<h2>prologue</h2> <p class="dl">Twenty years ago, somewhere in New Zealand</p> <p class="fl"><span class="dropcap">A</span> flute shrilled—one sharp note of warning.</p> <p>Willow looked up from the piece of wood she was carving. Mama’s flute. Their danger signal.</p> <p>Dropping her knife and the half-finished tiger, she ran down the dirt lane, back to the little house they’d been living in for the past few months.</p> <p>They’d lived there before—a long time ago. Mama said Willow couldn’t really remember, that she was too young back then. But she remembered. She remembered it because back then Mama used to cry a lot.</p> <p>Willow ran faster.</p> <p>Her mother came out to the porch just as Willow rounded the corner. Mama’s white-blond hair flew wildly around her head, and dirt streaked her clothes. Her eyes looked as wild as her hair.</p> <p>“Come, Willow.” Mama grabbed her arm and rushed her through the garden and around the back of the house. “To the <em>tarata.</em>”</p> <p>Willow loved that lemonwood tree. Mama once told her they were found only here in New Zealand, that they were special trees for the Maori, like her. Even though they were called trees, they were really just big bushes, and that always tickled her.</p> <p>Not today, though. Today all she felt was Mama’s fear.</p> <p>Mama was <em>never</em> scared. And that terrified Willow. “What’s wrong?”</p> <p>“The Bad Man is coming.”</p> <p>Willow gasped and stumbled on a rock. Mama said they had to move all the time because the Bad Man wanted them. She said he’d never stop until he found them, and when he did, he’d hurt them. Willow didn’t understand why. Mama had said she didn’t, either.</p> <p>“Quick, Willow.” Mama shook her arm. “You need to hide. He’s almost here.”</p> <p>“How do you know?” She hadn’t heard a car or anything.</p> <p>“I can feel it,” her mother said under her breath, like she was distracted.</p> <p>“Because you’re a Guardian?”</p> <p>She nodded grimly. “And because I’m a woman.”</p> <p>“But—”</p> <p>“No more questions, Willow. Now isn’t the time.” Mama stopped abruptly and parted the leafy bush. “Hide in the middle. Don’t make a sound, Willow. Do you understand? Not one peep, no matter what you hear.”</p> <p>Willow nodded. She stared at the <em>tarata.</em> Usually she loved hiding in it, because when she came out, she smelled lemony like the leaves. Today she didn’t want to go in. If she went in, she was afraid she’d never come back out, and she’d never see Mama again.</p> <p>Her mother crouched down in front of her and held both her arms. “Listen to me, Willow. You need to hide. You’re the next Guardian. You need to be protected. And you must protect this.” From inside her shirt, her mama pulled out a rolled parchment.</p> <p>The Book of Wood.</p> <p>Willow knew all about it. She’d even seen it before. Mama never let her touch it, though.</p> <p>She looked at her mother. “Let’s bury it and run. We’ve always run before.”</p> <p>“The scroll is powerful. Even buried, it’ll attract unwanted attention. And we can’t run any longer. He just keeps coming.” Her mother got that look she got sometimes, like she was seeing things in her mind. Sad things. “The only way to keep you and the scroll safe is to face him. Once and for all.”</p> <p>Something in her mother’s voice scared her. “Can’t you hide with me?”</p> <p>“No, sweetheart. I have to face this.” Mama soothed her by running a hand down her pale hair.</p> <p>Willow noticed that her mother’s hand was trembling.</p> <p>“I need you to protect the scroll, Willow.” She took Willow’s hand, put the scroll in her palm, and closed her fingers over it.</p> <p>The mark on her ankle burned for a moment. Willow wanted to scratch it, but her mother held her shoulders tight.</p> <p>“Listen to me. You’re the next Guardian. I’ve trained you. Everything you need to know is inside you, Willow. Practice, and don’t doubt.”</p> <p>She nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”</p> <p>“If anything happens to me—” Her mother looked away for a moment, swallowing audibly. When she met Willow’s gaze, her eyes were as fierce as Willow had ever seen them. “If anything happens to me, you know what to do. Just as we’ve practiced. You know where the papers and money are hidden; go away and hide so even I couldn’t find you.”