Busy picking up the pieces after her mother's untimely death and trying to finish her veterinary degree, Skylar has no idea that she is the link between four mystical women in her life, and the perfect storm the Great Mothers have been waiting for. Meanwhile, she's just reconnected with the first and only love of her life, Arganbut Joshua, a dangerous, irresistible stranger, threatens to ruin everything she's trying to build. Amidst unraveling family secrets that shatter her views of the world and call into question everything she's ever known, Skylar must fight off Joshua's maddening pull and get a handle on her own budding powersbefore it's too late.
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"Joel, it's time."
Joel dropped his mug of day-old coffee when he heard his ex-wife's voice whisper in his ear. It shattered on his laboratory floor, spraying brown liquid in every direction.
"Shit!" he said, jumping up from his stool. The mess would have to wait. He grabbed his car keys and ran out the door.
Skylar sat at her mother's hospital bedside, as she had every day for the past three weeks. But she knew today was different. Today was the last day.
Cassie had been preparing her for this day for more than a year. Actually, Skylar realized, she's been preparing me all my life.
She looked up to see her father standing in the doorway. "Dad, this is a surprise," she said, instantly comforted by his presence. It was his first time visiting her mother since her diagnosis.
"I'm here to support you, pumpkin," he said, still standing in the doorway.
Skylar walked over to him. Joel wore wool year-round; this sticky day in July was no exception. There was a coffee stain on the beige sweater vest he wore today that resembled the shape of Italy. His belly pushed out the boot, widening it disproportionately on the bottom.
"Are you coming in?"
"I need a minute, pumpkin," he said. He removed his glasses and squeezed the bridge of his nose. "I'll make a coffee run first. Want anything?"
"No thanks, Dad."
Skylar knew this was a big deal for him. He hated hospitals to the point of phobia — a fact she found odd, given his profession in pharmaceuticals. She watched him hug the wall until he disap- peared around a corner, on a mission to find fresh caffeine. Then she returned to her mother's bedside.
Her eyes widened at the sight of her. Each breath lifted her ribcage clear off the bed. Skylar could feel the static in the air from the war raging inside her mother's body. Maybe she's changed her mind. Maybe she doesn't want to die today. That would be fine with her. Skylar wasn't as prepared as she pretended.
She took her mother's hand in hers as her jarring gasps stilled. I can do this, she thought. She stopped breathing herself and waited for the gurgle. The doctors had said to expect the gurgle. Then it came, the final release of her mother's bond to the world. Skylar choked in a gasp of air and swallowed her tears.
Just as she found her breath, her dad put his hand on her shoulder. He had walked in so quietly Skylar hadn't heard him.
"I'm so sorry, pumpkin," he whispered.
She removed his hand from her shoulder and got up, busied herself with packing Cassie's things into boxes. "This was the plan," she said.
"Honey, I know your mother talked about ... coming back," Joel said. "But you have to realize, that was her coping mechanism to deal with all of this."
Skylar knew her dad would never understand. He believed in nothing he couldn't see with his eyes and prove in his lab. "Right, Dad," she said. She finished packing her mother's belongings and walked into the bathroom. She quietly closed the door, leaned against it, and stared at her reflection in the mirror. She refused to cry. Tears were unnecessary. Her mother wasn't gone forever. Skylar trusted her and believed what she'd said, even if no one else did.
A rush of nausea engulfed her and she rushed the toilet, just making it before vomiting her breakfast.
After she rinsed her mouth in the sink, she patted her waves of dark-blond hair back into place. When she came out of the bathroom, her dad was already at work handling the paperwork. A bright-pink stuffed hippo caught Skylar's eye, tucked in the corner of the windowsill. She picked it up and looked at her mother. Her body was already different. The strife of nearing death had vanished and she lay peaceful, serene. Her cheeks were almost pink.
"I'll bring the box down, pumpkin," Joel said after dropping his glasses to his peeper keepers. He stopped next to Cassie's bed and squeezed her hand. "You live in her heart," he said softly. Skylar smiled at the compliment. Then he picked up the box and left the room without another word.
The waning crescent moon was in ten days. It was no coincidence that it landed on Skylar's twenty-first birthday. She sighed. Her life until now had been anything but typical; why should her birthday be different?
She had faith in her mother, and in the plan. Still, she couldn't bring herself to leave. As long as she stayed in that room she could still see her, touch her. Tears filled her eyes once more.
Have faith, a voice within her whispered.
"I love you, Mom," Skylar said, forcing herself out of her chair. Then she kissed her mother's cheek and walked out of the hospital room for the last time. All that was left to do was to bring her back from the dead.
In the late nineties, Joel had been a genetic engineer. It was all glory, no paycheck when he was married to Cassie — countless hours of research, all of it fruitless. His financial landslide didn't occur until after their divorce.
