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"Peachy Acres is a stupid name," Drew complained from the backseat.
Thank you, Mr. Optimism. Mackenzie Green, intrepid single mom and owner of a minivan that was older than her nine-year-old twins, sighed inwardly.
Kenzie empathized with her son's unhappiness over moving, but his negative commentary was making the four-hour trip from Raindrop, North Carolina, to Atlanta, Georgia, feel like an interminable cross-country trek. Or a voyage in space, she thought, vaguely recalling some old movie promo about no one being able to hear you scream. Too often Kenzie felt as if she were screaming on the inside.
Behind her, Leslie had adopted the prim, emphatic tone that made her sound like a cranky schoolteacher. "I'm sure it's called Peachy Acres because Georgia is the Peach State," she informed her brother.
Drew was unimpressed. "Know-it-all. I hate when you talk like you're older than me. We're the same age!"
"A person doesn't have to be older to be smarter."
"All right!" Kenzie took a breath, reminding herself that deep feelings of maternal love prevented her from strapping the kids to the roof for the duration of the trip. Well, maternal love and state laws. "You two be nice."
She was always a touch envious when she heard about inseparable twins who dressed alike and finished each other's sentences. It would be bliss if her children could just go a day without bickering. Heck, an hourshe wasn't picky! Tensions were running abnormally high today; the kids had said goodbye to the only home they'd ever known.
Leslie was coping by burying her nose in a young-adult reference book about Georgia during the Civil War,despite her increased tendency to get carsick while reading. Drew, as had become his habit this past spring, was channeling his misery into anger. Would the new setting do him good, giving him the chance for a fresh start and provide distractions like the zoo and natural-science museum, or were Kenzie's difficulties with her son about to get worse?
She'd debated turning down this transfer to a Georgia branch of the bank she worked for, but the Atlanta location had far more frequent job openings than the small bank in Raindrop, including the position of loan officer, to which she was being promoted. The stress of moving and the higher cost of living seemed worth the much-improved salary and increased odds of upward mobility. Another plus was that Kenzie's sister lived in the Atlanta area. Even if the two hadn't been close as children, it would do Kenzie and her kids some good to have family nearby. Nice, stable family.
Besides, although Kenzie was fond of the little town they'd been living in, she was looking forward to having the kids in a different school. She'd chosen their new home based largely on the district in which it was located. At the tiny elementary school in Raindrop, there had been no gifted curriculum to challenge bookish Leslie, and many of the instructors were a stone's throw from retirement. Drew's third-grade teacher, who had only a year left to go, had lacked the energy to address Drew's growing number of outbursts in class, countermanding Kenzie's warnings that losing his temper would carry consequences. Not that Kenzie blamed Mrs. Blaugarten for Drew's behavior problems.
While Drew had always been active, last spring had been the first time he'd taken his extracurricular sports seriously. He'd been surrounded by fathers coaching teams and volunteering to work the concession stands, dads coming to watch their sons score goals in soccer or hit a baseball into the outfield. For Drew, the runs he batted in paled in comparison to the fact his father had never witnessed them, despite glib promises to be there.
"Mo-om?" Leslie's plaintive wail cut through Kenzie's thoughts. "I don't feel so"
"Pull over!" Drew yelled in a panicked voice. "She's gonna blow!"
Kenzie signaled with her blinker as Drew urged, "Hurry!"
Spoken like someone who's never tried to drive a minivan hauling a loaded trailer. She steered gently onto the shoulder, kicking herself for not insisting that Leslie put aside her books for once and sing along to the radio or, better yet, take a catnap to make the ride pass faster.
In the grassy ditch on the side of the road, Kenzie smoothed her daughter's blond hair and handed over a bottle of water from the minicooler in the front seat. Moments later, they were back on the road. Leslie was sufficiently recovered to start bickering with her brother again.
As she stemmed off the burgeoning argument, Kenzie met her own gaze in the rearview mirror. Are we there yet?
"Kids? Kids, we've made it to Aunt Ann's street."
Both children had fallen asleep during the final ten minutes of the drive. Naturally. Kenzie might have enjoyed the few moments of peace more if she weren't so tired herself. She'd been up at dawn to finish last-minute packing before getting the rental trailer this morning. After loading up their possessions and driving for hours, Kenzie's entire body ached.
