Excerpt Alert: THE COLDEST TOUCH by Isabel Sterling
Isabel Sterling wrote the queer vampire paranormal romance book of your DREAMS and we’re here to share an excerpt!
Elise Beaumont is cursed. With every touch, she experiences exactly how her loved ones will die. And after her brother’s death—a death she predicted but was unable to prevent—Elise is desperate to get rid of her terrible gift, no matter the cost.
Claire Montgomery also has a unique relationship with death, mostly because she’s already dead. Technically, anyway. Claire is a vampire, and she’s been assigned by the Veil to help Elise master her rare Death Oracle powers.
At first, Elise is reluctant to work with a vampire, but when she predicts a teacher’s imminent murder, she’s determined to stop the violent death, even if it means sacrificing her own future to secure Claire’s help.
The trouble is, Claire and Elise aren’t the only paranormals in town—a killer is stalking the streets, and Claire can’t seem to shake the pull she feels toward Elise, a romance that could upend the Veil’s mission. But as Elise and Claire grow closer, Elise begins to wonder—can she really trust someone tasked with securing her loyalty? Someone who could so easily kill her?
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A girl made of stone and masks and broken glass sits alone at her desk. In her new apartment. In a town far from home. The girl is used to being alone. Used to wanting things she cannot have. A family. Friends who care about her more than the favors they request.
But she doesn’t have those things, doesn’t remember if she ever did. She’s been lonely longer than she’s been seventeen.
And she’s been seventeen for so many years she’s lost count.
The girl ignores her silent heart and focuses on the task at hand. On her laptop, she opens a secure link and flips through the file of a girl who has everything. Photo Girl stands among her family with a bright smile and laughter in her eyes. She’s victorious atop a podium with wet hair and a gold medal around her neck. She kisses a boy on the cheek while his arms wrap tight around her. Comments under the post declare them #RelationshipGoals. She’s with him again, glittering crowns on their heads and a flower pinned to his suit. Photo Girl’s life is everything the lonely girl wants for herself.
But then the family photos and smiling selfies cease, and a series of newspaper clippings follows.
Sudden Storm Sends Local Man Over Bridge
Car Pulled from River, Body Still Missing
Memorial Service for Nicholas Beaumont, 21
The next images make her recoil, but she carefully commits each one to memory. A grieving family greets mourners beside a closed casket. A twisted, broken guardrail and muddy tire tracks. Photo Girl on her knees beside the river, hair stuck to her face as she screams.
The smiling portrait of a young man no longer among the living.
She didn’t know about the dead brother, not until she’d already accepted the case. The death doesn’t change her mission. Even so, seeing the stories in black and white makes something uncomfortable shift and knot inside her.
But there isn’t time to care about the people in these photographs. She has a job to do.
So, she tries on an array of personalities. Becomes a dozen funhouse versions of herself until she forgets who she is inside. She’ll wield her charm as a weapon and her smile as her shield.
And when she meets Photo Girl, when she sets eyes on this creature with hair the color of sunlight and eyes like the ocean, she will be ready.
I don’t belong here.
Though I’ve visited three times in as many days, I still feel like an intruder as I maneuver through the tiny shop’s narrow aisles. Heart & Stone Metaphysical is located in downtown Elmsbrook, where stores shorten their hours and sit mostly vacant while the local university is closed for the summer. I wish I’d known about this place then. Now, in the early days of September, the shop is full. The new college students are only two years older than me, but it feels like a lifetime.
Their gazes linger as I pass shelves of carefully wrapped lies and impossible promises, like they know I’m trespassing in their world of magic and make-believe. The two white men who work here seem nice enough. Over the course of a few visits, I’ve overheard enough conversations—and asked enough questions—to know they believe in the hope they’re peddling.
So far, I’ve avoided knowing their deaths.
In the center of the long, rectangular store, one of the men offers advice to a young woman looking for the best stones to banish unwanted attention at work. He rattles off a list of black rocks:tourmaline, onyx, and smoky quartz. He seems at home in this world of magic and make-believe. He chose this life.
I was cursed into it.
At least, that’s the only logical conclusion after a summer of medical tests and therapy appointments didn’t solve anything. When I turned sixteen last April, I lost everything—my brother, my spot on the swim team, and eventually, my friends. My heart clenches as the memories try to surface, but I force them under. I won’t fall apart in public, not again.
Tugging the sleeves of my sweater down far enough to cover my palms, I check the list of supplies on my phone. As much as my rational mind wants to deny everything this shop stands for, science failed to uncover the source of my problem. I have no choice but to test the magical, the paranormal, the strange.
With the help of the internet, and a couple awkward conversations with the men who work here, I’ve cobbled together the best of what the metaphysical world has to offer. Bay, fennel, and nettles to break hexes. Selenite to cleanse my so-calledenergy field. Plus five different kinds of salt, and enough candles to burn down the house if I’m not careful. All of that, yet each time I review and refine my plan, there’s something else I need. Buying supplies for the ritual has already used up most of my savings, but I’m afraid to leave anything out. If I’m going to do this, I’m doing it right.
As if there’s a right way to dabble in make-believe.
Careful not to get too close to the woman scanning the bookshelves, I approach the back counter. Beneath the glass sits anassortment of handmade jewelry, but I’m not interested in a necklace or a hunk of sparkly rock. Instead, I focus on the display of pendulums swinging from a wooden stand.
