Mine and Mom's latest novel, Banished, is slated to be released February 12th. This is a retelling of the Cinderella Story and is book 1 in a series called The Grimm Laws. It was a super fun book to write, and I can't wait for everyone to read it!!
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Pre-order your copy of Banished and enter a drawing to win a Deluxe Valentine's Day Package and free ebooks! (For more details, see the blog post that was written just before this one.)
Here's a sneak peak at the first chapter ...
The Stranger in the Mirror
Before the accident she’d been normal. Before the accident she’d never questioned who she was. She’d never questioned what she should do. How she should act. It had come as easily to her as breathing—at least that’s what everyone kept saying. She reached for a comb and absentmindedly raked it through her long, blond tresses while studying her reflection in the antique mirror. She was attractive, she decided, with fine-boned features and a thin nose sprinkled with freckles so faint that she had to lean forward in order to see them. Delicate lips framed white, even teeth. She ran the tip of her index finger along the curve of her jaw as she continued her critique of the reflection in the mirror. She was thin. Perhaps a little on the skinny side. She shrugged off the notion. While she might not be able to remember her name, family, or past, she somehow innately knew that being skinny wasn’t a bad thing. Her focus went to the clear, intelligent eyes staring back at her—two large blue coins. They were obviously her best feature, but they looked so strange … so lost. She stared into the fathomless blue pools until fear fluttered in her breast. She suppressed it and leaned forward into her reflection, gripping the comb hard enough that it left imprints in her palm. “Who are you?” she demanded. “Why can’t you remember?” She exerted all of her power, trying to will her brain to recollect something … anything. All her effort yielded was the beginning of a dull headache that was working its way across her brow.
As far as she could tell, this is how it happened. She was standing in front of the bathroom mirror, having just gotten out of the shower. A pimple had popped up on her forehead, and she was standing on her tiptoes, reaching up to the top shelf of the cabinet, trying to grab the acne medicine. The rug underneath her feet slipped, and she fell backwards, hitting her head on the porcelain tub. It was a freak accident that put her in a coma for two weeks and three days. When she finally awoke, she had no recollection of … well … anything. Her life was a big blank. The doctors were stupefied, not understanding how a single bump on the head could cause such calamitous results. They’d put her through a barrage of MRI’s, Cat-Scans and every other test they could dream up. Even though everything came back clean, there was a lurking suspicion that the coma was induced by some latent, perhaps hereditary condition that was triggered by the concussion.
“Will my memory come back?” she’d asked, looking back and forth between the white-cloaked doctors and the strangers that were her family.
Dr. Marcourt, the leading physician, had scratched his head. “It’s hard to say because every case is so different. Since we don’t know the definitive cause of your coma and memory loss, we don’t know when—if ever—your memory will resurface. The best advice I can give you is to take things one day at a time. Trust your family. Trust yourself. Build a life for yourself starting today. You may never be the same as you were before, and that’s okay. As imperfect as it is, life is a gift.”
She glared at her reflection. Some gift!
The reflection in the mirror smiled at her.
She stopped and looked. Was her mind playing tricks on her? She’d not been smiling, and yet the face in the mirror had smiled. She frowned, and the reflection did the same. She smiled. The reflection smiled back. Relief flooded through her, making her feel giddy. Even though it was impossible … ridiculous. For a split second, she’d had the impression that the girl in the mirror was not merely a reflection, but another person—separate and disconnected. But it was only her mind, playing tricks on her. “I must’ve whacked my head harder than I thought,” she said out loud. She looked at her reflection in the mirror and made a few faces, feeling instant relief as the reflection simultaneously mimicked her movements. A laugh bubbled up in her throat. It was ridiculous getting this worked up over her own reflection. She turned away from the mirror, but the laugh stopped her cold. The reflection had laughed at her. She’d laughed once, and the reflection had laughed back. Ever so slowly, she turned to the mirror, dreading what she would see. There she was—pale face, hollow eyes staring back, reflecting the fear that had returned with a vengeance. “Who are you?” she whispered. The reflection remained unchanged. She touched the mirror, half-expecting her finger to poke through it. It was solid and cold. She let out a sigh. She was starting to have serious doubts about her sanity. A cold sweat beaded across her forehead. A simple fall had thrown her into a coma. Her memory was completely gone. Was she also losing her mind? She arose from the dressing chair, backed away from the mirror, and sat down on the bed. She focused on her breathing, averting her gaze from the dreaded mirror, but the pull was too great. Her eyes went to the milky white, antique-finished mirror that was attached to the dressing table. Her gaze then went to the matching chair that was upholstered in a striped pattern of various shades of pink. She studied the dressing table and mirror objectively, glad to have something other than herself on which to focus her attention. The graceful curves, etched in gold paint, were outlandishly formal in comparison to the walnut bed with its straight, hard lines. It would’ve been more fitting in a mansion rather than a teenage girl’s bedroom. She looked up to where a jeweled chandelier hung. At least the dresser and chandelier matched, although the chandelier was also too ornate for a bedroom. Her gaze went to the hot-pink, overstuffed chair with the bold black roses. A purple and pink pillow dripping in orange fringe was the crowning touch. And then there were the pale pink walls. Wow! It was obvious that her taste in decor was a little off before the accident.
