Sierra stared at the empty seat next to her. Gavin had left the compartment as soon as Heathrow Express spurred into motion. He’d said he had to make some calls, but she wondered if he was avoiding her. Their journey from Savannah to London had started out promising. Finally admitting they had feelings for each other, they kissed on the airplane and toasted with champagne. And then Cooper had showed up, and Gavin had become frosty.
Eager to hide her disappointment from Cooper, Sierra turned to the window and focused on the landscape rushing past the train.
The flat, green fields were so unlike her native, hilly Vermont. As for the gray sky and the drizzle of rain, it made her already miss Savannah, the southern Georgian city she had called home for the last month.
“Dragoons—excellent fighters but rotten communicators,” Cooper said, breaking the silence.
She snorted in response, considering Cooper’s theory. How much of Gavin’s demeanor and difficulty to communicate was due to him being a Dragoon? With their powers being primarily physical, Dragoons weren’t exactly known to be the gushy type.
“Personally, I enjoy communication. Perhaps I should apply for a teaching position at Langcombe Academy,” Cooper mused.
Sierra’s ears perked up. Langcombe Academy was the most prestigious supernatural school in Europe. Was that where she would receive her training? Despite her powers awakening a month ago, she hadn’t had any formal training, due to her Gran’s distrust of the regency. Killed by an Umbra, Gran was gone now, and Sierra needed to learn how to control her powers and how to stay safe from the Culpatus, a group intent on kidnapping her and using her Fluidus abilities.
“Are you excited to meet the elite?” Cooper leaned back and propped his feet up on the seat opposite him. His dark brown, layered hair looked as if it hadn’t seen a comb in days, and his cerulean, buttoned shirt was crumpled from the journey. He didn’t seem to notice or care, his lake-blue eyes at ease. As far as Sierra could tell, no situation made him uncomfortable. He was the most optimistic and relaxed person she had ever met. It made her wonder if all Blurs were like that. If so, was their free-spirited personality connected to their ability to teleport and disintegrate into air or water? If they could escape physical peril, did this enable them to escape psychological stress?
“I’m nervous,” she admitted.
Was he for real? Up until the day of her eighteenth birthday, she’d been clueless to the existence of supernaturals, much less that she was one of them. And now she was going to the British Ardere headquarters to meet the regent, Lady Lorna Windsor, and her court, the elite. On top of that, just when Sierra thought she and Gavin were finally on the same page, he had clammed up. Was it because he was second-guessing the decision to pursue a relationship with her? Or did it have to do with Cooper? Perhaps Gavin was merely not ready to take their relationship public, and that’s why he was giving her the cold shoulder. She sighed. Noticing Cooper’s expectant look, she realized she hadn’t answered his question. What had he asked again? Right, why she was nervous. “It’s my first time abroad.” She debated elaborating further, but then decided to leave it at that. Until today, she had only seen Cooper a handful of times, so there was no need to spill her guts to him.
“I apologize if me accompanying you and Gavin last-minute on your journey… complicated things.” Sincerity replaced the impish expression Cooper tended to wear by default.
“It’s not your fault. You were sent by Lorna, right?” He nodded, and she smiled. As much as she wanted to, she couldn’t blame Cooper for Gavin shutting down. She could understand Gavin’s unwillingness to show PDA, but Cooper’s presence was no reason to barely utter a word in the last twelve hours.
“We’re almost here. Lorna is expecting us so there won’t be time for sightseeing, but I’ll try to point out as many landmarks as I can on our cab ride.” Cooper lifted Sierra’s suitcase from the overhead shelf and put it gently on the ground.
“Thank you,” Sierra said, surprised by how quickly the countryside had given way to high-density architecture. Red and brown brick residential buildings stood next to corner shops and pubs on London’s busy streets, which swarmed with people. Sierra took a deep breath, trying to calm her rapidly beating heart. How she wished Gran was here, or Jillian, the friend she had made in Savannah. Both women were Guardians and always instinctively knew the right thing to say to calm Sierra. But Gran was dead, and it was still nighttime in Savannah, meaning Jillian was fast asleep. Sierra was on her own in navigating the British Ardere headquarters. She longed for the days when she didn’t know she was a rare supernatural and her biggest concerns were curfews and high-school grades.
