Eliyana is used to the shadows. With a birthmark covering half her face, she just hopes to graduate high school unscathed. That is, until Joshua hops a fence and changes her perspective. No one, aside from her mother, has ever treated her like he does: normal. Maybe even beautiful. Because of Joshua, Eliyana finally begins to believe she could be loved.
But one night her mother doesn’t come home, and that’s when everything gets weird. Now Joshua is her new, and rather reluctant, legal Guardian. Add a hooded stalker and a Central Park battle to the mix and you’ve gone from weird to otherworldly.
Eliyana soon finds herself in a world much larger and more complicated than she’s ever known. A world enslaved by a powerful and vile man. And Eliyana holds the answer to defeating him. How can an ordinary girl, a blemished girl, become a savior when she can’t even save herself?
“A breathtaking fantasy set in an extraordinary fairy-tale world, with deceptive twists and an addictively adorable cast who are illusory to the end. Just when I thought I’d figured each out, Sara Ella sent me for another ride. A wholly original story, Unblemished begins as a sweet melody and quickly becomes an anthem of the heart. And I’m singing my soul out. Fans of Once Upon a Time and Julie Kagawa, brace yourselves.” —Mary Weber, award-winning author of the Storm Siren Trilogy
“Lyrically written and achingly romantic—Unblemished will tug your heartstrings!” —Melissa Landers, author of Alienated, Invaded, and Starflight
“Self-worth and destiny collide in this twisty-turny fantasy full of surprise and heart. Propelled into a world she knows nothing about, Eliyana learns that the birthmark she despises is not quite the superficial curse she thought it was—it’s worse, and the mark comes with a heavy responsibility. Can she face her reflection long enough to be the hero her new friends need? With charm and wit, author Sara Ella delivers Unblemished, a magical story with a compelling message and a unique take on the perils of Central Park.” —Shannon Dittemore, author of the Angel Eyes trilogy
“Unblemished is an enchanting, beautifully written adventure with a pitch-perfect blend of fantasy, realism, and romance. Move this one to the top of your TBR pile and clear your schedule—you won't want to put it down!” —Lorie Langdon, author of the Amazon bestselling DOON series
“Unblemished had me from the first chapter—mystery, romance, and mind-blowing twists and turns that I SO did not see coming! The worlds Sara Ella builds are complex and seamless; the characters she creates are beautifully flawed. Readers are sure to love this book and finish it, as I did, begging for more!” —Krista McGee, author of the ANOMALY trilogy
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By Sara Ella
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2016 Sara E. Larson
All rights reserved.
It can't be true. I've known the news for a week, and still it hits me as if I'm finding out for the very first time.
Elizabeth Ember, Up-and-Coming Artist of the Upper West Side, Dies at 34.
The bold headline on the front of the New York Times obituaries blares up at me, a black-and-white photo of Mom posted beneath. Was it only last month this exact photo adorned another section of the paper? Even with gray skin, her dark hair swept into a messy bun, Mom's organic beauty radiates from the page. Why she hated being photographed, I'll never understand. I flip the paper upside down. When I die, will my portrait grace the news?
Of course not. My face looks as if a toddler scribbled on it with a red Sharpie while I was asleep. No reporter in his right mind would put my picture in the paper. Not unless it was a Halloween edition.
Mom used to sit in the rooftop garden of our brownstone, a cup of hot Earl Grey in her hands, and gaze out over Manhattan. She adored this city for its energy and symphony of cultures. "It's always alive, always moving," she'd said.
Now, every consolation from a complete stranger invites a fresh wave of sobs. My chest heaves with each one, rising and falling like the steady tumult of the Hudson on a stormy day. I drive back the waves with smiles and nods and deep, controlled breaths, all for the sake of appearances. To be the hostess Mom would've been. The one I'll never be.
"I'm so sorry for your loss ..."
"She'll be missed ..."
"It will get better with time ..."
"You know we're all here for you, dear ..."
Nothing more than empty words from phony people who can't even look me in the eye as they give their condolences. Can I blame them? I don't enjoy looking at me. Why should they?
My phone vibrates, dancing along the granite countertop in our — my kitchen. The screen lights up, flashing the name and selfie that hurts and comforts in one ping of mixed emotions.
