Cruelty & Fire Sample Chapters


three years earlier


I still wanted to burn the bastard. But eight feet deep into the ground, I ran through the motions: bury the man like he wanted, give him the respect he deserved. Like I had been taught. But as I stabbed my shovel into the dirt, the urge to ruin perfection simmered inside of me. To break and destroy all of the fake virtue rising above us. 

I grunted, leaning my weight on the metal to go deeper. The healing cuts on my palm ached and the plot was more than big enough, but I kept digging anyway. I don’t want to become a painting on your wall, my older brother had said. I don’t want to watch you live your life while I’m stuck on a canvas. He shoved my shoulder. Don’t you dare burn me, asshole.

You wouldn’t feel it, I said.

His lips pinched together. That’s not the point.

An unsettling sensation crawled in my gut. I couldn’t stop myself from digging. Wouldn’t let myself.

“Cops are here again,” a voice said. 

My employee’s shadow hovered in my peripherals, watching from above. The employee was new; she had been at the funeral home for a few months now, but sooner or later, she would move on too. I kept digging; the dirt caking my face. At this depth, you had to toss it high over your shoulder, and if you weren’t careful, some of it rained back down on you. I threw another scoop up to the ground and she darted out of the way. 

“What was that for?” she asked as if I was trying to aim for her. I didn’t care that much. 

The rectangular hole of blue sky had finally begun to darken. The sides of her head were shaved, the short gray dyed hairs glowing like peach fuzz in the dim light. 

“I could get the excavator,” she said.

I sucked down a scowl. It was true that we had machinery that could do this, but I preferred to do it by hand. I liked keeping myself occupied.

“The sheriff?” I finally asked.

“Nah. The other one. White hair. I always forget his name.”

I touched up the grave with the back of my shovel, smoothing the edges. I should have hired a contractor to dig his grave. Should have needed to take time off. But I was removed from it. Guns. Overdose. Disease. It was all the same. I’d rather go with a knife, the blood leaking out of me. Or better yet, a fire so that I burned with every possible agony in those last seconds. But in the end, it didn’t matter how you went. Life continued on. I felt nothing, only an emptiness that I filled with work. 

“I’ll stay here,” she said. “You need the time off. Go. Mourn. Take care of that officer. I’ll finish up here.”

“You’ll stay until sunrise?” I asked. She nodded. Not being around on Halloween—a night where the teenagers in Punica loved to vandalize the cemetery—was a reprieve I wasn’t going to pass up. She could learn the hard way about Halloween. I climbed up the ladder. 

“You want tomorrow off?” I asked.

“That’s a given.”

I muttered my thanks, then went inside the funeral home. A young officer in full blues waited in the lobby, his thumbs in his belt loops.

“Evening, Erickson,” he said. My scalp prickled; we weren’t on familiar terms, but he and his sheriff had been around a lot lately. He tipped the imaginary hat above his white hair. “The toxicology report came back. Heroin.”

“Doesn’t surprise me,” I said. 

“Didn’t you have an incident a few years ago?”

I had been out at a bar when a fight broke out over some drugs. The charges were dropped, but that didn’t mean that there weren’t arrest records out there. The officer must have been digging around to find that. 

“Almost a decade has passed,” I shrugged. “But yeah. There was an incident.”

The officer tilted his head. “Coincidental,” he said.

“Lots of people do drugs.” My jaw stiffened. “But you know that, don’t you? And we both know my brother did.”

He wrinkled his brow. “What are you saying?”

“What else is there to report?” My tone was biting; I had endured enough of law enforcement in the last week to cover a lifetime. “You could be serving the citizens who need you. Instead, you’re wasting your time investigating someone who OD’ed.”

“A bullet. Cuts. Drugs,” he sighed. “Why so many options?”

“He must have been very determined.”

“What are you hiding, Erickson?” the officer asked, glaring at me. “You seem awfully reluctant to scrutinize your brother’s death. Apathetic, even.”

“Trust me, officer. We all mourn in different ways,” I said. I tipped my imaginary hat, mocking him. “Catie will be back in a few minutes. She can take care of anything else you might need.”

Without another word, I headed up the winding path between the grave markers to the trees that lined the edges of the property, separating my house from the funeral home. I unlocked the door to my house, then fixed dinner for the only housemates I had left. When it was ready, three rottweilers came trotting into the kitchen. I kneeled down to pet them. They sniffed at me, noticing the dirt on my clothes, and huffed away. I could have changed, but I wasn’t trying to impress anyone.

