Thanks to Harlequin Intrigue for including me on this blog tour for the Witness Protection Widow by Debra Webb! 🖤
Can the witness protection program keep her identity secret?
After Allison James finally escapes her marriage to a monster, she becomes the star witness in the case against her deceased husband’s powerful crime family. Now it’s up to US Marshal Jaxson Stevens, Ali’s ex-boyfriend, to keep the WITSEC widow safe. But as the danger escalates and sparks fly, will Jax be able to help Ali escape her ruthless in-laws?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Debra Webb is the award winning, USA Today bestselling author of more than 150 novels, including reader favorites the Faces of Evil, the Colby Agency, and the Shades of Death series. With more than four million books sold in numerous languages and countries, Debra’s love of storytelling goes back to her childhood on a farm in Alabama.
From the moment I read my first Harlequin Intrigue novel, I knew I wanted to write them!
Share your favorite memory of reading a Harlequin romance.
I write romantic suspense so sometimes something light is a great way to relax. My fav memory is of laughing out loud while reading a Stephanie Bond Harlequin romance!
What is a recent book you have read that you would recommend?
In The Dark by Loreth Anne White!
She shivered. The fire had gone out. She kept on her jacket while she added logs to the fireplace and kindling to get it started. Within a couple of minutes, the fire was going. She’d had a fireplace as a kid, so relearning her way around this one hadn’t been so bad. She went back to the kitchen and turned on the kettle for tea.
Bob growled low in his throat and stared toward the front door.
She froze. Her phone was in her hip pocket. Her gun was still in her waistband at the small of her back. This was something else Marshal Holloway had insisted upon. He’d taught her how to use a handgun. They’d held many target practices right behind this cabin.
A creak beyond the front door warned that someone was on the porch. She eased across the room and went to the special peephole that had been installed. There was one on each side of the cabin, allowing for views all the way around. A man stood on the porch. He was the typical local cowboy. Jeans and boots. Hat in his hands. Big truck in the drive. Just like Marshal Holloway.
But she did not know this man.
“Alice Stewart, if you’re in there, it’s okay for you to open the door. I’m Sheriff Colt Tanner. Branch sent me.”
Her heart thudding, she held perfectly still. Branch would never send someone to her without letting her know first. If for some reason he couldn’t tell her in advance, they had a protocol for these situations.
She reached back, fingers curled about the butt of her weapon. Bob moved stealthily toward the door.
“I know you’re concerned about opening the door to a stranger, but you need to trust me. Branch has been in an accident, and he’s in the hospital undergoing surgery right now. No matter that his injuries were serious, he refused to go into surgery until he spoke to me and I assured him I would look after you, ma’am.”
Worry joined the mixture of fear and dread churning inside her. She hoped Branch wasn’t hurt too badly. He had a wife and a daughter.
She opened her mouth to ask about his condition, but then she snapped it shut. The man at her door had not said the code word.
Don’t miss the excerpt and giveaway at the end of this post!
All the Stars and Teeth by Adalyn Grace
Publisher: Imprint Release Date: February 4, 2020 Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy, Pirates
Set in a kingdom where danger lurks beneath the sea, mermaids seek vengeance with song, and magic is a choice, Adalyn Grace’s All the Stars and Teeth is a thrilling fantasy for fans of Stephanie Garber’s Caraval and Sarah J. Maas’s Throne of Glass series.
She will reign.
As princess of the island kingdom Visidia, Amora Montara has spent her entire life training to be High Animancer—the master of souls. The rest of the realm can choose their magic, but for Amora, it’s never been a choice. To secure her place as heir to the throne, she must prove her mastery of the monarchy’s dangerous soul magic.
When her demonstration goes awry, Amora is forced to flee. She strikes a deal with Bastian, a mysterious pirate: he’ll help her prove she’s fit to rule, if she’ll help him reclaim his stolen magic.
But sailing the kingdom holds more wonder—and more peril—than Amora anticipated. A destructive new magic is on the rise, and if Amora is to conquer it, she’ll need to face legendary monsters, cross paths with vengeful mermaids, and deal with a stow-away she never expected… or risk the fate of Visidia and lose the crown forever.
I am the right choice. The only choice. And I will protect my kingdom.
Adalyn Grace graduated Summa Cum Laude when she was 19-years-old. She spent four years working in live theater, and acted as the managing editor of a nonprofit newspaper. During and after college, she studied storytelling as an intern on Nickelodeon Animation’s popular animated show, The Legend of Korra (sequel to Avatar: The Last Airbender). She was a participant in Pitch Wars 2016, and is a former literary agent intern for an established agency.
Adalyn splits time between San Diego and Arizona with her bossy cat and two dorky dogs, and spends her days writing full time while trying to find the city’s best burrito.
She has several projects in the works, and hopes to continually push the boundaries and explore the limits of upper young adult fiction.
Don’t miss the excerpt and giveaway at the end of this post!
The Queen’s Assassin (Queen’s Secret #1) by Melissa de la Cruz
Publisher: G. P. Putnam’s Sons Release Date: February 4, 2020 Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy
Perfect for fans of Sarah J. Maas and Red Queen, this is the first novel in a sweeping YA fantasy-romance duet about a deadly assassin, his mysterious apprentice, and the country they are sworn to protect from #1 NYT bestselling author Melissa de la Cruz.
Caledon Holt is the Kingdom of Renovia’s deadliest weapon. No one alive can best him in brawn or brains, which is why he’s the Guild’s most dangerous member and the Queen’s one and only assassin. He’s also bound to the Queen by an impossible vow–to find the missing Deian Scrolls, the fount of all magical history and knowledge, stolen years ago by a nefarious sect called the Aphrasians.
Shadow has been training all her life to follow in the footsteps of her mother and aunts–to become skilled enough to join the ranks of the Guild. Though magic has been forbidden since the Aphrasian uprising, Shadow has been learning to control her powers in secret, hoping that one day she’ll become an assassin as feared and revered as Caledon Holt.
