Fallen Skies Book 1
by Miranda Brock
Genre: Paranormal Romance
Stratus is mysterious, fun, and has a danger to him that Lily finds herself drawn to. Learning that he is either a demon or an angel only makes him more irresistible. But when strangers start turning up dead in her town, Lily begins to fear her new found flame may be the cause.
Caught in a tempest of lies, secrets, and betrayals, Lily must discover who Stratus really is behind his stormy eyes. Is it an angel who will win her heart, or will it be a demon who stakes his claim?
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I grabbed my ragged messenger bag and slung it onto my shoulder as I opened the front door.
“Liliana, it’s going to storm. Where are you going?” My mom walked out of the kitchen, big spoon red with sauce in hand. I stopped myself from rolling my eyes toward the ceiling, both at her calling me Liliana and at her insistence to continuously treat me like I was eleven instead of nineteen.
Looking over my shoulder at her, I said, “I won’t be gone long. Need anything while I’m out?”
She pursed her lips, and I could tell she was warring with telling me I should stay home but also needing something from the store. “Well, I want to use some of this fresh sauce so I was going to make pasta for supper. Some garlic bread would be nice.”
“I’ll pick some up.” I gave her a smile and stepped outside, letting the screen door slap shut behind me. Even outside I could smell the basil and garlic scent of the sauce. My mother’s homemade sauce was good enough to make an Italian chef sing.
Of course, when the only thing you ever grew in the garden was tomatoes, you learned how to cook them. Why my mom never grew anything else was a mystery to me. At least there was always plenty of sauce.
After giving my striped cat, Bo Jangles, a quick scratch behind the ears, I stepped off the porch into the sunlight. Storm indeed. I gave the door on my white Chevy Cavalier a sharp yank. Ever since an unfortunate collision with a deer put a large dent in it, it only opened with abuse. It jerked open with a loud groan just enough for me to shimmy in. I tossed my bag into the passenger seat, buckled up, and backed out of the driveway.
Our small two-story house was settled on the edge of Ware.
The name of my town always came to me with a mixture of amusement and annoyance. There had been many times when people asked where I lived, and I said, “Ware,” and it had always been followed by “Yeah, where?” followed by explanations of my ridiculous town name. I sometimes wondered if a town existed anywhere by the name of Thare.
I glanced at my fuel gauge and sighed. I headed to the only gas station in my smidge-under-two-thousand-population town. It was two-thirty on a Friday, which meant Brantley would be working. I wasn’t avoiding him, really. Still, when I pulled into the gas station, I hoped he would be too busy inside to notice me.
No such luck.
“Hey, Lils! What’s up?” he said as the door shut behind him. Leaning against my car as I pumped gas, I turned to look at him. I could admit my on-again, off-again ex was handsome. He had one of those strong jawlines peppered with a day of stubble and a head of dark blond messy hair. I found myself lost in his blue eyes on many occasions.
Brantley had been ridiculously persistent since he had tried to kiss me during nap time in kindergarten. We grew up going on playdates at each other’s houses, shared a first and very awkward kiss in middle school, dated throughout high school, and did the whole senior prom thing together, but it never felt like more than a friendship. Despite breaking things off with him—again—merely three months before, Brantley was always as flirtatious as ever. I knew he’d date me again if I ever said yes.
“Not much,” I told him. “Going for a little drive then stopping by the store.”
“Oh yeah? Where you headed?” He settled beside me, his shoulder nearly brushing mine.
I jerked my head toward the west side of town. Once you passed the last few houses and drove out past the several miles of fields, the land started to rise into hills covered in dense forest. The Shawnee National Forest offered some great places for hiking, and there was one spot in particular I had in mind, especially if there really was a storm moving in.
Brantley let out a short laugh. “You go up there so much, you really should move there.”
“And miss all of the excitement around here?” I asked with a smile. He shook his head and straightened as I twisted my gas cap back on.
“Well, have fun.” He glanced dejectedly back toward the front door of the gas station. “I gotta get back to work.”
I nodded and reached for my door handle. Brantley grabbed my shoulder.
“Hang on. Do you want to go bowling tomorrow night?”
I groaned inwardly. “Brantley, you know we—”
“Not just with me. Wyatt and Austin will be there, too. You can bring Levi.”
“I’ll ask her about it,” I answered, deflecting. I knew I could always use the excuse that Levi didn’t want to go and I didn’t want to be stuck with a bunch of men all night. “I’ll see you around, Brantley.”
“Yep, bye Lils.”