Restless, I drove to the downtown area, where children with holey sheets, witch hats, and superhero jumpsuits ran down the sidewalk, shouting trick-or-treat! to each shop owner. I parked down one of the side streets, then walked past the jack-o’lanterns and stringy cobwebs decorating the storefronts. I crossed the street, to the scenic viewpoint; it was one of my favorite haunts. I leaned my back on the railing, observing. Directly across from the viewpoint, was Poppies & Wheat, the town’s only flower shop, with its typical wreath decorated with orange and red flowers, and a single giant pumpkin carved into a rose outside.

Three figures strode down the sidewalk. The sheriff wrapped his arm around his wife’s back, an older woman with her brown hair twisted into an elaborate updo. She owned the flower shop, and though my late brother used to do most of the business negotiations, I still spoke with her from time to time. But behind them was a young woman I had never seen before, the daughter everyone knew about, but few had seen. Wearing the same ankle-length black and orange dress as her mother, her hairstyle identical, she was her mother’s mini-me. But her leafy-green eyes gleamed in the light, full of longing that made her stand out, even as she hovered behind her parents. 

“There’s something I wanted to ask you two about,” the young woman said. 

The parents continued talking, and the daughter walked quicker, trying to catch up to them. The door to Poppies & Wheat jingled, opening and closing for them. In the light of the window, the assistant manager moved to the side, letting the family take over. The daughter gave a small, timid speech, while the mother’s face contorted until she stormed out of the room. The sheriff’s eyes widened with each word he spoke. The daughter’s wrists shook as she tucked hair behind her ear. Her stare fevered, her eyes full of tears. 

Part of me wanted to mock her; oh, how tragic, her paradise was ruined, all because mommy and daddy hadn’t given her everything she wanted. But a thought stopped me: the people she lived for, turned away from her. I knew what it was like to look at your family and know that they didn’t give a shit about you.

I stared down at the mouth of the stream pooling beneath the viewpoint, the water glimmering under the full moon. Part of me wished that I could destroy their perfect family: a florist mother; the sheriff father; the sheltered, likely virginal, daughter. My brother and I had seen our parents die before we were teenagers. And when our uncle took us in, mentoring us to take over his business, it became all the more clear that we were the anti-family. Two orphans, being raised by a mortician. 

For a perfect family like theirs, it would be easy to pick them apart. To steal the heart that kept them together. To watch them crumble like ashes. Passion burned inside of me when perfection was destroyed like that.

A stream of trick-or-treaters trailed behind me, one whispering, “Is he a dirt monster?” My brother would have been amused by that. I had forgotten I was covered in dirt. 

I turned to head back to my car when the jingle of the flower shop’s door carried over the street. Footsteps dashed across the asphalt, then two hands slammed into the railing. The young woman—the daughter—panted frantically, like she didn’t know what to do with the emotions boiling up inside of her. 

I shouldn’t have given her a second thought. She wasn’t anything to me. But I didn’t care about what she wanted or needed, only that those tears on her face were delicious, wrought full of pain. I couldn’t stop myself from staring. Those full quivering lips. A thin, breakable neck. Thick, bushy eyebrows, so young and full of promise. Cheekbones blushing deeper the longer she endured my gaze. 

She turned to me, wavering. 

“Is that your costume?” she asked, her voice hesitant. A grin flitted across my face. I was in my thirties, and yet, she thought I was dressing up for Halloween. How innocent.

“I was working,” I said.

“What do you do?”

“I dig graves.”

She wrapped her arms around herself. Heat pumped through my veins. I loved rubbing that in people’s faces; it was a useful tool to intimidate others. Her dense brows furrowed, then her forest eyes searching me intently, the tears finally stopping. She shifted her weight, uncomfortable with the silence. I should have asked her a question, but I wanted to see what she did under the pressure to speak. 

“I didn’t know they still dug graves by hand,” she finally said. 

“Most don’t.”

She let out a soft breath, then pulled out the ties and pins from her hair until it all fell down her back in long curls, past her hips, like strings of rope.

“Maybe I should just cut it all off,” she muttered.

“That will show them.” 

She glared at me, and I lifted my brows. Caring about hair so much was ridiculous. Maybe if my brother hadn’t died a few days earlier, I wouldn’t have been so callous. But right then, I really didn’t care.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Kora,” she said. “Kora Nova. My mother owns the flower shop. You might know my father—he’s the sheriff?”

Telling me everything when she knew so little about me? What a trusting girl. 

