Shimmer

Crown of Fae Book 1

Book Cover: Shimmer
Part of the Crown of Fae series:

Three wishes, two warriors, one chance at redemption

Fae martial artist Alana Beech demands justice when her teammate dies during a rigged fight—but no one cares. Injured and alone, Alana is forced to accept a last-chance job at a curiosity shop. There she finds a magic lamp—and a spark of hope—in a box of abandoned junk.

Ronan is a dragon prince imprisoned during the destruction of the fae homeland. He’s the genie bound to the lamp and forced to grant three wishes to every comer. As handsome as he is hazardous, Ronan joins Alana’s search for answers.

While their alliance turns passionate, Alana’s quest reveals a mystery that goes far beyond murder. The lamp is a lethal weapon, and Ronan’s enemies are hunting for him.  Alana will do anything to guard her lover’s back, but sometimes a warrior’s courage—like the genie’s wishes—carries an unexpected price.

 

 

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Publisher: Rowan & Ash Artistry
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Excerpt:

Centuries ago

The Faery Realm

Air snapped under the dragon’s wings as he caught the updraft, sailing higher. Sun gleamed on his pearly white and gray scales, turning them to rivers of iridescent blue and green. The fae dragons of the Wheel were massive, fearsome creatures of breathtaking beauty. They were also the lords of the land, and they protected what was theirs with fire and fang.

The extra lift gave the dragon a better view, and he twisted his sinuous neck to catch a glimpse of his quarry. There. Anger flared through him, bitter and red as spilled blood. There was the enemy, swarming like rats beyond the sharp-edged mountains. Hiding like…

Shades. Eternal enemies of the fae.

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With a snort of steam, the dragon angled into a circling dive, wind roaring past his membranous wings. He was Ronan, Prince of Bright Wing and commander of his kin. After King Vass, his father, Ronan was the greatest of the dragons who patrolled the sky against the Shades.

He snarled, the urge to protect thundering wildly in his blood as land, sea, mountain, and desert stretched below him. This was his world. His family governed the air fae. They sat on the council that met on the flat-topped mountain called the Wheel. The High King of Faery ruled the realm, but only with the council’s advice. The system was fair, if not perfect, and it had kept the peace for thousands of years.

Until now. Until war.

Ronan crossed the ridge of the first mountains and then flew low, hugging the tips of the tall firs. Recent battles had taught him caution. Shades were related to the fae, for they spoke the same tongue and bore similar shapes. And yet, their souls were forged of a different metal—one that was blackened and twisted. If the fae of the Wheel fought to protect their own, the Shades attacked for the pure pleasure of chaos.

The trees gave way to the green sweep of the valley. Ronan dipped with the land, keeping as inconspicuous as a huge white dragon could be. He’d seen the smoke from afar. Now as he saw the source, his anger congealed to ice. There had been a village on this hillside. All that remained were the blackened stumps of houses, the folk and their animals turned to ash where they stood. Some had been scrambling for the woods, others huddled for a last moment of comfort. Not even the dovecots remained.

Something inside Ronan cracked. Pain welled, ferocious in its intensity. These villagers had been innocents in need of his protection. Instead, they’d perished—not even by the cleansing fire of a dragon, but by something that left the stench of corruption behind.

Shades. They were gone now, moved on to destroy a different village in another valley. But how? How were they coming and going undetected?

Roaring his fury, Ronan beat his wings hard, climbing so quickly he seemed to challenge the sun itself. When he rose to the highest place the air would hold him, he spied what another of the mountain valleys held. In one bowl-shaped hollow that lay amid the jagged rock, there should have been a lake of crystal water. Instead, a midnight blackness shimmered in its place.

He alighted on a high ridge, where he had the best view—but where he was also the most visible. With an instinctive flash of magic, he shifted. It took hours to take his dragon form, but almost no time at all to assume a human body. Now much less conspicuous, he crouched where the ragged rocks gave him cover. Like all the noble fae, Ronan was tall and well-made, his warrior’s physique heavy with muscle. He ducked his dark head, peering down on the scene below.

