The Sánchez women aren't just unlucky in love—they're cursed.
Eighteen-year-old twins Delfi and Lela know better than to play with magic. Their lives are marked by a malevolence that’s followed their family from Cuba to Miami, poisoning any chance at romantic love. It’s no wonder their Mami has forbidden them from getting involved with the supernatural.
When Lela and Delfi receive premonitions of a mysterious killer targeting brujos, however, the sisters must embrace their emerging powers to save innocent lives.
Teaming up with their best friend Ethan and brooding detective-in-training Andres, Delfi and Lela set out to catch a murderer on a dangerous hunt that will bring them face to face with the dark secrets of their family’s past.
Back in 1980s Cuba, Anita de Armas whispers to the spirits for mercy—not for herself, but for the victims of her mother’s cult. She’s desperate to rid herself of her power, which manifests as inky shadows and an ability to speak to the dead.
As political tensions rise and Anita’s cult initiation draws near, she must make a decision that could change not only her fate but the fate of the nation.
Lela, Delfi, and Anita’s stories intertwine in Vanessa Montalban’s dazzling debut fantasy, as each Sánchez woman steps into her power, refusing to be subdued by any person or curse.
Release date: August 29, 2023
Publisher: Zando Young Readers
Print pages: 384
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A Tall Dark Trouble
Anita had nothing left to cling to. Nothing to shield her from what was to come next.
She’d been forced to leave behind her beads, her cross, her clothes outside the door of the chamber. They’d stripped her of everything and yet they demanded more.
Her friends’ cries rattled through her bones. Anita could hear their pain as the Elders branded their flesh with the symbol of la Paloma Eterna. The Eternal Dove. She would soon be next. She could practically feel the heat of the iron on her neck already, taste the bitter burn.
Today, Anita would be marked as one of las Palomas forever, her gifts bound to them in a way she could never hide or escape. Her life would be a mirror of her mother’s, a path of blood and obedience.
The chant of the Elders amplified through the chamber, her mother leading the charge. Mamá Orti’s eyes gleamed through the dark, urging Anita with her gaze to say the words that had been ingrained in her since birth.
Fidelidad, fuerza, y poder. It always came down to that—fidelity, strength, and power.
The maldeados, spirits of the condemned, circled her feet, slicking their cool bodies across her skin. The spirits were urging her to do something, anything, but she didn’t know what. She couldn’t think beyond her fear.
Ana met Gilberto’s amber gaze from across the room, and saw her sorrow reflected back. They both knew they were in far too deep to leave las Palomas now. Her last bit of hope that she would be able to escape Cuba evaporated like mist.
Her mother had once told her, Your destiny is already written in your blood, Ana. As it is in mine. Changing your future would mean leaving behind everything you are. It is a responsibility that ties this family.
Ana closed her eyes, and mumbled the words of the binding chant, the promises heavy with burden, filled with the corrupted magic of her mother’s lineage. Magic that would absorb the marrow of her own abilities until she was nothing. Obey. Submit. Protect.
Every bit of her power destined to serve one man. El Comandante.
Miami, November 6, 2016
My thoughts should be purely holy at this moment. What with “Tu Gloria” pouring out from the squeaky speakers and the old ladies singing off-key from the front pews. But I’m dying to get out of here. Church is just one of the many things I put up with solely for the sake of my mother.
The altar dude makes his way down the aisle with the collection basket, giving my twin the flirty eye.
“Think he’d pinch some of the cash for me?” Delfi—said twin—nudges my shoulder. She gives her admirer a little wave, then the finger.
I lock eyes with a bored cherub staring down from the ceiling. “You seriously have no chill.”
Delfi laughs, and our mom tosses us a dark look from her honorary seat up front, right next to Padre Javier. He always tasks Mami with handling the golden goblet of wine and the silver tin of altar bread. Right now, she looks like a wrathful Lady Justice balancing divine gifts.
Delfi and I quickly rise, stifling laughter as we raise our hands for praise. Mami’s grip tightens around the holy objects. In case her message still isn’t clear, she does her scary wide-eyed, chin-jut thing that effectively shuts us up. I can practically see my full name spelled out in that look. Ofelia Mila Sánchez, either you quiet down, or I will quiet you down. In Spanish, of course, which sounds a million times more threatening.
