Crystal Shard (Paladins of Crystal Book 1)

Excerpt available here.

  • Reverse Harem, Paranormal Romance
  • Word Count: 90,000
  • Heat Level: 4
  • Published By: Belaurient Press

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Excerpt

Oh, God. The jacket was even better in the big mirror. I looked kick-ass, like a superheroine who was dressing down for the day. Now all I needed to do was find some hot guy who would worship the ground I walked on—

“A-hem.”

Aw, crap. I knew that throat-clearing sound.

I turned, and found myself face to face with Alan Dickenson, assistant manager of Sav-R-mart. Of course he’d to decide to visit Women’s Wear right this moment, because Fate likes to laugh at me as much as everyone else does.

Alan thinks that he’s hot shit because he has a degree in Business Management from Illinois State University. He also has dandruff, an overbite, and has a tendency to get handsy with all of the women employees at Sav-R-Mart under forty. Well, except for Trish because she told him she’d break off his fingers and shove them so far up his butt that he’d be able to taste them.

He just stood there glaring at me like he’d caught me okaying an out-of-date coupon. “Miss Smith. Is there a reason why you’re not wearing your uniform while on duty?”

Yeah, he really talks like that. I tried plastering on my brightest, stupidest smile. “Um, actually, Mr. Dickenson, there is.”

That’s another thing—he’s maybe twenty-six but he makes all of us call him Mr. Dickenson. He gets away with it because the store manager spends most of his time betting on sports and sneaking shots of Crown Royal in his office, so Alan gets to run the place any way he likes.

He snorted. “And that is?”

“I was just trying on this jacket.” I was about to explain how I was going to buy it after my shift, but he moved just a little too close to me. I could smell the Axe body spray wafting from his button-down shirt. Gah.

“Oh, were you?” he said. “Store personnel are not allowed to try on stock during their shift. You should know that, Miss Smith.”

I gulped. “I do. But I’m buying it right after—”

“But you’re wearing it now, and you are still on shift,” he continued as if I hadn’t said anything. Something flared to life in his eyes, a light I’d seen before when a guy thought that he could get something from me that I didn’t want to give. “I can dock your pay for that, Miss Smith.”

Crap. My paycheck sucked even when I worked overtime. I couldn’t afford to lose any of it. “Please, Mr. Dickenson, I’m sorry,” I babbled. “I just wanted to try it on. I’ll go put my uniform back on.”

I tried to slide past him but he grabbed my arm. “It’s too late for that, Miss Smith. I’m docking your pay.” Then he smiled, one of those greasy ones that made my stomach turn over. “Unless we can work something out.”

His hand slid down until his fingers were brushing my side boob, then pressed in. I froze. If I was by BFF, I’d step back, yank my arm free, and punch him in the face. If I was my foster brother, I’d stomp him into a mud puddle.

But I was me, too short and weak to stand up against someone who had at least a foot and a good hundred pounds on me. “Mr. Dickenson, please.”

He licked his lips. His tongue was pale pink, and I could imagine where he wanted to put it on me. Or in me. “I think you should come with me to my office, Miss Smith. We can discuss this in private.”

He started not-quite-pulling me out of the dressing room area. I panicked, trying to think of what to do. Scream for help? Who was going to help me? Trish was busy at the registers and no customer was going to bother—hell, half of them probably went to church with Alan.

Try to run? Not with the hold he had on my arm. And I needed this job. Sav-R-Mart was the best-paying gig in Towanda, and there was no way in hell I’d be able to find another job that could let me save up enough to find a place to live.

Damn it, where was a knight in shining armor when you needed one?

Just then, an older lady with pale blue hair, a bright orange dress that looked like it came straight out of the 90s, and those big glasses that New York fashion designers wear popped out from behind a rack of tops and stomped right up to Alan. “Young man,” she commanded, “where in this godforsaken store can I find a girdle? And I don’t mean a pair of those ridiculous Spanx. I want a girdle, a proper one that goes from thigh to mid-chest and holds in everything that needs holding in.”

It all happened so fast. Alan turned towards her because he had an MBA, by God, and wasn’t about to pass up assisting a customer and improving the store’s bottom line. But by doing that he yanked me off balance. When I started to trip, he turned back to stop me just as my right leg came up in reflex to stop me from falling.

I kneed him right in the nads. Not that I meant to do it, but I can’t honestly say that I objected to watching his face go white, then green as he made a funny gurgling noise and bent over a crotch that had to be shrieking at him right now.

And his hand was off my arm. Which meant I was free, at least for the moment. When Stylish Grandma winked at me, I knew what I had to do.

I turned tail and ran like hell. For once my feet didn’t tangle or trip over microscopic bumps in the floor tile as I raced away from Women’s Wear like I was a bride who had Steve Bannon waiting for her at the altar. I caught a brief glimpse of Trish’s face and heard her yell my name as I fled through the register lanes and out the front doors.

Of course, the stock sensors went off, blaring like bad dubstep. I ignored them and just kept running until it occurred to me that 1) my keys, wallet, and everything else important to me were still in my purse, and 2) my purse was still in my locker. AKA back in the store, where A-Hole Alan was probably still clutching his balls and plotting my firing, arrest for assault, and quite possibly my murder.

So my car was a no-go. I could walk home, but HR had my address on file and I didn’t really want to put Wally or Dot through the hassle of having to watch the cops arresting me. If I stayed away from everyone, at least I could enjoy my new jacket for a little while.

