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Renee MacKenzee

Chapter One

Cilantro Soul


Macy Stokes raised the bouquet of cilantro and imagined it as fragrant armor. She marched down Broad Street in downtown Augusta, Georgia, until she reached Emma. She lowered the herb shield as she walked up behind her.

“Eighteen, nineteen, twenty,” Macy teased.

Emma leaned back against her and laughed. “I was checking out a painting, not counting.” She turned from the gallery window and faced Macy. “I finished counting half an hour ago. What’s this?”

Macy offered her best friend the bouquet. “Cilantro. From my garden. Because I know how much you like it.” Macy thought about the day she’d introduced Emma to cilantro. She’d made salad with a cilantro and lime vinaigrette and brought it to one of their picnics at the river. Emma had gone wild over it, and Macy couldn’t deny how much it pleased her to make Emma that happy.

“How sweet. Thanks.”

“Maybe we could put it in your car. People are staring.”

“They aren’t staring at your cilantro, silly.” She gave Macy a pointed look of appraisal and took the herb from her. “Come with me. I want to show you something.”

Macy studied Emma’s reflection in the window and admired her chin-length auburn hair. Emma wore khaki shorts and a sleeveless denim shirt that made her ever-changing eyes appear to be a light blue. Macy glanced at her own too-tight jeans and black tank top and wished she’d worn something a bit less revealing.

“Come on,” Emma said.

Macy clomped along in her new clogs and followed Emma to the next gallery in Artists Row.

Emma grabbed her by the arm and steered her in the door. “You’ve got to see this.”

Macy smiled. She loved seeing through Emma’s eyes.

Emma never pretended to know the first thing about art. She would just whisper comments about this detail or that image, and Macy would stand close behind her, close enough that she could feel the heat from Emma’s back as she murmured.

Emma stopped short, and Macy bumped into her.

Macy laughed. “I knew you couldn’t walk past this painting without stopping.”

“I can’t help it.” Emma smiled. “It reminds me of Chisman Creek in Virginia.”

“Where you grew up.”

“Yeah.” Emma cocked her head. “The dock is just like the one at the Smith place.”

Emma had often told Macy about the dark water of Chisman Creek, how it hid the soft muck that sheltered blue crabs and oysters, some with sharp shells that could leave nasty gashes on unwary feet.

Emma pointed at the painting. “I wrote my first poem on a dock just like that one.”

“And had your first cigarette. And your first kiss.”

Emma bit her lip.

“See, I do pay attention.”

“Yeah,” Emma whispered. “You do.” She moved toward the back of the gallery.

Macy stopped beside Emma and stared at the huge cityscape. “Wow,” she said. Acrylic rain pelted faceless people.

“Where are their eyes?” Emma asked.

“Maybe we have to provide them.”

“What if we can’t?”

Macy’s face brushed against Emma’s ear. “I’ll always remember your eyes,” she whispered.

“I don’t think so.” Emma leaned closer to the painting. “Mine aren’t intense like yours.”

“Thanks again for the poem that you wrote about my eyes.”

“Hematite. Just like the smooth black stones I made with the rock tumbler my dad gave me when I was a kid,” Emma said.

Macy’s chest pounded as she remembered what else Emma had said about her eyes—that, like hematite, Macy’s eyes were impenetrable only to those who lacked imagination. And that Emma found them exciting and inspiring.

Macy took a deep breath and reached around Emma to point at the corner of the painting. “Look how the water swirls down the drain.”

“It’s so realistic, I can almost smell the rain,” Emma said.

“That’s my deodorant.”

“Brat.” She ducked under Macy’s arm and moved away from her.

“Let’s drink some wine over at the Soul Bar, and we can debate art and eyes and rain.” Macy grabbed her hand. “Come on, let’s stash that cilantro in your car.”

They crossed the street, and Emma unlocked the driver-side door. She tossed the herb into the passenger seat. When she stood back up, Macy was bent over, using the window as a mirror.

“Such a girl,” Emma teased. She sat sideways in the car, her feet on the dusty concrete.

In her peripheral vision, Macy watched Emma stick a two-inch sprig of cilantro in her mouth. Emma’s lips pursed slightly as she nibbled the end of it.

Macy kneeled beside her and, without thinking, used her mouth to grab the cilantro from between Emma’s lips.

Emma looked a bit shocked, started to say something, but couldn’t finish because Macy kissed her full on the mouth.

When Macy pulled away, her mind was reeling. Oh crap. She panicked. She tried to hide her shock by saying an ultracasual, “Mmm, cilantro.”

Then Emma kissed Macy, and Macy shivered when Emma’s tongue parted her lips and flicked at the herb in her mouth. They kissed for several moments before Macy backed away.

Emma’s eyes were bluer than Macy had ever seen them, and her breathing told her that Emma had attached more meaning to the kiss than she would ever admit. Macy loved Emma, but she wasn’t like that.

“Let’s go listen to some jazz and find an adventure,” Macy said. She stood up, seized Emma’s hand, and tried to pull her onto her feet.


