KINGSTON FARM AND MARKET
Annual Holiday Festival
Saturday & Sunday
Noon to 4:00 p.m.
NEW: Bigfoot Scavenger Hunt
Come help us find the elusive BIGFOOT!
Kids 12 and under
Nature Hikes ~ Sleigh Rides
Baked Goods ~ Crafts
Hot Cider ~ Beer
Riley Kingston uploaded the colorful reminder, complete with snowflakes and a smiling Bigfoot lumbering across the page, to the farm’s social media accounts.
After weeks of planning, the festival’s opening day was only hours away. A bazillion little items sat on her to-do list, waiting for their turn.
Thanks to one of her colleagues, she had been able to fly home from Africa for the holidays, which enabled her to surprise Coen and help with any outstanding pre-event prep. In the days leading up to the festival, there were always a ton of last-minute details to tidy up. And she was a details master.
Absorbed in her work, she hadn’t yet noticed the delicious aromas filling her parents’ farmhouse. She did now, and her stomach released a loud, rumbling complaint. Running a hand over her unhappy stomach, she tried to remember the last time she’d fed the beast. Based on the dimming light outside, hours ago.
It was a familiar question. Coen understood her absorption with her work and, at the beginning of their video chats, he always asked about her eating habits to make sure she wasn’t slowly starving herself. He couldn’t stop protecting her, even with seven thousand miles separating them.
But not any longer.
When she returned to the Congo, he would join her. As her fiancé. She held out her left hand and admired the trio of diamonds embedded in a white gold band. At first glance, one might miss the gold roping between each diamond and the smaller diamonds seated inside the roping. It was beautiful, simple, and perfect for her.
Unfortunately, her engagement ring would remain in North Carolina when she returned to work. She wouldn’t risk taking anything so valuable into a country where civil unrest exposed her to constant petty crimes and brushes with armed men—rebels and officials—looking for financial gain.
A vague memory of her dad setting something beside her flashed through her mind. She glanced down and noticed a small plate of soft cheese and buttery crackers with a side bundle of red grapes.
Leave it to her father to remember her favorite snack. As a stay-at-home dad, Ross Kingston had always been well-attuned to his children’s needs and moods.
She spread some of the cheese onto a cracker and popped the whole thing in her mouth. Two more followed the first, along with half of the grapes, before her stomach settled into a happier rhythm.
Closing her laptop, she rose from the couch in the family room and headed to where an increasing number of voices had collected in the past hour. Her nose caught the scent of sage-infused dressing, and she followed its trail.
Forbidden to enter the kitchen under punishment of doing after-dinner dishes, she paused at the threshold and took in what could only be described as a culinary war zone.
At the center island, Dad stood over a large chopping block surrounded by an array of scrubbed vegetables. The speed with which his new Japanese knife flew through the white onion would make Gordon Ramsey proud.
Aunt Joan braved the steam and sizzle of pots and pans on the stove to sample their contents and add pinches of fresh-cut herbs. At her sister’s nod, Riley’s mom added mounds of chopped veggies to a large roasting tray and sprinkled them with olive oil, rosemary, thyme, salt, and pepper.
A timer chimed a merry melody, signaling the oven’s readiness for the Kingstons’ latest creation—Tofu Turkey. How her parents managed to mold square blocks into something resembling a twenty-pound turkey, Riley could only guess.
But there it was, being slid into the depths of the oven by her dad’s steady hand.
In the past couple of years, her parents had slowly increased the number of plant-based meals they ate during the week. They started with two, then three, then four—until their diet contained almost no meat. A win-win for their health and the environment.
“It’s becoming painfully clear that your version of clean is light-years different from the rest of civilization.”
The unfamiliar female voice came from the vicinity of the white farm sink Ross had installed several years ago after watching a home improvement show starring the wacky couple from Waco, Texas. From her position inside the doorframe, Riley could only see her uncle Eddy Steele glaring at someone out of her line of sight. He had his sleeves rolled up and his big soapy hands had paused what they were doing.
Flicking a glance at her parents, she took a tentative step forward to peer around the fridge. She wanted no part of after-dinner dish duty, but her curiosity pushed her into the danger zone.
