He heard his mother’s voice in the smoke. Eat like it is your first taste of food, but cook like it’s your last.
Would he have done anything differently for the Preston Ball if he had known it would be the last time he cooked in his mother’s kitchen? No. Every time he cooked, he cooked like it was his last time.
Fynn patted Elliot’s back. “We can rebuild this, baby brother.”
Elliot appreciated both sentiments.
The three men stared at the burnt out shell of the kitchen. The stainless steel appliances were charred silhouettes against the brick walls. Elliot was sure his night couldn’t get any worse. Then he heard the sound of footsteps approaching. High-heels clicking on the fragile remnants of his life.
He turned to see Veronica step on the burned remains of a wooden spoon. As a child, he and his mother pretended those wooden spoons were magic wands.
“Hey Ronnie,” his brothers said to the woman in unison.
Veronica moved swiftly through the chaos and placed a kiss on Fynn and Fletcher’s cheeks. She turned to Elliot and stopped.
“You okay?” she asked.
“Fine, we’ll skip the hug and get to work. Any of you boys know how to sweep? Elliot, you can tell me what happened while we clean.”
“I’ll tell you,” said a voice in the corner.
“Dad don’t.” Elliot shook his head at his father.
“I rushed him off to the ball and promised to shut everything down, but I forgot to check the stove.” Frank rubbed his face.
“Dad, I should have checked the stove before I left. It was my fault not yours.”
Veronica grabbed a broom for each man and handed them out. One thing Elliot liked about her was that she didn’t wait for anyone. That included him. But damn it, she was really helpful in a crisis. She wore her ridiculously expensive jeans and high heeled shoes, but Veronica was not afraid of work. For everything positive thing that Elliot could think about her, he finally realized that while he liked Veronica, he didn’t miss her.
She dragged his stepfather to his feet. “Why don’t we say it was my fault, Mr. Vining? I asked him to come meet me at the ball. But, Elliot, I didn’t see you there.”
He hadn’t thought of anything but his restaurant for the last several hours. He never made it to the ball. How could he have forgotten about her?
MV. The wine stained beauty. Not a whirlwind of energy, but a quiet storm with a shy smile.
Elliot reached for his watch. It was gone. “What time is it?”
“Midnight,” everyone said in unison.
Elliot wished Fletcher would start cursing again. He couldn’t make it back to MV in time. Thirty minutes to the hotel. Thirty minutes frantically looking for her. Thirty minutes to realize that she never would have come back to meet him anyway.
“I did not see you at the ball tonight, Elliot.” Veronica said again and poked him with the broom stick. “You showed up? You came to see me,” Veronica whispered with a smile. “Why didn’t you find me?”
I was looking for someone else. We both enjoyed hiding from the party. She didn’t care who I was.
“I was in the hotel kitchen,” he said.
Maybe he did have time to go back to the hotel. The restaurant would still be there when he got back. He grabbed his coat and headed for the door. Elliot spotted one perfect spoon in the rumble. He picked it up and whacked it against the palm of his hand.
Bibbity bobbity boo.
# # #
One o’clock in the morning was the worst time of the night. Mare thought the same thing every night for the past three weeks. Elliot never came back at midnight. Elliot wasn't there at one a.m. when she left. Midnight would always be magic, but no one ever told you what a princess did at one a.m.
First, she scowled at the interviewer and film crew who should have been done three hours earlier.
Second, she scowled at the ridiculous glass slipper shoes they convinced her to wear for the interview and photo shoot.
Third, she stopped believing in magic.
“Mary, we appreciate this exclusive look at your life, but you’ve been intriguing the media all month with the silver pocket watch you’ve been carrying. What does it mean? Where did it come from?”
Mare hadn’t even realized that she was dangling the pocket watch from her fingers. Certainly if she mentioned that it belonged to a mysterious man who she’d been looking for it would get her a lot of attention. The wrong kind of attention.
“It belongs to a friend,” she evaded.
“You’ve avoided all questions regarding your romantic life, so it might be safe for us to assume that watch belongs to a male friend?” The interviewer leaned in as though the watch was finally something interesting in her utterly boring life.
Mare wanted to find Elliot, but not this way. She was still looking.
“Never assume,” she answered with a smile.
The crew packed up and her mother began applauding from a bar stool in the kitchen.
“You’re getting more comfortable in front of the camera,” said Annabelle.
Mare look at her feet squished into the glass slippers. Comfortable she was not.
“Are you going to tell me where the watch came from?”
“A man I met at the ball. I didn’t want you to know, because I was hoping that I could find him on my own. And before you get excited, he’s a waiter or a cook or something normal and not a CEO of a technology company.”
“I’m ashamed of you, Mary Victoria. If you think he’ll make you happy I don’t care what he does for a living.”