By then Joel had deviated from his righteous path of medical research into the relatively young industry of plasma banking. He was never sure the business was a good fit for him, but the money was too hard to turn down. He capitalized considerably when he sold his company to the highest bidder. In later years, he watched others in the industry make ten times his fortune, but he claimed that the clear conscience and restful sleep that had eluded him during his years in the business were more than payment enough.
He remarried when Skylar was six. He and his new wife, Rachel, bought a horse farm fully stocked with Morgans, and Joel, an avid animal lover, was fascinated with the science behind the beasts. He could often be found in his lab tinkering with horse DNA. Discovering new color combinations became his greatest hobby.
Skylar fell in love with the "horse life" as a young girl, and spent her summers with her regal equine friends on her father's farm. Rachel — or Rain-gel, as six-year-old Skylar pronounced it — spent most days off property playing golf or meeting up with her Junior League friends.
With Joel busy in his basement lab, Skylar often sought the company of the caretakers that came and went over the years. Her favorite was Giannes. He worked for her father for less than a year, when Skylar was eleven, but it was a time she would never forget. A first-generation immigrant from Greece, Giannes — or Jack, as he liked to be called — brought his son to work with him almost every day during that summer. Argan was the same age as Skylar and had his father's dark features. His obsidian hair was always falling into his soulful green eyes. Argan loved to laugh, and when he did, he flashed a dazzling smile that told the world he was already well on his way to breaking hearts.
"I'm going to marry you, omorfia mou," the eleven-year-old boy announced to Skylar on a daily basis.
"Yes, I know, Argan," she said one day.
"So you agree," he said as they spun in the oversized tire swing that hung from a majestic maple tree on the property. "You will marry me."
Skylar felt dizzy. "Okay," she said.
"What are you two talking about?" Jack asked, walking up.
"I asked Skylar to marry me and she said yes," Argan said, hopping off the tire and running over to his father.
"Well, actually, Argan, you told me. You didn't ask me," Skylar said, trailing after the boy.
He stopped in his tracks and stared at her with a quizzical look. "Okay, then, will you marry me?"
"No, not today," she said casually and ran off toward the barn.
"What?" A heartbroken Argan ran after her.
Jack laughed. "You're like an old couple!" he called after them.
Argan caught up with Skylar as she rounded the paddock, where all five of the Morgans were enjoying the sunshine.
"I have a right to change my mind and today I say no," Skylar said. "Ask me tomorrow."
"Okay," Argan said, disappointed. "I will ask you tomorrow."
For the rest of the summer, the two children laughed and played and worked as hard as eleven-year-olds can work. Skylar pretended the horses were her children. Argan pretended they were his warriors. They lost themselves among the ten acres of the property, playing hide and seek among the great oaks, splashing in the brook that ran through the property, and lying in the sunshine. They were inseparable.
When September came, Skylar had to return to her mother's home in Diamond Point, about thirty miles from the farm.
"There's my girl," Cassie said the day she came to pick Skylar up. She gave her a fierce hug. "Oh, I've missed you so much."
Skylar hugged her back. "I missed you too, Mom," she said with tears in her eyes.
Cassie looked at her, still holding her embrace. "Oh, honey, I know it's hard to leave, but you'll be back for Christmas."
"Yeah," Skylar said quietly. She looked toward the barn entrance. Argan stood motionless, staring at them. "I'll be right back," she said. She broke from her mom's arms and ran toward him. She hardly slowed down before crashing into him, and they both fell to the ground.
"You are crazy," he said, laughing.
Skylar didn't want to laugh. She wanted to be angry. But a smile broke free nevertheless, and she laughed with him.
"I don't want to go," she said.
Argan said nothing as he picked up tiny pebbles and tossed them in the grass.
Jack came around the bend in his worn red pickup. He parked next to Cassie's car and got out. "We're heading out too, son," he said. "Let's go."
Reluctantly, Argan got up from the dirt and held out his hand to help Skylar up. They dragged their feet as they walked to their parents.
"We won't be that far away," Skylar said. "We can visit or meet halfway or something." She looked to her parents. "Right, we can meet halfway?"
"Of course, sweetheart," her mom said. "We'll put a plan together."
Skylar turned toward Argan. She opened her mouth to speak but changed her mind and gave him one more hug instead. Then she punched him hard on the shoulder.
"Hey, what was that for?" Argan said, rubbing his arm.
"Something to remember me by," Skylar said, and then she ran back to the open car door and hopped in. As the car pulled away, she stared at him through the back window. He stood motionless in the driveway, a billowy cloud of dust kicking up around him. He raised one hand in good-bye and faded from view.
The busyness of autumn quickly set in. Skylar had a rigorous riding schedule after school and on weekends, and any hope of meeting halfway was soon dashed. The times she did try to persuade her mom to bring her to her dad's she got nothing but lame reasons why it wouldn't work. Eventually, she stopped asking.
Another month went by and Skylar realized she hadn't thought about Argan much.
But when autumn turned to winter, Skylar got excited for Christmas. She always spent the holiday with her dad, and this year they were having a big Christmas party. She was sure Argan would be there.