And I knew exactly where to go. I started running again, grateful that I’d kept my no-name gymshoes on, and headed south until I reached the little two-lane road with the sign that read Towanda-Barnes Road.

Towanda did have one other tourist attraction apart from Route 66. Back in the 1860s this big landowner named Zebediah Hines had decided that he was tired of living among the poors and built a mansion that overlooked the rolling Illinois prairie. He named it after himself and the name stuck, so everyone in the area knew it as Hines Manor.

After he died the mansion got passed down through the family until the Hineses ran out of money, which is what happens when you make stupid investments and take up recreational drugs as a hobby. Once the family was broke, they moved out and the mansion started to fall apart, serving as Towanda’s official Spooky House where kids would dare each other to sneak inside and break stuff.

A few years ago, some folks bought the place and started turning the manor into an event center where people could get married or hold anniversary parties. I was a little disappointed that someone else had bought my manor (yeah, yeah, I know—stupid) but when they started refurbing the outside it started looking so pretty again that I couldn’t stay mad. And I loved looking at all the “in progress” pictures of the inside that were on the website the owners had put up, even if I did feel a twinge of envy. In a few years Hines Manor was going to be just as gorgeous as it was when Zebediah Hines had built it.

But at the moment the new owners were just working on the house. They hadn’t gotten started on the grounds yet, which were huge. That suited me just fine, because I knew where I needed to go. I skirted around the front drive, hoping that no bored construction worker would glance out through the scaffolding and see me, and headed onto the grounds which had been left to grow wild over the last fifty years or so.

Looking back, wandering into a big old stretch of brushland might not have been the smartest thing to so. Part of me had noticed that the sky was getting darker with thunderheads as I ran from Sav-R-Mart, but I didn’t really expect it to rain until I felt the first drops hit my shoulders. And storms in Illinois in October could be damn cold, believe me. In a few seconds the heavens opened and what felt like an entire monsoon of rain began to fall on me. But the alternative was dealing with Alan and the cops, so I wiped my now-soaked hair out of my eyes and kept going.

About fifty yards behind the house, Zebediah Hines had built himself a huge walled garden. I’m guessing it was perfectly manicured when the house was new, but after all those decades it had spread into an untamed wilderness. The entrance was protected by two big rusting gates that curved down from the hinged ends until they met in a half circle. Whoever had built the walls had created an arch that echoed the curve of the gates, so it was like a full moon that looked into what I used to call the Secret Garden. Years ago Wally and I would sneak in there and walk around, talking as we looked for flowers we could take home to his mom.

In the very center of the garden was a massively overgrown rose bush that had spread out until it was at least ten feet wide. I didn’t know what type of rose it was, but the blooms were baseball-sized with deep, dark red petals that were velvety against the green and brown canes. Even though their thorns could leave you bloody I always picked some of them to take home.

I also knew that there was a way you could get through the thorny bushes to the center where no one could find you. When things were bad in school, or I just needed to be alone, I’d come to the garden and crawl into the center of the rose bush. It made me felt safe, and the roses were the old kind that gave off the prettiest perfume.

I headed there now, squishing through the mud with every step. Finding the gap was harder in the rain, and it meant I would have to get on my hands and knees to crawl through. But my jeans were already soaked, as was my jacket. What did a little more mud matter?

I finally found the gap and crawled in. Unfortunately I’d grown in the last few years and kept hitting the big thorns on the canes. A couple of them caught in my hair, hurting as they yanked. I had to stop and untangle them, cursing A-Hole Alan, my stupid luck, and life in general.

At least the branches over the space in the center were thick enough to keep off some of the rain. The ground underneath wasn’t exactly dry but it wasn’t soupy mud either. I bent my legs up and wrapped my arms around them, resting my head on my knees.

That’s when the tears came. I hated crying, hated the way it made my head hurt and my eyes ache. But I couldn’t stop the hot saltwater trickling down my cheeks. Why did my life have to be a total disaster? I had to leave the one place that felt like home to me, I couldn’t find another place to live because of my total lack of money, not to mention my credit problems, my dead-end job was now undoubtedly gone, and I was probably going to jail once I went back to the store.

So I did the only thing I could. I looked up through the branches overhead and yelled at God. “What did I do to piss you off, huh?” I screamed. “Why do you keep screwing up my life?”

A huge bolt of lightning crashed overhead like it was a divine answer. I flinched and my left hand smacked into one of the canes, a thorn stabbing into the center of my palm. Great, just what I needed, yet another reminder of how clumsy I was—

And done!

I blinked at the voice. I knew damn well that there had been no one in the garden with me. So who was talking?

Oh. Oh, no no no. “I’m really sorry, God,” I babbled, “I know this isn’t your fault, please don’t smite me or whatever you do with people who take your name in vain, I’m so sorry—”

I flinched again because the entire damn world lit up like the world’s biggest firework and a huge roar stabbed me right in the eardrums. I screwed my eyes shut and slapped my hands over my ears, but it didn’t help. I could still see the bright light through my eyelids and my ears burned with the thunder. It just kept going on and on. Maybe it wasn’t a lightning bolt. Did the Russians finally get tired of screwing with social media and bomb us? Or the North Koreans?

My head—no, my entire body—felt like it was going to explode and I screamed as the light went straight through me.

And then, thank God, it stopped. Mainly because I passed out.

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