</p> <p>“But, Mama—”</p> <p>“No.” A hard shake, and then Mama pushed her into the bush. “You have everything inside you, Willow. Remember that.”</p> <p>Before Willow could say another word, she felt the swell of her mother’s magic. It wrapped around her and the <em>tarata</em> that hid her, warm like a nest of blankets. She looked through the leaves. Mama still knelt on the ground, her eyes closed.</p> <p>The branches creaked and began to shift, creating a solid cage around her. The leaves thickened, slowly blocking Mama from her sight. “<em>No.</em>”</p> <p>Her mother opened her eyes and stared straight at Willow. Through the rustling of the leaves, Willow thought she heard “I love you, sweetheart,” but the <em>rustling</em> was so loud she couldn’t be sure.</p> <p>“<em>No.</em>” Willow sobbed once more, and then pressed her hand to her mouth. Mama had told her to be very quiet. She could do that.</p> <p>She sat there forever, leaning into the cradle of the branches. She’d just begun to drift off to sleep when she heard her mother scream.</p> <p>Willow shot up to her knees, her heart pounding, the scroll clenched in her hand.</p> <p>“Tell me where she is, Lani,” the man said calmly, as if he were asking for a cookie. “Tell me where she is and I’ll let you go.”</p> <p>“I told you, I sent her away. You can’t think I’m that naive.” Her mother laughed, but it wasn’t like her usual laugh. It was hoarse and faint and there was nothing fun in it.</p> <p>It scared Willow more than anything.</p> <p>“No, you aren’t naive. You are, however, weak.” His voice changed. It sounded dark and evil, like the trolls in the story Mama had read to her once. “All the power you have, and you’re still weak. Pathetic.”</p> <p>Mama screamed again.</p> <p>Willow sat paralyzed. Mama needed her. But if Mama, who was so strong and brave, couldn’t handle the Bad Man, then what could <em>she</em> do?</p> <p><em>Keep the scroll safe.</em></p> <p>She nodded. Mama wanted that. As much as she wanted to go kick the Bad Man, she had to do what Mama wanted.</p> <p>Muffled sounds of struggle pulled her out of her thoughts. She huddled in a ball, trying to block the sounds out, trying not to hear her mother’s groan.</p> <p>The scroll hardened in her hand. Out of nowhere, she felt a jolt, like the time she stuck her finger in the electrical socket. Her mark burned—badly—and she felt like she was going to throw up.</p> <p>Then it stopped.</p> <p>And there was silence.</p> <p>Willow stared at the scroll and knew the battle between her mother and the Bad Man had ended. Tears filled her eyes until she couldn’t see anymore. But she could feel her mother’s power pulsing inside her. <em>Mù ch’i.</em></p> <p>Only not her mother’s anymore. Hers, now.</p> <p>She dropped her head to her knees and let the tears fall. She didn’t make a noise. She didn’t have the energy.</p> <p>Dark came and went, and the whole time she sat in a ball, afraid that if she moved, he’d find her. Morning crept through the thick leaves, and still she waited.</p> <p>And waited.</p> <p>Finally her mother’s words came back to her. “<em>Just as we’ve practiced.</em>”</p> <p>She reached out to the branches. Before she touched them, they parted, as if they knew what she wanted.</p> <p>They did know, she reminded herself. She was the Guardian of the Book of Wood now. It was her destiny, her mother had told her when Willow was really little. It’d been her bedtime story for as long as she could remember: the tale of the monk who stole five elemental scrolls and marked five people he thought worthy to guard the scrolls against people like the Bad Man. The scrolls infused their Guardians with special powers to help keep them safe.</p> <p>Her mother had been marked, and so was she. Guarding the Book of Wood was her job now.</p> <p>Blinking back another round of tears, she crawled out of the bushes.</p> <p>The house was before her, unnaturally still. She swallowed the urge to call out for her mother, and carefully—quietly—wove her way back to the house.</p> <p>The door was open. Just like they practiced, she sent her senses out, but she felt nothing human. She slipped through the door.</p> <p>A pair of legs was splayed on the floor. Her mother’s legs.