“Em, you know you’re my best friend.” Macy saw the intensity on Emma’s face and knew they were in trouble. “Let’s go inside. I need an adventure.”

“Stay, please. Sit in the car with me.”

“I can’t.” And she really couldn’t. As a divorced mother, this was just the kind of thing that could hurt Macy in a potential custody battle. Jack might not be the custody-seeking type, but that wasn’t a risk she was willing to take.

Macy knelt in front of Emma. “Please come into the bar with me. Maybe that woman from the coffee shop will be in tonight. She checks you out every time she sees you.”

Emma yanked at a thread on the cuff of her shorts and said, “I’m gonna head home.”

“Sure you won’t come in with me?”

“Yeah. I better go.”

Macy tilted Emma’s chin up and made Emma look at her. “You’ll be okay?”

Emma smiled unconvincingly and whispered, “Of course.”

At that moment Macy wanted to get into the car with her. She wanted to tell Emma how her insides were twisting, scaring the hell out of her. Instead, she squeezed Emma’s hand and walked away.

With every clop of her clogs, Macy wanted to take back that kiss. She’d crossed a line she’d promised herself she never would. Emma was too serious, too sensitive for that kind of play. Macy knew it, and she’d blown it.

Macy stopped in the doorway of the club and greeted the bouncer. “Hey, Joe, how’s everything?”

“Fine, darling.”

When Macy pulled her driver’s license and some crumpled bills from her back pocket, he waved her in. “No cover for the finest woman in town,” he drawled.

“Thanks, Joe.” She gave him a smile and meandered into the bar.

“Beer?” the bartender asked as Macy slid onto a barstool.

“No, I think I’ll have wine tonight. Red, please.” She put a five on the bar and pivoted toward the door. She wanted a good view of any men that came in.

She glanced around and smiled. Within minutes of coming in, Emma would know how many paintings were on the walls. Before long, she’d know how many barstools and how many people there were. Macy loved to tease Emma about her obsessive counting.

Macy picked up her wineglass and took a sip. Its many subtleties danced across her tongue. When she set the glass down, she smelled something familiar. She swore she could smell rain. She spun around, expecting to see Emma.

“Hey.” A young guy, probably too young to be legally served, stood in front of her. “You are so beautiful.”

She smiled at his youthful directness. “Thank you.” Macy turned back to her wine, wondering if guys really expected that line to get them somewhere.

None of the “adventures”—the men Macy ran around with while her mom looked after her son—not one of them ever saw the Macy that Emma captured in conversation or framed with her camera.

It was Emma’s quiet resolve that had made Macy agree when she asked her to stand in the fountain on campus, fully clothed, while Emma tested her new camera. The water muted all other sounds and plastered Macy’s hair to the sides of her face and her shirt to her breasts.

Macy’s fingers trembled against her glass as she imagined hearing Emma’s words again, Stay, please. She knew that everything would be different now. She couldn’t take back that kiss.

Macy stole a few glances at her young admirer as she nursed her wine. He was cute and probably would be a lot of fun. She closed her eyes and envisioned Emma. She knew Em would have dawdled before she finally left, hoping Macy would change her mind. Emma was probably only a block or two down Broad Street but far enough not to know that Macy had left with the young man for an adventure.

But Macy would know. She kept her gaze locked on the door as she made her way across the club. She held her breath until she stepped into the night air.

A sprig of cilantro was tucked under Macy’s windshield wiper. She put the herb up to her nose and inhaled deeply. She knew she could never be with Emma like that, but she also knew she had to save their friendship. Macy would give Emma a few days. Then she would call and act as if nothing had happened.

She got into her car, draped the cilantro across her leg, and drove off.

When she got home, the lights were out. Her mother, who’d moved in with Macy and her five-year-old son when she’d left Macy’s third stepdad, was asleep in the spare room. Even though she and her mother didn’t always agree, Macy had to admit it was nice having a live-in babysitter.

Jeremiah, Macy’s little J-man, was asleep under his Batman sheets. She got in bed with him and pulled him close. She could smell sun and sweat in his hair.

Basking in the warmth emanating from her son, Macy let her mind drift off to her favorite spot at the river, the area she and Emma called their grassy knoll. She could picture Emma sitting on the ratty blanket they always lugged along: Emma’s camera wedged between her knees, which were pulled halfway up to her chest; her pencil resting in her right hand, its tip barely off the page of her journal. If Jeremiah was with them, Macy would keep one eye on him as he hunted rocks or treasure and one eye on Emma as she snapped pictures or wrote in her journal.

“Hey, J-man,” Macy whispered, not intending to wake him, “you think Emma is right, that the river has special energy?”

Jeremiah let out a dream whimper and pressed a little fist against her.

Macy fell asleep coveting both the peace and the rush Emma got from the water’s current, the red clay, the surprise chatter of a kingfisher.

The next morning, Macy chopped cilantro and sprinkled it into an omelet. She pretended not to taste Emma’s kiss in every bite.

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