My car crawled through town. I wasn’t really in the mood to be pulled over by Officer McCormick, though I knew Brantley’s dad would let me off with a warning. When the small houses, with their quaint porches, large shade trees, and unmanicured landscaping, grew farther apart, I pressed my foot harder on the gas pedal.
I jabbed angrily at the A/C button as I left Ware behind me. It stubbornly refused to work, so I gave up and rolled the window down. All I got was a rush of warm southern Illinois air catching at my dark brown and blue locks.
It was a nice drive through the country, the fields of corn waving at me in the breeze as I passed by. Several miles down the road, I took a left off the highway and onto a county road. This rose steadily, winding and twisting into the hills I loved. I passed the old Baptist church beside the cemetery and then took a right next to a sign that read “Gnarled Branch Trail.” The tires crunched down the narrow gravel road and I did my best to avoid the potholes.
I reached my destination: a tiny parking area next to the beginning of the trailhead. Turning off my car, I grabbed my bag, pulled my hair back in a ponytail, and headed out in the opposite direction of the trail. I stepped through the undergrowth, grinning as I imagined my mother’s voice telling me I was going to step on a rattlesnake or copperhead traipsing through the woods like I was. The brush and undergrowth grew sparse and my way opened up. I found my personal little path easily, hardly
more than a deer trail, and followed it upward.
My dirt path began to turn rocky and then I was picking my way around large boulders and rocky outcrops. I squeezed up a tiny crevice, shifting my bag so it wouldn’t catch. Reaching the top, I pulled myself up, smiling. This was my secret place.
The land was flat like a shelf sticking out of the hills. It was mostly hard rock with wisps of grass sprinkled here and there. I sat down cross-legged and stared out. The view rose and dipped in forested hills before giving way to a strip of floodplain bordering the twisting Mississippi River in the distance.
Overhead the sky was growing overcast with a thick band of dark clouds moving in from the west. Guess my mom was right; it was going to storm. I grinned.
Shrugging my bag off, I set it beside me. I dug around and pulled out my favorite camera. It was an older model that I had spied in a pawn shop window a few years ago. I still favored film over digital. There was just something about the click and whir of the camera and the challenge of capturing perfection without the aid of manipulation. I gazed out at the expanse of land beyond me and lifted my camera. Then, I lost myself.
My camera clicked as I captured images almost without thought, catching the lines of the hills, their gentle swoops and dips. The ribbon of river in the distance carved through the earth. The wisps of cloud overhead and the tall and commanding presence of the incoming thunderheads. Dark shades of ravines and the light of the faraway water mixed with various shades of gray and green.
It wasn’t until I felt a few drops of water on my arm that I brought myself back to my senses. I tilted my head back.
“Oh, great.” I’d sat there too long.
I quickly wrapped my camera in plastic before stuffing it into my bag. I got up, shifting my feet to encourage circulation. Wind swirled around me, carrying with it the sweet, earthy aroma of fresh rain. It would be a miracle if I made it back to my car without getting soaked. The rumble of thunder and distant rush of incoming rain confirmed my thoughts. How had the storm crept up on me so fast?
Pivoting, I darted toward the spot to make my way back down and then I couldn’t see through sudden white. Pain lanced through me from the inside out as my skull rocked with the loud, earth-shaking boom. The sound was gone just as quickly as the blinding light.
I blinked my eyes, wondering why in the world I was staring up at the sky and letting rain drip on my face. Something hard and wet was beneath me. Moving my fingers, I found the gritty surface of the ground. It felt as if it were swaying slightly. How did I get on the ground? I pulled in a shaky breath, trying to gather my scattered thoughts, and it took me a moment to realize I had to have been struck by lightning. There was no other explanation. Rain continued to pelt my face. I felt relieved that I wasn’t just a scorch mark on the hard rock surface. As I stayed motionless, a sudden thought occurred to me.
My crazy grandma always said thunder was caused by the clash of angels and demons, and lightning was the loser being cast to earth. So when I got hit by lightning, I couldn’t help but wonder, was I struck by an angel or a demon?
I started to sit up with a groan, my muscles protesting as if they had gone through a strenuous workout. Shaking my head, I thought about my grandma’s words. She had always been an eccentric with the most outrageous ideas. Demons and angels being cast to earth? What a ridiculous…
I blinked several times, and although I did have a buzzing sensation in my head, I was at least eighty percent sure I wasn’t hallucinating. If my mind was lucid, however, then who was the man lying not five feet away from me?
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