Authors: Lynn Vroman
© 2015 by Lynn Vroman
Design © 2015 by Sean Hayden
Photo © 2015 by Depositphotos/Gorielov
All rights Reserved. This book or
any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without
the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief
quotations in a book review.
Names, characters, places, and
incidents are the products of the author's imagination and or used
fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or
dead, is entirely coincidental.
by Untold Press LLC
NE Estia Lane
St Lucie, FL 34983
IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
Katherine, Olivia, and Rhys,
everything is for you.
First, I have to thank Jen Wylie
and Sean Hayden. You two…there are no words. Thank you.
I have to give a huge shout out to
Winston Campbell. You’re probably the coolest person I’ve ever met, not to
mention one of the most genuine. Thanks for wanting to be part of this crazy
Angela McPherson, you’ve become
such an amazing friend and supporter. I love our late night conversations and
your knack for making me laugh when I’m at my most frustrated. Not only are you
a great writer, but a compassionate person who always knows exactly what to
say. I’m so lucky to have met you!
As always, thanks to my awesome
critique partner, Jadah McCoy, and one of my best friends on the planet, Jenn
Wescoat, who read whatever I send them.
Most of all, thanks to my husband
and four awesome kids (and you, too, Kody and Mac!), whose support and
encouragement drive me to keep going. This wouldn’t be possible without you, and
I love you, even when I hide away in my writing dungeon.
weat stung my eyes as my head
bounced off the mat.
Stay down, dumbass.
I crawled up the ropes, chest heavy
and gasping for breath, until I stood on wobbly legs. It didn't take long for
him to come at me again, his cushioned fist slamming against my jaw. The mat
met my face for the tenth time, becoming good friends with it. When blood
dribbled from my lip to the canvas, I decided to listen to my inner baby and stay
down. An ass kicking a day for the last six weeks didn't make defeat any easier,
though. If I could catch his chin with one hard hit, it'd be him on the floor
mopping up blood with the edge of a T-shirt.
"Get up and try again."
Farren wiped his brow and danced around the ring, smacking his gloves together.
"An old lady could whoop your ass."
We'd been at this every morning,
him beating me up under the guise of training. Running was my thing, not
getting into a roped-off square to let a Protector treat me like a punching
bag. A man, I might add, whom I once thought a traitor for shooting Tarek, but
now considered family. Funny how life worked out.
But Wilma, my former lunch lady/
Protector, insisted on the training. What Wilma said these days was law–unfortunately
for my poor face.
Small price to pay for knowing about
my past lives as a Guide in Exemplar, I guess. The benefits, Tarek, Wilma, and
Farren being the most important, far outweighed the aggravations, like allowing
a big, redheaded jackass to thump the shit out of me.
I moved to lean against the ropes,
heaving as I spit out my mouthpiece. "I need a break."
He danced around me some more,
shadow boxing. "No, you don't. We just started."
"Yeah, an hour ago." I
threw off my gloves and gave Jake, who watched from outside the ring, a sneer. "What're
you smiling about?"
"Nothing, Lena girl. Love
watching a good butt-kicking, is all." Jake. My boss, friend, pseudo-dad,
landlord, and mother's boyfriend, all labels he earned. Loyalty had rewards in
my book. But his wiseass remarks? So not nice.
"Whatever." I left the
ring and stormed by him to hit the showers, needing to wash away some of the
sweat and humiliation. "Why don't you get in there with him? Guarantee you
won't be smiling for long."
"Hey, I was middle-weight
state champ two years running." But Jake took my invitation, the usual
routine when I'd had enough. He got his ass handed to him by Farren every time,
but it took a while longer as the weeks went by.
I shot him a smirk over my
shoulder. "Wasn't Elvis still doing Vegas then?" Wiseass cracks
deserved a few verbal jabs.
Jake shoved on his gloves with a
scowl that didn't reach his brown eyes. "You got jokes, huh?"
Farren laughed, jumping from foot
to foot. "Come on, old man, at least give me a few minutes of a real
"Old man? Aren't you like a
hundred?" Jake pushed through the ropes.