When a surprise attack brings Shadow and Cal together, they’re forced to team up as assassin and apprentice to hunt down a new sinister threat to Renovia. But as Cal and Shadow grow closer, they’ll uncover a shocking web of lies and secrets that may destroy everything they hold dear. With war on the horizon and true love at risk, they’ll stop at nothing to protect each other and their kingdom in this stunning first novel in the Queen’s Secret series.
🖤 “It’s alarming, really, how quickly nice people become ravenous, bloodthirsty.”
🖤”My aunts taught me that sometimes when the world is too much, when life starts to feel overwhelming, we must strip away what’s unnecessary, seek out the quiet, and listen to the dirt and trees.”
🖤”Except one thing had changed. They couldn’t stop thinking about what the queen said. They had been introduced to the idea of something different, and there is no putting back an idea.”
🖤“All the answers you seek are there, but only if you are willing to hear them.”
🖤“My aunts warned me of this many times—be wary of the sway of others, they told me. Find your own path and stay upon it. Don’t allow yourself to be pulled in another direction, even if you must walk alone.”
Chapter One Shadow
Something or someone is following me. I’ve been wandering the woods for quite a while, but now it feels as if something—or someone—is watching. I thought it was one of my aunts at first—it was odd they didn’t chase after me this time. Maybe they didn’t expect me to go very far. But it’s not them.
I stop and pull my hood back to listen to the forest around me. There is only the wind whistling through the branches and the sound of my own breathing.
Whoever is following me is very good at hiding. But I am not afraid.
Slivers of light penetrate the dense foliage in spots, shining streaks onto the blanket of decaying leaves and mud under my boots. As I slice through thick vines and clamber over rotting logs, speckled thrushes take flight from the forest floor before disappearing overhead. I pause to listen to them sing to one another, chirping elegant messages back and forth, a beautiful song carrying warnings, no doubt, about the stranger stomping through their home.
Being out here helps me clear my head. I feel more peaceful here among the wild creatures, closer to my true self. After this morning’s argument at home, it’s precisely what I need—some peace. Some space. Time to myself.
My aunts taught me that sometimes when the world is too much, when life starts to feel overwhelming, we must strip away what’s unnecessary, seek out the quiet, and listen to the dirt and trees. “All the answers you seek are there, but only if you are willing to hear them,” Aunt Moriah always says.
That’s all I’m doing, I tell myself. Following their advice. Perhaps that’s why they allowed me to run off into the woods. Except they’re probably hoping I’ll find their answers here, not my own. That I’ll finally come to my senses.
Anger bubbles up inside me. All I have ever wanted is to follow in their footsteps and join the ranks of the Hearthstone Guild. It’s the one thing I’ve wanted more than anything. We don’t just sell honey in the market. They’ve practically been training me for the Guild all my life—how can they deny me? I kick the nearest tree as hard as I can, slamming the sole of my boot into its solid trunk. That doesn’t make me feel much better, though, and I freeze, wondering if whatever or whoever is following me has heard.
I know it is a dangerous path, but what nobler task is there than to continue the Guild’s quest? To recover the Deian Scrolls and exact revenge upon our enemies. They can’t expect me to sit by and watch as others take on the challenge.
All the women I look up to—Ma, my aunt Moriah, and Moriah’s wife, my aunt Mesha—belong to the Guild; they are trained combatants and wise women. They are devotees of Deia, the One Mother, source of everything in the world of Avantine, from the clouds overhead to the dirt underfoot. Deia worship was common once but not anymore, and those who keep to its beliefs have the Guild to thank for preserving the old ways. Otherwise that knowledge would have disappeared long ago when the Aphrasians confiscated it from the people. The other kingdoms no longer keep to the old ways, even as they conspire to learn our magic.
As wise women they know how to tap into the world around us, to harness the energy that people have long forgotten but other creatures have not. My mother and aunts taught me how to access the deepest levels of my instincts, the way that animals do, to sense danger and smell fear. To become deeply in tune with the universal language of nature that exists just below the surface of human perception, the parts we have been conditioned not to hear anymore.
While I call them my aunts, they are not truly related to me, even if Aunt Moriah and my mother grew up as close as sisters. I was fostered here because my mother’s work at the palace is so important that it leaves little time for raising a child.
A gray squirrel runs across my path and halfway up a nearby tree. It stops and looks at me quizzically. “It’s all right,” I say. “I’m not going to hurt you.” It waits until I start moving again and scampers the rest of the way up the trunk.
The last time I saw my mother, I told her of my plans to join the Guild. I thought she’d be proud of me. But she’d stiffened and paused before saying, “There are other ways to serve the crown.”
Naturally, I’d have preferred her to be with me, every day, like other mothers, but I’ve never lacked for love or affection. My aunts had been there for every bedtime tale and scraped knee, and Ma served as a glamorous and heroic figure for a young woman to look up to. She would swoop into my life, almost always under the cover of darkness, cloaked and carrying gifts, like the lovely pair of brocade satin dance slippers I’ll never forget. They were as ill-suited for rural life as a pair of shoes could possibly be, and I treasured them for it. “The best cobbler in Argonia’s capital made these,” she told me. I marveled at that, how far they’d traveled before landing on my feet.
Yes, I liked the presents well enough. But what made me even happier were the times she stayed long enough to tell me stories. She would sit on the edge of my bed, tuck my worn quilt snugly around me, and tell me tales of Avantine, of the old kingdom.
Our people are fighters, she’d say. Always were. I took that to mean I would be one too.
I think about these stories as I whack my way through the brush. Why would my mother tell me tales of heroism, adventure, bravery, and sacrifice, unless I was to train with the Guild as well? As a child, I was taught all the basics—survival and tracking skills, and then as I grew, I began combat training and archery.
I do know more of the old ways than most, and I’m grateful for that, but it isn’t enough. I want to know as much as they do, or even more. I need to belong to the Guild.
Now I fear I never will have that chance.
“Ouch!” I flinch and pull my hand back from the leaves surrounding me. There’s a thin sliver of blood seeping out of my skin. I was so lost in my thoughts that I accidentally cut my hand while hacking through shrubbery. The woods are unfamiliar here, wilder and denser. I’ve never gone out this far. The path ahead is so overgrown it’s hard to believe there was ever anyone here before me, let alone a procession of messengers and traders and visitors traveling between Renovia and the other kingdoms of Avantine. But that was before. Any remnants of its prior purpose are disappearing quickly. Even my blade, crafted from Argonian steel—another present from Ma—struggles to sever some of the more stubborn branches that have reclaimed the road for the wilderness.