Leslie lifted her head from its crooked angle against the seat and peered out the window. It was after seven but, due to the long summer days, still bright outside. Well-dressed children played on shiny scooters in driveways outside two-car, and even the occasional three-car, garages. The first time she'd been here, Kenzie had wrestled with twinges of resentment who was she to question why the heck Ann and Forrest Smith needed a palatial, redbrick two-story to themselves? It wasn't their fault that Kenzie and the kids owned a secondhand couch with upholstery so garish it brought to mind the Las Vegas strip, or that they hadn't been able to afford replacing the dishwasher. Besides, Ann and Forrest had started a family now, so they'd probably grow into the space.
Kenzie was momentarily stymied as she approached the Smith residence. On the one hand, she didn't have enough experience maneuvering a trailer to comfortably navigate the driveway and the perfectly manicured flowering shrubs that lined it. On the other hand, she suspected the home owner's association governing the ritzy suburb had some sort of rule about staying parked in the street overnight. She pulled up to the curb for the time being and told herself she'd deal later with any uptight stipulations. The house she and the kids were buying on the opposite side of the city would be their first in an actual subdivisionwith a name on the stone entrance and everythingbut it didn't quite merit an HOA.
The front door to the house opened, and Kenzie's sister emerged. She'd been born Rhiannon, but these days she was Ann, wife of an economics professor at a small but credentialed local college. Kenzie, twenty-eight and technically older by a year and a half, often felt like the younger sibling. Ann was always the one giving advice, accompanied by head-shaking and sighs. She'd been that way her entire life, determined that she knew better than her crazy parents and older sister.
It had taken until the twins' toddlerhood for Kenzie to realize that, however frustrating Ann's attitude over the years, her sister had a point. Witness how differently their lives had turned out.
Well, twenty-eight is hardly old, and this move is a new beginning. Kenzie had been making slow changes to her life for the past few years. This promotion gave her a chance to create a fresh start for her and the twins. From here on out, she would be practical Kenzie Green, loan officer and suburbanite.
With help from Ann on the legwork, Kenzie had found the perfect home. It wasn't a big house, but it came with like-new appliances, and the school system was fantastic. The only drawback was that the sellers, who were moving out of the country, had put the house up early in case it took time to get an offer. They didn't want to close until mid-October; Kenzie's job started next week. Hence, the Peachy Acres apartment complex and the short-term lease Kenzie had signed. Ann had made halfhearted noises about offering her guest rooms for the interim, but even her sister's spacious home would feel unbearably cramped by the time nearly three months passed.
Besides, living out here would create complications once school started, and involve a hellish commute. The apartment building, closer to the city, was just inside the edge of the kids' new school district. By staying at Peachy Acres until their house was ready, the twins could get settled into their classes and start making local friends. There was no way Kenzie was going to move them from Raindrop, enroll them in school near Ann's, then ask them to transfer again, later in the fall. She had assured her sister that letting them stay tonight was assistance enough.
"We were starting to worry!" Ann said from the driveway. "We expected you earlier."
Kenzie stretched, rubbing one palm against her lower back. "I'd planned to be here sooner, but you know how effective plans are once kids are involved."
Ann tilted her head, regarding her blankly.
What, baby Abigail never disrupted plans? Okay, that just wasn't fair.
It wasn't that Kenzie wished her sister ill, but when Kenzie had been a mother for five months, she'd been a sleep-deprived neurotic mess whose shirt was normally splattered in spit-up (Leslie's sensitive stomach had started from the cradle). Yet here was Ann, looking like an ad from a women's clothing catalog in her khaki capris, coral short-sleeved shirt and pearl earrings. Granted, she was plumper than she'd been before the baby, and Kenzie knew the pale blond bobbed hair was not her sister's natural color. Still, Ann was a vision of grace and loveliness.
Drew muscled between the two adults. "It took for-e-ver because Les here had to hurl every five minutes."
"I only got sick twice! You're the one who ordered the big soda at lunch and"
"Kids!" Kenzie didn't yell, but her tone spoke volumes. If Leslie ever wanted another bookstore shopping spree or Drew planned to play another video game for the remainder of his natural life, they both needed to cease and desist.