“Let’s go.” Gavin gave her an odd glance, as if he was seeing her for the first time. She had no time to dwell on it as she stepped onto the platform and admired Paddington station with its vaulted glass dome, countless stores, and hundreds of people in a rush. Sierra jostled her way through the crowd, struggling to keep up with Gavin and Cooper’s quick pace. A myriad of smells, including pizza, noodles, and fried chicken, tempted her as she hurried past various food vendors. With the afternoon tea looming ahead of her, comfort food was out of the question.
A huge pack of tourists blocked one side of the exit while earnest-looking business people scurried down the other side, clasping newspapers and briefcases. Words of different languages pelted down upon her ears.
“Jag kommer att vara sent för klass!”
“Ile to kosztuje?”
In addition to Spanish, Swedish, and Polish, a dozen English accents assaulted her, coming at her from all sides. In Savannah, where foreigners were the exception, not the norm, it had been easy to deal with her omnilingualism. Yet London was a different beast. Less than ten minutes in the bustling city, and already her head throbbed. When Gavin hailed a black cab, Sierra climbed in hastily, eager to escape the cacophony.
Throughout the drive, Gavin remained silent. Fixated on his phone, he was oblivious to the nervousness raging within her. Trying not to read too much into his behavior, Sierra fastened her attention on Cooper, who was playing tour guide.
“Hyde Park, a fantastic place to explore on the few yearly days when London’s rain is on vacation. Westminster Cathedral,”—he pointed at a beautiful red and white Neo-Byzantine building—“a must-see if you’re capable of enduring the several hour-long wait to get inside.”
The famous and gothic Westminster Abbey and Big Ben followed. “It’s not as big as I’d expected,” Sierra admitted about the latter.
“It was built in the nineteenth century,” Gavin commented dryly. At his haughty tone, she scowled. He didn’t notice her misgiving, still preoccupied with his phone.
“When are we meeting Lorna?” Sierra asked, pushing back the cuticles on her nails.
Gavin’s body stiffened. “As soon as we arrive at Atterbury. Lorna will discuss your training and my case.” Gavin’s turquoise eyes were hard and cold. For someone who had insisted on coming to London, he didn’t seem happy to be here.
The cab came to an abrupt stop, jerking Sierra forward, then back into the car seat.
“The Strand. Please follow me,” Cooper said with a playful flourish of his hand. He had mentioned earlier that he had worked for Lorna the last few years as an apprentice, and Sierra bet he knew London as well as a native.
She climbed out of the cab, anxiety at the upcoming meeting turning her back clammy. Her fingers itched to reach out to Gavin and seek his comfort. But her pride won out, and she tucked her hands into her jeans pockets, surreptitiously glancing at him out of the corner of her eye. His chiseled face was schooled into an impenetrable expression, his lips a harsh line.
“Welcome to Atterbury House,” Cooper said.
In front of them stood a grandiose, white building with dramatic columns at the main entrance, atop of which a triangular pediment showcased a war scene, reminiscent of ancient Greek architecture.
Sierra was surprised how much she remembered from her high school history lessons on European architecture. It seemed the onset of her Fluidus powers had sharpened her mind, in addition to improving her senses.
“Who will be present?” Gavin asked, ripping Sierra out of her thoughts.
“I don’t know. Lorna didn’t give me a list.”
Gavin’s jaw twitched at Cooper’s reply, and Sierra tried to understand why Gavin was so on edge. As far as she was concerned, she was the newcomer. He had grown up in the Ardere society and had met Lorna before. This was his world, and he should feel at ease.
Whoosh! One step past the entrance, Sierra’s foot slid forward, and she found herself on her behind.
“You okay?” Cooper held out his hand to help her up. She took it, cursing underneath her breath at the polished, marble floor. Her eyes met Gavin’s, and she could read the clear disapproval in them. Well, she wasn’t too fond of him at the moment either. Rubbing down her clothes, she was glad to find her modest sweater-and-jeans attire hadn’t torn. Her mahogany, suede ankle boots, however, now featured dark stains, courtesy of London’s rain-soaked streets. Great, she already felt self-conscious about her first meeting with the supernatural royals, and now she had to worry about her appearance as well.