“What’s your name?” she asked. 

The door to the flower shop rattled open, interrupting our conversation. The sheriff exited, heading toward his squad car parked a few shops down. Kora faced the stream below us again. 

“Why were you crying?” I asked. I couldn’t help myself; I wanted to poke at her shallow pains.

“My parents,” she said. “They won’t let me go anywhere. This,” she smacked her hands into the railing, “This is the first time they’ve ever left me alone. Why did I think they would let me go to college? I’m just their precious little flower.” She turned to me, baring her teeth. “But you don’t help a flower grow by blocking out the sunlight.”

I grinned to myself. Poor little girl couldn’t go to college. But there was venom in her voice like she was holding back parts of herself, knowing they couldn’t escape. I wanted to mold that, to squeeze her until she erupted from the seams. 

“Your life isn’t over because you can’t go to college.” I chuckled to myself. “You’re, what, eighteen? Your life has barely begun.”

“It’s not just that.” A cry rattled through her chest, the tears rushing back. “Even though I want to go, I can’t leave. No matter what I do, I’m stuck here.”

“And you always will be,” I said. She stiffened, and I turned to the moon’s reflection on the water. “This world traps all of us.”

And it always would, until we were rotting in the ground.

Those tears shuddered to a halt. The trails on her cheek shined blue in the moonlight. I took another step forward, jasmine tickling my nose, past the dirt on my skin, as if she steeped her body in its scent. I grabbed her chin; she flinched, but her round eyes widened, taking me in. Her lips parted. I must have been the first man to ever touch her like this.

“One day, you’ll wake up and you’ll realize that none of this matters. Your dreams. Your failures. These tears.” I wiped the wet trails from her cheeks and her green eyes traced mine. “None of this will matter to you. I promise.” 

Because one day, we’d all be dead too. 

She blinked rapidly. “Who are you?” she stammered.

I bent down, kissing her forehead, the dirt on my cheeks smearing her skin. “I’m no one,” I said. Then I turned, heading across the street. A twitch of adrenaline surged through me, my steps lighter than before. I imagined breaking her apart, watching her cry until her eyes shriveled, until she was nothing but an empty husk of herself. 

This was what I needed: to ruin Kora Nova and her family.

I headed back to the funeral home, letting the weight ease off of my shoulders. I knew what I had to do. Without acknowledging my employee, I moved my brother’s body to the crematory retort and immediately started the process. He had spoken his desires when he was alive, but now, he was dead. There was no one to check on his final wishes, except for me.

And what did I care what he thought? 

As the cremation proceeded, my mind buzzed with thoughts of her. Kora’s laughter transforming into tears. Kora gasping for her last breath. Kora with her face down in the dirt. Kora on her back, her blank eyes staring up at me. Once the machinery beeped, signaling the process was complete, I went to the far end of the cemetery, finding a new plot that I would dig specifically for her. She was fascinating: she was stuck in her parents’ shadow because it meant pleasing them, even though she knew she would never be happy.

She shouldn’t have cared so much. No one was worth that kind of trouble. Not even family. 

Ruining Kora’s innocence, then making her forsaken body into a painting drove me forward. I imagined creating a memorial painting in her cremains, delivering it by hand to her reluctant father. Then I pictured painting a bouquet, then giving it to her mother, watching her throw away my hideous art, not knowing exactly who it was. And as I made it past the first two feet of dirt for her grave, the energy I had longed for was back. I needed to paint now.

All because amusement had found its way into my life in the form of a precious little flower.

I quickly ran my brother’s ashes through the pulverizer. And once I mixed his ashes with paint, I dashed my brush across a blank canvas, staring at the work. In a few moments, the clear form of her swan’s neck, her pouting lips, her blushing cheekbones, her furiously childish eyebrows, all came to life. But something was off.

I dug through my drawers until I found blue pigment, then added it to a new bowl. I dragged the brush along her cheeks, fixing the canvas with tears and moonlight. 

Living or dead, Kora would fuel my art.




“Nyla, dear?” my mother, Shea, asked, her voice calmer than usual. I glanced at Nyla, knowing what was coming. She bit her lip.

“Yes, Miss Shea?”

“Did you read the date on the printout, or did you forget to check that part?”

Nyla’s nostrils flared, and she subtly shook the yellow hair out of her face. A gold ring with a giant onyx stone flashed on her finger as she tightened her fists at her side. Almost as if she wanted to use that ring to punch my mother. 

