BY: JOANNE EFENDI
Almost eighteen, Ashlyn Pierce is looking forward to a bright future—she’s escaped her cruel alcoholic mother and stepfather to live with her older sister, she has a job she enjoys and a man she loves—until everything abruptly falls apart when her boyfriend heartlessly dumps her for one of her best friends. Ash tries to keep the calm and controlled exterior she’s known for but, deep inside, she struggles with her heartache. As her world crumbles, a handsome stranger suddenly appears. While falling head over heels for Wren, Ash learns she’s descended from an ancient voodoo priestess and will soon wield great power. She also discovers that Wren is more than just your everyday handsome guy. He is a four-hundred-and-fifty-year-old vampire who has been assigned to protect her from the powerful voodoo priests sent to kill her…
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In Illuminated Darkness by Joanne Efendi, Ashlyn Pierce is a high school senior, just about to turn eighteen. She thinks her life is perfect until her boyfriend suddenly throws her over for her best friend. Just when she thinks life isn’t worth living, a handsome stranger appears. Now Ashlyn doesn’t mind dating an older guy—she is almost eighteen, after all—but she isn’t quite prepared for a 450-year-old vampire. Wren is assigned to protect her from some weird priests who want to kill her and steal the power she will inherit the moment she turns eighteen.
The plot is strong, the characters charming. I like that the book is new adult as it’s a little too advanced for YA. There’s a lot going on in it, and you may need to read it more than once to get the little nuances and things you missed the first time.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: Illuminated Darkness by Joanne Efendi is a new adult vampire/paranormal thriller. Our heroine, Ashlyn Pierce, is just shy of her eighteenth birthday. She has moved out of her abusive mother’s house and is living with her sister. She has a man she loves and a bright future. Then her world falls apart when her boyfriend dumps her for her best friend, which is bad enough, but her ex-boyfriend and his new lover are vindictive, bent on humiliating Ashlyn. When a handsome stranger comes to her rescue, Ashlyn is grateful—and smitten. Until she learns that he is a vampire, almost 500 years old, and sent to protect her from evil voodoo priests. That’s a lot to swallow for an eighteen-year-old, and Ashlyn doesn’t believe him—until she gets accosted by the very people he warned her about.
Efendi has a fresh voice and her characters are both well-developed and endearing. There’s a sweet love story woven in the plot that gives the paranormal aspect an extra punch. A worthy effort for this new author.
Carnage was everywhere. Broken bodies. And blood. Lots of blood.
Too late, the Watcher thought. Then, from the crumpled wreckage, he heard a voice–an agonized whisper, but to his sensitive ears, she could have been standing next to him, instead of crushed within the mangled and twisted metal that was once her vehicle.
“Help. Please, somebody.”
Covered by the darkness of the foggy night, the Watcher ran toward her, following a debris trail of shattered glass and spilt gasoline. Her car had landed at least one hundred yards from the impact zone, driver’s side down against the highway’s rain-slicked surface road, precariously close to the drop off of the deadly gorge. He glanced briefly at the other car–all but ripped in two from the collision and flung up against the steep rock face of the narrow winding pass. The occupants had been thrown wide. Blood pooled beneath their bodies. The smell of death confirmed what he’d already suspected. No human could have survived that.
He turned his attention back to the trapped woman. He could hear her shallow breaths and weak heartbeat, thankful that she had survived the crash, although in what state he did not yet know. Within seconds, he had peeled back the roof of her car, only to discover her body twisted and broken beyond repair.
The smell of her blood consumed him. Against his will, his sharp fangs slid out. The tantalizing aroma of her blood burned the back of his throat, taunting him. Locking his jaw shut, he battled his inner demon and gripped down hard on her metal coffin, his strong fingers sliding effortlessly into the car’s steel frame. It went against his predatory nature to rein in his natural instincts, but his love and sense of duty for the woman won out.
Unwilling to sate his cravings, he embraced the burn, swallowed hard against the razors lining his throat, willing his fangs to retract. He had to stay strong and do everything in his power to keep her alive. She was the last of their line, the only female in two hundred years. It was his sworn duty to protect her at all costs.
