Today, I welcome back author Sydney Scrogham to my blog. Sydney’s latest book, Ariel: The First Guardian, a paranormal romance, came out last month. (Available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.) Check out this excerpt…
Excerpt – Prologue and First Chapter
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
I never wake up and think today’s the day I’m going to get dumped.
February wind chills my shoulders, and I tug the pink and blue patterned quilt snug around me and keep walking. The quilt is soft under my fingertips, smoothed from years of rubbing in my mother’s absence. One of the pink polka dot squares is frayed and flapping free. I could wear a coat, but it’s a jab against my father to sneak out in just a quilt. He thinks he can control me, but he can’t. He especially can’t control who I’m going to meet. Ryan, a.k.a. saintly pastor’s kid, is the first human being to make me feel like I’m made of more than slime.
The trail under my feet is brown and well-worn from countless walks to the river. Yellowed grass struggles to survive on either side of my path. My knee-length floral print dress ripples around my legs and my exposed skin prickles where the wind bites. I hate flowery anything. Just seeing my reflection in clothes so feminine puts cinderblocks in my lungs. But this was mom’s hand-me-down. I wish she could’ve met Ryan. He’s reserved his whole day for me today. I can’t stop the stupid smile that smooths over my mouth. Maybe I’ll get kissed for the first time—but do I really want that?
Two trees stand guard by a picnic table on the riverbank. The water’s surface is smooth and reflects the gray clouds overhead. Ryan’s perched on the top of the picnic table and he props his feet up on the bench. He has on his black trousers and a pressed white shirt, and I’m warmed by the thought he wore his best for me. But something about his posture plucks a nerve in my abdomen. His shoulders hunch over his knees and his head is down. The black brim of his hat hides his eyes as he faces the river.
I should go back. Now.
No. That’s my inner victim voice speaking. She always thinks I’m in trouble, but I’m teaching her that Ryan won’t hurt me. I hop onto the picnic table behind Ryan, swing my legs over, and hug him from behind. A cool breeze from the river surface steals the warmth of his musk from my nose. Instead, I inhale a moist, earthy smell.
I whisper in his ear. “Hey.” The soft sound of my voice is leveled perfectly with the world around me, waiting, like we’re all about to witness some epic show.
Ryan leans away and twists to face me. “There’s something I need to tell you.”
I’ve got a joke ready, but the deep tone in his voice makes me swallow it. His blue eyes are devoid of jest. When he rubs his neck, his gaze hovers at his knees, but all I can focus on is the darkened wood grain of the picnic table.
“I haven’t been completely honest with you about my previous relationship,” Ryan says.
In my mind, I leap up and leave, but in reality I’m frozen to my spot on the picnic table. Not even the quilt can shelter me from this chill.
Ryan keeps going. “God told me I needed to tell you I’m not over Kat.”
My eyes slide shut. Maybe now that I’m in darkness all of this will go away. Poof. You’re gone. Your ex is gone. It’s just us. But when I open my eyes again, Ryan’s eyes haven’t changed. His words haven’t sunk into me, either. Something’s mixed up. I’m not a pro, but I’m pretty sure you don’t make a candlelight dinner for your girlfriend (like he did for me last night) while you’re still in love with someone else.
I relax my jaw enough to speak. “What are you saying?” A dead leaf, one that clung to the tree beside me for this long through winter, launches free into the air, unable to hold on any longer. The wind carries it to the ground and skips it away.
Ryan’s blue eyes, gray in the wintery light, look out at the river. He whispers, “She’s the one. Hers is the face I want to see every morning when I wake up.”
My lips part in shock. Now my brain catches up. My stomach flops out and smacks the ground under the picnic table. Not literally—yet. I tear my gaze away from him. Here I was, dreaming like an idiot about a first kiss. My face burns with a mix of embarrassment and anger.
Ryan turns toward me. “I’m sorry, Ariel. I should’ve told you sooner.”
I wish I could say I got up and left then. But I didn’t. I waited while my heart ripped to shreds in Ryan’s silence, and the memory of his eyes burned solid into my brain.
In retrospect, I had no idea I’d never see him again in this world. I had no idea I’d have recurring dreams that we were still together. I had no idea this emotional shock would wreck my hope for something better and push me toward murdering my father. As soon as I hit prison, I should’ve told myself to give up. End it.
But I didn’t. I said yes when someone offered me a way out as a service worker in a wildlife protection program. At least, that’s what the genetic engineering company called it. Little did I know that Ryan would volunteer for the same program.
Now, I’m in Agalrae. I could admit to you that I still love Ryan. But does he still love me?
FIVE YEARS LATER…
I never expected to see Ryan again after a break-up like that. I definitely didn’t expect to be his work partner. But here we are.