“These are yesterday’s orders,” Shea continued. “Did you read the computer?”

Nyla’s eyelids fluttered, holding in her frustration. “I must have missed it.”

“Try a little harder next time, then. I already made a boutonniere when I realized that the school dance was yesterday,” Shea said. Which, of course, meant that my mother hadn’t been reading the orders either, but it was easier for her to blame everyone else, to give her a false sense of control, than it was to admit that she was wrong too. She peered at me. “That arrangement looks lovely, sweetheart,” she said. “You’ve really developed an eye for it.”

“Thanks,” I said quietly. My head hurt; a braid went across the top of my head like a headband, the rest tucked into a fat messy bun at the nape of my neck. I liked having long hair, and my mother told me I would regret it if I cut it, but I always kept it in a bun anyway. I straightened the stem of the white rose. The baby’s breath stunk in the air, but if you skipped it, the customers always noticed. Especially the brides.

Once Shea was in the storeroom, I turned to Nyla. “You know she didn’t read it either,” I muttered.

“Uh-huh,” Nyla said. “But it’s probably my fault that she forgot her reading glasses again.”

“Yours, or mine.”

Nyla knocked into my shoulder. “Watch it.” She nodded at my hands. “You cut yourself again.”

My palm was bleeding, a knick from one of the tools. 

“Maybe it was the scissors,” I said. I grabbed a bandage from my dress pocket and slapped it on. The only thing good about a mother-boss that picked all of your clothes, was that when I said I needed pockets for work, she listened.

“Your dress is cute by the way,” Nyla said. 

The dress was mauve and flowy. I beamed. “Thanks!” Like my mother, Nyla cared about style, but I tended to like Nyla’s clothes better than my mother’s, and it wasn’t often that Nyla actually liked the stuff my mother picked out for us. We were usually wearing the same exact thing. Like mother, like daughter, Shea often said.

I opened the drawer underneath the counter and got a handmade card with a pressed daffodil on the front. 

“Happy Birthday,” I said.

Nyla grinned; daffodils were her favorite. 

“You shouldn’t have,” she said. “Thank you, Kora.” She tucked it out of the way so that my mother wouldn’t see it. My mother had a way of making things weird when it came to my friends. Nyla leaned over and whispered: “You know I got her a mocha, right?” 

A smile spread across my face. “What? Not a chai latte?” I reached over and shoved her arm. “How dare you get a mocha for the Queen of Poppies & Wheat!”

“Off with my head!” 

“She just might kill you,” I joked. Nyla’s eyes flicked back to the computer as she printed out the correct order list, her chin sinking lower. “Or, more likely,” I added, “fire you.”

“I’m not even sure if I want this job anymore.” She shrugged. “Maybe that’s what I should do: get her the wrong coffee drink so many times in a row that she fires me over a latte.”

“Don’t quit yet,” I pleaded. Two years ago, when Nyla had first been hired, I had begged my mother not to fire Nyla. My mother went through assistant managers like tissue paper; no one was ever good enough for the store, or to watch over me. But unlike the others, Nyla and I quickly became best friends. I knew my mother would never fire her after I asked her not to. It was easier to do the simple things that I wanted, than it was to try and appease my bigger dreams. “At least wait until you can open up your own place,” I said.

“Won’t that affect your mom’s business?”

It was true; there wasn’t enough room for two florists in Punica, but that didn’t matter. My family would find another way. 

“A little competition never hurt anyone,” I said. “You know she’s only hard on you because you remind her of herself.” Nyla looked up at me, a question in her eyes. “Seriously. She thinks you’ll be better than her one day.”

“What do you think?”

“I think you already are.” My mother was good, but her style was traditional, where Nyla’s was adventurous. “Don’t quit yet though, okay? I’ll cover for you.” I nodded towards the storeroom. “I’ll tell her that I ordered the coffees today.”

“Got it.”

Shea floated into the room like a sunny sky. She seemed even-tempered for once. Now was my chance to talk to her about my latest plan.

Shea headed to the display cooler, and I followed behind her. 

“You remember I said there was something I wanted to ask you about?” I said.

“Not now, sweetheart,” she said, thumbing through the boxes of daisies and roses. “I’m trying to see if we have any Middlemist Red camellias. Someone told Quiet Meadows that we’d have them in stock, and now, they have a special request.”

Everyone always had a special request when it came to flowers. Especially funeral customers.

“In a few minutes?” I asked.