Her heartbeat grew weaker as she continued to lose blood. Searching for the source of the bleeding he saw her femoral artery had been severed. His mind scrambled for a solution but deep down he knew there was nothing he could do. Even if he found a way to close the wound, she’d already lost too much blood.
Screaming a profanity, he ripped the remaining portion of roof from the car’s body and threw it into the canyon below. His infallible strength collapsed and he fell to his knees beside the car looking in, tears of blood welling in his eyes. Feeling the loss of her soul from the world tore at his undead heart.
He had failed her, failed them all.
“Help us,” she whispered again. Weak as she was, she craned her neck to look into his eyes. “She’s–still alive.” Speaking took much of her energy, but still she continued. “I can feel her.” She gasped, her breath coming in short, sharp intakes. “Save her. Please.” Her eyes rolled back and her head flopped sideways against the shattered driver’s side window as she slipped into semi consciousness, moaning softly.
Tearing his eyes away from her blood-smeared face, he looked at her rounded belly. How had he missed the tiny flutter of the baby’s heartbeat? But even as he listened, the flutter began to fade along with her mother’s. If he didn’t get the baby out soon, he’d lose her as well.
Intense contractions roused the mother, her eyes flashing open as she screamed. Her voice echoed through the night.
“It’s the baby.” The Watcher reached out to her through the torn off roof, and touched the mother’s head reassuringly. Gathering his thoughts, he kept talking to her in an effort to help her push through the pain. “The accident has caused you to go into premature labor. I’m going to need to get you out of here if I’m going to save her.”
The sound of sirens echoed in the distance. Emergency units, he thought. I don’t have much time. All of his cravings for blood now forgotten. He now held a sliver of hope for survival and, in that glimmer, his life’s purpose was restored. Stripping off his leather jacket he laid it over the broken glass on the asphalt then, removing the mother from the mangled car as swiftly and gently as possible, placed her on the jacket, hoping its soft hide provided some level of comfort to her severely damaged body.
The mother screamed again–whether from the movement of her body’s multiple broken bones, or her contractions, he couldn’t tell. He ripped off his black T-shirt then, in a futile effort to help stem the blood flow, wrapped it around the mother’s upper thigh as a tourniquet to keep her alive long enough for him to deliver the baby. She was his future now.
The sound of the sirens drew closer, giving him only a matter of minutes. He prayed for more time to a God he had long since abandoned, such was the importance. This was something he had to do himself. The mother screamed again as she bore down, a guttural sound that reached into the depths of his undead soul.
Her face was pale, etched in pain, but her blue eyes glowed with hope, drawing on her inner strength. The Watcher spoke words of encouragement to the mother as he guided her infant into the world. In his hands, he held his future. Alive and unharmed. Perfect.
“You have a daughter.” He laid the newborn on her chest so the she could see and feel her precious child. As he did so, the child let out her first wail, bringing him to his hands and knees.
The mother held the tiny child to her chest, kissed the baby once on the forehead, then relaxed as all pain seemed to leave her body. She smiled serenely at her daughter and, with her final burst of strength, she handed the tiny infant to her new guardian. “Keep her safe. Promise me.”
In her final moments, the mother’s eyes shone with recognition, trusting him with her precious baby even though she’d never met him before.
“I will,” he promised, although he knew she could no longer hear him.
I stared at my cell phone in disbelief and reread the earlier text message from my boyfriend, half hoping I’d somehow read it wrong, but the words were unmistakable.
We’re done. I think we should see other people. J.
Glaring at the message, I flicked the leather case closed and threw the phone into my purse–as opposed to hurling it across the room like I really wanted to–and buried my face in my hands. What an asshole. I wanted nothing more than to hate him right now, but the stupid thing pounding away in my chest betrayed me.
Shock, hurt, and rejection were just some of the emotions tumbling around inside my head, alongside a multitude of expletives forming into sentences aimed at Jay. How could he just dump me like that? By text message? It had to be one of his stupid pranks, surely? Of course I had texted back immediately, telling him to call me. Me calling him for an explanation wasn’t really an option, not with him being in Europe on a family holiday.