Today is the last day of removing signs of human civilization from the Agalraen mainland. I pound off fence boards. One by one, the nails groan free until the sun-stained wood panel jumps into the overgrown grass. These are the only two auxiliary paddocks left. Alicorns used to stand around in confinement while completing their genetic tests. Just the thought makes my upper lip twitch. The sun is hot around me, but the breeze is cool—thank goodness, or I’d wither faster than a snail in salt. I lift my green helmet and wipe my eyebrows.
“Just chuck the thing,” Ryan says. On the other side of the fence, he shakes his curly blond head free from his light blue helmet and it falls to the grass with a muffled plop. When he looks up at me, one damp curl is still plastered between his eyes. I want to move it, but I don’t want to be weird. We’re friends—partners in this Guardian gig—but we were once something else I can’t define because we haven’t mentioned it once.
I saw Ryan a couple years ago when we first came to Agalrae. At first, I still hated him. But he wasn’t the same person who left me five years ago. Now I don’t know what we are. But we settled right into the flow of fate like we’d never been apart. The people in charge of this settlement project decided to partner me with Ryan for work chores—mistake in the beginning a few years ago, but we worked it out. Yes, it was horribly awkward. And now all of the obnoxious researchers from the human world have finally left. Geneticists finally gave up trying to make a real-life replica of a toy line for Hasbro. But I’m not stupid. I know there was something else going on here. The government doesn’t pull people out of prison—me—and put them to work in a foreign land without good reason. Things shut down before I could figure out why, and maybe that’s for the best. I have a different goal now – protecting the Creator’s chosen, the Alicorns of Agalrae.
I duck my head out of my helmet and drop it. It rolls over next to Ryan’s. The organization in charge of us made us each wear cheap body armor. They claimed it was to keep us from getting hurt. Alicorns are vicious creatures, you know. (No, they’re not, but I’d be grumpy, too, if you shoved needles in me all the time.) Like I said, I have my suspicions about why people really barged into this world. They knew something else was out here. Something dark and powerful they wanted for themselves.
“Don’t think this means I love your suggestions,” I say to Ryan.
“Yes ma’am.” He salutes and pops his heels together.
I roll my eyes and jab in the dirt around the fence post with my shovel. “It’s hard to believe this is the last bit of our world left in Agalrae.”
Ryan shrugs and pokes around at the other half of the post. “Who puts a fence by a beach anyways?”
I smirk and wiggle my eyebrows. I shouldn’t like that word so much. Ryan smiles at me and that curl on his face is too tempting, so I look over my shoulder down the fence line. Our other four teammates are a vision of a broken rainbow. Rebecca in royal blue and Seth in white are work partners, and so are Victoria in pink and Tony in yellow. We were all assigned our partners when we got here under the impression we were going to work for a government wildlife preservation. Ha, what a hoax. More like the government wanted to research a new species and failed. I heard rumors that the genetic engineering company calling the shots around here tried to take an Alicorn back through the Agalraen portal in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. But once the Alicorn got into our human world, it started to… well, change into a normal horse. No more wings, no more horns, no more multi-colored hair.
Crazy, right? Alicorns were here in Agalrae long before we were. Why hasn’t Agalrae ever been on a map? I couldn’t tell you. I’ll let that information settle in your brains before I explain the rest of the weirdness to you. We don’t want you biting off more than you can chew. It’s best to absorb Agalrae in little crack bites. I say “crack bites” because this place is addicting.
Most people—there were about fifty of us running the warehouse facility—went home when the government’s project with Hasbro and geneticists ran out of funding. Or they realized they’d never get what they wanted here. I’m not sure what’s true. But they’re gone and those of us left over, the Creator’s chosen, remain Alicorn Guardians. (I’m sure you’ll find out why we’re called “Guardians” soon, and you won’t even need me to tell you.) There used to be ten of us. The Creator appeared to each one of us personally, gave us his light, and told us to protect his home from things that seek to corrupt it. In this case, humans with intentions different from us. But one by one Guardians left to return to the human world until we got down to six. We’re about to be five.
Ryan strikes the base of the fence post and it vibrates a little at the top. I nudge—okay, more than nudge—shove the post forward until it taps him on the shoulder. He straightens and his mouth twists into a half smile, half frown when he raises an eyebrow. That’s his look that says I dare you to do that again.
So, I do. I tap, tap, tap his shoulder with the leaning fence post and I don’t let my stale expression crack.
“Taking a break, guys,” Ryan says. Since we work for ourselves now, making our own schedule, he can make that call. His shovel hits the dirt. He takes one step toward me and fire blazes in his blue eyes. That’s all the warning I need.
I spin and sprint toward the beach. “Fish,” I shout. Within seconds, a blue Alicorn with a silvery pink mane and tail darts out of the trees. There’s a jagged white scar on her forehead where her horn used to extend for a fight, but Fish has been in one fight too many and broke off her horn. Her pink and baby blue wing feathers lying against her sides have a metallic sheen in the sun. Galloping toward me, she looks like a normal horse. Minus the color, of course. When I met her, I thought she looked like a rainbow fish. The name stuck.