The door burst open. Josselyn bounded in and plopped down on the bed beside her. Her singsong voice floated through the air. “Elle, what are you doing? Why are you just sitting here on the bed like an imbecile, wringing your hands? I know you’re supposedly recovering, but this head injury thing is getting to be a real drag.”
Elle looked down at her hands. She gave her stepsister a weak smile. “I’m just trying to figure out if I should wear my hair up or down tonight.” It took effort to keep her voice light. It took effort to pretend to be the self-absorbed, airy, socialite she’d apparently been before the accident.
Josselyn smirked. “Now that sounds like the Elle I know. Yes, what could be more important than your hair? You are, after all, the junior homecoming attendant. Of course everyone will be gawking at you.” She motioned with her hand and wrinkled her nose. “Although, I must say. You’ve got some work to do if you’re expecting to transform that into your usual perfect self. Are those sweatpants?”
“And what’s wrong with sweatpants?”
“You haven’t worn sweatpants since you were nine. You really are losing it. Mom said you were, but I didn’t believe her …” her eyes raked over Elle “… until now.”
Blood rushed to Elle’s face. “Oh, I didn’t realize. I just wanted to be comfortable. I’m going to take a nap and I—”
“Enough already! Who are you, and what have you done with my stepsister? The old Elle would never stoop to apologies.”
“Oh.” Every time she opened her mouth, everything seemed to come out wrong. How could she be so different now from the person she was before?
Josselyn cocked her head, causing her corkscrew curls to bounce. “Okay, let’s see the hair.”
Elle swept up her long tresses and held them with her hands. “What do you think?”
“Up,” she said decidedly.
“Okay, up it is.”
Josselyn rose from the bed and went over to the dress that was draped over the chair. She held it up to herself and went to the mirror. “I thought you were going to wear the yellow one because it highlights your hair.”
Elle shrugged. “I changed my mind and decided to wear the blue one instead.”
Josselyn’s lips formed a petulant frown. “But you hate blue.”
“Yes, you hate the way it brings out the color in your eyes.”
“Why would I hate that?” This conversation wasn’t making any sense. Five minutes earlier, she’d looked in the mirror and thought how her blue eyes were her best feature.
Josselyn gave her an impatient sigh and then placed the dress back on the chair. “You don’t like your blue eyes. You wish they were brown. In fact, you even once bought brown contacts to try and cover them up, but they turned your eyes that hideous purple color. Do you really not remember that?”
“No … I …” Elle’s voice trailed off, and she looked away. Most of the time she pretended to remember more than she did because it was too humiliating to admit that she didn’t remember anything at all.
Josselyn sat back down beside her. “Okay, let’s go over this again.” She spoke slowly and exaggerated as if she were talking to a four-year-old. “Tonight is homecoming, and you’re the eleventh grade attendant. Lynessa Miles, your archenemy since third grade, ran against you. It was a tight race, but in the end, you won. You’re blonde, popular, captain of the cheerleading squad, and you’re dating Edward Kingsley, the quarterback. Have I left anything out?”