Except . . . the list on my phone doesn’t specify what kind of pendulum to get. Would it make a difference if I used an amethyst pendulum instead of one carved from wood? I bite back a sigh. Why can’t one part of this process be simple? My frustration almost sends me sulking out of the shop, but I have to try. I already tried faking migraines, but the X-rays and MRIs I had this summer found nothing.
They couldn’t explain why I see death everywhere I go.
“Trouble making decisions?”
I flinch away from the soft voice and turn to find a white girl standing close beside me.Too close. She’s wearing jeans and a plaid shirt rolled up to her elbows, the pale skin of her forearms flawless beside the green fabric. I pocket my phone and tug my sleeves all the way to the base of my fingers.
“What?” I finally ask, heart beating too fast as I put more space between us. I didn’t hear her, didn’t notice her get so close. She could have touched me. She could have—
The girl points to the display of pendulums, cutting off my panicked thoughts. “These are great for making decisions.” She smiles, but the quick sweep of her gaze contradicts that warmth. It feels calculated, like she’s examining me.
I return her stare, cataloguing the soft cascade of brown hair that falls past her shoulders and the deep black sunglasses perched on top of her head. She seems about my age, but I’ve never seen her around town before.
“They can also help find what you’ve lost,” she offers, still smiling. Still standing too close.
“I know.” The words come out stiff and harsh, and my cheeks flush with heat. “They supposedly do a lot of things.”
I pluck one of the clear quartz pendulums from the rack. Based on my few weeks of intense research, colorless stones are supposed to work for most rituals, sort of like a universal blood donor. Except . . . for magic. The quartz should work well enough to open chakras, and—more importantly—close them.
“Supposedly,” the brunette echoes, and follows me away from the display case. I can’t read her tone, can’t tell if she’s agreeing with me or mocking me.
At the wall of bulk herbs, where dried plants are stored in large glass jars, I pause. The girl stops, too, lingering beside me. With the pendulum clutched tight in one hand, I try to focus on something other than my new shadow. Soft instrumental music filters through the store, and there’s enough incense in this place that it’s nearly a breathing hazard. But I can still sense her standing beside me.Just get the supplies and get out.
I scan the labels and grab the jar of dried witch hazel.
“Interesting choice,” the girl says, leaning over my shoulder and making me flinch. She must notice my discomfort, though, because she steps away. “Are you looking for protection or divining for true love?” A conspiratorial grin tugs at her blood-red lips.
Something about the easy way she smiles picks at my defenses. In another life, one where this curse hadn’t destroyed everything, I might have returned her grin. Now I just want her to leave me alone. “How is that any of your business?”
She glances at the floor like she’s embarrassed. “Sorry. I don’t mean to be nosy.” When she looks up again, her expression is softer and less teasing. “I’m Claire,” she says, and holds out a hand.
“Elise.” I ignore her outstretched palm and adjust my grip on the supplies. She doesn’t leave, and I don’t know what she wants from me. I don’t have time for whatever this is. The new moon is tomorrow, and it’s my chance to fix everything. The friendships I smashed to pieces this summer. The distance I have to keep from my family. The terrible curse ruining my life.
“Nice to meet you.” Claire drops her hand, and the smile finally slips away, uncertainty taking its place.
Guilt tugs at my heart, which makes no sense. I don’t know this girl. I don’t owe her anything.
“All set?” One of the shopkeepers suddenly appears beside me, hands reaching for the jar. “I can take that to the front for you.” His fingers slide against mine as he takes the pendulum and witch hazel.
Pain and fatigue crash into me, and I shut my eyes. In my mind, I see an older version of him, gray hair clinging in thin wisps to his head. It’s hard to breathe. Impossible. Each gasping inhale refuses to fill my lungs, and my brain gets fuzzy. Then everything is cold, and the hospital machines are screeching that he’s gone.
When he finishes collecting my things, his fingers slip away from mine. The moment the contact is gone, the vision fades. I gasp for air, lungs expanding again the way they should, but I can’t stop my hands from shaking. I didn’t want to see him die. I didn’t want to know, didn’t want to feel it.
“Another small bag for the herbs?” he calls on his way to the register, and it’s all I can do to nod. My voice is trapped in my throat, tears threatening behind my eyes.
I remind myself to breathe, forcing one deep inhale then another. It takes every bit of control not to cry, not to think about all the other deaths I’ve seen. The lives I’ve failed to save. My heart clenches tight, and I see my brother’s face.
Nick is gone, and it’s all my fault.
“Are you okay?” Claire reaches for me, face etched with concern.
“Don’t touch me.” I jolt away from her approaching fingers and knock into the shelves. Jars rattle dangerously, but none of themfall. “I have to go.” My tone is harsh, but I don’t apologize. I’ll never see this girl again, anyway.
I leave her standing beside the herbs and hurry to the counter to pay for my things. I slide over exact change, grab the small bag of supplies, and head for the door.
Before I can escape, there’s this tightening in my chest. A prickle of cold against the back of my neck. I glance over my shoulder and find Claire watching me. Studying me. A shudder trembles across my skin, and I push open the door, slipping into the warm afternoon.
I have a ritual to prepare.