My full name is reserved for special occasions only. Lela is the nickname I’m stuck with because when we were babies, Delfi was permanently affixed to her pacifier and couldn’t properly pronounce “Ofelia,” and Mami thought the nickname was the cutest thing ever. Though judging by the feral gleam in her eye, the fond memory is currently far from her mind.
The moment Mami does look away, Delfi’s talking again, the main reason she spent the majority of senior year in detention.
“What the—” My sister’s eyes flit to the gigantic portrait of Jesus. “What the heck, who’s the DJ today? My arms are killing me.”
She drops her arms with a groan. I shoot her a look, keeping mine up even though they’re starting to shake. Usually, the church alternates between a song, a prayer, sit, kneel, stand, raise arms, rinse, and repeat. But Delfi’s right; whoever’s working the sound system has played three songs in a row, and even the pious Señora Benitez is sweating.
When the music finally ends, we plop down on the bench in relief. Delfi’s loud sigh earns another glower from Mami. My sister takes out her tarot cards and begins to shuffle them until I kick her shoe. With a roll of her eyes, she puts them away, then laces her arm through mine, resting her head on my shoulder.
“Tastes like vinegar and olives in here.” Delfi grimaces. I’ve gotten used to her announcing these random bursts of flavors. We only recently started keeping track of Delfi’s emotional savoring, as we’ve been calling it, jotting down her tastes and emotions on my notes app. Delf’s always been extra sensitive to emotions, especially once she gets to know someone, and gut feelings, uncanny guesses, that’s always been our thing. But when we turned eighteen six months ago, things changed. Delfi’s emotional perceptiveness went to another level and began manifesting through taste. For me, my ability manifested through sight. Visions that interrupt my life each time I touch an object attached to a strong memory. Every time it happens it feels like I’m pulled from my body and it’s not something I can easily play off like Delfi can. Which is why my hands are usually jammed into my pockets.
But none of that helps when it comes to the disturbing dreams I’ve been having—to the plaguing images of someone being chased by death.
My whole body shivers and Delfi throws me a weird look as if tasting exactly what I’m thinking. We’ve tried to find out more about our gifts, hoping to find a way to control them, but it’s not like there’s a class we can take. So we’re stuck googling, but the closest thing we’ve turned up was
a generic wiki-superpower source on empaths and clairvoyants. We’ve found nothing on how or why she can suddenly sense emotions through taste and why I can pick up on visions from objects. And what we’re supposed to do about the dreams we’ve been having.
All I know is we have to keep our weird abilities a secret because our mom would have a fit if she knew.
The closest thing to the supernatural she’ll acknowledge are Jesus and saints, but that’s her religion. That’s different.
Another song starts, one of those intermediary piano solos that lets us know it’s time to stand and take la hostia. My sister and I get in line to receive the communion wafer.
“I’m pretty sure it tastes like guilt,” Delfi whispers, tossing back her long, highlighted hair. “Guilt or regret, one of those.” My sister smacks her tongue. She knows I hate that sound.
“Not regret.” I lower my voice, praying she’ll do the same. “Last time you said regret tasted like Robitussin. I’ll log it in once we get home, but please ya cállate.” The last thing we need is for Mami to hear us.
“Well, then I’m sure of it. Tastes like guilt.” Delfi looks around. “Guess someone needs to go to confession.” She considers Señora Benitez’s daughter, who plunks down in her seat to pick her nails, flicking cherry-red flakes onto the closed Bible in her lap. Her new Saint Laurent bag is strapped to her chest like a seat belt.
Delfi nudges me. “I bet she stole that. See if you can brush by her when we pass. Maybe you can see who she stole it from!”
“How about no.” I take one giant step away from her.
We’re almost to the front of the line. Mami comes into view, her gold cross necklace gleaming. She’s about to don her scary face again but realizes there are people around, so she smiles instead—baring all her teeth.
I shush my sister, and we bow our heads to Padre Javier as he grins wide, crinkling his owlish eyes under thick glasses, and getting us mixed up as usual even though we have completely different hair colors now.