</p> <p>Willow wanted to turn away, but she couldn’t. Heart pounding, she followed the long legs up to the bared tummy. The couch hid her mother’s face. It didn’t hide the silver blade sticking out of Mama’s chest.</p> <p>She leaned closer. A throwing star, like the one Mama kept hidden in the drawer. A reminder of bad things, she used to say.</p> <p>Willow swayed, grabbing the door. The wood cushioned her grip and radiated with calm energy. She drew it into herself, thanked it for its generosity, like Mama had taught her, and turned to leave. She had to dig up the getaway fund from its hiding spot.</p> <p>But then something on the floor caught her eye.</p> <p><em>Mama’s flute.</em></p> <p>Without thought, she hurried to grab it. The wood pulsed in her hand, in a way it never had before. She tucked it into the waist of her pants, comforted by its smooth feel. With one last glance at her mother, she ran.</p> <h1>Chapter One</h1> <p class="dl">Present day, San Francisco</p> <p class="fl"><span class="dropcap">I</span>t wasn’t the black, moonless night. It wasn’t the misshapen trees. It wasn’t even the fog, creeping through the branches. But something <em>was</em> off.</p> <p>“Totally off.” Walking up the steep hill, Willow looked around with her senses. With <em>mù ch’i.</em> Her powers were more reliable than her eyes. She’d be less likely to be taken in by a setup.</p> <p>The path through Buena Vista Park wasn’t lit. She glanced up, wondering if the lamppost lights had burned out or been taken out.</p> <p>“One guess for the right answer,” she muttered, touching an old cypress tree as she passed. Peace flowed from her fingertips into her body.</p> <p>She nodded. The oldest trees in San Francisco were right here—eucalyptus, cypress, and pine. They were the reason she picked the park for the meeting. Deep-rooted and full of life, it was perfect for helping her ground herself. Perfect for comfort. At least on most nights they would have been a comfort. Tonight, not even the ebb and flow of the trees’ energy soothed her.</p> <p>She kept her pace slow, alert. “Something’s very off.”</p> <p>It was more than just tonight. She’d felt it ever since she arrived in the city last week.</p> <p>Danger awaited her.</p> <p>Common sense told her to leave town and avoid it, but what choice did she have? Six months ago, she’d read about a university professor who had been found dead in her office. With that, Willow knew she had to come to San Francisco eventually. He’d be attracted by the story—not because of the unusual death, but because the woman had been a historian who had a special interest in the Scrolls of Destiny.</p> <p>It took all her willpower not to race to California and wait for the Bad Man to show up. Instead, she’d stayed in Paris and waited for the investigators she’d hired to report on any suspicious activity. She needed to be methodical about this—careful. She couldn’t risk rushing it and messing up her chance to finally catch the Bad Man.</p> <p>“The Bad Man,” she said derisively. It galled her that she still hadn’t learned who he was, or even his real name. He’d played such an intimate role in her life. He’d shaped her almost as much as her mother had.</p> <p>Willow slowed her pace and her breathing, to control her heart rate. This was it, she could feel it. He was close—she just had to find him. After twenty years, she’d finally have justice.</p> <p>It took six months before one of the investigators she’d hired caught a break: he claimed he’d found an informant who had knowledge of the Bad Man. But the informant would only speak with her face-to-face.</p> <p>A trap set by the Bad Man? Likely. But what else could she do? She had to check it out. So she’d taken the first flight out to the West Coast.</p> <p>And now here she was, hiking up a pitch-black hill at two in the morning.</p> <p>“At least it’s not the Golden Gate Bridge,” she whispered to herself. That was where her informant had wanted to meet. She shuddered. Crossing all that steel would have been a bitch. Anytime she was around too much metal, it became difficult to perform. Metal chops wood, just like a child’s Rochambeau.</p> <p>Willow crested the hill. Ahead of her, two figures sat on a bench.</p> <p>Her broadsword-shaped birthmark, the mark of a Guardian, stung. An internal warning system. One that had been clanging in alarm ever since she stepped foot in the city.