The empty, long marble corridor with snow-white columns only intimidated her further. Her footsteps reverberated as she passed an array of rooms adorned with velvet couches, gilded chandeliers, and crown moldings, depicting acanthus leaves. Cooper stopped at an intricately carved wooden door, which opened without him knocking.
A gray-haired butler bowed and indicated for them to come inside. “Welcome to the tea room. Lady Lorna Windsor will be with you shortly.”
The three of them perched on a lemon brocade couch, Sierra taking the seat between Cooper and Gavin. She smoothed her hair, noticing this room featured dainty columns in the corners. On them stood porcelain vases filled with pale pink ranunculus blossoms. A majestic Murano glass chandelier hung from the center of the ceiling.
Gavin squeezed her hand. His touch took her by surprise. Grateful for the first reassuring gesture since their journey, she smiled at him. Perhaps she had judged him too harshly, and his distance had nothing to do with her, but with his upcoming mission.
With a clicking noise, the door at the opposite end of the room opened. Gavin let go of her hand as a tall and slender woman, clad in a lilac suit, glided toward them—Lady Lorna Windsor.
Sierra’s breath hitched as her senses screamed: Charmer. She wasn’t too fond of the Ardere faction after the last Charmer she had met—Maxim—had turned out to be a madman and serial killer. He had inflicted terrifying illusions on her and chocked her, and she was still recovering from his viciousness.
But even before the incident, she hadn’t felt at ease around Charmers with their uncanny ability to enter dreams, create illusions, and manipulate the minds of other supernaturals.
Lorna’s aura commanded an inexplicable reverence. Extreme power and vitality wafted from the fifty-something Charmer, making it clear she was the one in charge. Whether that was a natural reflection of her power level or enhanced with an illusion, Sierra didn’t know. Either way, she found herself rising with Gavin and Cooper and then curtsying, as if she had grown up in a castle and not in a small American town. Lorna slid into the armchair facing them, crossed her ankles, and clasped her hands together in her lap. Blow-dried, platinum hair streaked with silvery highlights framed her oval face. Teardrop, diamond solitaires hung from her earlobes.
“Gavin, Cooper, welcome. It’s a pleasure to see you both again, especially united.” Lorna’s steel gray eyes swiped from one man to the other, as if she could see right through them. Then her focus shifted to Sierra. “And you must be Sierra Reeves, the Fluidus.”
Sierra’s mouth was bone-dry, and she barely managed a feeble nod. She wanted to shrink into the crease of the brocade couch, away from Lorna’s intense aura.
“I hope you enjoy your stay in England. It’s a pleasure to have you here with us.” The warm words were an incongruity to Lorna’s deadpan low voice. Sierra itched with the need to fiddle with her hair or shift in her seat. It took all her self-control to remain still. “I trust you had a good journey.” Lorna continued, turning her attention back to Cooper and Gavin.
“We did, thank you. Everything went smoothly,” Cooper responded with a measured smile while Gavin straightened his spine, pushing his broad chest out.
“Splendid. I understand you closed the murder case in Savannah, Gavin?”
He nodded and explained how Maxim—a human, whose mother had been Umbra—managed to unprecedentedly activate his dormant Umbra genes. The loss of his mother and his perceived sense of injustice had turned Maxim into a cruel being.
Sierra had witnessed his depravity firsthand. After turning into an Umbra Charmer, he had wanted more power. Sensing Sierra was different than other supernaturals, he’d lured her into his home for interrogation. Her pulse sped up at the memory of Maxim’s rough treatment, his hand connecting with her cheek, him slamming her spine into a staircase, and finally strangling her until she almost passed out.
“So, it was you, my dear, who terminated the culprit?”
Sierra’s head snapped up to meet Lorna’s curious glance. “Yes, ma’am.” Lorna gave a nod of approval, as if they were discussing exterminating a rat, not taking a human’s life. Maxim was a murderer, yet Sierra still wished there had been another way to stop him. She shuddered, recalling how she had used her telekinesis on the microscope.
The microscope had flown across the room, and then blood had oozed from Maxim’s skull. She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to push the image away. It was no good. This memory would forever stay with her.
“How advanced are you?”
