We are so excited and honored to be celebrating the release of Essence, the debut novel for the lovely Lisa Ann O’Kane.
We had the pleasure of meeting Lisa a few months ago at our local Barnes and Noble while we were browsing for new titles. We introduced ourselves and when she told us about her book coming out in the summer we were delighted. Lisa wrote a lovely story about adventure, romance, and self discovery.
Autumn escaped a cult, but now she realizes she’s fallen into another. Growing up in San Francisco’s Centrist Movement, sixteen year-old Autumn Grace has always believed emotions–adrenaline, endorphins, even happiness–drain your Essence and lead to an early death. But her younger brother’s passing and a run-in with a group of Outsiders casts her faith into question. Ryder Stone, the sexy, rebellious leader of the Outsiders, claims Essence drain is nothing more than a Centrist scare tactic — and he can prove it. Autumn follows Ryder to his Community of adrenaline junkies and free spirits in Yosemite National Park, and they introduce her to a life of adventure, romance, sex, drugs and freedom. But as she discovers dark secrets beneath the Community’s perfect exterior, she realizes the more she risks in search of the perfect rush, the further she has to fall.
Javi and I cowered beneath a Monterey cypress while Ryder, Cody and Jett untangled something large and dark on the water-clogged grass before us. The rain had lessened to an intermittent drizzle, and the air smelled strongly of grass and eucalyptus leaves. Javi held a blanket over both our heads, and his body felt warm as it radiated heat beside me.
I felt unsettled. And nervous, yet privileged somehow, to be standing here under this blanket so close to a boy, smelling the scent of cooking spice that lingered, indistinct, on his skin. It wasn’t even a particularly good smell. It was peppery and earthy, a shade shy of unpleasant, but it was Javi’s smell. For some reason, the knowledge that I knew it made me feel like I’d been let in on some kind of secret.
Watch it, Autumn. Seriously. What are you doing right now?
“What do you think about all this?” Javi finally asked. He kept his eyes focused forward as Ryder straightened the corners of a large plastic tarp. “Think it’s true?”
I swallowed. “I don’t know. They certainly seem confident about it.”
“Yeah. They do.” A thoughtful expression crinkled his forehead. “I just… really want to get away from this place. So I’m not sure if that’s clouding my judgment or not.”
“Yeah. Me, too.”
Something hummed between us – fluttery and expectant – before Ryder cried, “OK, we’re ready for you guys! Do you want to try this or not?”
“Of course they don’t want to try this,” Jett said. Her unnaturally dark hair was plastered in wet rivulets against her forehead. “Not this time, anyway. But maybe next time. Guys, watch this. Slip ’n Slides are pretty much the most amazing inventions ever. We set them up all the time back home in the Sierras.”
She took a few steps backward and began kicking out of her boots. They sloshed and protested, but soon she was barefoot. The sight of mud creeping between her toes was so strange that I found myself staring.
She unzipped her purple sweatshirt, and then she was only wearing a thin, lavender tank top – which quickly plastered itself to her small breasts. Then her pants were gone, and she was standing serene and long-legged in the middle of the park, in nothing more than her underwear.
My jaw dropped, and Javi’s sharp inhale told me he was equally stunned by her lack of modesty. No, even more stunned, because his arms wavered, and the blanket in his hands dipped forward for a second. A cascade of water soaked my toes, but his forced breathing and suddenly flared nostrils told me he hadn’t even noticed.
I ignored a stab of – something? – that surfaced when I glanced at him. And then Jett was running, leaping forward and diving headfirst across the plastic tarp.
Her long body was soon soaked with rainwater, and droplets ran down her legs as she threw her head back and laughed. “See? Told you it was awesome!”
I tried to ignore the curve of her thighs, the narrow scoop of her collarbone, and the hardness of her nipples as she smiled expectantly at Ryder and Cody. But the truth was, I felt paralyzed. And uncomfortable. And strangely stirred by the sight of so much skin.
What is wrong with me?
It was just a few moments before Ryder and Cody followed her lead. Kicking off their shoes, they pulled their shirts over their heads and tossed their pants to the lawn.
My heart nearly exploded. I had never seen an undressed boy before, and now two stood right in front of me, completely at ease and unruffled in nothing but tiny cotton undershorts.
They had all these muscles. Their chests were knotted, and their waists narrowed into tight stomachs and rows of blocky lines that led… well… downward… to a spot below their waistbands where I could clearly see the outlines of something. Something that made me want to cover my eyes and meditate for three weeks; something that made me feel dizzy and sweaty and unglued and uncomfortable.
I cleared my throat and looked down, and guilt surged inside me at the realization that I was definitely not practicing neutrality right now. Watch it, Autumn. Seriously.
Javi shifted beside me, obviously uncomfortable, and then Ryder and Cody were flying. They laughed like twin missiles as they streamed across the plastic and collided with a crash into Jett. There was mud everywhere, and I couldn’t tell where one body ended and the others began. And then all three were up, racing toward the beginning of the slide again – laughing and pushing and shoving as they dove across the plastic a second, third and fourth time.
After the fifth time, Jett staggered over. Her breathing was heavy, and her tank top was smeared with long streaks of dark mud. Energy seemed to radiate from her, and her teeth gleamed unnaturally white as she leaned in and planted muddy kisses on both Javi’s and my cheeks.
“I’m really glad I met you guys.” Her breath was laced with the spicy, sweet scent of whatever had been in that flask. I tried not to jump when she touched me.
Ryder and Cody soon followed. They were both soaked and nearly unrecognizable, except for the wide grins that split both their faces.
“Wanna try, Red?” Ryder rushed forward and gripped my waist with two mud-covered hands.
I should have felt irritated by his proximity, by the familiar way he held me and by the mud that now smeared my dress with two identical pawprints. But I didn’t.
I felt shocked, for sure. And a little bit terrified. But the truth is, it didn’t even occur to me that I should push his hands from my sides. Instead, part of me actually wanted to lean into him. I had never been muddy before, and I had certainly never stood like this, staring into the eyes of a barely dressed boy in the middle of the night.
Ryder and his friends made me feel dangerous. And alive.
And they said they could prove the Essence theory wrong.
“I want to go to the Sierras with you.”
I didn’t realize I was thinking the words until they were already spoken.
Lisa Ann O’Kane is a young adult author and former vagabond who once camped out in Yosemite National Park for an entire summer, an experience that inspired her debut novel ESSENCE. Her background is in zookeeping and environmental education, and she has been kicked, cornered, bitten and chased by nearly every animal she has ever loved. She currently resides in Florida, and she is now a huge fan of shooting stars, indoor plumbing and keeping both her feet planted firmly on the trail.