Nikki Youngblood may have walked away from her shadowy godfather but the mission to safeguard her has barely begun. Everything now depends on the fragile alliance of her two half-angel, half-human guardians, both struggling with intense feelings for the girl who has been assigned to their care. Mace, steadfast and deeply in love, wants to protect Nikki at all costs, while Raven’s loyalty to Nikki finds him advocating for her independence and battling his own darker inclinations. As their relationships deepen, Nikki finds it harder and harder to choose between the two heavenly beings she may never have.
Dangers intensify, and tensions between Mace and Raven flare as the purpose of their mission becomes clearer. Can their defenses hold up to the master manipulator, Damon Vessler, and the powerful secret he holds regarding Nikki’s heritage? Can anyone protect Nikki from her true purpose and destiny?
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GuardianA Halflings Novel
By Heather Burch
ZondervanCopyright © 2012 Heather Burch
All right reserved.
Chapter One"We are not going in." Mace had Raven by the shirt, his hand fisted into the cloth.
Vine swallowed. Only two days ago Mace and Raven, along with their parental stand-in, Will, had rescued Nikki from her godfather, Damon Vessler—yeah, rescued. You could argue that she'd chosen Will and the Halflings, but decisions could always be revoked. As far as Vine was concerned, it was amazing Nikki was still staying at the house. Vessler was like a thundercloud on the day of a parade, hovering and waiting to strike. Vine could feel the approaching threat. So could Mace and Raven, which was one reason the two of them were seconds from tearing each other apart. The other reason was completely wrapped around Nikki herself. They both had it bad for her. And no one—including Will—knew if or when she'd go running back to Vessler.
And all of those factors caused Vine to stay alert. He'd even left the house without the bag of candy he'd spent an hour carefully packing after Zero discovered the location of a possible Omega Corporation storage facility.
Raven shoved Mace away from him. "If we can get inside, we can find out what Omega's hiding. Why would a science lab need a giant warehouse?"
Mace's shoulders dropped marginally. Vine could see he was trying to calm down, and that Raven's smug smile wasn't helping. "We were told to observe and report back to Will."
"This isn't Will's journey, Mace. It's ours. And the sooner we find out why Omega wants Nikki, the sooner this whole nightmare is over."
At the mention of Nikki's name, Mace's eyes changed. The strange blue-green color darkened into a bubbling sea of frustration, and Vine watched Mace's right hand flex.
Of all the days to forget gummy worms.
Mace and Raven were probably pretty evenly matched as far as Halflings go. It'd be a brutal fight—and Vine was ready. He'd stepped between the two once or twice. But their anger was boiling like a lava pit, and all that hostility was about to release somewhere. It wouldn't be at each other. Vine wouldn't allow it.
Mace's fingers relaxed, but his eyes remained harsh and focused. "We also risk being caught. This place is crawling with men from Omega."
"Exactly," Raven argued. "We need to find out what's happening inside or this trip was a waste."
It wasn't a trip; they'd simply gone to the edge of town on a surveillance mission. When they saw a van with the Omega emblem on the side, they confirmed what Zero had suspected: The lab was more than a harmless research facility. Their job was done.
"And if we go inside, we could ruin everything. We're leaving."
An engine whined above them, and the three boys ducked deeper into the tree line as a small private plane circled overhead. When it landed at the adjacent airfield, the boys relaxed. Sort of.
Raven challenged Mace with a look. "I don't take orders from you."
"You don't take orders from anyone. You do whatever you want without even a thought to how it could hurt others."
Raven angled closer. "Are you talking about Nikki? It's not my fault she didn't pick you, bro."
That's when the fist flew past Vine and sank into Raven's jaw. Stunned for a moment, Vine waited for Raven to retaliate, but the return punch didn't come. Instead a slow, devious smile formed on Raven's lips. "It's not my fault you lost. Get used to it."
Raven walked away.
Mace stared down at his hand, then at the ground. And Vine's heart ached for him. How many times would Mace have to relive Nikki's refusal to get romantically involved? She hadn't chosen Raven; she just decided not to be with Mace. Since their last date on homecoming night, the two of them had stayed apart, but it wasn't hard to see they were both miserable.
She hadn't gotten any closer to Raven either. She avoided him like she avoided everyone. But it didn't take a Halfling's senses to see her resistance was crumbling.
Vine wanted to say something to alleviate even a little of Mace's pain, but there just weren't words. Instead, he placed a reassuring hand on Mace's shoulder. "Everything's falling apart," Vine muttered. The words popped out unrestrained.
"Let this be a lesson, Vine."
Even now, Mace was watching out for his "kid brother." They weren't actually related, of course. Not by blood. Like all Halflings, their family was due to providence, destiny. And Vine was grateful he'd been given a wise older sibling. Two, actually. Raven was just as smart—he simply chose to go after instant gratification sometimes rather than follow wise counsel. Vine had learned from both of them. What to do ... and especially what not to do.
Falling for a human was on the latter list. It had been the Achilles heel for both boys. If Mace and Raven lived through their broken hearts, maybe things could get back to normal. They'd survive, at least. Nikki'd sworn to Vine she wouldn't get involved with either of them. He hoped she was telling the truth.