I try to quiet my mind and concentrate on my surroundings. Am I lost? Is something following me? “What do I do now?” I say out loud. Then I remember Aunt Mesha’s advice: Be willing to hear.
I breathe, focus. Re-center. Should I turn back? The answer is so strong, it’s practically a physical shove: No. Continue. I suppose I’ll push through, then. Maybe I’ll discover a forgotten treasure along this path.
Woodland creatures watch me, silently, from afar. They’re perched in branches and nestled safely in burrows. Sometimes I catch a whiff of newborn fur, of milk; I smell the fear of anxious mothers protecting litters; I feel their heartbeats, their quickened breaths when I pass. I do my best to calm them by closing my eyes and sending them benevolent energy. Just passing through. I’m no threat to you.
After about an hour of bushwhacking, I realize that I don’t know where I am anymore. The trees look different, older. I hear the trickling of water. Unlike before, there are signs that something, or rather someone, was here not long before me. Cracked sticks have been stepped on—by whom or what, I’m not sure—and branches are too neatly chopped to have been broken naturally. I want to investigate, see if I can feel how long ago they were cut. Maybe days; maybe weeks. Difficult to tell.
I stop to examine the trampled foliage just as I feel an abrupt change in the air.
There it is again. Whoever or whatever it is smells foul, rotten. I shudder. I keep going, hoping to shake it off my trail.
I walk deeper into the forest and pause under a canopy of trees. A breeze blows against a large form in the branches overhead. I sense the weight of its bulk, making the air above me feel heavier, oppressive. It pads quietly. A huge predator. Not human. It’s been biding its time. But now it’s tense, ready to strike.
The tree becomes very still. And everything around does the same. I glance to my right and see a spider hanging in the air, frozen, just like I am.
Leaves rustle, like the fanning pages of a book. Snarling heat of its body getting closer, closer, inch by inch. I can smell its hot breath. Feel its mass as it begins to bear down on me from above. Closer, closer, until at last it launches itself from its hiding place. I feel its energy, aimed straight at me. Intending to kill, to devour.
But I am ready.
Just as it attacks, I kick ferociously at its chest, sending it flying. It slams to the ground, knocked out cold. A flock of starlings erupts from their nest in the treetops, chirping furiously.
My would-be killer is a sleek black scimitar-toothed jaguar. The rest of the wildlife stills, shocked into silence, at my besting the king of the forest.
I roll back to standing, then hear something else, like shifting or scratching, in the distance. As careful as I’ve been, I’ve managed to cause a commotion and alert every creature in the forest of my presence.
I crouch behind a wide tree. After waiting a breath or two, I don’t sense any other unusual movement nearby. Perhaps I was wrong about the noise. Or simply heard a falling branch or a startled animal running for cover.
There’s no reason to remain where I am, and I’m not going back now, in case the jaguar wakes, so I get up and make my way forward again. It looks like there’s a clearing ahead.
My stomach lurches. After everything—the argument and my big show of defiance—I am gripped with the unexpected desire to return home. I don’t know if the cat’s attack has rattled me—it shouldn’t have; I’ve been in similar situations before—but a deep foreboding comes over me.
Yet just as strongly, I feel the need to keep going, beyond the edge of the forest, as if something is pulling me forward. I move faster, fumbling a bit over some debris.
Finally, I step through the soft leafy ground around a few ancient trees, their bark slick with moss, and push aside a branch filled with tiny light green leaves.
When I emerge from the woods, I discover I was wrong. It’s not just a clearing; I’ve stumbled upon the golden ruins of an old building. A fortress. The tight feeling in my chest intensifies. I should turn back. There’s danger here. Or at least there was danger here—it appears to be long abandoned.
The building’s intimidating skeletal remains soar toward the clouds, but it’s marred by black soot; it’s been scorched by a fire—or maybe more than one. Most of the windows are cracked or else missing completely. Rosebushes are overgrown with burly thistle weeds, and clumps of dead brown shrubbery dot the property. Vines climb up one side of the structure and crawl into the empty windows.
Above the frame of one of those windows, I spot a weathered crest, barely visible against the stone. I step closer. There are two initials overlapping each other in an intricate design: BA. In an instant I know exactly where I am.
I inhale sharply. How did I walk so far? How long have I been gone?
This place is forbidden. Dangerous. Yet I was drawn here. Is this a sign, the message I was searching for? And if so, what is it trying to tell me?
Despite the danger, I’ve always wanted to see the abbey, home of the feared and powerful Aphrasians. I try picturing it as it was long ago, glistening in the blinding midday heat, humming with activity, the steady bustle of cloaked men and women going about their daily routines. I imagine one of them meditating underneath the massive oak to the west; another reading on the carved limestone bench in the now-decrepit gardens.
I walk around the exterior, looking for the place where King Esban charged into battle with his soldiers.
I hear something shift again. It’s coming from inside the abbey walls. As if a heavy object is being pushed or dragged—opening a door? Hoisting something with a pulley? I approach the building and melt into its shadow, like the pet name my mother gave me.
But who could be here? A generation of looters has already stripped anything of value, though the lure of undiscovered treasure might still entice adventurous types. And drifters. Or maybe there’s a hunter, or a hermit who’s made his home close to this desolate place.
In the distance, the river water slaps against the rocky shore, and I can hear the rustling of leaves and the trilling of birds. All is as it should be, and yet. Something nags at me, like a faraway ringing in my ear. Someone or something is still following me, and it’s not the jaguar. It smells of death and rot.
I move forward anyway, deciding to run the rest of the way along the wall to an entryway, its door long gone. I just want to peek inside—I may never have this chance again.
I slide around the corner of the wall and enter the abbey’s interior. Most of the roof is demolished, so there’s plenty of light, even this close to dusk. Tiny specks of dust float in the air. There’s a veneer of grime on every surface, and wet mud in shaded spots. I step forward, leaving footprints behind me. I glance at the rest of the floor—no other prints. Nobody has been here recently, at least not since the last rain.
