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First pages

Chapter 1

Sierra Reeves had expected the day of her high school graduation and eighteenth birthday to be a joyful event. It signified the end of her overly protected and boring existence and marked the beginning of her actual life.

Yet, here she stood in line to accept her diploma, pulling at the ends of her chocolate-brown hair and feeling nervous instead of joyful. A layer of sweat coated her back, and her forehead itched underneath her graduation cap. She kept glancing back at the parents in the bleachers. The ceremony had started over half an hour ago, and Dad was still a no-show, the seat next to Gran unoccupied. Despite being in her seventies, Gran Waldeburg had a vitality about her that many teenagers lacked. Instead of sitting at home and knitting or complaining about modern life, she stayed active by gardening, cooking, cycling, and acquiring unusual clothing. Today she wore a floor-length, paisley dress with bell sleeves adorned by half a dozen multicolored necklaces, making her stand out like a beacon in the mass of neutral suits. Normally, Sierra didn’t mind Gran’s eccentric style, but today she wished Gran would’ve gone with something more subdued.

Noticing Sierra’s stare, Gran arched an eyebrow, which matched her unruly winter-white curls. Sierra whipped her head back, redirecting her attention to the podium. One after another, the students accepted their diplomas and shook hands with the principal.

“Fifteen more to go, and then it’s our turn,” Tammy said.

The minuscule size of Manchester, Vermont and their high school resulted in Tammy Scott standing next to Sierra Reeves. So far, this was the only good thing about June eighth.

Tammy tapped Sierra’s shoulder. “Did you ask about Burlington?”

“Yes. The answer is still the same. I can’t go.” Sierra chewed on her lip.

“Why not? It’s only two and a half hours away, and you’re eighteen now. She can’t tell you what to do!”

In front of Sierra, Becky whirled around, the golden tassel on her cobalt cap swinging, and put a finger to her lips. Tammy smiled sweetly at her, then jabbed Sierra. “It’s just for the weekend. You deserve to celebrate graduation and your birthday.”

Sierra sighed. “I tried everything. Gran won’t budge. You know I want to go.”

“That’s what you always say.”

“This time is different. She’s not just being overprotective. Dad’s coming back from business. He wants to spend the weekend with me.”

“I see. And where was he for your last five birthdays?”

Sierra pressed her lips together until her molars touched. Tammy’s brown eyes turned apologetic, and she tried to reach out. Sierra leaned away. Gran always said, “You can’t take back words.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that.”

Sierra nodded, acknowledging the apology. “It’s our turn.” She made her way to the podium, taking care not to slip on the shiny, parquet floor in her three-inch black pumps. Her nerve endings grew tauter with each step. She swallowed, trying to get some moisture into her mouth. Her gaze swiped one last time over the parents in the bleachers to confirm that the seat next to Gran was still empty. Despite his promises, Dad hadn’t made it after all.

Principal Carr smiled encouragingly. A tall and put-together woman, her graphite pantsuit fit her to a T. Sierra swallowed hard. With all eyes on her, and while her dad was missing, she wanted to get this over with. The principal said words of congratulation. Their exact meaning escaped Sierra, the syllables melting into white noise. Finally, the principal reached for the diploma. Eager, Sierra extended her hand, and then the strangest of things happened. The diploma floated into her palm.

It didn’t fall into her palm. It wasn’t blown into her hand.

No. It floated. As if it had obeyed her will.

The principle gave a nervous laugh. Sierra blinked in rapid succession and then hurried from the podium, furtively glancing at the students and parents surrounding her. No one seemed to have noticed. She shook her head. Of course not, objects didn’t just up and fly through the air. She must’ve imagined it. Nerves.

Then she noticed the frown on Gran’s face and something else. Gran’s whole body was outlined in a green hue. Okay, now she really had lost it. Sierra sat down in her seat and kept her gaze trained on the podium, not daring to sneak another peek at Gran.

Fortunately, Tammy didn’t speak or try otherwise to engage Sierra until the end of the ceremony, giving her plenty of opportunity to convince herself that the stress of the day was responsible for the mirages. Take deep breaths. Try to relax. How did Gran’s technique work again? Ah, yes. My breath travels from the top of my head to my toes. Oxygen to the brain, neck muscles soft and pliable, unknotted belly, calmness in my feet.

“Are we still on for six?”