* * *
Nikki heard the voices right after that unmistakable sensation of heaven breaching earth. Lightning particles danced across her fingertips and she knew something ethereal was happening downstairs. She left the room—her sanctuary, her hiding place from the boys—and paused at the top of the stairs. The air in the room below was electric. So much so, she wasn't sure she could enter. It was reminiscent of the first time she'd met Mace, Raven, and Vine. Back when she had normal things like a family and a real home.
Now she was an orphan. But best not to dwell on that when there were so many more important issues, like how she nearly was the cause of Mace—and Raven, for that matter—losing his one chance at eternity. A good eternity. Everyone would spend eternity somewhere, she now understood, but for Halflings there was no salvation, only obedience. Either by choice or by rebellion, all half-human, half-angel beings would either rise or sink. She nearly sunk the two she cared for most.
Last night she'd found Vine with tears in his eyes, sitting alone on the back porch. He knew as well as she did that she held the power to destroy Mace and Raven. What she hadn't realized until then was how strong that power still was—and what it was doing to the rest of the house. She promised Vine she wouldn't lead either boy on, and that she would do everything she could to keep them on the side of the Throne. Now she had to concentrate on keeping that promise, even though it only made her feel deader inside. She truly was alone. But though the solitude cut like a razor against her heart, it was a vacation compared to the thought she'd send either one to hell. That she couldn't bear.
Nikki blinked and put one foot on the first step, intent on dealing with whatever awaited her downstairs, when she heard Will's voice slice through the haze of regrets and promises. She tried to piece the conversation together. All she could understand was a ship had sunk.
The heavenly angel's words were filled with concern. "Is the crew of The Journey all right?"
"All accounted for," a voice replied.
She could practically feel Will sighing with relief. For a heavenly angel who wasn't equipped with human emotions, Will sure seemed to experience them.
"Why has this news brought you to my door, brothers?"
His brothers? More heavenly angels? Maybe that's why the room felt so alive with the essence of heaven. She shifted her weight just enough to make the stair creak. Nikki's eyes closed at the sound. How could I be so stupid? Eavesdropping on heavenly angels. She felt the gravity of their stares, though she couldn't see them. A few heavy moments passed.
"Come," Will said. "Let's go into the kitchen where we can talk."
Stupid, stupid, stupid. She was lousy at the stealthy thing. Maybe she should have studied ninjutsu instead of karate.
* * *
"Who was that?" Vine asked Will as two heavenly angels disappeared from the house.
Will didn't answer.
"Things going okay here?" He reached across the counter and grabbed the bag of candy he'd forgotten earlier.
"We may be leaving." Will's expression looked pained.
Vine frowned while several thoughts splashed through his head. Leaving Missouri, this journey? "Why, and where would we go?"
Will faced him, hands resting against the countertop. "The two angels who were here informed me a transport ship went down at the hands of The Journey. They think we need to accompany Sky, Dash, and Ocean to Europe."
Vine needed a sugar fix and fast, because that just didn't make sense. "We're on a journey already, Will. Why would we need to interrupt this journey to start another one?"
"There's no reason at all."
"You're not making sense."
"It makes perfect sense. The Journey is part of our journey." Will forced a smile. "Ironic, isn't it?"
"I don't mean to complain or anything, but don't we sort of have enough going on? That warehouse you sent us to was crawling with guys. Something's happening there ... or about to happen. We need to be here, Will. We need to watch Omega."
"True. More than you know."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Vine pulled the Ziploc bag open and scoped it for the candy he wanted.
"The angels also informed me that Omega is pulling in several new scientists. Experts in genetics. A whole new team, in fact."
"And those same winged dudes think we should leave?" Vine scoffed.
"You sure they're on our side?"
A deep frown cut across Will's face. "Yes."
"How can you be so positive?"
"Just before they arrived, heaven whispered and told me to prepare for an ocean voyage."
Vine sucked on a Sweet Tart. "I don't think it's such a good idea. In case you hadn't noticed, Mace and Raven are at each other's throats right now." He plopped into a kitchen chair. "Being trapped on a boat together is the last thing they need."
"It's exactly what they need," Will corrected. His gaze traveled to the window and the yard beyond. "Go tell the boys. I'll inform Nikki."
"Man, I'm not sure which close-quarters combination will be worse. No one's going to be happy."
Chapter TwoMy parents are dead. My home has been emptied by the only man who is a link to my past, I'm leaving the only town I've ever known, and I'm still being hunted by demons.
Sometimes, Nikki went over those things, rotating them through her mind, holding on to what she knew to be her reality. Sometimes it helped. Sometimes it only made her feel crazy.
As if those little facts weren't enough to send a seventeen-year-old over the edge, Nikki was about to climb onto a boat and sail across the ocean with multiple beings, none of which were human. Half-human counts, she decided as she crossed the gangplank. Only one week ago she'd stood in the middle of a park with those beings—Will, Mace, and Raven—on one side, and her godfather, Damon Vessler, on the other, forcing her to make a choice. Had she made the right one? Damon had left so many messages on her cell, she finally stopped listening to them and buried the phone in her suitcase. The suitcase Will bought for her because she owned, well, almost nothing now. Nikki glanced back at him. He nodded her onward to the belly of the boat. An ocean voyage. Great.