"And can still beat the shit
out of you." Farren's handsome face split in a grin as Jake stuffed in his
As the grunts and thuds took over
the gym, I pushed open the locker room door.
Had to love it. Had to put up with
it, at least.
I dug in my bag to grab soap and
shampoo, spotting a new message on my phone. When I slid the bar over to unlock
my screen, Belva's pretty face sat next to the message,
don't forget the
picture! See u at 4.
Smiling, I threw it back in my bag
and hit the shower.
Twenty minutes later, I headed out
of the gym, shaggy hair still wet, in a pair of shorts and red tank top. Before
leaving, I held my phone up to the ring. "Hey, Farren!"
The Protector stopped pounding on Jake
long enough to glance my way, and I snapped his picture. "Belva asked."
I took a couple–one sweaty and big muscled photo for my friend and one for me
when Jake managed to get in a good jab to Farren's chin.
Since Farren was a ginger, his skin
always matched the stark red of his hair when he was embarrassed. If fighting Jake
and me didn't make him red from exertion, the next best thing was my friend's crush.
He spit out his mouthpiece. "Knock
it off, Lena. Don't encourage her."
I stuffed my phone in my back pocket.
"You know you like it."
Didn't know it was possible, but
his face turned a shade darker. His full lips curved up at the corners, though.
"Hey, I'm used to the ladies drooling over me." He wriggled his
brows. "But I like them a few more years out of their diapers."
Jake punched him in the jaw.
"Ouch, man! Not fair."
I hiked up my bag, laughing. "She's
nineteen, Farren, plenty old enough. If you're trying to find someone closer to
your age, maybe you should stop by Sunset Manner. Hear the blue hairs there are
The door closed on Jake's cackling
as I headed toward Zander's old car. Since he was now living in Empyrean, I
figured he wouldn't mind if I took it over. It was the least he could do, even
if he would. Zander owed me for pretending to be my best friend while he
conspired to get me and Wilma killed with his Protector, Mateusz, who took over
guard dog duties after Zander's original Protector was killed in Arcus.
Granted, I understood why Zander tried to send us to Casimir, Arcus's prior
Warden. The bastard had held the energy of Zander's dead Protector hostage, and
the only way he'd give it up was in exchange for Wilma's energy—and the only
way to get to Wilma was through me. Like Zander, I'd do anything for my
Protector. Thank God, Wilma never put me in that position, though. Anyway, if
he wanted to hide away in a different world, fine. But his car was mine.
I dumped my bag in the passenger
seat, hopping in the driver's, yelping when the scorching leather seats burned
the backs of my legs. After starting the motor, I flicked on the AC, enduring
the first gush of hot air, and turned up the radio. Summers on the mountain
were awesome. I couldn't deny it–even with all the city tourists wanting to
experience the "wilderness" of the Poconos.
When I pulled into my driveway, I
rolled the windows down before climbing the steps leading to my apartment.
I opened the door to find Mom sitting
on the couch, reading a book in a new yellow sundress. "Hey, Mom."
"Hi, baby." She bounced
off the couch and gave me a hug. Always smiling now, and with an added fifteen
pounds and sun-kissed skin, she looked like a twenty-five-year-old.
"Nice dress. Going in early?"
"Yeah, I want to make sure
everything is ready for the new menu. If the advertisements worked, we should
have a pretty good crowd tonight."
We had a full house every weekend
now that it was tourist season and we served dinner. Mom made some cosmetic
adjustments to the lobby, too, adding a few small tables, fresh paint, and
talked Jake into a couple of video games. Out went all the boxing stuff. I'm
sure all the pictures and trophies were sitting in some closet graveyard. My
boss couldn't be happier–but I'm almost positive it was because he finally had
Jacie Tulman all to himself.
"Me and Belva'll be there
around six. She wanted to go shopping first." I shook my head, a smile
playing on my lips. "Farren's coming in to help out."
"Well, he is a handsome boy. I
don't blame her."
Even though Mom knew Farren wasn't
anywhere near a boy, she never failed to see him any different. He looked about
eighteen, with a face as smooth as marble. He also had a body that convinced
anyone who wanted to cause trouble to reconsider.