</p> <p>“At least here there are plenty of weapons.” She touched the low branch of a tree and headed to the two shadows. They didn’t move or acknowledge her presence.</p> <p>She stopped. “Something is so wrong,” she muttered. She let <em>mù ch’i</em> branch out to the two figures. The scroll’s energy coursed through her, jagged and uneven.</p> <p>Her mother had taught her that everything had energy—even plastic and other man-made materials had energy to some degree. Drawing on the energy of trees came naturally to the Guardian of the Book of Wood, but it took skill to read and manipulate energy from other sources. Skill she didn’t have, because her mother hadn’t been around to help her perfect her technique. Hence, the occasional fitful starts when she used <em>mù ch’i</em>.</p> <p>She was better, though. But she wasn’t delusional enough to think she could ever be as good as her mom.</p> <p>Through the force of her will, <em>mù ch’i</em> mellowed into a smooth flow, extending to the figures on the bench.</p> <p>But she felt nothing, which meant the two bodies ahead were dead. “Damn it.”</p> <p>The faint wail of sirens overrode the soft whisper of the wind in the trees. She paused, listening.</p> <p>They were headed toward the park.</p> <p>“Damn it.” She hurried to the bodies, yanking her leather gloves on. The one on the right was the man she’d hired. Half his head was bashed in, but there was enough of him intact for her to ID him from the pictures she’d seen.</p> <p>Always make sure you know who’s working for you. She’d found that out the hard way.</p> <p>She patted him down, while taking in the scene carefully. Staged. Because someone wanted to set her up? If the approaching sirens were any indication, the answer would be yes.</p> <p>She took his wallet and slipped it into her pocket before turning her attention to the other guy. Presumably, the informant. He was less messy, with a thin line of blood trickling from a small hole in his head. Bullet, 9mm. Professional.</p> <p>The sirens stopped abruptly.</p> <p>They were here.</p> <p>Through the trees, she caught flashes of red and blue lights. They’d probably parked at the top of the hill, at the park’s east entrance.</p> <p>“Which means they’ll be on my ass in minutes,” she said, transferring everything from the informant’s pockets to hers.</p> <p>A card fluttered to the ground. The wind grabbed hold, but just before it got lost in the night, Willow caught it and stuck it in her already stuffed pockets. Taking in the scene one more time, she turned and strode toward the copse of trees and bushes just beyond the scene. She stepped behind a five-foot-tall bush. Not tall enough to hide her five-ten frame, she let <em>mù ch’i</em> reach inside the plant and urge it higher until its branches provided enough coverage without obscuring her view.</p> <p>She tugged off her gloves and touched her long hair. The white-blond was like a beacon in the night, but she never covered it. It’d become something of a calling card. Plus, it tied her to her mother in one more way. Just to be safe, she encouraged extra foliage to sprout in front of her.</p> <p>Two cops huffed up the hill a moment later. It seemed they knew exactly where to find the bodies.</p> <p>“Of course they did,” she whispered, shaking her head.</p> <p>More officers flooded the scene shortly after, including several plainclothes policemen. She watched as they cordoned off the scene with yellow police tape and began methodically recording their findings. It was a process she’d seen before, in different countries all over the world. Slight variations, some forces more inept than others, but pretty much the same procedures. Being in her line of work, it behooved her to be familiar with the way the police operated.</p> <p>Her mark burned, sharp and insistent. Instinct made her turn her head to the left, just as another man crested the hill.</p> <p>Her breath caught in her chest, and she had to force it out with a harsh exhale.</p> <p>He walked to the scene with an air of authority. The officer in charge. Which meant he was Homicide, detective level. He wore a suit, no overcoat despite the bitter San Francisco wind that whipped through the city all year round. Even though it was past midnight, his clothing was immaculate. So was his dark hair, cut short and neat.