As we shuffle back to our seats, I unstick the stale wafer from the roof of my mouth as Delfi nudges my arm. We watch as one of our single neighbors holds up the line trying to talk up our mom, but he’s wasting his time. Mami doesn’t date. None of us do. I once asked her if she’d ever loved anyone besides my dad. She’d said there’d been someone back in Cuba, but that, too, had only led to trouble. As all relationships do when it comes to us. Mainly because of what Delfi’s dubbed the Sánchez Curse. Anyone who falls in love with a Sánchez woman is doomed to slowly turn into a corrupted version of themselves, acting out their most dangerous impulses. A curse that’s followed our family all the way from Cuba to Miami. So as much as Mami refuses to acknowledge magic, the men in our lives have always been the living proof that it’s real.
For no particular reason at all, this makes me think of someone.
“So …” I whisper to Delfi. “Did Ethan say he was meeting us later?”
She raises a brow.
“Yeah, and he’s bringing the supplies we need.”
“What supplies?” I lower my voice, but we’re alone in the pews. Everyone else is still waiting to give thanks to the priest and possibly complain about the sound system and broken AC.
Delfi straightens in her seat. “For the trabajo I was telling you about. Zuela says now that we’ve been getting those dreams so often, we need the spell to strengthen our abilities. We need to figure this out before—”
“Ya, stop.” I flutter a hand. “I wasn’t talking about that.” And I definitely don’t want to talk about Zuela, Delfi’s bruja mentor, or whatever she calls herself.
“But we need to talk about what we’ve been seeing.”
I deflate because I know we should. The woman’s face springs to mind, blue eyes glossed in fear, delicate features pressed in perpetual worry—the woman from my nightmares. Our nightmares. Delfi and I have been dreaming of her for weeks now. Unlike Delfi, I’m not sure if the woman is real, or if we’re dreaming about something that’s already happened or has yet to happen, but I haven’t been able to shake the feeling that we’re dreaming about her for a reason. That we’re supposed to help her in some way.
I know Delfi’s probably right. But I can’t do it. Not yet. Not when the visions are leading to someone’s death and everything we’ve been warned to stay away from. Not when a part of me still wishes we could be normal, that we can ignore it away. I know Mami would want the same.
It wasn’t always like this. When we were growing up, our mom didn’t exactly encourage our magic, but she also wasn’t afraid of it. She defended us from the nosy neighbors who called us Las Brujitas for seeing shadows where they didn’t exist, for guessing secrets or predicting outcomes too exact to be coincidences. But twelve years ago, after the fire at the Eighth Street house and after Papi’s disappearance, Mami made it clear that any conversation that even hints of magic is off-limits. When Mami moved us to Cauley Square, far from anyone we knew, she meant for all of us to start over.
Before we moved, she’d taken us to see someone—an older woman dressed all in white and working out of her shed. I realized she was another santera, like Mami. We’d seen our mom do similar rituals throughout the years, and I recognized the woman’s altars, like the one Mami kept by our front door. The old woman brushed our hair with a shell-encrusted comb that reminded me of something out of The Little Mermaid, pouring water onto our heads after each stroke. She was gentle and I liked her—until she took our dolls for a protection obra, wrapped them in twine, dipped them in viscous honey, and wouldn’t give them back. Our mom told us this obra would help control whatever magic was corrupting our spirit. That the shadows would go away if we ignored them. They were merely restless souls hungry for attention. When we asked if the woman was doing a spell, Mami told us the obras were not magic, but faith. Divine power. She’d made it clear that whatever was inside us was something to be prayed away.
Keep that door closed, Ofelia, Mami would say. Lock it away, or you’ll invite in the unknown
But I want to tell her we never opened a door. For a while, the santera’s ritual had helped restrain our magic, like a tourniquet cutting off circulation—not painful, but a low throb I could always sense beneath the surface of my skin. We’ve never been able to fully keep the shadows from seeping past, from bleeding out. We only got better at hiding it …
“Are you even listening to me?” Delfi waves her hand in front of my face, and I snap back to the church again. “Ethan, full-moon party, the perfect night for a witchy duo debut?”
My nails dig into my palms. “I’ll think about it, all right? And don’t say witch.”