Gavin answered Lorna. “Sierra’s powers awakened a month ago. Given she’s a Fluidus, her progress has been more rapid than an Ardere’s.”
Another reminder that she was different. For in her veins ran not only Ardere blood, courtesy of her father, but also Umbra blood from her mother. Due to the low pregnancy rate and infancy complications, Fluidus were rare, and unlike Ardere and Umbra, a Fluidus was factionless, which meant her powers of telekinesis, omnilingualism, and element conjuring were uncommon and in high demand by both the Ardere and Umbra.
“I’m sorry for the loss of your grandmother. Especially, since I believe Waldeburg’s death could’ve been avoided if she had agreed to come with you to London earlier.”
Lorna’s words sliced Sierra open. If not for her, the Umbra would’ve never come to their apartment and butchered Gran.
With trembling fingers, Sierra grasped for the blue lapis pendant around her neck—the only thing that remained of her gran. The surface of the stone was smooth and cool, calming even.
“Is this…?” Lorna’s hand reached out.
Sierra hesitated, glancing at Gavin. He unclasped his necklace, and she followed suit, putting her pendant on the gilded table.
“The lapis stone. Believed to be imbued with magic from the well, granting the wearers connection, no matter how far they are from each other,” Lorna mumbled to herself. Then she focused on Gavin. “Does it work?”
He nodded. “I can sense when Sierra is in grave danger.”
Lorna gazed off into the distance, as if deep in thought. “Waldeburg gave it to you.”
“Yes,” he confirmed.
“This is awesome,” Cooper said, touching the necklaces. “One of the two magic artifacts surfacing. Maybe someone will find the mirror one day.”
Sierra turned to him. “What do you mean? There’s more than the lapis pendant?”
“There sure is. Don’t get me wrong, the lapis is nice, creating a connection between the two wearers. But it’s debatable how useful or strong it is in the grand scheme of things.”
Sierra couldn’t agree more. The legend claimed that the wearers of the lapis halves could communicate without words. However, in her and Gavin’s case, the effect of the necklaces only extended to him sensing when she was in danger. Perhaps that was due to them being barely able to communicate the traditional way with words, making telepathy an impossible endeavor.
Cooper continued. “While not as romantic, the mirror—or more precisely the diamond within it, which has been imbued by the well with eternal magic and can’t be removed from the mirror—is the real power tool.”
“What does it do?” Sierra asked.
“Strengthens the owner and maximizes their species power to the utmost—”
Lorna waved her hand, silencing Cooper. “There will be plenty of time for legends later. Right now, we need to determine what kind of training Sierra needs. Tell me about your abilities.”
Sierra swallowed hard. Everyone kept insisting she was destined for greatness and housed immense power within her, yet it sure didn’t feel that way. “I can move small objects with my mind. I understand languages I haven’t studied, but I get overwhelmed when I hear too many of them at the same time. I guess I’m faster and maybe a bit stronger since my powers awakened.” Realizing she was twirling a strand of her hair, she let go of the coil and clasped her hands together.
“Meaning you had no formal evaluation or training. Very well. Sir James Crawford will be in charge of your development. Following the afternoon tea, you shall depart immediately to Langcombe Academy.”
Sierra’s mouth opened, but no words came out. No one had ever talked to her like that. Gavin had made a few decisions not consulting her, but Lorna was straight out ordering her around. And what did Lorna mean by depart? Wasn’t the academy in London?
“You can’t separate us. Sierra and I have the lapis bond. I’m responsible for her.” Gavin’s cold, detached tone made Sierra gnash her teeth. His word choice made her sound like a child, a formality, as if the last four weeks of getting to know each other and fighting side by side had never happened. Somehow, she had been demoted from an equal to a mission to be completed, an object to be guarded.
“Exactly. Princess Ines used the lapis stone to communicate with her faraway lover. The pendants should work long distance. As for Langcombe Academy, it will provide Sierra with the training she needs.”
Lorna held up a slender, manicured hand, cutting Gavin off. “The security at the academy can withstand a few Umbra, and I’ll send Cooper with Sierra.” Lorna turned to Cooper. “Your job is to ensure Sierra stays safe during her stay with us.”
Cooper nodded. His face didn’t show any surprise, and Sierra wondered if he had known about Lorna’s plans.