"Well." Ann's green eyes were wide. "That certainly does sound like an eventful trip. Leslie, do you feel up to eating? I have a roast simmering. Forrest had hoped to join us for dinner, but he's teaching a weekly night course for the summer semester. He has a meeting in the morning, Kenzie, but he can help move big stuff in the afternoon."
"Roast beef? I'm starved!" Drew ran on ahead, food being his number one priority in a three-way tie with video games and sports.
"My stomach's fine now," Leslie said, "but I'm more interested in holding Abigail than eating."
"Maybe after dinner. She's taking her evening nap. I don't want to disturb her routine."
Kenzie stumbled as she stepped up onto the front porch.Ann had managed to instill a routine in a five-month-old?Amazing. Kenzie's recollection of the twins' first year was blurred, but they'd practically never slept at least, not at the same time.
Should Kenzie seek her sister's parenting advice on how to deal with Drew's recent moodiness? Ann was certainly a solution-finder by nature. But any conversation about Drew's anger would inevitably lead to a discussion of Kenzie's ex-husband, Mick Green, absentee father and Aspiring Musician. He always talked about his dream as if it deserved capital letters.
Once, Mackenzie had been his biggest fan, a dewy-eyed teenager who just knew she was marrying the next Springsteen. Mick and Macgag. Looking back with adult hindsight, she would call their marriage the biggest mistake she'd ever made, except for one thing well, two actually. Whatever else he'd failed to provide, Mick had given her the twins.
Even when Drew was glowering and Leslie was tossing her cookies, Kenzie loved them fiercely. The thought steadied her. Her little family could handle this transitional period.
Yesterday's mistakes had yielded today's blessings and tomorrow stretched ahead of them, full of promise.
"Need help?" The man addressing Kenzie had an intriguing voicesort of low and growly, yet not unpleasant.
His tone, though, was laced with so much skepticism, as if she were clearly beyond help, that Kenzie wondered why he'd offered. Maybe it just seemed like the thing to do since she, a torn cardboard box and all of the box's former contents blocked his path. Her groan stemmed from equal parts embarrassment and sore muscles.
Glancing up from her sprawled position in the stairwell, she got her first good look at the potential knight in armor. Paint-stained denim and cotton, if you wanted to be literal, which she did. The new-and-improved practical Kenzie couldn't afford flights of fancy.
Then stop staring at this guy like he's the mystical embodiment of your fantasies.
Frankly, it had been too long since she'd had a decent fantasy, but if she had, it would look like him. Thick, dark hair, silver-gray eyes, strong jaw and broad, inviting shoulders. None of which were as relevant as her still being on her butt. She got to her feet more or less.
As if she were having an out-of-body experience, she watched her wet sneaker slide across a piece of debristhe plaster head of a panda, she realized as she fell backward. The handsome stranger grabbed her elbow. Large hands, roughened skin. Since he was theoretically saving her from ignominious death in a dingy stairwell, she could forgive the lack of a delicate touch. The way her luck was running this morning, she would have broken her neck if he hadn't come along.
The man shook his head. "Lady." Was the undertone exasperation or amusement? Hard to tell from the single word.
"It's Kenzie," she said, grabbing the stair rail with both hands. "Kenzie Green. And thank you."
"No problem." He'd stepped back, either to keep from crushing her belongings under his work boots or simply to avoid her rain-soaked aura of doom.
She grimaced at the mess that covered half a dozen stairs. The coasters she was always admonishing the kids to use. Assorted books, her texts from some correspondence courses alongside Leslie's Mary Pope Osborne stories. Two mauve lamp shades. A statuette of a now-headless panda Kenzie had once received for donating to a wildlife fund, and various other small belongings that had been packed, taped up and neatly labeled Living Room in black marker.
"Guess they don't make cardboard boxes like they used to," she grumbled. What was wrong with the stupid box that it couldn't withstand being weakened with water and dropped down a few lousy steps?
Thank goodness Kenzie was such a levelheaded pragmatist. If she were given to the slightest bit of paranoia or superstition, she might see it as a bad sign that her first summer day in the sunny South was under deluge from a monsoon. She might be rethinking that rent check she'd written for a place where the elevator doors wouldn't even open.