“No, I think you’ve about covered it. Even my feeble mind can grasp its way around that,” Elle snapped.
“Don’t get huffy with me! It’s not my fault that you fell in the bathroom and lost your memory.”
“Well, you don’t have to act so smug about it.” She may’ve lost her memory, but it didn’t take a genius to figure out that she and Josselyn didn’t get along. Since her return from the hospital, Josselyn had been downright hateful. Her stepmother, Sera, was cold, and her father left town on a business trip the day after she returned home. Yes, they were all one big happy family.
“Look, I can appreciate that you’ve lost your memory, but I haven’t.” Josselyn trailed her fingers through her hair. “Unlike you, I haven’t been able to forget all of the horrible things you’ve done to me over the years.”
Elle rocked back. “What’re you talking about?”
“Oh, let’s see,” Josselyn feigned remembering even though it was obvious from her rapid-fire responses that she kept the memory of the events close. “How about the time you told Jeremy Stanford and the entire school that your chubby stepsister had a crush on him?”
“I did that?” Elle asked cautiously.
“Uh huh. You certainly did. But you didn’t stop there. The summer I lost thirty pounds, you told Mom it was because I was taking diet pills. I was grounded for a month over that.”
“You lost thirty pounds?”
Josselyn rolled her eyes. “Yes, Elle, I did. Old news.”
Elle started twisting a lock of her hair. “Well, you look great.”
“Were you taking diet pills?”
She let out a laugh. “Well, duh, who do you think got them for me?”
This was all coming at her too fast. The implication was obvious. “I got them for you,” she said flatly.
“See, your memory is returning already.” Josselyn stood. “Anyway, Mom sent me up here to see if you want to go shopping with us.”
Elle thought for a minute. The homecoming game didn’t start until 7 p.m. and it was only 10 in the morning. A little shopping might be nice. “How long are we going to be gone?”
“Don’t worry, we’ll be back in plenty of time for you to get beautified, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“Okay, let me get changed and I’ll be right down.”
“See ya downstairs.”
“Good morning, Sera,” Elle said when she entered the dining room.
Her stepmother didn’t bother to look up. Instead, she took a long swig of coffee and kept her eyes on the newspaper she was perusing. “You finally dragged yourself out of bed, I see.”
“I’ve been up for a while, I was just in my room.”
Sera looked at her. “I see. Well, at least you finally put something on other than those dreadful sweatpants you’ve been wearing.”
“I guess.” She stood there awkwardly, not sure what to do next.
Sera seemed to enjoy her discomfort. “Well, don’t just stand there. Go and get yourself something to eat. Josselyn and I are going shopping.”
“Uh, yeah. I thought I’d go with you guys … if that’s okay.”
Sera put down the paper. She scrutinized Elle with a critical eye. “Of course you can go with us … if you’re sure you’re up to it.”
“Yeah, I feel fine.”
She cocked her head. “You don’t look fine.”
Elle’s throat went dry and she swallowed. “I feel fine.”
“Did you finish all of your chores yesterday?”
Elle nodded and then started ticking off the list of things she’d done. “I took out the garbage, unloaded the dishwasher, and dusted the bookshelves. Plus, I dusted the living room,” she added.
“It’s nice to see you earning your keep around here. Did you clean the bathrooms and mop?”
Elle stopped short. “Um, I thought that was Josselyn’s job.”
Sera stood and smiled, but her eyes remained cold. “Elle, you know I assigned those chores to you.”
Her heart bumped up a notch and she thought back to the day before. While she may’ve lost her memory of the past, she had no problem recalling the events of the last several days since she’d come home from the hospital. She had no problem recalling the cool and indifferent treatment she’d received from this frigid woman that was her stepmother. She had no problem recalling the way that Sera’s forehead wrinkled when she disagreed or the look of disapproval in her black, fathomless eyes. “I distinctly remember you assigning those chores to Josselyn.”
Sera cocked her head, and her expression was a mixture of surprise and annoyance. “Are you questioning me?”