A tall woman with wavy, silver-sprinkled brown hair stood to the right of her uncle, rinsing items he passed to her. She dropped a bamboo cooking spatula back in his soapy water. “Try again. Your hermity ways have made you sloppy.”
“This,” Uncle Eddy waved a finger back and forth between them, “I didn’t miss.”
The woman smirked. “I did.”
Recognition dawned. The smirk, the perfect nose, the strong brow line. All Steele traits. Although she couldn’t see the woman’s face, this had to be Lynette Blackwell, Uncle Eddy’s sister.
Riley could add up on one hand the number of times she’d been in the same room with a Blackwell. Two of which had happened since she’d returned home.
Did this mean the Blackwells were finally emerging from their self-imposed isolation?
“My,” a new voice said from several inches below Riley’s chin, “don’t you look the picture.”
Rather than face her parents’ censure, she adjusted her neckline of her form-fitting tunic dress and focused on the diminutive woman whose dark eyes studied every detail of Riley’s outfit. It took a good amount of self-control for her not to back away and run upstairs. For one, she would really like to get back into her normal loose-fitting pants and sweater. She didn’t dare, for fear of disappointing her mom.
The more motivating reason to run was being the sole focus of the Blackwell matriarch, Johona. For twenty-five years, Riley had never bleeped on this woman’s radar. But for the second time in a week, she experienced the full force of her attention.
This wee bit of a woman helped raise seven boys into men the town half feared and half admired. Any time she appeared in public, the news rocketed through Steele Ridge as if a Hollywood celebrity had made an appearance. Even though she might not have said more than five words to a store clerk, her visit, her expression, her clothing, all of it would be analyzed and commented on for days afterward.
After all was said and gossiped about, the end result was that no one could figure out the solemn woman who exited their town as quietly as she entered.
Everything she’d ever heard about Johona Blackwell seemed to sit in direct contrast to the kind, dark eyes twinkling up at Riley. Her brown skin revealed deep lines of wisdom that could only be achieved through decades of joy and heartache. She wore her long gray hair in a loose bun at the back of her head and from her small hands hung boughs of mistletoe.
“I do not think I have ever seen anyone wear that color combination quite so well,” Johona said.
Her serene smile didn’t falter, so Riley took the compliment at face value, even though she thought the older woman might need to update her contacts prescription.
“Thank you—” not knowing how to address their guest, she sent a pleading look toward her dad.
“Johona,” Ross said, “have you met my youngest, Riley?”
“Not officially.” The smile around her eyes deepened. “Plant girl?”
She pushed her square-framed glasses up higher on her nose. “Yes, ma’am.”
“You believe plants have healing powers?”
“I know they do.” The muscles in her shoulders stiffened as she waited for a response. When the topic of herbalism came up, most people fell into two camps. They either mocked it as woo-woo medicine or embraced its power.
But Johona’s reaction didn’t fall into either category. Emotion leached from the older woman’s features, giving Riley a glimpse of the perplexing expression many townsfolk had pondered for years.
“Then you are in favor of taking plants from the wild to cure human diseases?”
Something in the other woman’s tone told Riley that her answer would set the course of their relationship from this point forward. “I’m in favor of responsible harvesting, not stripping a region of its precious resources.” She’d seen firsthand what pharmaceutical greed could do to a rare species and the people who depended on it. “Once a plant’s medicinal properties have been confirmed, the harvested specimens can then be used for mass propagation.”
“What if the plant requires the soil of its origin and cannot be propagated on a large scale?”
A complex problem with a simple answer, but not a simple solution. Botanical cures were big business. Often at the expense of indigenous peoples.
“I would keep trying to perfect the medium for the plant to grow in. If that failed, I would begin the search for an alternative lifeline to the disease.”
The spark returned to Johona’s eyes. “When this season changes to the next, you must come visit me.”
Metal clanged against the countertop.
“Bring your man. I will give you a tour of my herb garden, and he can play with my boys.”
“My grandsons. It is unfortunate that they won’t be able to join us this evening.”