From the confines of my purse, my cell chimed with an incoming message. My spirit soared. Jay. Rooting around in my cluttered purse, I withdrew my phone and read the message, only it wasn’t from him. It was my work supervisor.
Deflated, I placed my cell on the table in front of me. I was late for my after-school job. But I didn’t care. I couldn’t talk to anyone just yet. I needed to think, and that meant a cup of strong black coffee. Coffee always helped me clear my head.
Looking around my favorite downtown coffee shop, I was thankful it was rush hour. It was easier this way. I was damned if I was going lose my shit in a café full of people I didn’t know. Picking up my cell again, I reread the two-lined message from Jay, and scrolled back through our past messages hoping to find some clue to what had changed between us. There was nothing, other than his detailed description of what was going to happen on our reunion date, promises that still made me blush. I tried to stay angry, anger was safer, but despair took over. I choked back a sob as the realization hit. He doesn’t love me anymore. Perhaps he never did.
I could feel a panic attack looming, about to push me over the edge. Not wanting to break down in the middle of a coffee shop, I focused on the ceramic mug, clutched it tightly, and drained the remainder of the black brew. Keep it together, Ash. Save those emotions for later. Bottle it up and screw on the lid as tight as possible. I hated dealing with emotional crap. It always made me feel weak, and I hated feeling weak. Ignoring the problem and hoping it would disappear usually worked. I just hoped the same would be true this time.
Growing up with a violent alcoholic for a parent could do that to a person. The less you spoke, the more invisible you were and the less likely to receive a backhand for your trouble. Then it hit me and I almost slapped myself in the forehead at my stupidity. Jay couldn’t deal with my mother issues anymore. He probably got tired of my complaining about her and my stepfather again. Maybe if I apologized–
Laughter from a large group of people behind me interrupted my thoughts. I lifted my head, flicking my black shoulder-length hair away from my face, and shook off my unwanted childhood memories. I couldn’t let those demons surface. Best they stay buried deep, especially now that I had a good idea of what had caused him to break up with me.
A waiter, not much older than myself, noticed I had finished my coffee. He collected my cup, giving me a flirtatious smile in the process. “Did you enjoy your coffee? Can I get you something else?” He raised his eyebrows expectantly.
“It was great, thanks. But I have to get to work.” Forcing a smile, I hastily gathered my schoolbooks from the table, and threw them into my tattered book bag. I still wasn’t in the mood to talk, especially to strange overfriendly waiters.
The wooden legs of the chair scraped noisily across the laminate floor as I stood. I flung my heavy canvas bag over my shoulder, but before I left, I reached into the pocket of my jeans for a tip, placed it on the table, then walked out the door of the coffee shop.
As the automatic door slid shut behind me, I allowed myself a final glimpse over my shoulder through the transparent glass at the waiter’s confused face. He probably thought I was a senior in college, not high school. At seventeen years of age, I looked about twenty-one. Jay always said he liked my appearance, that it was a turn-on. I could get into clubs if I wanted to–not that I did. I hated clubs or anything to do with alcohol.
Except for that one time when I was sixteen and my best friend, Tanya, and I ditched school on her birthday and got stuck into some of Mother’s vodka. I’d never forgotten that day. How could I? The memory of that day had forever been imbedded into the hairline of my forehead with a small scar from when Mother had returned home early from work and found us.
Most people I knew didn’t understand my way of thinking. Living in Miami, Florida, life was all about the next party. But not for me. Seeing my mother day in, day out with a bottle constantly clutched in one hand and a raised fist with the other was enough to prove to me what alcohol could do to a person.
The forced smile I plastered on in the café dropped from my face as I headed toward my workplace on the next block. Today should have been a happy day for me. In six days, it would be Saturday, Jay and I would have been reunited, and I would finally be eighteen. But now I’d be spending my birthday sleeping all alone on my sister’s fold-out couch. I sighed in frustration.