“I’m just saying that you assigned those chores to Josselyn, not me. I did everything that you asked me to.” Elle’s stomach lurched. The last thing she wanted to do was to get into an argument with her stepmother. The woman was impossible! Everything about her was hard and impenetrable, making her wonder what her father had possibly seen in her. She was all hard angles, and there was nothing soft or attractive about her. To make matters worse, she was not only Elle’s stepmother, but also her aunt—her late mother’s older sister. When Elle’s mother got sick, Sera came to take care of her, bringing along a young Josselyn. When Elle’s mother passed away, her father had married Sera. Elle suspected that her father had married Sera on the rebound because that was the only scenario that made sense.
On the night she returned home from the hospital, Sera and her father had sat side-by-side, explaining the family dynamics to her. She’d asked them to see a photo album, hoping that some scrap of memory would surface, but they’d given her some lame excuse about how the photos had been damaged a few years earlier when the basement flooded due to a busted pipe. In the end, the only photos they’d been able to produce were taken a few months before the accident. Even if she’d been able to look at photos, she doubted that she would recognize anything. Everyone around her was a stranger. Heck, she was a stranger to herself, but there was one thing she knew. Even though Sera went through the motions of pretending to care about Elle’s well-being, she obviously didn’t. If only her father were here, he would understand. “When’s my dad getting back?”
“Yes, if your father were here, he’d most assuredly take your side as he always does. Unfortunately, his flight got delayed, and he won’t be getting back from New York until late tonight.”
Elle’s stomach clutched. All week long, she’d been living for the moment when her father would return. She didn’t realize it until this moment, but she’d been counting on him being there to watch her walk across the field.
“Don’t stand there sulking like a lost puppy. It’s a pity he’ll miss homecoming, but Josselyn and I will be there.” She flashed a cool smile. “After all, we’re your family too.” Her voice ran like syrup, but unlike syrup, there was nothing sweet about it—it was all bitter.
Elle hated the smug look on her face. She was obviously thrilled that her dad wouldn’t be there to see her tonight. She swallowed back the disappointment and met Sera’s eyes full on. “While I may not be able to remember everything, I do know that my father loves me. That much I do remember.”
Sera let out a nervous chuckle before reaching up to push a loose strand of hair back into her severe bun. “Well, of course he does, dear. What a silly thing to say. Now getting back to your chores.”
“Josselyn’s chores. I did my chores.”
“Don’t you get uppity with me, young lady.”
Elle blew out a breath. Had things always been this difficult with Sera? “I’m not trying to argue with you, Sera. Why don’t you ask Josselyn? We were both standing right here when you gave us the assignments yesterday.”
“Very well, if you insist.” She craned her neck and yelled, “Joss, get in here.”
A moment later, Josselyn stepped into the room. “Yes, Mother. What is it?”
“Elle keeps insisting that I gave you the assignment to clean the bathrooms yesterday.”
Josselyn’s eyes went wide. “What?”
“You were standing right beside me when she gave you the assignment.” Elle’s face was growing hotter by the minute.
Josselyn was a picture of innocence. “No, she assigned the bathrooms to you. She told me to unload the dishwasher, take out the garbage, and dust the bookshelves. And that’s exactly what I did.”
“What!” She wanted to rip Josselyn’s head off. “How could you stand there and tell a boldfaced lie! You didn’t do all of those things. I did!”
“Elle, why are you saying all of these mean things? You weren’t feeling well, so you lay around all day yesterday.”
“I did my chores first, and you know it!” She glared at Josselyn, daring her to disagree.
Tears sprang to Josselyn’s eyes. “Look how she treats me, Mother. She’s always so mean.”
Elle saw red. “I’m being mean? You’re the one that’s standing here lying!”
“Enough!” Sera boomed. “That will be enough from you, young lady!” She pointed at Elle. “I’m going to tell you what you’re going to do. You’re going to clean all three bathrooms and mop. And you’re going to do a thorough job! Furthermore, you are to pull all of the dead flowers from the beds in the front yard. If it’s not done by the time we get back from shopping, then you won’t go to the game tonight—homecoming attendant or not! Do you understand?”
She was trapped. Trapped in her own house by this horrible woman and her lying daughter. No wonder she’d lost her memory. She’d probably chosen to block it all out because it was too terrible to contemplate.
“Answer me when I’m talking to you!” Sera demanded.