"If you say so. I'm gonna get
dressed, go for a run before she gets here."
She grabbed her purse. "Sounds
good. Oh, yeah." Mom stopped at the door, holding it open. "Wilma
came over, said she'd be back in a day or two."
Anger, a step up from the raw pain
I used to feel, coursed through me. Wilma always performed the same tactic:
come by to tell Mom she was leaving, making sure I was nowhere in earshot to
beg her to take me with her. Her little trips consisted of going to Empyrean to
talk with Teenesee, Empyrean's Warden, to see if Zander was behaving. I didn't
mind that, but she'd also go to Arcus–where my soul mate was Warden.
"Wish she had the nerve to
tell me herself." I looked up at the ceiling to keep the angry tears from
"She's watching out for you,
Wilma said the reason Exemplar,
specifically Casimir's sister, Cassondra, didn't come after me was because I
stayed in my dimension, lived my life. Guess the Synod deemed what happened in early
spring, with Casimir and Mateusz trying to disrupt the dimensional lines, wasn't
my fault. By law, they had to leave me alone, but only if I played by the
I didn't much care about the rules.
"Maybe she should stop
treating me like a child and let me make my own decisions."
Mom left the door to give me
another hug. "Love makes us do things that aren't always easy."
I returned her hug, not at all
feeling the lecture. "Yeah, like killing Arcus's Warden."
A warden sounded like a jailer to
, but in reality,
Wardens were the ones in prison. They had to stay in one dimension and live
forever until some power-hungry person came along to kill them, all the while
controlling the flow of energy.
Lonely. Miserable. At least, it was
for my giant. The world where he'd become Warden when he killed Casimir to
protect me didn't have a population of actual people he could talk to. Just
those damn squid that climbed the trees squealing all the time.
Mom rubbed my back. "From what
Wilma said, Tarek did an honorable thing." She stood on her toes to kiss
my cheek and went back to the door. "Look, in a couple months, you'll be
in college, out on your own…around other boys."
Yeah, like what Tarek and I had was
so small I could move on with some idiot frat boy. I'd keep that to myself. She
didn't deserve an attack, verbally or otherwise. Dad did enough damage to last
her a lifetime. "Sure, ah, see you later."
"Love you, baby."
As soon as she left, I went to my
room to change into running gear, throwing my bag in the corner. Thick, plush
carpet felt good on my bare feet. Wilma had given me her memory foam mattress after
she moved. She insisted, saying she needed a new one, and I didn't put up too
much fuss. Falling into the bed every night, especially after the tough
workouts with Farren, felt like heaven.
The dress Teenesee gave me hung in
the back of my closet. Every time I reached for my running shoes, it was a reminder
of the last night Tarek and I spent together. The most beautiful–and revealing–article
of clothing I owned. I had plans for that dress, plans that required Tarek.
Not wanting to dwell–because that
led to an embarrassing amount of tears–I laced up my shoes and went outside.
The path I ran hadn't changed since
school let out six weeks ago. I'd head two miles east until I was able to cut
through the school's backyard to the woods, heading straight to the trailer
park. As I delved into the shaded woods, my breathing relaxed and my heart
skipped. The spot by the stream, where I spoke to Tarek the first time, crawled
with kids from the park. The music was loud and the chatter louder. A few kids
waded in the water. Others sat around the unlit fire pit, talking, making
out…staying as far away from their parents as possible.
Some waved my way, and I returned
the gesture, no longer feeling animosity for kids who were always in survival
mode. I used to be one of them. Now, I considered myself reformed since I
escaped. Guess I could thank Casimir for some of that.
When I reached the rusted
mailboxes, I went to Dad's. Pulling the key from around my neck, I opened his
box and checked the contents: a few bills and a grocery store flyer. I jogged
down the hill, ready to have another non-conversation with the man whom I used
to think was the scariest being on the planet.
As I climbed the cement blocks and
turned the knob, a strange but too familiar cloud dulled my brain. I let go of
the door and searched for the sole person who had ever caused my mind to go
lazy. The only people around were the usual inhabitants, sitting out front,
batting away flies, and smoking cigarettes.