“They’ve called us Las Brujitas our whole life; we might as well own it.” Delfi already thinks she’s going to win, like she always does. Her mouth curves devilishly. We’re identical in every way, yet I can’t imagine that expression on my face.
As we follow Mami out the church doors, an old beige van parked outside releases a loud pop. I press my hand to my chest, touch the wispy gold chain of my necklace. The woman’s face from my nightmares blazes through my mind.
Miami, November 6, 2016
My eyes snap open. I have no clue how the hell I got here. A second ago, I was sitting in the car with Lela, heading home from church, and now I’m standing here. Alone. The crisp, salty air of the sea whips against my back while the distinct reek of the city hits me. I look around to see the canopied strip of Miami Beach, crowds of people weaving from stores to restaurants to the bars that open only after dark.
This isn’t right. We just left church. I know we did. It should be daylight still. I don’t understand how an entire day has gone by, and I don’t know where my sister’s gone.
It clicks then. Shit. I’m having the vision again.
Idaly. A man’s voice coalesces in my head, and I know that voice, recognize it from a memory that isn’t mine. His voice is drenched in an overwhelming loss. I get a flash of other memories, brief images—of a small kitchen, an old town car driving down a dark mountainous road. My fingers running through a man’s short-cropped hair, coming away bloody. No. Not my fingers—hers. This woman, Idaly’s. These are her memories, her thoughts. Lela and I have been dreaming of her for weeks.
But this time, I realize something’s different. Like the previous visions, it feels like I’m in this lady’s skin, yet I’ve never had a vision this clear, this intense, where I can barely tell the difference between reality and dreams.
I’m looking out at Miami Beach through her eyes, the floral taste of violets overwhelming my senses. A car’s horn blares, and I realize Idaly is standing in the middle of Ocean Drive and its infamous traffic. I try but I can’t move my feet. It’s cold and I go to rub my bare arms, but my hands won’t listen. There’s nothing I can do but watch the scene play out, no matter how creepy it feels to be lurking in someone’s head.
Idaly starts walking with purpose. In past visions, her hands were usually fidgeting. She’d seemed nervous. But now her arms lie rigid by her sides, and she doesn’t even flinch as a guy bumps her shoulder hard enough to jar teeth.
“Whoa, scary-ass contacts, lady.”
She stares blankly at him, and I see her face reflected in his shades. Her eyes are bone white, empty as if she’s completely checked out. The raised flesh of a burn or marking on her neck peeks out from under her hair. The guy quickly backs off.
The vision jumps ahead, leaving me disoriented. Now the night is pitch black. Idaly strides across a quay, her steps unwavering, as if no one—not even herself—can stop her momentum. She zeros in on a boat, the farthest one down the dock, and gets in. Goes right to the front and sits at the bow as if awaiting orders. The boat starts up.
That’s when the smoky shadows emerge.
I flinch because I know those things too well, having glimpsed the shadows since I was a kid. Despite the obra the santera did to make them go away, they never did. At least not for me. But I’ve never seen so many of them. They’re everywhere, slinking across the handrails, drenched in an oily slickness, and overwhelming the boat deck. Idaly doesn’t seem to notice as they wrap around her, winding up her arms and legs, as the boat carries her deeper into the bay.
Suddenly, the motor stops. I cry out as Idaly stands up at the boat’s edge, but already, I know she can’t hear me—doesn’t know I’m here with her, experiencing this as if I were her. The night is quiet despite how loud I’m screaming for her to wake up. Idaly teeters over the side, and for a moment I feel her hesitate, snap out of whatever trance she’s in, fear flooding her like a tidal wave.
No, she thinks, but it’s too late.
The slithering, oily shadows coil around her neck, around her ankles, and pull. Idaly’s body hits the icy water, and the ocean devours us whole.
I jolt awake. My head knocks against Lela’s as she shrieks.
Our mom swerves. “¡Por Dios, qué susto! Why are you screaming?” Mami whips around in her seat, nearly taking out a pedestrian.
I rub my aching head, grabbing hold of Lela’s trembling hand as she tries to get her breathing in check. From the looks of it, she had the same vision.
We’ll talk about this later, I convey with my eyes. Don’t say anything.
Lela forces a nod, trying to swallow down her panic. “N—nada, Mami. We must’ve dozed off and smacked our heads together.”