“Hmm?” Sierra turned to Tammy to discover the graduation ceremony was over and everyone was clearing out. “Sorry, yes, of course. Do you want me to bring something?”

“As if you could sneak anything past your Gran.” Tammy chuckled. “Don’t worry. I’ve stashed away a cherry vodka bottle. Plenty for the two of us until we get to Rick’s party. Your job is to secure a curfew past midnight.”

Sierra sighed. “I can’t make any promises. It depends—”

“On your dad and Gran. Yeah, I know.”

“I’m glad to hear you understand,” Gran said in a calm yet firm voice, joining them.

Tammy jerked. Recovering quickly, she said, “Of course, Mrs. Reeves.”

Sierra pushed her lips together, suppressing a smile. As much as Tammy enjoyed giving advice to others on how to stand up to authority, she didn’t adhere to it herself.

“We must go.” Gran placed her hand on Sierra’s arm. The green glow was still there.

“What do you mean? There are drinks and paninis outside.” Sierra pointed toward the hall.

“I’m sorry. We can’t stay.”

“Umm, I’ll catch you later,” Tammy said. She pointed to her cell and mouthed, “Text me.”

“What’s going on?” Sierra asked.

“I’ll tell you once we’re on our way.” The urgency in Gran’s voice and in her face temporarily drowned Sierra’s further protests.

She pushed past her classmates, praying no one noticed her leaving early. She swallowed hard when her gaze fell on Ben and a raven-haired girl. Two months had passed. She should be fine. But she wasn’t. Ben had been the one to break it off after two years, saying it would be too hard for them to make it work—what with him going to college in Boston, while she remained in Vermont. Now it looked as if distance hadn’t been his only motive.

“Go to the passenger side. I’m driving,” Gran instructed.

Deciding to pick her battles, Sierra acquiesced. She buckled up, her pulse accelerating. “What’s going on? You’re freaking me out!”

Gran’s veiny hands, bedecked with chunky antique rings quivered. “You’ve already noticed the changes, haven’t you? I’ll explain everything in a bit—”

“What is it?” Did it have to do with Dad? Panic unfurled in Sierra. What if something bad had happened, preventing Dad from attending her graduation? An accident? A heart attack? Dad ran daily. He was in good shape. But diseases struck even healthy people…so did drunk drivers. No, it couldn’t be. Dad was fine, most likely delayed by an important last-minute meeting. At least that’s what Sierra kept telling herself during the short drive it took to reach their home.

“You have ten minutes to pack. Bring only necessities. I’ll handle the passports and other documents. I promise I’ll explain everything. Please be patient.” Gran killed the engine and made her way down the gravel leading to their two-story brick house.

The last time Gran had used her “I’m very serious” voice was when a ten-year-old Sierra had swiped painting supplies from a store without paying.

Whatever was going on now, it was serious. Her pulse accelerated, drumming loudly, until it was all she could hear. How bad could it be? Was Dad alone in a hospital somewhere? Was he in critical condition?

She needed to hurry. Rushing up the wooden stairs, she felt nausea at the scent of cinnamon and applesauce, which normally calmed her. She breathed through her mouth and forced herself to keep moving. From underneath her metal-framed bed, she pulled out a suitcase and threw in clothes, jewelry, cosmetics, and her sketchbook before forcing the zipper shut. About to leave the room, she realized she didn’t have her mother’s bracelet, which she had misplaced the day before.

“Hurry up!” Gran called.

“Just a second.” Sierra darted around the room, digging through drawers. Nothing. She threw the cerulean cover back, hoping to find the bracelet in her bed. Tears stung her eyes. She couldn’t lose the only heirloom she had from her deceased mother.

Something crunched below her high heel; she kneeled to retrieve it, relieved to find the bracelet. Strange…she could’ve sworn it hadn’t been there a second ago. Pressed for time, she hauled her suitcase up and hurried down the stairs.

While Gran locked the house and started the Chevy, sickening scenarios raced through Sierra’s mind. Only a horrific event would’ve made Gran pull Sierra out of her graduation celebration.

The not knowing drove Sierra insane. In a whisper, she asked, “What is it? Did Dad get in an accident?”

“Sierra, your father is dead.”

Chapter 2

Anguish held Sierra’s innards in a viselike grip, compressing, squeezing them. Her father. Dead. No. Please don’t let it be true. “Are you sure?” she finally managed to ask.