Her boys were large, scary men, and Riley did her best not to show her relief that they wouldn’t be joining them for dinner.
Without another word, the Blackwell matriarch took her boughs of mistletoe outside.
Smiling at the incongruity, Riley returned her attention to the kitchen at-large and found varying degrees of stunned expressions.
Glossy tears lined her mom’s eyes and her dad bent to pick up an escaped carrot.
Uncle Eddy’s sister strode toward her, drying her hands on a blue towel covered in dancing snowmen. When Lynette Blackwell paused in front of her, she said nothing for several long seconds.
Riley’s nerves scratched at the barrier of her skin. She wanted to scream at her to explain what had just happened, but this stranger was one of her elders, despite their weird family estrangement.
“My mother-in-law’s herb garden is sacred,” Lynette said. “To my knowledge, she has never invited anyone outside the immediate family to view it, let alone given them a personal tour.”
Riley looked to her parents and aunt and uncle for confirmation. No one contradicted the woman.
“Why me? Why someone she really just met?”
“In you, she has found a soul sister. A sister with a pure heart.”
A smile crept across Lynette’s features. “A fellow botanist.”
Logically, she understood this revelation was big. Unique. But her analytical, categorize-everything-into-neat-lists mind couldn’t comprehend the exact level of bigness.
The way everyone kept gawking at her, they seemed to expect her to say something grateful or profound or idiotic. She couldn’t be sure which. The problem was that she had no idea how to respond to being singled out by Johona Blackwell. Perhaps if she knew her better or they had a closer relationship, she would feel the sense of awe that everyone waited for her to demonstrate.
But all she could associate with the matriarch was whispers about the family—Shady Blackwells, Elusive Blackwells, Dangerous Blackwells. None of which inspired awe.
Her fingers grazed the edge of her skirt, and she winced. Then again, her response might be lacking because she didn’t feel quite herself.
A loud knock at the kitchen back door splintered the moment.
Ross moved toward the door.
“I bet that’s Keone,” she said. “We’re going to hike the Bigfoot Scavenger Hunt trail to see what he can interpret for the visitors while they’re in pursuit of Sasquatch.”
Opening the door, Ross held out his hand. “Good to see you, Keone. Thanks again for being part of the festival program this year.”
“No problem, Mr. Kingston.”
At six foot five inches and with layers upon layers upon layers of muscle, Keone Akana made Jason Mamoa look like a lightweight. Add a perfect arrangement of eyes, ears, nose, and lips to said body and out pops a stunning Homo sapiens.
“Practice keeps my skills sharp.” Keone nodded to everyone in the room before his gaze settled on Riley—or rather the clothes she wore.
Even though he displayed no outward emotion, heat still burned her cheeks, despite her preparation for this moment. She tugged on her hemline. It didn’t budge.
Lynette raised a knowing eyebrow and Riley’s flight instincts reared up on their hind legs again.
Taking pity on her, the older woman stepped away, opening up an escape route.
Riley didn’t hesitate. She marched over to where she kept her boots and coat by the door. First the right, then the left, she stomped her feet into her insulated boots and threw on her coat and scarf. “Sorry, everyone. Keone doesn’t have much time and we’re losing light.”
“I’m not in any—”
She nudged the big Hawaiian out the door.
“Dinner’s in an hour,” Mom called.
“Got it!” The screen door slammed shut, and she clomped down the steps leading down from the small back porch before pausing to lace up her boots.
“Do you know about an appointment that I don’t?” he asked in that patient way of his.
“I had to get out of there,” she wheezed.
“Don’t like your family?”
“Ha, I love them.” She straightened, drawing in a full breath. “That’s the problem.”
“Perhaps your outfit cut off the air to your brain, ’cause I’m not following.”
She closed her eyes briefly before sending him a sideways death stare. The teasing smile hovering along his mouth made him even more handsome, though he couldn’t out-hunk her Coen.
Swatting his arm, she said, “Watch it, Akana, or I’ll tell my cousin Evie that you have a rash that needs medical attention” she switched to a proper, hushed English accent “in a most delicate place.”
“Are they giving you a hard time about—?” He indicated her attire with a flick of his hand.
