eyes grew wider the longer Vincent stayed quiet. It seemed like a year, and with every passing second, the bad feeling got bigger. The heavy scent of bitter candy filled her like never before, and as she reached the rail of the steps, she stopped with a jerk.
Vincent bunched his hands into fists as a red glow fit his knuckles like a tight glove. Tiny spangles sparkled along them, and Kenzie knew he was more than just specialer. He was a totally different special. Like she was different special.
Was that why she felt weird around him?
Aunt Elaina leaned into him and wrapped her arm around his waist. Her hand folded around his fist, and Kenzie pinched her lips together, disappointed. But she’d seen it before Aunt Elaina covered it. She really had.
“Mr. Cantrell,” said Vincent. “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.”
Kenzie tip-toed to the other side of the steps to watch Vincent talk. His jaw looked tight, arm stiff at his side as he said something about being a Founder. Whatever he said, Grandaddy seemed to calm down because he pulled out his pipe.
The door slammed, and Kenzie’s attention snapped to Daddy on the other side of the glass. Momma quickly followed him inside as Granny threw her hands around Grandaddy’s neck and kissed him on the cheek.
Vincent pulled Aunt Elaina aside and said something to her so quietly Kenzie strained to hear it. Something about a manor and saying his name.
Aunt Elaina smiled and told him she’d start packing.
Kenzie rushed to Mandy’s side to ask if she knew what was going on, but Mandy’s face sparked with excitement. Kenzie looked to where Mandy did and immediately joined her twin in joyous giggles at the two kissing.
“I’ll let myself out the way we came in,” said Vincent. “But I’ll send a car for you.”
“I’ll be waiting.”
As Vincent skipped down the steps, Kenzie walked to the railing. She rested her hand on the wood plank and watched him head for the back gate. Tiny birds flew from over the house and landed in a tree nearby, singing a fun twittery song.
I wonder if he talks to the birds too, like I do.
Whether he did or not, Kenzie knew this guy was extraordinary. Her heart swelled so much it tightened her throat. Though she knew she’d no doubt see him again, seeing him leave really hurt. She rubbed her chest and took a shaky breath.
Something about him made her insides wish she could… go home.