“Yes. I received a call right before your graduation started. When you started glowing I knew….” Gran trailed off. She removed one palm from the steering wheel and placed it on Sierra’s hand. For once, her touch brought no warmth or comfort.

Tears filled Sierra’s eyes. “Glowing, like you were?” she choked out. She needed to focus on something, distract herself. Because her dad couldn’t be gone.

Gran took a deep breath. “I wish we’d prepared you better for this, but until today, there were no signs. We expected you to remain human and never receive your powers.”

Sierra sat completely still. Maybe Gran not making any sense was a good sign. Maybe this was all a dream. Yes, it had to be, right? In a few minutes, she would wake up and go to her graduation ceremony. Dad would be standing next to Gran, clapping.

“Sierra, I need you to listen carefully and please keep an open mind. I believe that Heath was murdered to make it easier to come after you. You’re a very rare type of supernatural.” The soft flesh on Gran’s chin wobbled. “Until today, I had hoped you could lead a normal life, but you can’t now that your aura and powers are manifesting.”

If this was all a dream, Sierra decided there was no harm in playing along. Perhaps if she fulfilled her role, this trial would end sooner. “Is the green hue around you your aura?”

Gran nodded. “Yes, like you, I’m also a supernatural—a human with powers. My green aura affirms I’m a Guardian. Your mother was also a Guardian like me. Your father was a Dragoon and had a red aura. Guardians and Dragoons are two of the four Ardere types, which are humans with special powers—supernaturals.”

Sierra shook her head. Done with this nightmare, she pinched herself. Nothing. “I want to wake up.” She massaged her temples. “This is not happening. I want to see my father.”

“Sierra, I’m so sorry.” Tears colored Gran’s frail voice.

Why did everything feel so real? Could it really be happening? Sierra’s stomach heaved. She swallowed several times and brought her palm to her mouth. “Stop! Stop the car!”

As soon as the vehicle came to a standstill, she flung her door open and threw up. When her stomach was empty, she dry-heaved. She wiped her mouth with her knuckles and reached into the back seat to grab a water bottle, trying to wash out the acrid taste.

“We don’t have to talk about everything right away,” Gran stated, getting back on the highway that led to New York.

Sierra wanted to fight this, to say there was nothing to talk about. Yet, the image of the diploma floating into her hands replayed in her mind. Maybe it hadn’t been stress after all. Maybe she hadn’t imagined it. She flipped open the mirror above her head. “I don’t see a glow or an aura.”

A ghost of a smile flittered across Gran’s face. “We can’t see our own auras. Yours is gold. It’s pale now. The color will grow stronger over time as your powers develop.”

Sierra’s head spun with the information overload. She needed to take it one step at a time. Just like in math, she had to understand the basics before she could move to more complex equations. Right now, she needed to understand where they were going. “Is Dad’s body in New York? Are we going there?”

Gran moved her hand back and forth on the steering wheel, her bangles clanking. She always did this when she was about to deliver bad news. “No, we’re going somewhere else. Somewhere safe.”

“But…how can we be sure? Maybe it’s not even Dad. There could’ve been a mistake.” Her father was a businessman, not a criminal or a politician. The chances of him being murdered were slim to none. He was kind, everyone liked him, and he had no enemies.

“Sierra, I know this is hard to accept, but your father is dead. Pretending he isn’t and lying to yourself won’t do you any good. And we can’t identify him or arrange a funeral. Supernatural bodies disintegrate.”

Cusses she had never uttered before sprang to Sierra’s mouth. She shoved them down and sucked in a deep breath. “Like vampires?” Sarcasm bled from her lips.

Gran shook her head. “No, not like in the movies. It takes several minutes to several hours, depending on the strength of the supernatural.”

“Dad is strong.”

Gran’s throat worked up and down. “Yes, he was.”

“Why would anyone…?” Sierra trailed off, unable to say the word.

“I believe the murder was planned. After he returned from Europe, Heath checked into a hotel in New York. The next day, he was supposed to report for duty in Connecticut. He never made it out of the hotel. He was killed in his room. The regency notified me once they realized what had happened.”

Vivid images assaulted Sierra. Blood splattered against cream-colored walls. Carpet soaked with red liquid. The scents of iron and copper permeating the space. Her father’s lifeless form crumpled on the ground. A bullet entrenched in his chest.

“Don’t do this to yourself.” Gran shook Sierra gently.

“Was he in pain?” He must have been terrified.