</p> <p>Willow couldn’t see details, which frustrated her, but something about him was familiar, and for a moment, she was tempted to come out from hiding and walk to him.</p> <p>“Ridiculous,” she said under her breath. Standing at the edge of the scene, he took a small notepad and pen out of his inner suit pocket. He motioned to the first officers to arrive on the scene and asked them questions.</p> <p>Too low to hear, damn it. She frowned, holding a branch to help calm herself. She knew what he’d be asking. When did they get the call? Had they disturbed the scene? Any witnesses found?</p> <p>He finished talking to the two patrolmen and ducked under the police tape to inspect the bodies. Suddenly he knelt, laying a palm on the ground.</p> <p>Willow swallowed a curse. Her boot print on the dirt.</p> <p>He stood up and scanned the area. Sharp gaze—he probably didn’t miss much.</p> <p>And then he focused on the bush where she hid.</p> <p>He couldn’t see her. She knew he couldn’t see her. But somehow she felt his gaze penetrating deeply—all the way to the space inside her that had been closed off for the past twenty years.</p> <p>She didn’t like it. Not one bit.</p> <p>When he turned around and waved one of his minions over, Willow exhaled.</p> <p>“Forget the cop,” she muttered. “Time to move.”</p> <p>She had to examine what she’d taken and hope it’d lead her to something of value. Not that she was going to hold her breath.</p> <p>Pulling her mother’s wooden flute from her pants pocket, she backed out of the bush, silently so as not to attract any attention. As an extra measure of caution, she had the trees across the way rustle, drawing attention away from her.</p> <p>She waited until she was a little distance away before she put the flute to her lips and blew a delicate, mournful tune in honor of the dead.</p> <p class="spb">It was the night from hell, and only getting worse.</p> <p>Homicide Inspector Rick Ramirez glared at the crime scene. Not much to go on so far. East side of Buena Vista Park, two victims, male. No witnesses. No signs of struggle. No ID on the victims.</p> <p>Why should it be easy?</p> <p>At least there was a footprint. A woman’s shoe, based on the heel.</p> <p>He crouched down to get a closer look. Women didn’t murder just for the hell of it. Homicides with female offenders were typically in the context of domestic abuse, or as an act of desperation. Two men, one shot execution style and the other with a bashed-in skull? A woman wouldn’t have been his guess.</p> <p>Of course, all sorts of unusual things had been happening in the city the past year. Things he’d been hard pressed to explain. This barely rated on that scale.</p> <p>A bush fifteen feet away rustled, seemingly without cause. Ramirez looked up, frowning. Something wasn’t right. Still, to cover the bases, he signaled a couple of his men to investigate.</p> <p>Odd. He scanned the area, feeling like he was being led astray somehow.</p> <p>Out of the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of a figure. Tall, but obviously a woman. Enveloped in black, like the shadows that clung to her. Except for her hair, which shined a brilliant white even in the dark.</p> <p>The same woman who made the shoe print? Instinct said yes. He took off at a run, trying to remain as silent as possible so he didn’t alert her to the chase.</p> <p>But as he rounded the bend, she was gone.</p> <p>How could she be gone? He scowled into the night, looking behind the trees and bushes.</p> <p>Nothing.</p> <p>“Damn.” He raked a hand through his hair. Cursing again, he headed back to his team. The sooner he wrapped up, the sooner he could go home and get some rest.</p> <p>As he made it back to the scene, he heard the faint whisper of a tune. Like a flute—soft and sad—carrying on the wind.</p> <BR><BR><i>Continues...</i> <!-- copyright notice --> <br></pre> <blockquote><hr noshade size='1'><font size='-2'> Excerpted from <b>Tempted by Fate</b> by <b>Perry, Kate</b> Copyright © 2010 by Perry, Kate. Excerpted by permission.<br> All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.<br>Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.