Shea folded her arms and faced me. “What can I help you with, Kora?” It was her words for customers, as if she knew that whatever I wanted to ask her about, was going to irritate her. On any other day, I might have backed out, waited until a better time to approach her. But this was it; my only other friend besides Nyla was bringing in the final draft of the business proposal today, which meant I had to broach the subject now.

“You know the empty lot next door?” I said. Shea raised her brows, then shoved a lock of dyed brown hair behind her ears. “I was thinking maybe I could build a greenhouse.”

She blinked, then leaned in, lowering her voice: “Did you say build a greenhouse?”

“I could be right next to you, and I’d still be able to learn about growing, rather than—” I shrugged, “—arranging flowers.”

“What’s wrong with arranging?”

“Nothing,” I said, my voice squeaking into a higher pitch. I always had to be delicate with my mother. “I just like growing things. And the independence of owning my own greenhouse could be a great learning experience for me. And I would be nearby, so we could always—”

“Sweetheart,” Shea said, letting out a long, exasperated sigh. “How on earth do you think you’ll be able to manage Poppies & Wheat when I’m gone, and a greenhouse? It’s hard enough as it is running this shop with just you and Nyla. And if I’m gone and you’re managing the flower shop and the greenhouse, just imagine how stressed you’ll be.” She put a hand on my shoulder, her grip heavy. “It isn’t good for your health. Now, I appreciate that you’re trying to make it work for both of us, but you have your garden at home. Don’t mistake a hobby for a career.”

I held my breath, fire burning inside of me. “I—” 

The store’s phone rang. The three of us startled. 

“I’m sure it’s Quiet Meadows again,” Shea said, clicking the phone’s answer button. “Poppies & Wheat,” she said, then she waited. “I told you to tell Vincent that I would look. But Middlemist Red is sought after for that very reason. It’s extremely rare. Yes, I know that there’s a rumor that it grows on Mount Punica. But I can assure you—” 

Shea disappeared into the back rooms. I finally exhaled. Vincent. That name sounded familiar. He worked at the funeral home, didn’t he?

“At least you tried,” Nyla said.  

I forced a smile. “Try and try again,” I muttered. There was no use in fretting over what my mother had said. I would have to find another way to take care of her, and still do what I wanted.

The door chimed. I turned to go to the storeroom, but when Shea whipped around and saw that it was Andrew, one of the county cops, she smiled and motioned me forward. Shea had watched Andrew when he was a baby, before I was born. And though he was five or so years older than me, my mother and father had always dreamed of us getting married. His crisp uniform was fitted to his muscular body and the color brought out his blue eyes. Hair so white, it shined around his head like a halo. And while Nyla practically drooled over him, he was just Andrew to me. Shea lifted the phone, showing Andrew that she would be available in a few minutes, then returned to the storeroom again. 

“How are you, Miss Nyla?” Andrew asked.

“Just fine, here, Officer Andrew,” she winked. He tipped his imaginary hat, thumbing his belt loops, showing off his stature. His eyes landed on me. “I see you’re looking well today, Miss Kora.”

He laid the charm on thick, no matter who it was. But Nyla always said he had eyes for me, and yet that was easy when he was one of the only men my mother would let me talk to—the only other man, besides my father, that she trusted. Andrew lifted a manilla folder, holding up the business plan. Over the last few months, he had worked with the banks and some of his lawyer friends to get me a solid plan to open up my own place. Andrew was good with his connections, and it helped that he worked at the police department. 

“I asked her about the lot next door,” I said. 

“How’d it go?” I sucked in a labored breath, and Andrew let out a whistle. “That good, huh?” I nodded. Shea returned to the main room, and Andrew turned to me. I’ll talk to her, he mouthed. Relief swelled through me.

“I told Quiet Meadows that if Mr. Erickson wants a Middlemist Red, he’ll either have to go to Wild Berry Trailhead to look for it himself, or he’ll have to, heaven forbid, come down here to Poppies & Wheat so we can discuss his options.” Shea turned to Andrew, a smile springing to her face. “And how are you today, Officer?”

“Fine as ever, Miss Shea.”

She smirked. “You make me feel young again.”

“And my, what a fine lady you are.” He took her hand and kissed it. She fanned herself, a blush creeping across her cheeks. Nyla’s chin dropped. Andrew put an on Shea’s shoulder. “Now, Miss Shea, I heard about something here. You know the lot next door?” He led her into the storeroom.

Once they were gone, I smirked at Nyla. “Pick up your jaw,” I said. Nyla stripped another rose stem. 