It wasn’t the cold mountain wind that turned his bare flesh to ice. An army of thousands—of tens of thousands—marched from the inky waters of the lake. Except they weren’t waters at all, but a doorway made of reflection magic.

The Shimmer. He’d read about it in books, and he knew what it could do. This was Shade magic.

It spelled the end of his world.

 

Chapter One

Present Day

The Human Realm.

Alana Beech pushed the elevator button with all the enthusiasm of a felon on her way to the gallows. When the doors shuddered open, she gave an audible sigh, hitched up her shoulder bag, and prepared for the ordeal ahead.

It had been years since she’d searched for a job, but, after a month recuperating, she needed a paycheck fast. Sadly, few companies wanted a washed-up fighter giddy on painkillers. She’d suffered two knife wounds, along with a whole lot of bites and scratches, in a no-holds-barred tag-team match with two cat shifters. Underground fights offered no compensation for injuries and the losers were, well, losers—in more ways than Alana could count. That fight had smashed her entire life to pulp.

But the past was off-limits today, because even invalids had to pay the rent. No, today was about survival and moving forward, and that meant finding work. When a fighter was too hurt to perform, it was time to think outside the box, and Alana had ideas. While she had nothing in common with the hungry young corporate sharks who haunted the business district—except maybe the hungry part—they needed people with her talents. All she had to do was convince them of the fact.

The elevator dinged, the doors groaned open, and she stepped into a beige-on-beige hallway. At the end of the corridor, she could see the sign for the Wildwood Employment Agency, where the overhead light flickered like a dying firefly. She forced her feet into a confident march, though her wounds still throbbed with each beat of her pulse. Hiding her weakness was essential if she wanted to get hired, but she was used to masking pain.

To the casual eye, Wildwood was an old-school agency for temporary office workers. To those in the know, it did the hiring for all the fae businesses in town. Alana’s old coach, Henry, had called in a favor to get her the appointment. He’d been the only person in her corner once her universe swirled down the drain.

When she arrived, the door creaked open of its own accord. A wave of gooseflesh swept up her body, signaling the presence of magic. Warding spells, probably, checking to see if she had an invitation. Forcing a smile, she went inside. A reception counter faced the door, with a tweed couch and chairs framing a waiting area to her right.

“How may I help you?” asked a wizened figure seated at reception. As Alana approached, it raised a narrow, wrinkled face framed by ropes of frizzy white hair. Bones, beads, and the occasional paper clip decorated the trailing locks.

Goblin, Alana thought, cataloguing the threat out of habit. Despite their wispy frames, goblins were strong and could deliver a nasty bite. Like almost all fae, they were capable of hiding their appearance from human eyes. She could see what it was, but she was fae. “I have an appointment with Mr. Barleycorn.”

Rather than consult the computer, the creature lifted a thick tome onto the counter and opened it to a page marked by a ribbon. Dates and times divided the pages in flowing indigo script. Maybe the tech was just for show? Or maybe the handwritten record was for special, off-the-books clients like her? It would make sense to keep separate listings, since humans weren’t supposed to know about the magical world.

The goblin ran a clawed finger down the entries, stopped at a line, and consulted its shiny gold pocket watch. “Your appointment was at two o’clock. It is now two-oh-five.”

“My apologies,” she said quickly. “Traffic.”

The creature peered over the wire rims of its glasses. The eyes were yellow and slitted like a goat’s. “Punctuality is a predictor of professionalism.”

Alana’s cheeks heated. She was late because it hurt to move. Dressing was agony, and climbing the steps of the bus even worse—but she wasn’t about to admit that. Weakness paved the road to extinction. “I’m sorry.”

The goblin sniffed and slammed the book shut, then rose to its full, spindly height—which was still a head shorter than Alana’s five-foot-seven. It wore a forest-green suit, complete with bow tie and yellow waistcoat.