I move as lightly as possible. Then I hear something different. I stop, step backward. There it is again. I step forward—solid. Back—yes, an echo. Like a well. There’s something hollow below. Storage? A crypt?
I should turn back. Nothing good can come from being here, and I know it. The abbey is Aphrasian territory, no matter how long ago they vacated. And yet. There’s no reason to believe anyone is here, and who knows what I might find if I just dig a bit. Perhaps a treasure was hidden here. Maybe even the Deian Scrolls.
I step on a large square tile, made of heavy charcoal slate, which is stubbornly embedded in the ground. I clear the dirt around it as much as I can and get my fingertips under its lip. With effort, I heave the tile up enough to hoist it over to the side. Centipedes scurry away into the black hole below. I use the heel of my boot to shove the stone the rest of the way, revealing a wooden ladder underneath.
I press on it carefully, testing its strength, then make my way down. At the last rung I jump down and turn to find a long narrow passageway lined with empty sconces. It smells of mildew, dank and damp. I follow the tunnel, my footsteps echoing around me.
I hear water lapping gently against stone up ahead. Could there be an underground stream? The passage continues on, dark and quiet aside from the occasional drip of water from the ceiling.
At the end of the corridor a curved doorway opens into a large cavern. As I suspected, an underground river flows by. A small hole in the ceiling allows light in, revealing sharp stalactites that hang down everywhere, glittering with the river’s reflection. The room is aglow in yellows and oranges and reds, and it feels like standing in the middle of fire. This space was definitely not made by human hands; instead, the tunnel, the abbey, was built up around it. There’s a loading dock installed for small boats, though none are there anymore.
Then I see something that makes my heart catch. I gasp.
The Aphrasians have been missing for eighteen years and yet there’s a fresh apple core tossed aside near the doorway.
That’s when I hear men’s voices approaching from the corridor behind me.
Melissa de la Cruz is the New York Times and USA Today best-selling author of many critically acclaimed and award-winning novels for teens including The Au Pairs series, the Blue Bloods series, the Ashleys series, the Angels on Sunset Boulevard series and the semi-autobiographical novel Fresh off the Boat.
Her books for adults include the novel Cat’s Meow, the anthology Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys and the tongue-in-chic handbooks How to Become Famous in Two Weeks or Less and The Fashionista Files: Adventures in Four-inch heels and Faux-Pas.
She has worked as a fashion and beauty editor and has written for many publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Harper’s Bazaar, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Allure, The San Francisco Chronicle, McSweeney’s, Teen Vogue, CosmoGirl! and Seventeen. She has also appeared as an expert on fashion, trends and fame for CNN, E! and FoxNews.
Melissa grew up in Manila and moved to San Francisco with her family, where she graduated high school salutatorian from The Convent of the Sacred Heart. She majored in art history and English at Columbia University (and minored in nightclubs and shopping!).
She now divides her time between New York and Los Angeles, where she lives in the Hollywood Hills with her husband and daughter.
Don’t miss the excerpt and giveaway at the end of this post!
Below (North #1) by Alexandria Warwick
Publisher: Wolf Publishing Release Date: February 4, 2020 Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy
From the author of The Demon Race comes a YA dark fantasy series inspired by Inuit mythology.
In the heart of the frigid North, there lives a demon known as the Face Stealer. Eyes, nose, mouth—nothing and no one is safe. Once he returns to his lair, or wherever it is he dwells, no one ever sees those faces again.
When tragedy strikes, Apaay embarks on a perilous journey to find her sister’s face—yet becomes trapped in a labyrinth ruled by a sinister girl named Yuki. The girl offers Apaay a deal: find her sister’s face hidden within the labyrinth, and she will be set free. But the labyrinth, and those who inhabit it, is not as it seems. Especially Numiak: darkly beautiful, powerful, whose motives are not yet clear.
With time slipping, Apaay is determined to escape the deadly labyrinth with her sister’s face in hand. But in Yuki’s harsh world, Apaay will need all her strength to survive.
Yuki only plays the games she wins.
A white silence blanketed the land. Newly fallen snow, hushed. Pure, crystalline ice hardening against the pale bark of the trees. The chilled air that swelled with the slow, sleeping breaths of a world that had yet to wake.
And a girl cloaked in heavy furs, waiting.
Apaay studied the breathing hole in the ice. Her joints ached with cold and the hours she’d crouched, alone save her dog Nakaluq, who lay quietly curled by her side. It was the third time this week she had come to the frozen plain that was Naga, the Eastern Sea, and she vowed it to be the last. Above, the sky was a spill of black ink. The long night was only in its first month, which left five months of darkness to endure. The moon, a shard of pale light, cast a watery sheen upon the ground. It was not enough.
Keeping her attention on the breathing hole, Apaay slowly removed the harpoon slung across the bulk of her fur parka. She supposed there were worse things in life than lack of sunlight. Here on the frozen sea, she knew true peace. The sea was sleeping beneath the ice. And the seals were, too.
Her gaze slid to Nakaluq’s still form. Unsurprisingly, he was sleeping as well. She nudged his flank with one of her sealskin boots. “Wake up.” A white cloud streamed from her lips.
His eyebrows twitched, and he curled his body tighter, bushy tail draped across his nose. A clear dismissal that he should not be disturbed.
Apaay rolled her eyes, for this was his absolute favorite game: feed me, and I will awaken. “You’re supposed to be my lookout. You know, to alert me when danger is near?”
One of his large, triangular ears flicked west, toward the direction of her village. No sound, no danger. He grumbled, burrowing further into his warmth. The wind had begun to pick up, and it was cutting.
“I guess you don’t want your treat then,” she crooned.
Immediately, Nakaluq sprang to his feet, prancing around as if to say, Look at me, I’m awake!
Apaay snorted at the ridiculous display before wrapping an arm around his neck, pulling him close, and pressing a brief kiss to his snout. His pelt was a perfect reflection of the tundra—white flecked with gray. Snow on stone. “Sit still. You’re making me tired.”