Before more questions and issues could be raised, the butler hurried into the room and bowed low in front of Lorna. “Lady Windsor, the afternoon tea has been served. The guests are in the foyer.”
“Lovely. We will join them now.” Lorna rose, and everyone followed suit.
Sierra’s gaze locked with Gavin’s. His turquoise eyes blazed with anger, and his jaw was set in a hard line. Without a word, he fell into step with Lorna, leaving Sierra to trail behind with Cooper.
“What about my assignment?” Gavin asked.
“You’ll be informed in time. Patience is a virtue, my dear. But first, you will accompany Sierra to Surrey to receive an assessment.”
“What?” Gavin stopped momentarily, and Sierra almost toppled into him. “I’m not a teenager in need of an exam, and I didn’t ask for this assignment. Why am I here if you don’t think I can do it?”
Lorna didn’t reply. It was probably for the best, because just then, they entered the foyer where at least twenty pairs of curious eyes scrutinized them.
The eager faces unleashed a buzzing hive of bees in Sierra’s stomach. She ducked past the whispers into the depths of the room.
A superlative glass dome flooded the space with natural light. The rain outside didn’t detract, but rather enhanced its beauty, the droplets creating a riveting pattern as they splayed and ran down the thick glass.
In the corner, a pianist wove classical tunes, the soothing sounds counteracting the excited chatter. Waiters circled tables, decking them with china cups, tiered trays, and champagne.
“Gavin has some catching up to do. I’ll introduce you to the elite,” Cooper said, the natural light highlighting the stark contrast between his dark brown hair and lake-blue eyes. The knot in Sierra’s stomach loosened at his kindness. Cooper led her to one of the tables, and a waiter immediately came to hover over them, offering them beverages.
She declined the champagne but took a sip of the coconut-flavored black tea. “Who is Gavin talking to?” she asked, studying the ginger-haired man in the tawny suit. At six foot two, Gavin towered over him by a full head.
“Edward Hill,” Cooper replied. “He’s the trusted advisor of Lorna and her right hand. Gavin is probably trying to squeeze assignment information out of him.”
By the deepening scowls on Gavin and Edward’s faces, Sierra guessed the conversation was taking a nosedive.
“Why aren’t you on the case with Gavin?” she asked.
“Somebody has to be the Fluidus’s bodyguard.” Cooper winked, and Sierra elbowed him, feeling with each passing minute more and more at ease with this strange male that was so unlike anyone else she had ever met.
Two lanky girls, dangling half-full champagne flutes and designer purses, approached their table and plopped down. They both pushed back their mouse-brown, feathery hair, exposing their elongated noses and chins, reminiscent of herons.
“So good to see you again, Cooper,” one of them purred in a thick British accent, leaning forward.
“I can see you brought an American friend. Gavin, isn’t it? He’s delightful,” the second one chimed in. Sierra’s grip tightened on her cup, her knuckles whitening.
“Sierra, this is Leah and Ella Evans. They graduated this summer from Langcombe Academy. Ladies meet Sierra Reeves.”
The sisters gave her a once-over, their noses twitching as if they smelt something rotten. Clearly, her presence in contrast to Gavin’s wasn’t delightful.
“Sierra will study at Langcombe Academy,” Cooper said.
Leah sniffed haughtily. “Ella and I’ve just been made editors of the Ardere Weekly. We’ll be living in Chelsea.” At Sierra’s blank look, Leah added. “Central London.”
Sierra fidgeted in her seat, thinking, So much for a warm welcoming.
“Hey, mate, you made it back across the pond!” A blonde guy with hair slicked to one side, wearing a blush dress shirt, slapped Cooper on the back.
“Good to see you, Oliver! I heard the cleanup from your last party lasted for two straight days.”
Oliver smiled smugly. “It was bonkers. Everyone loved it. Who’s this young lady?” Not giving Cooper a chance to reply, Oliver continued. “Since Cooper has clearly forgotten his manners, allow me to introduce myself. Oliver, Oliver Ashton.” He reached for Sierra’s hand and dramatically planted a kiss on it, earning an eye roll from the sisters.
“I see James Bond is still your favorite,” Cooper said. “Sierra will join you in Surrey.”