A month ago, after yet another violent episode between my drunken mother and Stepfather Number Five, I had moved out of my mother’s house into my sister’s cheap, one-bedroom rental. Number Five was just as bad as the previous four and, like those before him, it didn’t take long for him to send her to the hospital with five stitches under her eye and a broken nose. But my mother could give back as good as she got. Often times, worse. I knew her, knew her anger. When I had visited her, I’d seen the look in her eyes, the look that terrified me. The same one that drove me to escape, even if that meant living with my sister in her cramped apartment.
Sleeping on my sister’s couch wasn’t comfortable by any means, but it was a bed. And while living out of a suitcase was a huge pain in the butt, it was a hell of a lot better than the alternative.
I didn’t have any other option. After years of mental and physical abuse from my mother, moving out became a necessity for self-preservation. I needed to have some stability in my life, and I just couldn’t stay in her house another second. Not surprisingly, my mother was equally enthusiastic about me moving out. It was one thing we had only mutually agreed on–that, and how much we despised each other.
I started running through ideas of where to go and what to do, but kept hitting a dead end. My plan had been to move into Jay’s after graduation. Ally’s was only a temporary solution. I couldn’t sleep at her place forever, not that I think she would mind, but I didn’t want to burden her. Besides, she had her own issues. Maybe I could drop out of school and get a full-time job, but, really, who would hire a high school dropout?
Jay had really screwed me over. Even though we had been a couple for the past two years, I had vowed to wait until I finished school before we had sex. Jay had agreed with my choice and, while things got heavy sometimes, we always stopped before the inevitable happened.
But with him being in Europe, I had realized how much he meant to me, so when he returned home I had finally decided it was time to take our relationship to the next level. After all, it wasn’t like there was ever going to be anyone else in my life, and we were going to be living together. It seemed like the next logical step I had to take. I hadn’t told Jay yet what I was planning. I had been waiting to surprise him when he returned home, as my birthday present to him.
My thoughts kept me company as I paused at the end of the block to wait with the other pedestrians at the crosswalk for the little green man to flash go. We soon resumed walking and people jostled me forward as we moved in a pack formation toward the other side of the road.
A feeling of uneasiness washed over me. I needed some space. I wasn’t feeling comfortable in this crowd. Forcing my way through to the front of the pack, I increased my pace, ensuring I wasn’t caught up in the hoard again. However, my feeling of unease didn’t stop. The hairs on the back of my neck tingled as a large shiver ran down the length of my back. I had an uncontrollable desire to look over my shoulder, the distinct feeling that someone was watching me.
My instincts were screaming danger, run. Other than that reaction, it was hard to know how I knew I was being watched. Maybe it was some sort of self-preservation instinct kicking in, but I certainly didn’t stop and check to see if I was correct. Picking up speed to a fast-paced walk, my heart started racing and my adrenaline pumping through my veins. Not daring to throw a backward glance over my shoulder, lest I trip, I dodged and weaved my way through the sidewalk packed full of suited businessmen and women. If someone was following me, there was no way I was about to become their victim. I’d seen what happens in slasher films.
Only when I reached the glass automatic doors of the bookshop did I dare to stop and look into the shadows. As I turned to look behind me, a hand grabbed my shoulder and I let out a small scream.
The waiter from the coffee shop handed me my purse and cell phone. “Sorry if I scared you, but you left these on the table.”
My hand shook as I took back my belongings. Exhaling with relief, I placed a hand over my racing heart. “Thank you. I can’t believe I did that. I’m so stupid.”
“You don’t have to thank me. It really wasn’t any trouble. My shift was almost over, and this way I got out five minutes early.”
I put my cell back in my purse and looped the strap over my shoulder. “Well, I’m glad my forgetfulness was of use to someone. My mind really isn’t with it today.”
“You did look a little preoccupied.” He smiled widely, revealing white Hollywood-perfect teeth, as he leaned against the building and crossed his arms across an expansive chest.
“Yeah, I haven’t had a great afternoon. So, um, thanks.” I didn’t know where to look.
His blue eyes stared intensely at me. “You already thanked me.” He stuck out his right hand. “Name’s Cody.”