My fingers curl around the orchid-colored case, squeeze. I asked him to stay away, to give me space. Time. He agreed with a solemn nod, giving me what I wanted.
If it's what I wanted, why do I long to go next door and fall into his arms?
I close my eyes, mentally pushing away the cacophony of voices echoing around our — my home. It doesn't work. This is all just too much.
A sea of catered dishes covers the kitchen island. Nothing offers comfort like platters of prosciutto and tartlets, right? What is this, a cocktail party? And could it be more obvious these people know nothing about me or Mom? Prosciutto? Really? Gag me. I haven't touched meat in ten years, and I'm certainly not going to start now.
Beyond the bar, the sunroom with its large bay window, upright piano, and ornate fireplace is set up as an art gallery. Mom's recently commissioned dealer, Lincoln Cooper, took care of all the details, despite the setback his recent gallery fire caused him. How very noble of him considering he's known us less than a month. Where did he find all these people? Do they even know who they're mourning, or are their sympathies part of the show?
Easels display oil-pastel renderings and watercolor paintings, along with a few of Mom's charcoal sketches. Most of the pieces featured are from her Autumn collection, Lincoln's idea of staying on theme with the current season. He negotiates prices while admirers speak overtly about the tragedy of such a talented artist dying so young.
"What better way to remember Elizabeth than to display and sell her masterpieces at the wake," he'd said with enthusiasm. "Eclectic art is all the rage now."
I nodded my consent, but I knew better. Lincoln Cooper couldn't care less about paying tribute to Mom. He hardly knew her. All he cares about is his big fat commission. And considering he's priced each painting well beyond what Mom would approve of, I don't think he'll have trouble getting what he wants. Sheesh. Maybe this is a cocktail party. Let him have his fun. I only want one painting for myself, along with Mom's sketchbooks.
The essence of her surrounds me. In every brushstroke and ebony pencil rub. In the scent of canvas. In the crinkle of brown paper as Lincoln unwraps a new piece to replace one he's just sold. My lower lip quivers, and I suck it in between my teeth. Mom would want me to be brave now, but how can I be? She'll never again sit on our roof and paint the sun rising over Central Park. Never send me down the block to pick up a new box of pencils from Staples or sketch me while I do my homework.
At once I can't breathe. I'm suffocating, but no one notices. I can't be here anymore. I won't do this. She's not dead. She can't be.
Nausea takes over. I cover my mouth with one hand, bolt from the kitchen. My empty stomach lurches, but I welcome the chance to escape. I shove past the mingling art enthusiasts in the sunroom who turn their attention to me for a moment before I enter the bathroom across the hall. Slam, flip, click. Finally having a moment of privacy and solace, I collapse to the floor, clutch my throbbing head in my hands, and cry.
"Mom ..." Sob. Swipe. Sniff. "Mom, I need you."
"Beneath winter's icy sadness lies spring's blooming joy."
Mom's poetic words breeze across my heart. She was always repeating things like this, urging me to remember them, to write them down.
"Not this time, Mom." Not this time.
I jerk my head up. Hold my breath. If I don't answer, whoever it is will go away eventually.
Tap. Tap, tap, tap, tap —
"Occupied," I call out. "There's another bathroom — "
"El? Are you in there? It's me."
I roll my head back against the door. He's here? He's here.
"Come on." A hint of humor mellows Joshua's tone. "I brought pizza. I know how much you hate fancy hors d'oeuvres."
My stomach rumbles. I've hardly eaten in days. Still, I can't bring myself to budge.
"If you don't come out, I'll start singing."
He wouldn't dare, not with all those people around.
I stand and push the tears away with my palms.
I force myself to look in the mirror, and my heart tumbles to the floor. What did I expect? Crying and mascara streaks would actually help my appearance? I can't let him see me this way.
I've fallen apart in his presence once, and all it brought was more heartache. Never again.
I glance at the door and wait. One, two heartbeats. Footsteps depart. I sigh. Guess he gave up. It's for the best. I'm a wreck.
My gaze returns to my reflection. The strange crimson birthmark winds up the right side of my face in creeping, curling tendrils. Like vines choking my skin. Thorns drawing blood in trickles, permanently staining my complexion.
I'm a monster.