“I brought a résumé, if Mr. Barleycorn would like to see it.” She handed over the pages, and the goblin accepted them as if they smelled of rotten fish.

“Take a seat,” it said, gesturing toward the couch. “I will see if Mr. Barleycorn is still available.”

“Thank you.”

The goblin sniffed before disappearing through the door behind its desk. Alana sat, feeling the scratchy tweed fabric of the couch right through her skirt. Her fingers crushed the leather strap of her bag in a death grip.

It was then she realized there was someone else waiting. He was well into middle age, with a lined face and slicked-back hair gone gray at the temples. He wasn’t a full-blooded fae, but he had the characteristics of one of the mountain tribes—sturdy but not overly tall, with startling dark blue eyes and a faint indigo cast to his skin that only other fae would notice.

He moved closer, taking a seat on the couch to her left. “Hi. I’m Billy Randall.” He thrust out a hand.

“Alana. Pleased to meet you.” She shook, sizing him up. Left-handed, favors the right leg when he moves, smiles too much—a salesman?

“Are you here for the Martigen interviews?” He seemed faintly worried.

“No.”

Her answer must have meant she wasn’t competition because his brow relaxed. “What are you here for, then?”

“A gig in security.”

“An analyst?” He fidgeted with his tie, patting it into place.

The guy had all the nervous tics of someone waiting for an interview. Although the last thing she wanted was small talk with a stranger, she took pity on him. “More likely I’ll end up on the practical side,” she said. “That’s where my experience is.”

Randall’s jaw dropped slightly as he ran his gaze up and down, reassessing her slim figure. “No kidding?”

She allowed herself a smile. People always confused size with strength. “No kidding.”

“You don’t look like a bodyguard. You’re too pretty.”

“Thank you, I guess.”

She’d tried to pull off an acceptable appearance. Long sleeves covered the stitched-up knife wound that tracked from her left wrist past the bend of her elbow. Her skirt and blouse were plain but appropriate, her fair hair brushed into a sleek braid that hung down her back, and her makeup just dark enough to emphasize her wide gray eyes. Today, she’d armed herself for a different kind of battle.

“To be honest,” she added, “this will be a change of career.”

He studied her then, eyes narrowing. “You said your name was Alana. Are you Alana Beech? The Incorruptible?”

Reluctantly, she nodded, acknowledging her stage name. If Billy Randall recognized her, he was acquainted with the underground games.

“That last fight…” He trailed off, shaking his head.

There were a lot of ways to end that sentence. Finished her career. Killed her partner. Broke her.

Randall grabbed her thigh with iron fingers, leaning in so close she could feel his breath on her face. Yup, that grip said mountain fae. He could crush rocks with those fingers. She barely stopped a gasp of pain.

“That last fight cost me everything,” he snarled. “Every last dollar and then some.”

So he’d gambled and lost. Did that have anything to do with why he was here, hoping for a job? Alana felt a flash of sympathy, but the pain in her leg squashed it.

“Remove your hand,” she said quietly.

“Who paid you off?” He was breathing hard, his eyes boring into hers with sheer desperation. Her stomach fluttered with dread. All the chaos from that night came flooding back, the creeping conviction that something was horribly wrong with the match. She’d known it before the first bell, like a bad smell in the air. Now Alana could taste the terror again, lingering like an oily poison. She’d watched Tina, her fighting partner, sink to her knees, her eyes going dark in death.

It should never have happened. Betrayal. Waves of raw emotion pounded in, letting Alana know her true healing hadn’t even begun. The wounds of the body were just the tip of a hurt that went far deeper. Tears pooled in her eyes.

Blinking hard, she put her hand over Randall’s to pry it away. “You don’t seriously think I wanted to lose like that?”

“Who paid you?” His grip tightened another degree, setting her nerves on fire.