“Ash,” I replied, politely shaking his hand.
“So. Ash, if you’re not doing anything Friday night, there’s a group of us heading to the clubs at Ocean Drive on South Beach.” He looked at me expectantly, raising his left eyebrow. “Why don’t you come along?”
I couldn’t help but notice he hadn’t let go of my hand. Feeling completely awkward, I extracted mine from his and shoved it in my pocket.
“I don’t think I’ll be able to make it. Clubs really aren’t my kind of thing. Anyway, I’m kind of underage. Plus, I have a boyfriend.” I looked at my feet, trying to suppress emotions that were beginning to resurface. Had a boyfriend. No Jay, remember? My heart cracked a little more, until I felt sure it started to resemble the cracked pavement.
“Oh, sorry, I thought for sure you were twenty-one. But hey, no problem, I know people.” He leaned back against the wall and winked knowingly. “Listen, if you happen to find yourself without a boyfriend, we’ll be there around eleven.”
I stammered, not knowing what to say. “Um…sure. I’ll keep it in mind.” I took a step closer to the doors. “Thanks for returning my purse.” I patted it by my side, trying to end the conversation. “But I really have to start work now. My shift started about ten minutes ago.”
I took another step, slowly extracting myself from his presence, now feeling extremely uncomfortable with this whole situation. As I raised my hand to bid him farewell he reached into his pocket, pulled out a business card and pressed into my hand.
“In case you change your mind, my number is written on the back. I always have my number ready for pretty girls like you.” He winked again. “Give me a call, boyfriend or not. I’d really like to see you again.”
“I’ll keep it in mind.” I slipped the card into my back jeans pocket without even looking at it, turned, and stepped through the doors, thankful to be in the safety of the bookshop.
Walking through the bookshop to the staffroom, I waved to my supervisor Leah, who was sitting at the staff table enjoying her break. She pointed to her watch and raised her eyebrows. Mouthing the word “Sorry” at her, I continued on and walked through to the staff lockers to store my purse and book bag. This was the first time I was late, so I was sure she would be fine once I explained what had happened. It wouldn’t happen again. Besides, Jay would be home at the end of the week, we would have made up, and things would be back to normal.
As soon as I stored my bags in the locker, I pulled out my cell phone one last time to check for a message from Jay and impulsively hit Jay’s number on the speed dial. Screw the cost.
My hand shook as I put the phone against my ear.
Jay answered after the first ring, his words enunciated with his slight Puerto Rican accent. “Didn’t you get my message?”
“Um, hello would be nice, Jay. I just thought–” I couldn’t continue my sentence. All my bravado had flown out the window.
“You just thought what? What do you want, Ash? Wasn’t I clear enough for you? I don’t love you anymore. I have found someone else, someone more sophisticated than you, and she’s willing to do things you won’t. She’s fun and sexy and knows how to have a good time. Don’t call me again.” The line went dead.
I felt like throwing up. Damn, I was going to throw up. I ran towards the girls’ bathroom and made the stall just in time. Finally, the emotions I’d been holding in since I first got his text bubbled to the surface and hit me like a freight train. I crumpled up on the floor of the toilet stall and sobbed. Thankfully, someone started knocking on the toilet door before I started howling.
“Ash, are you okay in there, love?” It was Leah.
“Ye–yes, Leah, ju–just g–give me a second,” I replied through my sobs.
Leah could always be counted on for the compassion vote. Since I started working here, she had become my self-appointed surrogate mom.
Wiping my eyes with the back of my hand, I stood up, flushed the toilet, and smoothed out the creases in my white, button-up shirt and dusted off my blue jeans before I opened the door. Leah was standing there, her deep-set brown eyes filled with concern. She might look superficial on the outside with her bottle-blonde hair, acrylic nails, and trashy make-up but, like a true Southerner, her heart was made of pure gold.
“What happened, darlin’? You look like crap.” Trust Leah to say it how it was. She might be compassionate with a heart of gold, but she was also straightforward and blunt.