“You’ve never set me up with anyone regular.”
“My mistake. Why don’t you tell me how you met him and where you’ve been looking. I’ll help you get a fairy tale ending.”
Annabelle hugged her, and Mare only detected the slightest bit of wicked in her mother’s smile.
# # #
Mare walked into the restaurant called Grace and noted the dramatic contrast of contemporary with nostalgia. The tables and chairs were stark and modern, but the walls were exposed brick with antique furnishings and artwork. A huge fire burned in the over-sized hearth. It was the melding of old and new. Mare liked it.
She shook hands with the brothers, Fynn and Fletcher, who owned the place. Her mother said they’d be Mare’s best hope to find the elusive man who saved her dress and kissed her cheek.
“Ms. Preston, we are excited to work with your family again,” Fynn said. “Do you have any special requests?”
“I thought the wait staff did a great job, so whoever was in charge would be a welcome addition to this event. And of course, we wouldn’t change a thing about the food. The food was amazing.”
“Maybe you’d like to tell our brother that,” Fletcher offered. He was eyeing her suspiciously.
“There’s another one?” she asked. Her heart started racing, but wouldn’t he have to be named Felix or Ferdinand?
“He cooks. He does the magic.”
“Was he at the ball last month?”
“Never made it into the party.”
Mare tried to stay calm as they led her to the kitchen. The restaurant was closed and she could hear the sound of quiet chopping coming from the distance. Mint. He liked to chop mint. Hope was a dangerous thing.
They walked in. It was her Elliot with no last name. And a cabbage.
He continued to work. He’s eyes were intent on the food in front of him. His hands quick and capable.
“Elliot, sorry to bother you,” Fynn offered. “We brought Ms. Preston to meet you. She’d like us to host another event, but this time here at the restaurant.”
Elliot looked up. Mare felt a cool shiver run up her spine as their eyes met. He didn’t seem happy or unhappy to see her. He looked at her for a moment then returned to chopping. She started breathing again when she realized that a slight smile touched his lips.
“Nice to meet you, Ms. Preston.”
She turned to Fynn and Fletcher. Elliot not looking at her was almost as disconcerting as when he did. “My friends call me Mare or—”
“MV. . .” Elliot added.
The brothers looked from him to her.
“I just saw an interesting interview of you on TV. You’ve got a nice home. You’ve also got a really nice silver watch.”
Mare reached into her pocket when the kitchen door crashed open and a tall brunette rushed in and quickly wrapped her arms around Elliot’s waist. Mare felt herself blushing when the woman kissed Elliot’s cheek. She let the watch drop back into her pocket.
“I found her. I found her. You will not believe it.”
“Not now Veronica,” Elliot said quietly his eyes only on the food.
“But I—” The woman looked up and met Mare’s eyes for the first time. A look of shock crossed her face.
“Not now, Ronnie,” Elliot warned again.
“You found her, too.”
“Were you looking for me?” Mare asked.
He shrugged. He looked nicer in the plain white t-shirt and jeans that he did in the tuxedo.
“I was looking for my watch.”
She pulled it out and extended it in the palm of her hand. She didn’t move closer.
“Was Grace your mother?” she asked. No wonder he left her to save this beautiful restaurant.
He finally looked up at her and nodded. Something about his gaze made her feel beautiful even though she was in a simple black dress. It was shorter than she would have normally liked, but he noticed everything about her from the watch in her hand to her legs to the glass slippers she wore on her feet.
“She believed in magic,” Mare whispered. “And wishes.”
Elliot walked around the work table. He closed his hand over her hand and the pocket watch.
“MV, sometimes you only need one wish.”
# # #
Elliot ignored the crash.
“They are destroying your kitchen,” Mare whispered. “You don’t seem to be the least bit worried about it.”
Elliot scooted closer to her and put an arm around her shoulder. “They offered to clean up after dinner and all of this was your idea. This is what happens when you mix two evil stepbrothers, a fairy stepfather, and your wicked mother.”
The sounds of laughter and dishes being mishandled came from the kitchen.
“The longer they take, the longer I have you to myself, princess.”
“I hope they take forever,” she said and rested her head on his shoulder. She looked up and kissed his chin. Then kissed his jaw line.
Kiss her like it’s your first kiss, but make it linger like it’s your last.
Elliot leaned down and kissed Mare’s parted lips. She sighed against his mouth. For once Elliot was glad to be out of the kitchen. Mare slid an arm around his neck and pressed closer to him. She tasted like vanilla, mint, and a thousand other recipes he’s like to discover. She was delicious.
Sometimes it was easy to believe in the magic of a kiss.
The clock chimed midnight . . . They, of course, lived happily forever after.