“Fantastic! You will love the estate. It is rather gorgeous.” Oliver bit into a scone and flagged down a waiter to exchange his empty champagne glass for a full one.
“I am sure I will,” Sierra replied, rolling and unrolling the cloth napkin on her lap.
Cooper rose and gestured for her to follow suit. “If you’ll excuse us, this is Sierra’s first time at Atterbury House. I want to give her a tour.”
Sierra practically skipped out of the room, in desperate need to process everything and have a moment to herself.
“You okay?” Cooper asked as they ambled down the marble corridor away from the chatter. “Meeting the elite can be a bit overwhelming.”
“I will be. I’m just not used to”—she waved her hand in the air—“all of this.”
They looped through the house with Cooper pointing out the location of studies, offices, entertainment halls, and the library. Finally, they reached a walkway connecting to the hotel where traveling Ardere stayed. Gavin would stay there while she was in Surrey. Sierra tried to swallow the bitterness in her throat as they returned to the afternoon tea.
Gavin strode across the room toward them. “Where have you been?”
“Relax. I showed Sierra Atterbury.” Cooper took a champagne flute from a passing waiter. “What’s wrong?”
Gavin’s lips were a thin line. “I’ve traveled twelve hours for an assignment I still don’t know anything about,” he growled.
Cooper shrugged. “Knowledge is power, and power is Edward’s preferred currency.”
Gavin’s eyes narrowed. “You know something, don’t you? Spill it. Now.”
“Just rumors. Ms. Van Buren has been mentioned.” The rhythmic tapping of Cooper’s fingers against his flute betrayed the casualty of his tone.
“Pia.” Gavin’s whole body turned to stone.
Pia. That one syllable ruptured the ground below Sierra, opening a chasm between her and Gavin. In her gut, she knew Pia was the girl from the album—the album that Gavin had kept for at least three years after their relationship ended.
With an aching certainty, Sierra realized that whatever was between her and Gavin, it might not survive London.
After her less than successful first meeting with the judgmental and snobby elite, Sierra no longer minded going to Surrey.
The train ride took less than an hour, and soon sprawling meadows and thaw thatched cottages replaced London’s imposing buildings. The streets were empty and narrow, the opposite of crowded and busy London. “I can’t believe how different this is,” Sierra said, once Gavin, Cooper, and she exited the train and boarded a cab.
With Cooper sitting in the front with the cab driver, she decided to address Gavin’s earlier behavior. “You seem tense,” she eased into the conversation.
He shrugged. “I was summoned to London, and now that I’m here, Lorna won’t even tell me what my mission is.”
She bit her lip, not quite believing this was all that bothered him. She considered bringing up Pia, the woman who might become Gavin’s partner and whom Sierra suspected to be his ex, but she couldn’t bring herself to do so. Instead, she asked, “Do you still want to give this”—she motioned between herself and him—“a chance?” She held her breath as silence stretched between them.
Gavin took her hand and began to draw circles in her palm. “Being here… returning to the headquarters, it isn’t easy for me.” His throat bobbed up and down. “I don’t want to rush into this. The supernatural community is very small, and if we don’t work out, we’ll still need to see each other and maybe even work together.”
He made a valid point, and yet she sensed that his reluctance wasn’t just influenced by concerns over the future, but shaped by his past—a past she barely knew about.
Gavin squeezed her hand. “I’m not sure I could work with you, stand to be around you if we don’t work out.”
Was Gavin still talking about her or Pia? He had seemed really upset about the prospect of Pia being his partner on the case. Sierra swallowed hard. “I don’t think one should start a relationship contemplating the end.”
Gavin’s face softened. “You’re right.” He ran his hand over her cheek. “I will try my best, but I’m not sure I can do this. I’m not sure I’m cut out to be in a relationship. And with me being in London while you’re in Surrey, things will be even more—”
She pressed her lips to his, cutting off the rest of his words. It was just a peck, but when she pulled away, she noticed the passion flaring in his eyes—the same passion that burned within her. He wanted her, the question was: would he ever allow himself to have her? What was it that he feared? Could she help him overcome those fears?
The cab pulled to a halt, jerking Sierra back to the present. She swayed slightly as she climbed out of the vehicle, the combination of the kiss and being up for over twenty-four hours making her drowsy.
