Willow Tarata is a Guardian who trusts no one. She hunts those who prey on the vulnerable. And she’s driven by a vengeful goal-find the man who murdered her mother. Yet suddenly Willow’s quarry now has her on the run… straight into the sights of San Francisco’s most dangerous detective.

Three bizarre murders have Inspector Rick Ramirez baffled-and determined to uncover the truth. But to catch the real killer, he needs the help of his prime suspect, Willow Tarata, even though this fierce and sexy blonde is challenging his professional cool. And now, unless they believe in each other and trust their deepest instincts, a relentless evil will end both Willow’s and Rick’s life-and claim this Guardian’s extraordinary powers forever…
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Twenty Years Ago…

A flute shrilled—one sharp note of warning.

Willow looked up from the piece of wood she was carving. Mama’s flute. Their danger signal.

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.

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.

She ran faster.

Her mother came out to the porch just as she rounded the corner. Mama’s black hair flew wildly around her head, and dirt streaked her clothes. Her eyes looked as wild as her hair.

“Come, Willow.” Mama grabbed her arm and rushed her through the garden and around the back of the house. “To the tarata.

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.

Not today though. Today all she felt was Mama’s fear.

Mama was never scared. And that terrified her. “What’s wrong?”

“The Bad Man is coming.”

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.

“Quick, Willow.” Mama shook her arm. “You need to hide. He’s almost here.”

“How do you know?” She hadn’t heard a car or anything.

“I can feel it,” her mother said under her breath, like she was distracted.

“Because you’re a Guardian?”

She nodded grimly. “And because I’m a woman.”


“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.”

Willow nodded. She stared at the tarata. 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.

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 need to protect this.” From inside her shirt, she pulled out a rolled parchment.

The Book of Wood.

Willow knew all about it. She’d even seen it before. Mama never let her touch it though.

She looked at her mother. “Let’s bury it and run. We’ve always run before.”

“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 thing. “The only way to keep you and the scroll safe is to face him. Once and for all.”

Something in her mother’s voice scared her. “Can’t you hide with me?”

“No, sweetheart. I have to face this.” Mama soothed her by running a hand down her white-blond hair.

Willow noticed that her mother’s hand was trembling.

“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.

The mark on her ankle burned for a moment. Willow wanted to scratch it, but her mother held her shoulders tight.

“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.”

She nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”

“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 somewhere where even I wouldn’t find you.”

“But, Mama—”

“No.” A hard shake, and then Mama pushed her into the bush. “You have everything inside you, Willow. Remember that.”

Before Willow could say another word, she felt the swell of her mother’s magic. It wrapped around her and the tarata that hid her, warm like a nest of blankets. She looked through the leaves. Mama still knelt on the ground, her eyes closed.

The branches creaked and began to shift, creating a solid cage around her. The leaves rustled and thickened, slowly blocking Mama from her sight. “No.”

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 tarata was so loud she couldn’t be sure.

“No.” She sobbed once, and then pressed her hand to her mouth. Mama had told her to be very quiet. She could do that.

She sat there forever. Leaning into the cradle of the branches, she’d started to get sleepy when she heard her mother scream.

Willow shot up to her knees, her heart pounding, the scroll clenched in her hand.

“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.”

“I told you, I sent her away. And you can’t think I’m that gullible.” Her mother laughed, but it wasn’t like her usual laugh. It was hoarse and faint and there was nothing fun in it.

It scared Willow more than anything.

“No, you aren’t gullible. You are, however, weak.” His voice changed so 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.”

Mama screamed again.

Willow sat paralyzed. Mama needed her. But if Mama, who was so strong and brave couldn’t handle the Bad Man, then what could she do?

Keep the scroll safe.

She nodded. Mama wanted that. As much as she wanted to go kick the Bad Man, she had to do what Mama wanted.

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.

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—bad—and she felt like she was going to throw up.

Then it stopped.

And there was silence.

Willow stared at the scroll and knew. Tears filled her eyes until she couldn’t see it anymore. But she could feel it—her mother’s power pulsed inside her.Mù ch’i.

Only not her mother’s anymore. Hers, now.

She dropped her head to her knees and let the tears fall. She didn’t make a noise. She didn’t have the energy.

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, but she waited.

And waited.

Finally, her mother’s words came back to her. Just as we practiced.

She reached out to the branches. Before she touched them, they parted, as if they knew what she wanted.

They did know, she reminded herself. She was the Guardian of the Book of Wood now. Blinking back another round of tears, she crawled out of the bushes.

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.

The door was open. Just like they practiced, she sent her senses out, but she felt nothing human. She slipped through the door.

A pair of legs were splayed on the floor. Her mother’s legs. The couch hid the rest of her. 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 find the getaway fund, like Mama’s plan said.

But then something on the floor caught her eye.

Mama’s flute.

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.