“Nooo.” Quite the contrary.
She buttoned up her long, red coat and guided them toward the Bigfoot trailhead. Fresh-plowed snow crunched beneath their feet as they cut through a gravel parking lot that led them past the gift shop and one of the two large red barns. A shop yard sat in the middle of the barns and outbuildings. Several white-topped tents dotted the space. Each one contained local crafts and sweets for purchase, games for kids, and free hot cider.
The most incongruous structure was the life-sized photo stand-in board her cousin Britt had constructed and Jayla and Aubrey painted. The board contained a nine-foot lumbering Bigfoot, pausing to give a stocking-capped child a high five. Where their faces should have been, two large holes had been cut for picture-loving guests. A forested landscape served as the backdrop. On the backside of the board, sturdy stairs and two platforms had been erected to allow kids and adults of all ages to join the fun.
Nodding toward the house, she said, “There’s a lot of woo-woo stuff going on in there.”
“I thought you were into woo-woo.”
“And I thought you were one of the enlightened members of your species.”
He chuckled. “Hit a nerve?”
“It seems some people affix the label woo-woo to anything that a man in a white coat doesn’t prescribe or that doesn’t sit in a pretty package on a grocery store shelf.”
“Sorry, Ry. I bungled my attempt to take your mind off…other things.” His voice turned solemn. “My family’s business in Hawaii faces many of the same narrow-minded prejudices.”
The tension from her shoulders drained away. “Don’t apologize. As you can tell, I’m not quite myself right now.” She smiled. “Finding Bigfoot should cheer me up.”
The farm’s black-and-white border collie Nicksie zoomed in to get a bum scratch from each of them before jabbing her nose into the five inches of snow that had covered the ground overnight to find Lord knew what.
“How long is the hike?” he asked as they resumed their stroll.
“We have them scheduled on the hour, every hour. But you can customize each hike based on the length of each group’s attention span.”
“Whose brainchild was it to invite Bigfoot to the festival this year?”
She laughed. “No one person. This is what comes out of my family’s game night.”
“Why do I suspect alcohol was involved?”
“I take back what I said earlier. You are an enlightened man.”
“Watch it, Kingston,” he said, throwing her warning back at her.
“If you were serious about keeping your skills sharp, Britt mentioned something about hiring a naturalist to enhance the wildlife center’s young adult programming.”
“Thanks for the tip. I’ll give him a call.”
“I’m sure he would appreciate it. He wasn’t looking forward to the hiring process.”
“I don’t blame him.”
“Coen and I came out earlier and stamped a few Bigfoot footprints before the trailhead.”
She tried to gauge his reaction, but his features remained unchanged. Although she had always been comfortable in his presence, she didn’t know him well. She got most of her information from Evie, who was dating, er, engaged to Keone’s best friend, Deke Conrad.
The way her companion disappeared into his thoughts, at times, made her suspect something broiled beneath the surface of his calm facade. She’d asked Evie about it once. As good as her cousin was at prying out other people’s secrets, she hadn’t yet cracked open Keone’s.
“If you think the footprints are too hokey,” she said, “we can nix them.”
He shook his head. “The kids will love them. I’ll find a sticker or stamp or something else I can use to knight them as junior trackers.”
“Perfect. The footprints are over here. We stopped them at the trailhead. Shep should be arriving any moment to groom the trail winding through the woods.”
Careful not to destroy her and Coen’s handiwork, they strode alongside the stamped prints, their shuffling boots creating a breadcrumb trail of their own in the thick snow. Once they reached the trailhead, she paused, frowning.
“What is that?”
Keone’s relaxed posture stiffened and he moved to stand between her and the half-mile-long trail ahead.
“Could this be Coen playing a joke?”
“No, he walked back with me. He’s at the house, showering and changing.” She drew her phone from her coat pocket.
“What are you doing?”
“Documenting this.” She snapped a long-range pic and then a close-up. “Whatever it is.”
Because absolutely no one in her family would believe the trail of gigantic footprints that meandered down the center of the hiking path, coming toward them and then stopping, toe-to-toe with hand-stamped Bigfoot prints.