Nakaluq side-eyed her.
“Don’t look at me that way.” The look that implied maybe she wouldn’t be so tired if she were dreaming with Mama, Papa, and Eska in their ice house, warm and safe in slumber.
Dreaming. What a lovely notion.
It was simple, really. They needed to eat. They needed clothes, tools, oil for their lamps. Over the last few years, the seal population had dwindled, and she wondered if someone had disrespected the old rules. The Sea Mother did not take offense lightly. Without her favor, the marine life would travel elsewhere for the remainder of the season, proving for a difficult hunt. Decades had passed since anyone had sighted the Sea Mother beyond her watery silence. The sea grew restless.
Apaay did as much as she could, but often it was not enough. Her earlier attempts at harpooning a seal had ended in failure. The first time, she had struck too soon. The second, too late. Like this, Eska would say. Try again. And Apaay loved Eska. She did. But she could love her sister with the whole of her heart while also wishing things did not come so easy for her.
When she thought deeper on the issue, it was actually quite ironic. Her parents would be displeased to know she was out here alone, and yet who would come, if not her?
As if sensing her sadness, Nakaluq sidled closer.
“You know how Papa is,” she told her friend. “How can he expect to hunt with a broken leg? Or Mama, already busy with sewing and cooking and cleaning?”
A heavy paw settled on top of Apaay’s hand, the rough pads scraping against her mittens. She squeezed it. “Or Eska, too busy drooling over Lusa?” Her sister scowled whenever Apaay teased her about it, though admittedly she did drool over the girl. A lot.
Leaning close, Apaay whispered to Nakaluq, “Though not as much as you.”
The dog huffed as if offended.
Her smile fell as she again examined the breathing hole, huddling only a few feet beyond its slick edge. Black water struck the hard, icy rim. She did not have to worry. Even when her breathing shallowed out, she did not have to worry. This time of year, the ice was frozen four feet solid. There would be no cracks.
Still, she shuffled back to put another foot of distance between herself and the ledge. Her fingers tightened on the harpoon, the head a glint of carved ivory, the line curling along the ground. Drifting snowflakes clung to the ruff of wolverine fur encircling her hood.
Movement in the water.
Apaay held herself absolutely still. She was night, and snow, and hard, glinting ice.
The seal’s slick head breached the dark liquid, whiskers twitching, its skin a mottled blue-gray. Its pupils were wet and black, no white to see.
It hadn’t yet spotted her. As he’d been trained to do, Nakaluq remained motionless beside her, little more than a boulder among the ice as she lifted her harpoon in an unhurried motion so the animal wouldn’t startle. It would only take a few breaths before submerging again.
Her harpoon came down.
The seal vanished in a splash of water.
Apaay swore and lurched to her feet. Two hours of waiting and what did she have to show for it? Nothing. Her stomach hollowed out from the sense of failure, the anxiety of her family’s diminishing food stores, which would not last another week.
She waited another thirty minutes despite the unlikelihood of the seal returning. It would instead travel to another breathing hole, one without a sharp stick aimed at its head. The nearest one lay a half-mile north and wasn’t frequented as often as this one. It would be so nice to return home and slip beneath her furs. Rest, refuel, maybe even dream.
But they needed to eat.
Apaay whistled for Nakaluq as she approached the sled parked some yards away. Grabbing the harness, she looped it around his body and front legs so it hit him high on the chest. He was of stocky build, with powerful haunches built for endurance and a dense, double coat.
“My sweet, sweet boy,” she murmured, rubbing behind his ears. He nuzzled his nose against her chest like he used to do as a pup. The memory softened her hunting frustrations, and she buried her face in his neck before mounting the sled.
Two short whistles sent him north, the sled’s walrus-bone runners cutting lines through the thin layer of powder dusting the frozen sea. The runners’ smoothness pleased her, as they had only been recently completed after she had run the last sled, quite literally, into the ground. An accident, she’d claimed, but Papa had been furious nonetheless. Never one to waste anything, she had recycled the old material to build a swifter, lighter sled body, large enough to lash multiple seals to its base.
Above, the stars were hard pinpricks of light. The wind was a brutal, shredding force, stinging her cheeks and eyes, scouring her rough, chapped lips. There was nothing that was not hardened or chiseled in the North. It was a land of contrasts, white and black and gray, uncolored, unhospitable to all except those who had been born here. This was why Apaay admired the land. And this was also why she feared it.
With the temperature far below freezing, the second breathing hole had already iced over when she arrived. Using the tip of her harpoon, Apaay chipped away the thin film, the splintering sound causing her to flinch. She had just settled down to wait when a whistle carried high upon the wind. Three short bursts, followed by a longer note—the signal for friend.
Two figures approached, their silhouettes bulked in thick layers. Nakaluq perked up, and his tail, curled over his back in alertness, began to wag back and forth.
Apaay waved to Eska and her good friend, Chena. “Over here!”
They joined her at the breathing hole, her younger sister ruffling Nakaluq’s fur in greeting. “You know most people are asleep right now,” Eska said with amusement. “Right?”
Her mouth widened, more smirk than smile. The world was cold, but in her heart, she felt warm. “You know I’m not most people.”
“Trust me, I’m aware.”
Her attention slid to Chena, who was unusually silent, her small mouth grim. Silver limned the soft line of her friend’s jaw.
Apaay said to her sister, “You speak as if that’s a bad thing.”
“Not everyone is so sure of themselves.”
A snort sprang free at how untrue that statement was. What was more, that Eska would think such a thing. Apaay was stumbling along in life, chasing at the heels of those ahead. She shrugged. “Maybe. But let’s talk about what’s really important: my new joke.”
“Let’s hear it.”
“What did the shark say to the whale?”
Eska made a show of thinking deep thoughts, even though she probably already knew the answer. It was a game they sometimes played. Who could think of the most cringe-worthy joke? “I give up.”
“What are you blubbering about!” She snorted out a laugh. “Get it? Blubbering? Because—because the whale has blubber—”
Eska sighed, her face softening with affection. “That was terrible, you know.”