Mami grumbles but resumes driving. With a tremor working up my body, I grab my phone and shoot Zuela a text.
be at the botanica soon. something happened. you there?
Immediately, Zuela texts back. i’m here.
I smile in relief. Zuela’s always got my back.
I look over at Lela as she wipes sweat from her brow. I hate that she’s having these visions too. I know they’re wearing on her. I pick up on her emotions stronger than anyone else’s because, duh, she’s my other half. I swallow back the metallic taste of Lela’s fear and try not to linger on the cloying flavor I’ve come to associate with her self-loathing.
I still haven’t gotten used to the way that others’ emotions slip down my throat and wrap around my own, leaving an unnerving residue. It makes me question if what I’m feeling is my own emotion or just the lingering aftertaste of someone else’s. But Zuela’s helping with that too, helping me develop my intuition enough that I can tell the difference. Teaching me how to embrace the shadows I see, instead of shutting them out until my magic is banging on the doors of my brain, drowning out every other thought. Zuela has visions too and even though her gift is different than mine, she has this wealth of knowledge of what we are and what we can do. She makes me feel like I’m not alone.
Our mom sighs as she pulls into the plaza, parking in front of the bakery where she works. She stops the car and twists onto her knees so she can get a better look at us, gripping our chins so she can survey any damage.
“I thought we were past the stage of cocotasos,” she chides, then smiles.
“It’s only ’cause Lela’s head is so damn big.” I jump out of the car first, eager to get to Zuela’s shop.
“Only we have the same-sized head,” my sister grumbles as she climbs out after me, still looking pale as hell.
“Ya, enough.” My mom gets out and stretches, adjusting the strap of her purse. Mami and Lela begin to make their way over to the crowded bakery. “Y tú? Where are you going?” she asks suspiciously as I back away to the other side of the plaza, toward the botanica.
“Getting an egg roll from across the street! Be right back!” I hurry away, hearing Mami mutter something about their skimpy portions. I look back over my shoulder to see Lela glaring. She may not know exactly what I’m doing with Zuela, but I’m definitely playing with fire.
Once I’m sure Lela and Mami are inside the bakery, I beeline toward the tiny storefront. The flashy neon sign proclaiming BOTANICA MAGICA winks down at me. I’ve been coming ever since the whole assault-of-emotional-flavors thing started and the shadows came back in earnest.
Mami would freak to learn I’ve been coming to this botanica without her. She frequents her own botanica across town for her obras and the altars to her saints, but it’s a simple shop that caters to practitioners of religions like Santería, Palo, or Espiritismo who communicate with their ancestral spirits. Not like Zuela’s shop, which serves a broader clientele beyond the realm of religion and faith-based work, people who delve into brujería and trabajos that manipulate otherworldly energies. People with special gifts like mine. To Mami, our intuition, our visions, the shadows we see are unnatural. Something to be stifled and ignored.
I’ve always assumed Mami’s aversion comes from her experiences back in Cuba, from the bruja that cursed our family to live with a love that taints. It’s part of why she sacrificed everything to come to the US. But what happened to our dad, and my ex, is proof that when it comes to magic, you can’t really leave it all behind. Running might be her thing, but it’s never been mine.
Zuela is the only one who’s ever made me feel like maybe there’s a place for me. Like maybe I’m not a complete freak. Even though exploring my gifts makes Lela uncomfortable, I’m going to keep turning to the only person who’s been helping me figure all this out. I’m not ignoring who I am anymore, no matter who I piss off.
The bells peal as I throw open the door. Zuela stands at the back of her store, listening intently to a striking older woman wearing a long shawl with flowered embroidery. The older woman’s hair is gray and stick-straight, a shimmery curtain against her russet-brown skin. They both turn in my direction, and I notice Zuela’s strained expression.
Zuela holds up a finger for me to wait. I nod, but I’m nervous—my mom will come looking for my ass if I’m not back soon. I try to give them privacy, but I can’t help but sneak glances at the other woman. Despite her tiny stature, the older woman emanates a too-powerful taste of tobacco that immediately coats my tongue. An earthy taste I’ve come to recognize as a bruja’s magic—the kind you’d associate with the scent of a Cuban cigar. ...
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