Gran sighed heavily, as if the weight of a mountain pressed down on her lungs. “I don’t think so. I believe whoever killed your father wanted to remove him quickly to make it easier to get to you and kidnap you.”

“Because I’m a supernatural?” The word felt foreign and icky in her mouth.

Before Gran could reply, a vibration came from Sierra’s black tote.

Tammy: Everything okay? Your Gran was extra scary today. I thought she’d be happy you graduated…

Gran pulled into a gas station and took Sierra’s phone. “You can’t tell her what happened or where we’re going.”

Sierra snatched the cell back. “She’s my friend! Plus, she’ll keep texting me if I don’t reply. If we’re both gone for a few days, Tammy might call the police.”

“She won’t. An Ardere will take care of her and sell the house.” At Sierra’s raised eyebrows, Gran elaborated. “Her memory will be altered. It won’t hurt her, but she won’t remember you.” Gran pushed the car door open and strode to the mini store.

It took Sierra several moments to recover and dart after her. “That’s crazy. There has to be another way!”

“I’m afraid there isn’t.”

Sierra stared into blank space. Certainly, Gran didn’t mean that. No, she couldn’t. Tammy had been Sierra’s best friend since elementary school. And what did Gran mean by the house being sold? “Our home. You can’t just—”

“I’m sorry. I have to. We’re not coming back.” Gran reached out, but Sierra took a step around her and ran out of the store. She unlocked the car with her key set, sat down in the passenger’s seat, and pulled her legs up. Despite the temperature being in the mid-seventies, she shivered. Everything was crumbling around her. Dad was gone, and Gran was adamant to leave their lives and everyone behind. No, Sierra couldn’t do that.

She typed into her cell.

Sierra: Don’t worry, I’m fine. I had to go out of town for…

For what? Being a supernatural? Because her father had been murdered?

She deleted the text and tried to think of something better. They had recently crossed the state border of New York. She could say she was going to NYC for the summer, but that was too close. Tammy might try and visit.

Sierra: Gran has a birthday surprise planned for me. We’re going to the South for the summer.

She stared at the message.

Sierra: It’s a painter’s retreat.

There! Perfect. Tammy didn’t enjoy art or, for that matter, anything that didn’t have to do with boys and parties. She wouldn’t want to visit. Sierra hit send.

Gran returned and Sierra quickly stashed away her cell.

“Here.” Gran handed Sierra a cup of coffee and an apple Danish. It looked nothing like Gran’s homemade apple pie. The list on the back label bore more resemblance to a chemistry book than edible ingredients. “You need to keep your energy up. I want us to cover as much of the drive to Savannah today as possible.”

“As in Savannah, Georgia? Why?” Sierra’s stomach rumbled, and she opened the stale pastry; it was better than nothing.

Gran shifted in her seat. “I don’t trust the regency. They’ll find out soon if they haven’t yet that your powers are manifesting. I won’t let them use you as a weapon, take away your ability to choose.”

“The what?” Sierra chewed on the pastry, focusing on the first part of what Gran had said, the second half too scary and foreign to consider.

“The regency is the government of the Ardere. Each city with a supernatural population has a marshal, who reports to a regional ruler. The US has five regional rulers. Clement Fielding is the Northeast’s ruler and also the regent of North America.”

“A whole society.” Sierra balled up the paper bag that had held the apple Danish. How easy it was to destroy, much easier than to create. “And no one knows about it?”

“For the most part, humans are kept in the dark. High-ranking politicians know the basics, just enough to ensure they cooperate and notify us when something important happens on their end.”

Sierra didn’t quite understand this, but decided to drop the subject. Talking had helped for a while—but not anymore, not when a stabbing ache was building in the back of her skull.

She must’ve drifted off or spaced out, she didn’t know which one, because the next time she read a sign, they had left New York and arrived in Pennsylvania.

“Let me drive.”

Gran gave Sierra a skeptical look.

“I’m fine, really. You must be tired.”

At the rest stop, Sierra sneaked a glance at her cell.

Tammy: OK. Bummed you’re bailing like this. Your Gran is weird. Have fun. You better make up for the lost time when you get back.

Sierra sighed. Nearly 6:00 p.m. Right now, Tammy was probably straightening her blonde hair and sipping on cherry vodka with Diet Coke. Sierra had always preferred a good book to a party, yet right now, she wanted nothing more than throw back a few drinks until she forgot everything.