Apaay had always thought her sister beautiful, even as a child, and for the longest time, Apaay hadn’t the words to describe why that beauty was admired. People would mention how bright her eyes were, how smooth and round her cheeks were, how precious was her dimpled chin, her mouth like a rosy bud.
But now she understood what had eluded her for years. In a land that knew no warmth, Eska exuded what people craved: light, and a feeling of comfort, and peace.
“Anyway,” Apaay said, lifting her eyebrows, “you’re one to talk. Why are you out now, except to annoy me? You should be in bed.”
“Oh.” Her sister ran a mitten over Nakaluq’s back and sent Chena an unreadable look. “No reason.” She glanced at the sled, its empty base. “Any luck?”
Apaay offered a brief, close-mouthed smile, trying to ignore the sudden tension she felt at so few words. “Not yet.” Her sister didn’t know how truly dire their situation was, and she would like to keep it that way.
“If you need a break soon, let me know.”
And risk Eska taking the kill? “I’m fine, but thank you.” She turned to Chena. A definite paleness washed out the warmer undertones of her skin. It was concerning, but not uncommon. It was easy to catch a cold at this time of year. “How is Muktuk doing?” Apaay asked, speaking of Chena’s brother. “Has he learned the name of his new baby yet?” She tucked her braid back inside her hood.
“Not yet. My father is supposed to arrive sometime this week.”
Apaay nodded and returned to studying the breathing hole. Chena’s father had traveled to one of the neighboring villages, where his mother—Chena’s grandmother—currently lived. She and the elders would assemble to discuss the baby’s name-soul. This was the Analak way.
Someday when she was old enough, Apaay hoped for the opportunity in choosing a baby’s name-soul too. Names did not simply continue individual lives. They continued the life of the community. When the village celebrated a birth, they both celebrated a new person as well as the return of the namesake, or the deceased person from whom the name-soul was taken. These names, these kinship ties, were the threads that bound their community together.
After a few minutes, Eska said, with an absurd amount of nonchalance, “Pana was asking for you last night.”
She very nearly gagged. “Ugh. Spare me.”
“What? The man is softer than whale intestines. And anyway—” She slid her harpoon free as the water rippled, lowering her voice. “—he doesn’t actually like me. He just wants to . . . you know.”
Chena murmured, “You won’t even give him a chance?”
Apaay shot her friend a cutting look. The only reason she’d spent time with him was because he sometimes gave her the smaller of the seals if he killed two. But they didn’t need to know that. She had no patience for softness like Pana. It was a hard, jagged world out there. The North would carve you up, spit you out if you let it. There was no place for vulnerability on the ice. “Not all of us have someone like Silla in our lives. And can you both please lower your voices? You’ll scare the seals away.”
At the young man’s name, a flush deepened the bronze of Chena’s cheeks. “Right. Silla.” Strained laughter bubbled up, and she clamped her lips together.
Apaay looked at her friend. Really looked at her. She was about to ask what was wrong when Eska stated loudly, “It’s probably for the best. No doubt you’d chew Pana up if given the chance.”
It was not untrue. “Yes, he’d sob into his bear skins and then where would we be? Now hush. A seal’s coming.”
The ripple flattened into calmness, and Apaay waited, hoping a seal would breach its warm, liquid safety for the chance to take a breath of air, but their voices must have chased it back into the water’s deep. Apaay sat back on her heels, glaring at her sister.
At least Eska had the grace to look apologetic. “Sorry.”
Apaay took a breath to quell her frustration. Since the animal would probably not return, she’d have to come back tomorrow. Tonight, she would go home empty-handed. Again.
Eska reached for the harpoon. “I can get a seal for you. I know of another place—”
“I can manage on my own,” Apaay said, snatching it away. “I’ll come back tomorrow.”
“But the breathing hole isn’t far.”
“I said I’ll come back tomorrow.”
Something about Eska shrank, became small. “I’m just trying to help.”
Apaay hated herself for saying it, because it had been an accident, and Eska was kind, and her sister, whom she loved more than anything, but she said, “You’ve helped enough, don’t you think?”
Chena glanced between them, clearly uncomfortable. “Apaay—”
“What?” If she had come all this way, done all this work, it was not so Eska could take the kill from her. Call it selfishness, but for once, just once, Apaay wanted to prove she was as equally capable a hunter as Eska. The seal would be hers. Hers to kill, hers to claim. “Every day that passes is a day closer to starvation. So I’m sorry if I want to make sure we have something to eat next week. If it had been quiet as I had asked, maybe our problem would be solved.” It was hurtful, what she said. Disappointment in her performance made her cruel when she should be kind. “But I guess we’ll never know.”
Eska’s eyes swam with unshed tears. Saltwater lapped against the ice, gently. “I’m going to go home then,” she whispered.
Apaay nodded, looking to the tops of her boots. “I think that would be best.”
“I am sorry,” she whispered. “I didn’t know about—I didn’t know.” With one last look to Chena, she left. Darkness soon swallowed her.
A few minutes passed before Chena spoke. Her face was grave. “That was a bit harsh, don’t you think? She’s only fourteen.”
“I know that, but everything comes so easy to her.” The last word she choked off. Apaay blinked rapidly against the sting in her eyes. Truly, it wasn’t Eska’s fault. All Apaay asked for was a chance. “Every time I fail to bring in a seal, or forget to replenish the oil stores, or ruin some other task, it’s another mark against me. You know I want to lead the hunt this summer.”
The men had long ago told her no, and yet she was a burr they could not remove, clinging to their clothes, blowing back in with the force of a blizzard whenever one of the younger men puffed out his chest, claiming this was not her place.
Apaay knew why they told her no. She was too flighty, some claimed. Too lost, others said. A leader commanded respect, exuded confidence, and built trust, acting as a beacon in the dark. Why would they ever choose someone like her, unreliable and drifting, to lead? To which Apaay would counter, how could she prove herself if not given the chance?
“You are under a lot of pressure,” Chena agreed. “It would make anyone’s patience short.”
But. She heard a but in there.
Apaay rubbed a palm over her face, dislodging the ice that had condensed around her nose and mouth and eyes. Guilt swam through her. “I’ll apologize.” Chena was right. She had acted unnecessarily harsh toward Eska out of her own insecurity.