“I don’t understand how you don’t see it,” Nyla said. “He’s like a popsicle on a hot summer day.”

I rolled my eyes. “Like he melted all over the place.” 

“He makes me all sticky.”


As Shea and Andrew returned to the main room, Nyla jumped up. “Miss Shea,” Nyla said, in a sweet tone, “It’s my twenty-third birthday. Will you please come out to 52 Peaks tonight?” 

“You mean, will Kora please come out to 52 Peaks tonight?” Shea corrected, raising her eyebrows. 

“I couldn’t imagine celebrating it without my best friend,” Nyla said.

We both knew that the only way I would be able to go anywhere, was if Shea was with us, which luckily, usually had its perks, like a private suite or VIP service. Shea knew most of the people in the county; it was part of being on so many committees and being the sheriff’s wife. 

“What about the Echo deaths?” Shea said, turning to Andrew. 

“There has been a surge,” he said. I sighed. Thanks for the help, Mr. Popsicle.

“What even is an Echo death, anyway?” Nyla asked.

“It’s a synthetic drug, masquerading as the new equivalent to MDMA,” Andrew explained. “Doesn’t hit people until they’re driving home. Then they’re dead.” He shook his head, his chin heavy. He turned to me. “It’s a good thing your daddy is on the case.”

“Wait. Why would it only give them symptoms when they’re driving?” Nyla asked. “That doesn’t make sense.”

“Maybe it has something to do with the lights on the road, inducing a seizure or another reaction.” Andrew shrugged. “All I know is that I don’t like it. Too many funerals for twenty-somethings lately.”

We were all quiet for a moment. The funeral orders had been good for my mother’s business, but it was never fun to put together white lilies, carnations, and roses. Even if they were beautiful, you could never forget what they were for. Especially with the parents. No one wanted to survive their children.

“That settles it, then. We’re busy tonight,” Shea said firmly. “But we can have a cake here tomorrow.”

“Miss Shea,” Nyla started, her eyes round like two giant sunflowers, “I never do drugs. And I would never let Kora do drugs. I would never even let her out of my sight!”

“And I volunteer to escort them,” Andrew said. 

“Yeah! We could take Andrew with us,” Nyla said. “And with Andrew there, no man would even try to talk to us, and he would make sure—” 

“The answer is no,” Shea said, her eyes cold. “Now, come here, Andrew. I want to show you something…” 

The two of them disappeared once again, and I stared off into space. I might have been home-schooled and barely let out of my parents’ sight for the last twenty-one years, but still, I could survive one night at a club. But in a small town like ours, people talked, and my mother hated when she was in the middle of unfavorable gossip. It was our responsibility to be the perfect image for my father’s career; we owed it to him. And when we failed, she spent days in bed. Letting me go out would risk all of that.

“What’s that face for?” Nyla asked. “No frowns allowed on my birthday.”

“I just feel like I’m always missing everything.” My shoulders sank. “Like I’m stuck in quicksand.” 

“Don’t worry,” Nyla said, rubbing my shoulder. “Once I open up my own shop, you can come work for me. Or if your business plan with Andrew falls through, maybe we can own the shop together. See if he can work something out for us.”

My heart fluttered. “That sounds amazing,” I said. “We can call it Best Buds, you know. Like two flower buds.”

“What about Buds & Buds?”

I squeezed her arm. “I love it.”

“Don’t worry, Kora.” Nyla beamed at me. “We’ll get you out of here one day.”

She was right. I shook away the fear, the shame, the anger, burying it deep down. There wasn’t any point to those feelings; all they did was remind me of what I didn’t have, and that’s not how you lived: you had to appreciate the beauty in each moment, even if that moment was dreaming about a future that might never come.

“Nyla, for heaven’s sake!” Shea yelled from the storeroom. “You know I’m sensitive to mocha syrup. I always get a chai latte. How could you forget?”

Nyla and I exchanged a look. “I put in the order today,” I shouted. “Nyla just picked it up.”

“Well,” Shea emerged, her eyes bloodshot. “You, of all people, should know better.” She rolled her eyes. “Let’s go to Nectar Latte.” She threw her purse over her shoulder. “Maybe we can get you a birthday drink.” 

“And the shop?” I asked. My heart raced; Shea rarely let me leave the shop or our house. Going to Nectar Latte was like sneaking out to go to a house party...


Stay tuned for the rest of the book!

Cruelty & Fire, part one of The Art of Ruin Duet, goes live on Amazon in early June!