I lift a hand and let it hover there. Now I look almost normal. Too bad I can't walk around this way all the time. Or better yet, wear a paper bag over my head. My only trinket of beauty is the silver treble clef-heart pendant Joshua gave me last spring. The one he made me swear never to take off — a token from a time that will never be again.
I swipe my fingertips beneath my eyelids to extract some of the runny mascara goop. My ombre hair, mocha melting into blonde, hangs in drab sheets to my shoulders. Mom's idea of something wild for senior year, though it just makes me feel as if I'm trying to be someone I'm not. I comb my fingers through my full bangs, the ones I cut to cover my forehead, to help me blend in. Some birthmark covered is better than none covered at all.
The soft picking of guitar strings breaks the silence. A familiar melody floats under the crack beneath the door, cradles my heart, and lifts it off the ground.
Joshua sings out pure and strong. The chords to "Daydream Believer" are the first he taught me to play — G transitioning into A minor, then B minor to C. I could play the song in my sleep. He's not being fair.
More notes. Closer. Louder. His dynamic tenor beckons me as it crescendos at the chorus.
I place a palm on the door. A smile surfaces for the first time in a week. In the three years I've known Joshua, he's never once sung in public. I turn the lock and open the door to a crowd gathered around a boy and his guitar. The boy I love.
No. The realization is a slap in the face. The confession may be internal, for my heart alone, but it's there. Complicating. Everything.
When he finishes the song, everyone applauds. Once they disperse, trickling from the foyer back into the sunroom, Joshua smiles and shrugs in his boyish way.
"I thought you weren't coming," I say to the floor.
"You asked me not to."
My head lifts. "And yet here you are."
He takes a step closer. "Here I am."
The silence between us is easy. Comfortable. The first bout of normalcy I've had since Mom died.
"You didn't think I'd let you deal with these suits alone, did you?" He hitches his thumb over one shoulder, then lays the guitar against the stairs and crosses the hall, closing the remaining distance between us.
"Thank you." The words release on a much-needed exhale. Maybe I misunderstood what happened between us the other night.
"Of course." He smiles and his fingers brush mine. An accident? Aside from the times he had to position my hand on the guitar, Joshua has never initiated physical contact. I search his eyes for some confirmation the touch was intentional.
A throat clears. Joshua shoves the hand that grazed mine into his pocket. The moment, whatever it was, is gone.
An elderly gentleman with a pocket square and a circa-1970s briefcase steps forward, a manila folder tucked beneath his right arm. "Ah, Mr. David. Glad you could make it. I just need your signature on a few more papers."
Joshua glances between me and the man. Scratches the back of his head. His dark hair is a mess, and his black-and-green plaid shirt is rumpled. The disheveled look is out of character for him. "Right." He takes the folder from the man. "Thanks."
My eyebrows pinch. "What's that? Who are you?"
"Forgive me." The man sets down his briefcase and offers a hand. "My name is Wallace Matthews. You must be Eliyana. Elizabeth told me so much about you." I can't help but notice he doesn't meet my eyes. My face.
I cross my arms, not bothering to shake his hand. "Joshua? Do you know this guy?" My eyes don't leave Joshua's stubbled face, but his gaze remains downcast.
"So very sorry," Wallace mumbles, retracting his hand and letting it fall limp at his side. "I am Elizabeth's attorney. And Mr. David here is your legal guardian now." He picks up his briefcase and flips his wrist to check his out-of-date watch. "Strange she never mentioned any of this to you — "
"Is this why you're here?" I snap at Joshua, cutting Wallace off. "Because you have to be?" My expression tightens.
Joshua's cerulean eyes widen and finally lock on mine. "What? Of course not. El — "
"How long have you known?" My words slip through clenched teeth.
He hesitates. "Awhile."
"So all this time we've been friends, it's been a lie?"
"No. We were friends first. It was only a month ago Elizabeth came to me and asked if I'd be willing to take responsibility should something happen to her."
"Responsibility?" My voice quivers. "Are you serious? I'll be eighteen in less than a month. I can take care of myself."
"That isn't quite accurate," Wallace interjects. "Your mother left everything to Mr. David. The home. Her bank accounts. She wanted to ensure you'd be looked after by a responsible adult. Someone who could work and provide while you finish high school and begin college." A lady in a ridiculous black feathered hat taps Wallace on the shoulder with her dragon fingernail and he excuses himself.