Rachel had been preparing for the party since early November. No corner of the house had been left undecorated. Miles of fresh pine garland had been trucked in to adorn every mantle, banister, and wall. Mountains of berries and pinecones filled giant glass hurricanes of varied sizes on every flat surface. In the formal dining room, fine china had been set on gold chargers the size of life preservers, and hand-sewn table runners made from satin and faux fur graced the buffet and dining tables.
Skylar always avoided dressing up, but this time she made an exception. Her dad bought her a black velvet pantsuit with a sparkly buckle and sparkly shoes to match. She tamed her wiry curls with a black silk ribbon and tried to stomach the lip gloss she took from Rachel's makeup bag.
Decked out in her finest, Skylar helped Joel and Rachel greet guests. She enjoyed playing hostess, but every time the door opened and there was no Jack and no Argan, her face fell slightly.
"They are coming, right, Daddy?" Skylar asked after an hour.
"They're supposed to, pumpkin. Come have some eggnog," he said.
Skylar wrinkled her nose at the thought.
Another hour went by and Skylar finally spotted Jack coming through the front door. He looked uneasy, holding his hat in his hands. No Argan in sight. After a brief greeting, Skylar watched her dad usher Jack into his library and shut the door.
A few minutes later the men came out of the library and shook hands, and Jack headed toward the front door.
"Wait, Jack!" Skylar called out and ran toward him.
He looked at her but didn't smile. "Hiya, Skylar," he said. "Merry Christmas."
"Merry Christmas," she said. "Where's Argan?"
Jack's face became even grimmer. "I'm sorry, Skylar, but he's not here, and I have to go too," he said.
Skylar was horrified. She had waited and prepared for so long to see Argan. She'd gotten dressed up!
"Your dad will explain," Jack said.
Skylar struggled to hear his words through her cloud of confusion. Her head started to pound from the tension of fighting back tears of disappointment.
"I got him a present," she whispered.
"For Argan? Oh, that's nice of you," Jack said with almost zero enthusiasm. "I can bring it to him if you want."
Without a word, Skylar left him standing in the foyer. She ran up to her room and dug out a small wrapped box from her dresser drawer. She stared at it. Inside was the magic rock her mother had given her as a loving reminder when they were apart. It didn't look like much, but to Skylar, it was everything. Argan would know how much she cared about him when he opened this. She raced back downstairs.
"Here you go," she said, handing Jack the box.
"Thank you, Skylar. Merry Christmas," he said, and he walked out the door.
"Merry Christmas," she said sadly after he had already gone. Her dad walked over and put his arm around her. "What happened, Daddy?" she asked.
"Jack quit," he said.
"Quit what?" Skylar asked.
"Quit working for us," he said.
"What? Why?" she asked.
"They're moving back to Greece. It happened pretty quickly. He's returning to his family business. That's all I know." He gave her shoulder a squeeze.
Skylar's throat constricted so much she started to cough. She hadn't seen Argan in months, and now she had lost him forever. She burst into tears.
"I'm sorry, pumpkin. I know Argan was your friend." Her dad bent down and gave her a hug.
She picked her head up off his shoulder to look into his eyes. "My best friend, Daddy."
"Yes, your best friend," he said. "But you haven't seen him since the summer. Your life won't be that different, really, if you think about it." He gave her one more pat on the shoulder. "Come enjoy the rest of the party."
She looked at him like he had uttered the craziest words ever spoken and ran away to her room, sobbing, leaving her father staring after her.
The cancer diagnosis came after Skylar's third year at Cornell University. She was slated to enter their prestigious veterinary program after graduation. Her mother's illness progressed at an astonishing rate, and in little more than a month, she went into hospice. The doctors were baffled at such a swift-moving disease, but Cassie wasn't fazed.
"This will work out perfectly, dear," she told Skylar. "We'll tidy up everything, and I'll be back to see you off to your last year of school." Anyone else would have thought Cassie was referring to a move across town or at worst a divorce, not her own resurrection. "On the waning crescent, get out the Book of Akasha. Do what we practiced."
The Book of Akasha was Skylar's favorite of all her mother's treasures. It resembled her many sketchbooks, all the same with their deep-chestnut hide covers and translucent pages. But this book was special. Skylar's fondest memories of her mother were of being cradled in her lap in the library, listening to stories of Sky- lar the Divine. She would peer into the pages her mom read from but could never make out the words. The letters didn't resemble any alphabet she'd ever seen. Sanskrit, her mother had called it.
"Someday you will read it," Cassie said. The stories varied by subject, usually having to do with whatever was going on in school. Skylar always saved the day in those stories. She loved the cuddle time with her mother, and even as she got older, the stories continued. The subject matter grew in complexity, but Skylar always figured out a solution and came out victorious. She never heard stories about a maiden being rescued by a handsome prince. In Cassie's stories, the maiden did the rescuing.
Excerpted from "Ocean's Fire"
Copyright © 2017 Stacey L. Tucker.
Excerpted by permission of BookSparks.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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