***

“So, let me get this straight. Dad was a Dragoon, making him superfast and strong and able to fly. He worked for the regency. His office was located at the American headquarters in Connecticut, but he worked for the London headquarters,” Sierra summarized as their silver Chevy sped past the “Welcome to North Carolina” sign. “Since you don’t trust the regency, we’re going to hide for now in a small town, away from everyone.”

Apparently, it only took ten hours of nonstop driving to become acclimated to the idea of a secret society existing within the human world.

“Not quite,” Gran replied, brushing back Sierra’s wavy hair. “Savannah does have supernaturals, but it’s a tight-knit community. And I know the marshal there—Gavin McLoughlin. We can trust him.”

Sierra wondered what it would be like to meet an Ardere marshal. Would he resemble a human sheriff? A middle-aged man with a beer belly and perhaps a mustache? Or would he be fit and charming like her father? Like her father had been. Her father who was gone. Forever. This wasn’t another business trip, which would end in a few weeks’ time. Dad might not have tucked her into bed daily or helped her with homework the way other fathers did, but when he’d been off work, he’d been truly present. Quality time, that’s what he had called it, which included yearly skiing trips to Stratton and hiking on the Equinox Mountain. He’d told the best stories, and he’d always made her laugh.

“Turn here.” Gran pointed at a motel sign. “We’ll rest and then do the remaining six hours tomorrow.”

Sierra stepped outside and stretched her legs and spine. She prayed she could fall asleep, turn her mind and reality off for a few hours.

Gran paid with cash for the night. “You don’t need to see an ID or credit card.”

The concierge nodded mechanically, and Sierra blinked at the confusing exchange. Had Gran just used some mind manipulation skills?

They settled into their room on the ground level. The beige carpet sported several stains, and the two single beds creaked from the lightest of pressures. Still, it was better than sleeping in the car.

“I’m setting the alarm for seven. I want us to leave as early as possible,” Gran said.

Sierra nodded. Six hours of sleep would have to do. With a start, she realized it was 1:00 a.m., meaning her birthday was over. Her eighteenth birthday had come and gone without candles, toasts, or a party. In her hurry to arrive at graduation on time, she hadn’t even opened her presents that morning. She bet Gran had given her another book and a self-made bracelet or necklace with gemstones. It didn’t matter, though. In light of everything that was happening, it was just stuff. What mattered was that her father was gone forever and that she had lost her home. How could someone be so cruel as to kill her father? Leaving her behind as an orphan.

Sierra’s throat constricted. Needing to be alone, she made her way to the bathroom and locked the door behind her. She flipped the switch, and fluorescent light flooded the space. She hopped into the shower, allowing the tears to come as hot water pelted her skin, masking her sobs.

When her skin became pruny, she turned off the water and pulled on her favorite pajamas with clouds. Ensuring her shoulder-length waves hid her blotchy skin, she hurried toward her bed and turned to the wall.

Maybe closing herself off was wrong. Maybe she should share her pain with Gran, but right then, Sierra wasn’t ready to be soothed. Her sadness and confusion felt too raw for that.

Exhausted from everything, she fell into a deep slumber.

A hand on her shoulder, shaking her, awoke her sometime later. “Sierra, get up!” Gran’s voice sounded urgent. The sleep haze dissipated quickly, as Sierra remembered the events of the previous day.

“What’s going on?” Sierra rubbed her eyes. The clock on the bedside table displayed 5:45 a.m.

“Come here.” Gran tugged on her sleeve, motioning for her to crouch between the wall and the bed.

“What—”

“Shh.” Gran put a finger against her lips. “We have company.”

Chapter 3

Gran pressed her car keys and a smooth item into Sierra’s palm. “Put the pendant on. If I don’t make it, you have to go to Savannah by yourself and find Gavin McLoughlin.”

The door’s lock turned just as Sierra fastened the necklace around her neck. With a thump, the door flew open and moonlight spilled into the room. White quartz crystals glinted in Gran’s hand. Panic multiplied in Sierra. How did Gran plan to protect them with silly gemstones?

Feet padded across the carpet.

Hidden by the bedframe, Sierra hoped the intruder couldn’t see them. She pressed her body against the wall. Her fingers were clammy; her knees trembled. Her heartbeat hammered away as Gran propelled her body forward and threw the crystals, connected by a thin thread, at the intruder, who in turn slashed out with a blade.