Her gaze found Will again and sought assurance. They shared a look for a brief moment, her eyes questioning, his reassuring—just like always. There'd been lots of those looks. Will kept a close eye on her and, like a mother hen, gently nudged her in whatever direction he deemed necessary at the moment. At this moment, that direction was an eighty-foot luxury sailboat. At least it wasn't some ancient fishing vessel with a layer of sunbaked fish guts on the deck. Nikki's stomach turned, reminding her not to think about things like dead sea creatures and their entrails.
"Don't be nervous, Nikki," Will said.
"Difficult not to be."
"Find peace in the storm." Will was always full of brilliant— albeit abstract—wisdom. "If you're so concerned with each next breath, how will you ever be able to look ahead?"
"One day soon, your ability as a Seer will be tested, and you'll be called on by the Throne. There is a purpose for you, Nikki. But as a Seer, evil is drawn to you. It's important that you begin to understand your gifting."
And this was supposed to help her feel better. Try again, Will. Suddenly, his encouraging look ticked her off. She'd spent time with him over the last several days and had discovered that she both loved and hated him in equal measures. No, that was unfair. She loved him. She hated this stinking situation she'd been thrown into. It was all way over the top of Mount Freak, and let's face it, she wasn't much of a climber.
She used to be. But that was before her parents were killed. Mace and Raven had been with her that night, and had made peace so she could concentrate on surviving the loss of her mom and dad. But in the last few days, the boys' relationship— rocky to begin with—had eroded as they all tried to avoid each other in the big house on Pine Boulevard.
Apprehension twisted her hands into fists. Now they'd all be on a boat together. For days. And though there would be others on the yacht too, she knew she'd run out of places to hide.
Nikki would keep her promise to Vine. She'd stay away from Mace and Raven, even though there was a gaping void inside her. The two boys had once filled that empty hole. But no more. She was strong without them. She just had to keep reminding herself.
She wished the female Halflings would arrive. Vegan and Winter always made her feel like less of a freak. Hmm. Funny that she, the human, should feel like a freak. But surrounded by winged heavenly creatures, how else could one feel?
Nikki'd never sailed before. Not a lot of opportunity to do that in southern Missouri. She stopped on deck to look up at the giant mast puncturing a cloudless blue sky. While she'd meant to look over the ship, her eyes were drawn to the blue expanse above. She'd flown with Will to the South Carolina launch site while the Halfling boys flew themselves—one advantage of having wings—and though the group left Missouri at the same time, she'd lost track of Mace, Raven, and Vine almost as quickly as they hit the air. Any chance Nikki got to see them in flight drew her full attention and caused that fluttery thing in her chest. Moth to a flame. Which, she knew, never ended well for the moth.
How often in a lifetime could someone watch three hot teenage boys sail through the air like eagles? Dipping and soaring on the thermal currents ...
Off to one side of the mast, she spotted a seagull. It dove for the water, and Nikki couldn't stop herself from running to the edge of the rail to see what it was after. The bird took flight as she halted and grabbed the railing. A thin fish wiggled in the bird's beak.
"Likely to see dolphin later." The voice, heavy with an Australian accent, made her jump.
Nikki turned to find herself face-to-face with yet another hot teenage guy. His eyes were the blue of the sky and his skin was deeply tanned.
"What?" Way to impress him with your witty repartee.
He nodded toward the cobalt expanse of rolling waves beyond the marina. "If you think a seagull finding breakfast is entertaining, wait until we run across a family of dolphin. Babies and all, jumping right outta the water." His last word came out wah-duh. Accents were so cool. She ran across very few of them in Missouri—which made them even more captivating. Then the guy smiled. Wow. A row of perfect white teeth. He had to be a Halfling. That cute, that tall, and that ...
A voice from above interrupted her thoughts. "Not as entertaining as the school of amberjack we found last week."
Nikki squinted, head tilted back, and tried to get a fix on the voice. She gasped when she saw him suspended there. One hand wrapped around a loose rope while the other tied something. He wore long shorts, a white tank, and his bare feet dangled precariously a good thirty feet above her. His partially obstructed view of her must have caused him to push off the wooden post, because in a moment's time he was sailing in a high arc like an acrobat. Nikki lifted a hand to her head to block the sun's glare from her view of the boy who flew through the air with the greatest of ease.
He tipped an imaginary hat to her.
The Aussie said, "Yeah, I'd agree the amberjack were cool, but—"
"Everyone's seen dolphin, brother. It's not that big of a deal." Again, the boy swung past. He was as tan as the first, but with darker brown hair laced with golden streaks, the kind reserved for surfers and, apparently, acrobatic sailors.
He released the rope and plummeted to the ground. Nikki screamed, clamping her hand over her mouth. He landed at her feet in that felinelike way Halflings had, balls of his feet absorbing the impact and knees deeply bent. The boy straightened slowly and held a hand out in greeting.
Excerpted from Guardian by Heather Burch Copyright © 2012 by Heather Burch. Excerpted by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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