“I’ve never known you to run from a fight, Ariel,” Ryan yells after me. His words are quick and gaspy, and his feet are pounding the grass just a smidge faster than mine, even though we’re the same height.
Fish shoulders into Ryan’s Alicorn, Valkadash, who is bright yellow and twice the size of Fish. Fish nips Valkadash’s shoulder and Valkadash squeals, “That hurts!”
Yes, the Alicorns talk. Except mine. Fish hasn’t spoken since she lost her horn. So she probably has a fancy name like Valkadash and she’s never told me. Her loss. I probably would’ve nicknamed her either way.
Fish gallops up next to me and I grab her mane and vault off the ground. I tug myself onto her back and balance on my elbows until my legs are fully around her sides. I sit up straight. The ground underneath me flashes from shadow to sun, shadow to sun as Fish carries me through the trees. When I glance over my shoulder, Valkadash swings her head around to help Ryan up, and then the game is on.
“Go, go,” I shout to Fish and I lean down into her mane. The trees break and welcome us to the beach. Fish kicks off at top speed, spraying sand up in my face. A visual image of me falling off skirts through my brain. I shove it away when I remember I left my helmet in the grass. The wind tugs at my golden brown hair and stings my eyes but comforting heat rises up from the sand beneath me. Valkadash’s hooves pound behind us and it seems like we’ve barely started before her yellow nose slides up behind my thigh. When I look back again, I see Ryan crouched on Valkadash’s back. My stomach tightens.
“You wouldn’t,” I say.
But he would. Ryan flings himself at me, but I won’t give him the satisfaction. I throw myself off of Fish’s back and—oof bad idea—roll a ways through the sand. When the world stills and doesn’t look like a kaleidoscope anymore, I scramble to get my feet under me. Grainy bits of grit cling to my damp neck and I brush them away. I may be more stubborn than ten mules, but Ryan is my match in persistence.
And that, I suppose, the great irony of all, is why we’re still Guardian partners. But he’s alien to me. We were emotionally intimate, and now we aren’t. We’ve matured, grown apart, and yet a part of us is still stuck together.
Ryan crashes into me from behind, but he doesn’t tackle me to the sand like I’m expecting. He hoists me into the air, flops me over his shoulder, and I scream. For a second, my vision darkens around the corners with a flashback from my less than ideal childhood. I mean, everyone thinks their childhood sucked, but mine really did. I force my lungs to take in air. This is just Ryan. He won’t hurt me. My vision widens again with that reminder. There are puffy white clouds in the blue sky above me.
And Ryan’s marching away from the trees toward the lake. My vision bobs with the rhythm of his steps.
“Put me down,” I squeal. I beat my hands against his back plate. He doesn’t even grunt underneath my hollow-sounding thumps. When I try and twist around, he tightens both arms around my waist.
“Nope,” he says. “I’ve waited too long to do this.” His feet slosh into the water.
“Ryan!” For one horrible moment, I’m airborne and weightless, and then water shocks and swallows my whole body. I have a breath halfway through my nose and water burns my throat and lungs. Hacking, I come up with a wet wall of hair in my face.
Then, once the sound of my coughing quiets and I’m gasping, I hear Ryan laughing. Like pee-your-pants, thigh-slapping laughing. I shove my hair away from my face and glare at him.
“You should’ve seen your face,” Ryan says between breaths.
I wade closer and shove his cackling head under the water. He grabs my ribs just where my breastplate ends. He knows I’m ticklish there. A strangled squealing noise wheezes out of me as I twist back away from him. Mistake. Because he shoves me under. I splash, he splashes back, and at some point I start laughing, too.
When Victoria, Tony, Rebecca, and Seth come onto the beach with their Alicorns, I stop. I shove Ryan’s shoulder one more time and walk out of the water. I can’t explain what just happened when they appeared, but Ryan feels it, too. Even when my back is turned, he doesn’t drag me under again.
Everyone looks at us to be leaders. Me especially.
Because Ryan is leaving.
Abuse survivor Ariel Harte doesn’t need anyone. Ever. But her companion animal is infected with a dark, magical force. Only an ancient purification ritual, the mind link, performed with another human can cure this infection.
Ariel must ask her ex-boyfriend, Ryan Tracey, for help.
But she’s racing time. She’s infected, too. All the walls will have to come down so Ariel can heal or she will lose herself to the darkness forever.
Ariel: The First Guardian is a story of true love that wins over time, the power of second chances, and redemption from abuse. This is a prequel to Chase in the Guardians of Agalrae series but can be enjoyed as a standalone novel.
About the Author
SYDNEY SCROGHAM loves creating happy endings. She started writing when she was 12. Her first book, Chase, was published by Koehler Books in August 2015. When she’s not writing, she’s at the barn with Snowdy or catching up on reruns of the best TV show ever – Castle. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia with an adorable dachshund named Zoe.
To learn more about Sydney, check out her website.