In one swift movement, Alana twisted, using the momentum to rise. A second later, she’d pinned him, one arm twisted at his back and his cheek squashed into the tweed couch cushion. “I told you to let go.”

Randall replied in gutter fae that should have melted the paint from the walls.

Alana had heard it all before. “You’re boring me.”

“Who paid you to lose?” he demanded again.

“You think if I got a big payoff I’d be here, looking for work? Use your head.”

Her point made, she let Randall go. He sprang away, spots of color high on his cheeks. She straightened her clothes, brushing away any wrinkles.

“Bitch,” Randall grumbled, but he did it under his breath this time.

The goblin chose that moment to return. It gave an annoyed cough. “Ms. Beech?”

She turned away from Randall, blanking him from her thoughts. If she didn’t, she’d do something that would get her thrown out, arrested, or both.

The goblin flicked its gaze between them with ill-disguised curiosity. “Mr. Barleycorn informs me that he is willing to honor the remaining fifteen minutes of your appointment.”

“Then let’s go.” Without a backward glance, Alana followed the creature into the private part of the office suite. Despite the faint scent of magic in the air, nothing seemed remarkable. Landscapes on the walls. Oak doors with brass nameplates. The smell of somebody’s reheated lunch. They stopped outside a corner office.

“Remember this is your one chance,” the goblin said in dire tones. “Take whatever job he offers you and like it. Mr. Barleycorn never sees a candidate twice.” Then it turned and retreated to its station in the front room.

“Great pep talk.” Alana’s temper stirred, along with a bad case of the butterflies. Sucking in a breath, she boldly went where thousands of desperate job-seekers had gone before.

Her steps went silent as her heels met the deep pile of the carpet. The office was huge, with a massive mahogany desk and bookcases that reached the ceiling. A woven map of the Faery homeland hung on the wall. Alana recognized the territories of the fae tribes from grade school: air, water, fire, and earth each in a primary color. Humans probably thought the map was from a fantasy book. They might as well—it was all ancient history now. The high king was dead, and the fae exiled to the human world. She gave the map no more than a moment’s consideration, focusing on more immediate concerns.

Barleycorn himself was dark haired and impeccably dressed, down to his monogrammed cufflinks. He appeared to be an ordinary human, but Alana knew better. She’d seen him around the fae community all her life, an aloof and important man with his fingers in every fae business and a few human ones, too. But the executive image didn’t fool her. Barleycorn was as fae as moonlight and dew circles, and was probably older than dirt.

As she approached, he closed the file folder before him and folded his hands. Maybe the gesture was meant to convey patience, but she felt like a child called to the principal’s office.

She came to a halt on the other side of the massive desk. “Thank you for seeing me, Mr. Barleycorn.”

“My pleasure.” He tapped the file folder lightly. “You have quite the history, Ms. Beech.”

“I also have skills.”

That seemed to amuse him, though his smile was the thinnest crescent. She itched to fold her arms over her stomach, to protect her vulnerable places from his scrutiny. Instead, she forced her hands to hang loose at her sides, her back straight and chin up.

“Henry Blackwell called me,” he said. “You’re here because you’re out of options.”

Henry, her coach. He’d told her she’d never fight again, and her body had seconded the opinion. Part of her still refused to believe it. “I need a job, sir.”

“And you don’t know how to do anything but fight.”

She set her jaw. “I can still work in security.”

He frowned, picking up a paperweight from his desk. It was a marble dragon, each scale exquisitely carved. “Do you know what happened to the air fae, Alana?”

She blinked, wondering where he was going with this. “They came here, like everyone else.”

“The little ones did. The pixies and flower fae, but the dragons stayed behind to fight the Shades. They shared more with the dinosaurs than long tails and bad breath. Oh, yes, they were strong, beautiful, and amazing creatures, but they were proud to the point of idiocy. Hence, you will never meet a dragon.” He put the paperweight down. “Learn to adapt to circumstances, Alana, or face the consequences.”