“Jay dumped me and just right now he told me never to speak to him again.” I hiccupped, tasting bile. “He said he found someone else. He–He–”
A fresh batch of tears started to roll. I couldn’t get the words out of my mouth. He didn’t love me.
Leah grabbed me in a motherly hug. I let her hold me and, for once, understood what it might feel like to have a mother that cared. Some of my sadness dissipated, as Leah rubbed my back gently.
Leah wrapped her arm around my shoulder, and led me to the basin. “Come on, sweetie, let’s get you cleaned up.”
Confronted by my reflection, I conceded she was right. I did look like crap. My azure-blue eyes appeared even bluer, due to the fact they were bloodshot from crying, and my normally clear complexion was red, blotchy, and streaked with black mascara.
Leah stood next to me while I splashed cold water on my face, her fingernails rapping impatiently on the countertop, muttering under her breath.
I shut off the faucet and looked up at her mirrored reflection. “What did you say, Leah? I didn’t hear you.”
“I said, ‘lousy, no good son of bitch.’ I’m sorry, darlin’, I really am. I told you, you were too good for him. Sleazy piece of drug dealin’ trash.”
I glared at her and wiped my face clean of water with my hand. Even though he had dumped me, I couldn’t stand to hear her talk trash about him. “How can you say that, Leah? You don’t know him like I do. Besides, you’ve only met him once. And don’t be so stereotypical. He doesn’t deal. His family is just very wealthy.”
Leah looked at me, meeting my glare straight on, and crossed her arms across her enhanced bust. “Don’t need to meet him more than once. I’ve been around his type for years. I was married to one. And you can believe whatever bullcrap story he’s been feedin’ you, but I still say him, and his family, are caught up in drugs. Importing furniture, my ass.” She gave a little wave with her hand, as if to erase the conversation, and indicated for me to close my mouth that I had open, ready to protest at her latest comment. “Anyhow, never mind, he’s outta your life now. And none too soon either, in my opinion.”
Seeing the hurt in my face, she softened her tone, perhaps realizing she may have overstepped her boundaries. “Have you thought much about what you are goin’ to do now? I know you were lookin’ forward to movin’ in with him. Are you goin’ to continue to stay at your sister’s?”
My head felt like exploding. Too many questions. Questions that I didn’t have the answers to. I shook my head. “Not sure yet, I haven’t thought it through that far. I’m still trying to deal with all this.”
I turned the faucet on again and cupped my hand, bringing the cold water to my mouth, rinsing the bile taste out of my mouth. I grabbed some gum from my pocket, popped it into my mouth, and started wiping my smudged mascara with my fingertips, attempting to make myself somewhat fit for public. Leah handed me a paper towel.
“This is hopeless.” I threw the paper towel into the trashcan after successfully smudging my mascara even more. “I’ve got to get out of here.”
“No problem, sweetie. We’re really quiet this afternoon. I’ll tell the boss you went home sick. He won’t even know you’re gone. In fact, I’ll make up some story about female problems and try to get you the rest of the week off.”
I turned around and hesitated before I gave her a hug. She wasn’t the enemy, but I wasn’t ready to fully forgive her just yet for her outburst. “Thanks, Leah. I don’t know what I’m going to do.” My eyes started to well up again.
“Don’t start that up again or I’ll get started, too. Now get out of here, and call me later if you need a place to stay. I’ve always wanted a little sister and I can kick the boys into one bedroom. We can be roomies.” She gave me one of her huge smiles before she turned serious, looked me directly in the eyes, and grabbed the tops of my shoulders. “Whatever you do, Ashlyn, don’t move back home with your mother and her piece of white-trash husband. That would be a big mistake.”
I nodded my head. “I agree with you, and believe me, Ally won’t allow it either. But thanks anyway for your offer of the room. I’m pretty sure it won’t be necessary, though. Ally doesn’t mind putting up with me, at least for the time being.” I tried to give her a reassuring smile but failed. “I’ll just grab my purse and I’ll be gone.” I leaned in and kissed her cheek. “Call you later.”
© 2015 by Joanne Efendi