With the hunt a failure, they decided to return home. Nakaluq hauled the sled while she and Chena traveled on foot until they reached the shore. A cairn, as tall and wide as a man, the stones in browns and grays and stacked atop one another, signified the break between sea and unsea, as well as marked the direction to their community.
Snow crunched and caved beneath their boots. This was a still, silent land. Its hush sank deep into the earth, rooting down with those of the bracken and the trees. Their village was located two miles southwest. Boreal forest, thick and lush and evergreen, lay to the south. Open tundra lay to the north.
Chena, normally doing everything she could to fill the silence, was unusually quiet. A slight furrowing of her brow had Apaay resting a palm on her friend’s arm. “Is everything all right? You don’t look well.”
Chena shook her head, gaze elsewhere.
Apaay pulled her friend to a stop and turned the shorter girl to face her. “There is something wrong.” The realization was bright.
Chena’s glare cut through the gloom. Apaay noticed her fingers digging into her friend’s shoulders, and she loosened her grip. “Sorry.” There was something between them she couldn’t see, filling up the space, pressing out her certainty and ease. The regret she felt for snapping at Eska didn’t help.
A shuddering sigh slipped through the chill air. Chena rubbed her mittens over her face, cheeks red and chapped from the wind. “It’s about Silla. We slept together last month.”
“As in we slept together.”
“Was it—I mean—”
Chena cupped her elbows in her palms. “He was good to me.” Her throat worked, as if she wished to hide these words by swallowing them down. “But I realized afterward I wasn’t wearing my pregnancy charm.”
Her mouth parted in understanding as her stomach dropped. And dropped. She glanced at Chena’s belly, its softness shielded behind layers of fur. Life swelled beneath it and would one day open its eyes to the world.
Clearing her throat, she looked away, unsure of what to say.
“Eska told me to come to you,” Chena whispered. “I need help. I don’t know what to do.” The words wavered, a touch desperate. “We’re not even married. I’m not sure if he’ll be able to support me and the child. I mean, he’s a capable hunter, a hard worker, and while he’s excited to be a father, I can’t—I mean—” Her eyes glittered, so dark, so very wide. “I’m not ready for this.”
Apaay pulled her friend along, wanting to keep their blood flowing. Chena, pregnant. She could hardly wrap her mind around it.
They walked for perhaps half a mile in silence before Apaay asked, “Have you told your mother?”
“No. I’m afraid to.”
The hill they climbed steepened, but once they reached the top they’d be able to see their village. Apaay glanced over her shoulder to check on Nakaluq and was not surprised to find him only a few feet behind, the sled’s runners having carved deep tracks into the snow.
Apaay said, through shallow huffs, “I think you should tell her.”
“What if she hates me?”
“She won’t hate you. She loves you. You’re her daughter.”
“Yes, and now a pregnant one.”
Reaching down, Apaay squeezed Chena’s hand. So delicate, so small. “I know it doesn’t feel like a joyous occasion, but it will. You’re going to be a mother.” Not even the worthiest of hunters could overshadow the act of raising and caring for another. “You also have me. If there’s anything you need, I will do whatever I can to help.”
Chena nodded, the lines bracketing her mouth easing into smoothness. A moment later, her nose crinkled in distaste. She lifted it to the wind. “Do you smell that?”
The scent hit as they crested the hill: sharp and acrid, unclean. Nestled in between clumps of frozen trees, sixty ice houses lay like small mounds of snow upon the ground. Except they were not greeted by glittering white domes. Gray streaks sullied the ice—a spattering of filth. The world rained ash as black smoke hissed from down below, pouring into the sky like blood from an open wound.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alexandria Warwick is the #1 fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender. She is the author of The Demon Race and the upcoming North series.
Check out the trailer and giveaway at the end of this post! ☽
Woven in Moonlight by Isabel Ibañez
Publisher: Page Street Books Release Date: January 7, 2020 Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy
A lush tapestry of magic, romance, and revolución, drawing inspiration from Bolivian politics and history.
Ximena is the decoy Condesa, a stand-in for the last remaining Illustrian royal. Her people lost everything when the usurper, Atoc, used an ancient relic to summon ghosts and drive the Illustrians from La Ciudad. Now Ximena’s motivated by her insatiable thirst for revenge, and her rare ability to spin thread from moonlight.
When Atoc demands the real Condesa’s hand in marriage, it’s Ximena’s duty to go in her stead. She relishes the chance, as Illustrian spies have reported that Atoc’s no longer carrying his deadly relic. If Ximena can find it, she can return the true aristócrata to their rightful place.
She hunts for the relic, using her weaving ability to hide messages in tapestries for the resistance. But when a masked vigilante, a warm-hearted princess, and a thoughtful healer challenge Ximena, her mission becomes more complicated. There could be a way to overthrow the usurper without starting another war, but only if Ximena turns her back on revenge—and her Condesa.
“Words empowered by justice can never be silenced.”
“Rising tides can’t be held back, but they can be ridden. I have to ride this wave through. It’s the only way I’ll be free.”
“Inkasisa is home to thousands of indigenous people, and Illustrians came in four hundred years earlier and turned everything on its head. Before us, they’d built fortresses and roads, had armies and used the stars to navigate. The stars. We claimed the stars for our own.”
“I’ve never thought about what that day must have been like for the Llacsans. It’s easier to focus on what we lost and what they gained. Beyond that, anything else makes the solid ground I’m standing on wobble. I want to remain standing…not topple over and forget where I came from.”
“It’s strange I don’t fit into the box you made for me?”
“To heal people, you have to understand them. You have to take the time to listen and actually hear what bothers them.”
“Not every fight can be won with fists and swords.”
“Every scar tells a story.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Isabel Ibañez was born in Boca Raton, Florida, and is the proud daughter of two Bolivian immigrants. A true word nerd, she received her degree in creative writing and has been a Pitch Wars mentor for three years. Isabel is an avid movie goer and loves hosting family and friends around the dinner table. She currently lives in Winter Park, Florida, with her husband, their adorable dog, and a serious collection of books.