Screams filled the room. The intruder jerked unnaturally, as if the crystal net was electrocuting him. His aura—gray with tiny specks of red—grew weaker.

Gran produced a sharp-looking dagger and threw it at his chest. Droplets of blood squirted through the air. She must’ve hit the heart, Sierra thought, because the screams quieted.

“Hurry.” Gran began packing, and Sierra did the same, her fingers moving mechanically.

“We’re lucky an inexperienced Dragoon tracked us,” Gran mumbled moments later. “Give me your phone.” Sierra reached for her tote and handed the device to Gran, who stomped on it. “I’m sorry.” Agony contorted Gran’s face. “I’ll have to ask you to cease any contact with your friends immediately. It’s too dangerous.”

Sierra swallowed hard, realizing the GPS tracker in her phone had led the attacker directly to them.

“We need to move in case he’s notified others of our whereabouts.” Gran got into the passenger’s seat.

Sierra was about to start the car when she noticed the growing crimson spot on Gran’s purple dress. The Dragoon’s blade had injured Gran upper arm. “You’re bleeding.” Sierra pulled out a scarf from the duffel bag on the back seat and bandaged the wound.

“Thank you. Don’t worry, Sierra. I’ll be fine. It’s just a scratch. He didn’t get an artery. We were fortunate our attacker was a young, inexperienced Dragoon. If he’d had better reflexes or the ability to fly—” She hesitated. “—Sierra, there are gangs that want to take down the regency and take over. They can’t do that without powerful individuals. Heath wanted to protect you from becoming a weapon both sides want to acquire. That’s why he kept you far away from the supernatural community, hoping your powers would never awaken, and that you could lead a normal life.”

Goose bumps rushed across Sierra’s skin at the idea that someone was out there who wanted to capture her and use her for her powers. But what powers did she have exactly, and why would anyone want her because of them? She had no idea who the enemy was, while the enemy obviously knew all about her, including where she lived and that she was on the run.

Gran squeezed Sierra’s hand. “One day, you’ll be very powerful, until then, you must stay out of harm’s way. If we get attacked again, you have to run.” Gran glanced down at her arm, her face cramping in pain.

Sierra dug in the center console and found some Advil. She handed it and a bottle of water to Gran.

“Come, we have to leave. The sooner we arrive in Savannah, the better.”

Sierra nodded. Tears built in her eyes. She swallowed them down, knowing she had to be strong for Gran—just as Gran had been strong for her minutes earlier, killing a man.

“What about the body?” Sierra asked, entering the highway.

“It will disintegrate. But you should clean the blood off your face.” Gran leaned her head against the window. Her stooped posture so uncharacteristic, Sierra was certain Gran’s injury was worse than she let on.

Trying to distract Gran from the pain, Sierra said, “His aura, it was gray with red specks.”

“He was an Umbra Dragoon. All Umbra have gray auras, because technically, they should be dead, and then there’s a hint of their original color.”

A shiver ran across Sierra’s arms at the explanation. She remembered the intruder’s cold eyes, devoid of humanity, and his body humming with hate.

Gran dozed off before Sierra could ask more questions. Sierra might not understand everything, but she grasped how serious the situation was. Their lives were in peril—the Umbra had no issue killing in order to reach their goal.

To stay awake, Sierra turned the satellite radio onto a pop radio station. A song about a boy and a girl falling in love came on. She wondered if her life would ever be as simple as that. Would the pain and sense of loss she experienced ever fade? Would a crush make her heart race? Or would her heart race only out of terror for her and Gran’s lives?

She didn’t know how to handle this new situation, or if she could handle it at all, but she would try her best. She owed it to herself, to Gran, and to Dad.

The indigo sky gave way to shades of gold and pink. By the time she reached the GPS-specified exit, the sun had ascended to the middle of the sky. Her dad, an early riser, would never see another sunrise again. She swallowed down the tears and crossed the bridge, passing a river and an impressive blush-colored high-rise. The cobalt-blue pendant Gran had given her pulsated around her neck. Sierra touched it, not understanding how an inanimate object could do this or what it meant.

The old part of town came into view. Colonial mansions with wrought iron gates, tall columns, and double staircases lined the streets. Surrounding them, Spanish moss grew from the branches of oak trees.