Elle looked at Josselyn who wouldn’t meet her glare. “You win. I’ll do your stupid chores.”
“Mother!” Josselyn wailed. “She’s taunting me.”
Sera placed a hand on Josselyn’s arm. “Never mind her, dear. It’s just noise.” Her eyes met Elle’s. “Insignificant and useless noise.”
“Stupid flowers! Stupid yard!” Elle plunged the spade into the earth, attacking the dead flowers and yanking them out. It felt good to vent her frustration, even if it was only at the beds. The more she thought about Sera and Josselyn, the madder she got. How could her father possibly be happy with that insufferable woman? Being around Sera made her wonder what her own mother had been like. Not like that horrible woman … she hoped. After she’d cleaned the bathrooms and mopped, she called her father, but he didn’t answer, so, she left him a voice message, asking him what time his flight was getting in. Being left alone with the likes of Sera and Josselyn was a miserable experience. Josselyn kept talking about how horrible Elle had been, but seeing as how she’d just told a bold-faced lie, it was evident that she couldn’t be believed or trusted. Then another thought entered her head. A terrible thought that caused her heart to pound. A wave of dizziness enveloped her. Was it possible she was remembering things incorrectly? She swallowed hard, ignoring the way her palms had become sweaty against the spade. Mentally, she ran through the events of the past two days. She distinctly remembered doing those chores. She clutched the spade and thrust it viciously into the dirt. Again and again she attacked the dirt. I’m not crazy! I’m not crazy! She repeated the words over and over again in her mind, willing herself to go through the sequence of events from the past couple of days until her head ached.
She was finishing up the second flowerbed when she felt the sensation of being watched. She turned toward the house next door and saw a guy standing on the front porch, leaning against the column. Her eyes met his, and she could tell from his expression that she was supposed to know him. The fact that he was very handsome didn’t help matters. He was tall and lean with black wavy hair and eyes so intense that she could feel the heat of them from across the yard. Her heart began to pound. She couldn’t face trying to make polite conversation with him—not when her head felt like it was about to explode. She looked away, but she could still feel him standing there, staring at her. What? she wanted to scream. She looked at him again through narrowed eyes. This time, there was a trace of amusement on his face. She glared at him and was startled to see him chuckle. An unreasonable anger surged through her. She threw down the spade and stood, her feet squared. “What do you want?”
He raised an eyebrow. “Do you really have to ask … Elle?”
The way he spoke her name was almost a caress. The distance between them seemed to shrink, and she became aware of the way his shirt fell along his muscular chest, the strong curve of his jaw, the way his blue eyes sparked when he gave her the slightest hint of a smile. Confusion clouded over her. These feelings. Where were they coming from? She lifted her chin. “I don’t remember you,” she said with more certainty than she felt.
“Well, that’s mighty convenient.”
“What’re you talking about?”
He flashed a smile that disappeared as quickly as it had come. “I’m talking about this supposed memory loss thing, I’m just not buying it, that’s all.”
She clenched her fists to her side. “How dare you insinuate that I would pretend to lose …” She shook her head. “Forget it!” She started running up the front steps to her house.
“You know me, Elle,” he yelled after her. “You know me!” she heard him say again as she went inside, slamming the door behind her. For good measure, she turned and locked it.
She ran her hands through her hair and leaned against the door. He was right. She did know him. Her heated reaction to him had come from some deep basic part of her—some primal part that she could never let out. She shuddered. Where were these thoughts coming from? She shook her head. Some primal part that she could never let out? She really was losing it. He was some random guy—a neighbor that enjoyed getting under her skin. That was all. Even as she thought the words, she somehow knew that he was more. An image of him, leaning against the column flashed through her mind. That knowing look in his eyes. That cocky attitude. She shut her eyes, willing the image to disappear. She may’ve lost her memory, but there was something about him that scared her—scared her to the core. And somehow, in a way she couldn’t understand, she knew that she must stay away from him. She went to her room and threw herself down on the bed. A nap was what she needed—a nice long nap. Everything would look better when she woke up. She closed her eyes and drifted off. It was in that moment, right before sleep overtook her, that she remembered his name—Rushton. His name was Rushton.