She straightened her clothes and surveyed the immense gray, brick estate in front of her. It was surrounded by land as far as she could see. Where Atterbury House with its white, tall columns was all about Greek revival, Langcombe Academy had a gothic and haunted feel to it. The hair on her nape stood as she examined the pointed arches, lancet windows, and ornamented spires on the inky roof. Not a single person was anywhere in sight. As if her thoughts had triggered the alarm, an old, bespectacled man in a black suit opened the wrought iron gates. A green aura surrounded him, marking his as a Guardian. “Welcome Miss Reeves, Mr. McLoughlin, and Mr. Starr. We have been awaiting you. My name is Henry Lloyd, and I’ll be taking care of you during your stay. Please come inside.”
The butler ushered them through the gray, stone-floored hallway with vaulted ceilings to the broad stone staircase. The upper level didn’t look much cozier with opaque windows and iron wall sconces. No plants or furniture was anywhere in sight. The butler indicated the first two doors as Gavin and Cooper’s rooms. Not waiting for Sierra to say goodbye, the butler escorted her to the end of the hall. The last door was hers.
“Miss Reeves, you shall find a letter on your desk with your timetable for the next day.”
Henry bowed and left, and Sierra pushed down the door handle, stepping into her new home. The first thing she noticed was the ebony wood bed with cobalt bedding—as an antique, four-poster, it took up half of the space. On each side of it hung a crystal chandelier lamp. The pine green wallpapers and curtains were made from velvet, the latter featured opulent tassels, tiebacks, and fringes. A verdant chaise lounge sat next to the ebony dresser. The dark opulence was intimidating, and she wondered how anyone expected her to be comfortable, let alone fall asleep in here.
She took the envelope from the desk. Expecting to find a formal letter with cursive font inside, she was surprised and a little disappointed by the single printed page, stating meal times and rules, which included no running within the academy and no unannounced visitors. The timetable informed her that after a ground tour, she would meet James Crawford, head of the training division, and Fernanda Mendez, head of talent development.
Exhausted from the long day, Sierra flopped onto the bed and rolled onto her stomach. Despite her body’s need to sleep, her mind kept racing, and her fingers itched for her sketchbook. Minutes later, she fished out a pencil from her bag and began sketching Langcombe’s front gate. She had just finished when a knock sounded. “Come in,” she called, sitting up.
At the sight of Gavin, the corners of her lips tugged upward. He scanned the interior before his gaze wandered over to her. “And here I thought it was just my room that resembled Dracula’s castle.”
“Nope. I can’t tell if this is a British or an Ardere thing, but the spookiness factor of this place is higher than any of Savannah’s alleys at night.” He gave her a half smile, and she patted the space next to her, a silent invitation for him to join her on her bed.
“Don’t worry, the academy is one of the safest places.” Gavin echoed Lorna’s earlier words while he remained by the door. “You should get some rest. It’s been a long day, and I’m sure you have a full timetable for tomorrow.”
She stood and walked over to him. “I’m fine. I’m not tired.” She didn’t want to be alone, but more than that, she didn’t want him to leave. “I wish you could stay here, or that I could stay in London.”
“We’ll see each other on the weekends,” he promised, placing his hands on her hips. “Trust me, when you start your physical training, you’ll be happy to be in the middle of nowhere. Fewer people to tease you about your mistakes.”
She punched him lightly in the chest. “So little faith. What if I’m a natural?”
Gavin chuckled, a rich sound that warmed her from the inside. “I don’t think so, unless you were holding back on me.”
She remembered their training on the outskirts of Savannah, amongst wildlife, far away from curious eyes. It had been the beginning of him finally seeing her as more than Waldeburg’s granddaughter, more than a girl that needed protection.
Now his head bent, and she rose on her heels to meet his lips. The kiss turned from soft to passionate within seconds. Her fingers combed through his hair while his hands wandered up and down her back. She pressed into him, a moan escaping her lips. Barely aware of how she had gotten there, she found herself below him on the bed. Her legs wrapped around his hips. His body was a warm, strong shield from the cruel and unpredictable world around her. All her worries melted when he held her like this. Abruptly, Gavin went rigid. He pulled away, his eyes wide, as if he was surprised by what was happening.