Once we're alone again I say under my breath, "You're only three years older than me. How much more responsible can you be?"
"I'm going to take care of you. It's what your mom wanted." He bends the folder and shoves it into his back pocket.
I step back. Shake my head. Why would Mom keep this from me? And why isn't she here so I can ask her?
"El." Joshua reaches for me. "I'm sorry. We should've told you. If it bothers you that much, I'll find someone else to be your guardian. I'll do whatever it takes to make this transition as easy as possible. To make you feel safe. That's all I want."
Someone else. Transition. Easy. Safe. The words blur together as I retreat into the bathroom. Lock the door. Invisibility is the only way I know how to survive. Because if I let him see how much this hurts, if I let him witness the broken heart on my sleeve, he might find someone else to care for me.
Then he'll leave me too.
And there it is. The truth. As much as I hate for him to stay out of guilt or pity or duty, it would be worse to see him go. Mom's death is the hardest thing I've ever endured. If I lost Joshua, too, I don't think I could bear it. I'm not that brave. So I'll do what I'm best at. I'll pretend. If he sees I'm okay, he'll stay.
And I won't have to feel this way ever again.CHAPTER 2
Someone's in my room.
I lie unmoving atop rumpled sheets. Sweat sticks to every crease and pore on my skin, reminding me I fell asleep with the space heater on again. Floorboards whine beneath my intruder's weight. I keep my eyes closed and feign sleep. My breaths release as if rehearsed.
The light flicks on. An orange glow penetrates my eyelids.
I open my eyes. Mom?
So this isn't real. Just a memory. A dream. Still, I'll take what I can get.
She floats over to my bed. A Crumbs Bake Shop cupcake with a single lit candle rests in her palm. Blackout — my favorite flavor. Mom sits, her ageless smile beaming. "Make a wish."
How could I forget? Every year it's the same. At midnight on my birthday Mom wakes me and insists we begin celebrating. Except my birthday is still three months away. I laugh. "It's not even September."
Her brown eyes twinkle. What's she hiding? "I know, but I thought we'd start the festivities early this year."
Wax drips down a purple candle onto chocolate frosting. "Three months early?"
"You only turn eighteen once." She says this every year, about every age. "As far as I'm concerned, all of autumn belongs to you this year. Now make a wish."
"Hold on. I have a surprise for you too." I open my nightstand drawer and withdraw the latest copy of the New York Times. Beaming, I pull out the "Arts & Leisure" section, pass it to her.
The paper crinkles as she unfolds it. "What's this?"
"Your surprise." I sit up and cross my legs, unable to contain the bouncing five-year-old inside. "I know you've postponed your dream because of me. Now you don't have to." I tap the paper. "Look."
Mom gasps, covers her mouth with a trembling hand. All color drains from her face. "Eliyana, what did you do?"
My excitement falters. "I entered one of your paintings in an art competition. You know, the one that fancy gallery downtown holds every year? The one you've always wanted to enter but never have." I nudge her with my elbow. More than just my mom, she's my best friend. She deserves this.
Mom remains silent.
I shift uncomfortably. Weird. I thought she'd be excited. "Um, anyway," I continue, the rush gone from my words, "you were selected as one of twenty artists to exhibit your work. They wanted to include your picture with the other winners, so I sent it in. I didn't think you'd mind."
She sets the paper down, her emotionless expression gives nothing away. Is she angry? Embarrassed? Finally she says to the wall, "You know how private I am."
I do know. I had to sneak a candid shot for the contest because she's always hated having her photo taken. Won't even let me get my picture done at school, insisting she do my portrait herself, which means no yearbook photos for me. I've never argued against her protectiveness. Who'd want to remember my ugmug anyway? I have no Facebook account, no Twitter or Instagram. Not that I'd have any friends or followers if I did.
"Mom, your photo is in the paper because you're an amazing artist." My hand finds her shoulder. "I thought you'd be happy."
She stands, tightens the tie on her robe. "Go back to sleep, Eliyana. I'll see you in the morning. We have back-to-school shopping tomorrow. You need your rest."
"Good night." She blows on the candle. The flame extinguishes.
Excerpted from Unblemished by Sara Ella. Copyright © 2016 Sara E. Larson. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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