It was like stepping back into the 1850s or into Gone with the Wind. If Gran wanted a place to not only escape Umbra, but also modern life, she had made an excellent choice. It was nothing Dad would’ve chosen; he had preferred the rugged outdoors.

Behind the opulent part of town stood simpler brick houses and gangly trees. Sierra made the final turn onto East Broughton Street. Lined with British-style pubs and French bistros, it appeared relatively deserted at noon on this Friday.

Veneficia, the bar Gran had mentioned, fit in with the rest of the brown brick establishments on the avenue. A black awning hung above the heavy, dark wood entrance.

Sierra parked as close as she could to the bar and put her hand on Gran’s shoulder. “Gran, wake up. We’re here.” No response. Sierra proceeded to shake Gran’s uninjured arm. “Please, wake up.” Nothing. She stared at Gran for a good minute, willing her to wake up.

What if Gran’s condition deteriorated? What if the stress and the arm wound were too much? She was still breathing and had a pulse, but both were weak. Panic enveloped Sierra, sending shivers down the length of her body. She couldn’t just sit around; she needed to go into the bar and return with help.

Muggy summer air enveloped her. Ninety plus degrees and 100 percent humidity. The only reprise was the shade thrown by a tree canopy. Sierra tightened the belt on her midthigh cardigan, knowing her getup must look ridiculous. Yet, it was the only clothing she had that covered up her pajamas. She needed to get help for Gran, and she doubted she could walk into a bar in her pajamas.

Her stomach roiled in anticipation, and sweat beaded on her lower back as she crossed the street. What if the marshal, Gavin McLoughlin wasn’t in? What if he didn’t want to help?

She reached the heavy wooden door and entered.

It took her eyes several minutes to adjust to the dim glow emanating from the gothic chandeliers with real candles, which highlighted the polished ebony wood tables, black leather booths, and spotless stone floor. And yet, despite the sophisticated décor, Veneficia didn’t have a hint of stuffiness to it.

Russet-colored bricks made up the wall behind the bar counter. Arcs were gouged into them, storing countless liquor bottles, which gleamed like potions underneath the gold-orange light. Veneficia. Latin. Meaning “magic potions.” Sierra sucked in a breath at the random thought. She had never studied Latin. Did stress lead to one making up words?

Pushing the thought away, she approached the two customers at the bar. Thwack! She turned toward the direction where a door had just connected with a wall.

A sandy-haired, twenty-something man with pronounced facial bone structure strode toward her. Turquoise eyes as hard as crystals scrutinized her, and she shrank back. His body was enveloped in a red aura. He turned to the two men sitting at the bar. “Gio, take the customer outside. Now.” His voice was rough pumice with hints of rich, dark chocolate.

Sierra swallowed hard. What if Gran was wrong and coming here is a very bad idea?

The blond advanced until his muscular, tall frame towered over her. Sierra judged him to be a foot higher than her five-three. “Who are you?” he asked.

“I—”

“What are you thinking, showing up in the middle of the day in a public place covered in blood?”

Sierra looked down. The cardigan was supposed to have not only covered her pajamas, but also the bloodstains from the Umbra fight.


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Margo Ryerkerk is the author of The Fluidus Series, a YA paranormal series about magic, love, coming of age, and friendships. After completing a BS in Psychology, a MS in Marketing, and a two-years stint in the fashion world, she became a full-time author and can’t believe she gets to spend her days creating stories. When she’s not writing, she loves to dance, watch movies, and have a glass of wine or two. Raised in Austria, Margo now lives in the USA with her husband and her Pomeranian.

Q. Where did the idea for this book come from?
A.
I’ve always loved YA fantasy and mystery books. With the Ardere Series, I wanted to show a girl’s journey to becoming a warrior and a strong woman, who stands up not only for herself but for others. The series is full of magic, plot-twists, secrets, and romance.
Q. This book is part of a series, tell us about your series.
A.
The Ardere Series is a five-book YA paranormal series that follows the protagonists Sierra Reeves and Gavin McLoughlin as they battle the dark forces to protect the world and fall in love. Each book can be read as a standalone and challenges the protagonists in new and unexpected ways.
Q. Tell us about the cover and the inspiration for it.
A.
I knew that I wanted the protagonist to be on the cover. Since Sierra is just coming into her powers and exploring the supernatural world, I had her look across her shoulder, instead of directly at the reader. The arch is a metaphor for “coming of age” and “stepping into a new chapter of life.”

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