Check out fan art and a sneak peak of the first chapter! And, of course, don’t miss the giveaway at the end of this post! ★
A Constellation of Roses by Miranda Asebedo
Publisher: HarperTeen Release Date: November 5, 2019 Genre: Young Adult Contemporary
Ever since her mother walked out, Trix McCabe has been determined to make it on her own. And with her near-magical gift for pulling valuables off unsuspecting strangers, Trix is confident she has what it takes to survive. Until she’s caught and given a choice: jail time, or go live with her long-lost family in the tiny town of Rocksaw, Kansas.
Trix doesn’t plan to stick around Rocksaw long, but there’s something special about her McCabe relatives that she is drawn to. Her aunt, Mia, bakes pies that seem to cure all ills. Her cousin, Ember, can tell a person’s deepest secret with the touch of a hand. And Trix’s great-aunt takes one look at Trix’s palm and tells her that if she doesn’t put down roots somewhere, she won’t have a future anywhere.
Before long, Trix feels like she might finally belong with this special group of women in this tiny town in Kansas. But when her past comes back to haunt her, she’ll have to decide whether to take a chance on this new life . . . or keep running from the one she’s always known.
With lovable and flawed characters, an evocative setting, and friendships to treasure, A Constellation of Roses is the perfect companion to Miranda Asebedo’s debut novel The Deepest Roots.
“Fortune telling isn’t a science. It’s an art. And sometimes art is messy.”
“Scars tell a story, even when we don’t want them to.”
“All I know is that it’s the good memories that cut the deepest, because those are the ones where you remember what you’ve lost.”
“I’ve been invisible for months at a time while I was drifting, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let someone make me feel that way on purpose.”
“I tug out the fountain pen from my pocket. On top of the first scar a few inches from the crook of my elbow, I draw a blooming rose, its petals black-tipped with ink. And then another, and another, until my arm is covered, and instead of a constellation of scars, I have a constellation of roses.”
“Yes, I have gotten what I always wanted. My deepest secrets. Not a perfect family, after all. But a constellation of women, connected by pie and fortunes and roses. And love.”
Miranda Asebedo was born and raised in rural Kansas with a love of fast cars, open skies, and books. She carried that love of books to college, where she got her B.A. and M.A. in English, with an emphasis in Creative Writing and Literature. A Seaton Fellowship recipient, her short fiction has appeared in Kansas Voices, Touchstone, and Midway Journal.
Miranda still lives on the prairie today with her husband, two kids, and two majestic bulldogs named Princess Jellybean and Captain Jack Wobbles. If Miranda’s not writing or reading, she’s most likely convinced everyone to load up in the family muscle car and hit the road.
Publisher: Thomas Nelson Release Date: November 12, 2019 Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy, Retellings, Mermaids, Fairy Tales
Multiple award-winning young adult author Sara Ella reimagines The Little Mermaid in a powerful and unexpected way.
Sixteen-year-old mermaid Coral has always been different, standing out from her stoic sisters in a society where blending in is key. Worse yet, she fears she has been afflicted with the dreaded Disease. Said to be carried by humans, the Disease imposes emotions on its victims, causing them to commit unspeakable acts. The growing illness inside her, while terrifying, fascinates her very core. Where others see danger, Coral sees life. Could it be the colorless merfolk who are truly ill?
Above the sea, seventeen-year-old Brooke Jordan has nothing left to give. A homeless girl abandoned and forgotten, the only thing Brooke can rely on is the ocean. Her aching feet find refuge within the cool and comforting waves, while her broken heart grows harder with each passing day. When Brooke’s and Coral’s worlds collide, everything alters in an instant. From learning to stand alone, to discovering the strength it takes to rely on another, the girls find that living requires taking that first painful breath. Each must make sacrifices, and when it comes to finding true love? Let’s just say the boys in their lives must learn to swim if they’re ever going to survive the storms.
Battling the odds against them, the girls will do whatever it takes to survive. But what must end for love and life to finally begin?
Taking a new twist on Hans Christian Andersen’s beloved fairy tale, this modern-day story explores mental health from several perspectives, questioning what it means to be human in a world where humanity often seems lost.
“I am not nothing.”
“I helped you because that’s what you do when someone is in trouble. We’re both human. Both worth saving.”
“That’s the beauty of life, isn’t it? Every day is a new page, waiting to be written.”
(*You will find this note at the beginning of this book as well.*)
For my friends who have experienced trauma, a warning—this story may be triggering. I have done my best to approach the mental health topics addressed in this book in the most sensitive and caring way possible. But even all the research and sensitivity readers in the world would never make it so I could approach every aspect of mental health from every perspective. Your experience is unique to you.
Potential triggers include suicide, self-harm, emotional abuse, anxiety, depression, PTSD, eating disorders, and unwanted/non-consensual advances.
With that said, while some of what I have written comes from research and some from the caring eyes of sensitivity readers who have lived through many of these experiences, other pieces come from my own personal experience with emotional trauma. If you have lost a loved one, I’m with you. If you face depression or anxiety, my heart aches with you in a truly personal way. If you have ever felt misunderstood for these things or simply wanted to escape altogether—I understand.
For the girl who is not okay. For the boy who wonders if it will ever get better. This story is for you.
My hope is that Coral’s tale may be a small pinprick of light in your darkness—a reminder that you are seen. You are loved. You are not alone. You are not nothing, my friend. And neither am I.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Once upon a time, Sara Ella dreamed she would marry a prince and live in a Disney castle. Today, she spends her days throwing living room dance parties for her two princesses, raising her little prince to be a king, and conquering realms of her own imaginings. Oh, and her husband is definitely more swoon-worthy than any Prince Charming.
Sara’s UNBLEMISHED trilogy has received high praise and multiple awards, but none as rewarding as the love and support she receives from her readers every day. Her new story CORAL, a reimagining of THE LITTLE MERMAID, releases in the fall of 2019.
When she’s not on deadline, Sara Ella can most often be found fangirling on Twitter, Instagram, or her YouTube channel. She may or may not be obsessed with #Bookstagram, and she has a serious condition known as “Coffee Snob-itis.” She believes “Happily Ever After is Never Far Away.”