“I know I can’t fight like I used to, but…”

“You’re an orphan, a foundling of dubious pedigree, who never even attempted higher education. You want me to find you a job guarding important fae, yet your magic abilities are all but nil. Plus, your body is broken. You’re attempting to hide the agony of simply standing here, but I can sense it like a shrieking siren. What can you possibly offer?”

Alana’s body tensed, her heart beating faster. It was as if she’d suddenly found herself on splintering ice, and hesitation would get her drowned. But how was she supposed to respond?

He’d asked a good question. His words summoned old memories—schoolyard taunts, the disappointed eyes of her adopted parents. She’d been a useless mongrel with zero talent for the basic spells any fae toddler could do. Then she’d learned to fight better than anyone else, and doors to fame, if not exactly fortune, had opened.

Now those doors had slammed shut again. “I need a job to survive.”

“Why should that matter to me?”

Light dawned. He was testing her, seeing how well she conducted herself under pressure. Still, angry heat flared in her gut. “Maybe my welfare doesn’t matter to you, but it does to me.”

“Why?”

Another good question, but she knew the answer instantly. If she survived, then she could discover what really happened during that fight. She owed it to Tina to find out.

That wasn’t his business. “My reasons are my own.”

“And I have a reputation. I can’t recommend you to a client unless I know who you are.”

“You have my file.”

“That’s words on paper. I need to know you’ll see your work through to the bitter end.”

Alana raised a brow. “Sounds like fun.”

Barleycorn nodded slowly. “Something is motivating you besides money. Something greater than the pain in every one of your joints.”

Revenge. With a wrench, Alana realized she ached for it. She’d known it before, but in a fuzzy way. Now it was a crystalized goal with a name. She stared at Barleycorn, wondering what he wanted her to say. The guy had opened her up as if she were a shellfish. Was he spinning some kind of magic? Hypnosis? Mind-reading? She wasn’t fae enough to tell. Just another of her deficiencies.

Abruptly, she ran out of patience. The famous Barleycorn was a first-class jerk. She braced her hands on his big, shiny desk and leaned forward, hoping she left fingerprints. “You want insight? I need a job. I can’t afford to be picky. I’ll take whatever you have to offer.”

He sat back with a feline smile, as if she’d cut past the job-seeker posturing and finally given a worthwhile answer. “You truly don’t care what that job is?”

“Within reason. I’ll take anything that’s honest.”

That seemed to satisfy him. “Then sit down.”

Alana glanced around in surprise. A red leather chair had materialized where there had been none before. She sank into the soft cushion, her aches and pains easing. The relief was more magic, but she welcomed it.

Barleycorn eased a file from the bottom of a stack teetering in his inbox. “This isn’t much, but it should keep the wolf from the door.”

 

 

COLLAPSE
Reviews:Amelia on alwaysreviewing.com wrote:

5 Stars - There is originality all throughout the first book in
the Crown of Fae series. Characters have their own
distinct capabilities and personalities, while the
premise is uniquely imaginative. The history about
the various tribes that make up the fae intrigued
me, and how past battles shaped the future of these
fascinating beings was cleverly plotted. Sharon
Ashwood has come up with an inventive storyline
for her paranormal romance, where possible scenarios
could turn deadly or lead to lasting happiness.

Eva on Stormy Vixen's Book Reviews wrote:

5 Stars - This fairy tale romance is one exiting read that has readers’ dreams and imagination taking flight. Ronan and Alana are strong, spirited characters that readers just can’t help but fall in love with, they easily draw readers to them and thrill them with an adventure and romance of a lifetime. The romance is sweet as Ronan becomes captivated with the feisty Alana when she refuses to make her wishes and the more he learns the more the chemistry burns and the attraction sizzles.

The story is fast paced and full of thrills and excitement as Alana investigates the death of her friend and ends up on the wrong end of some heavy duty enemies that just happen to be Ronan’s enemies as they battle from Alana’s world to the fae world and back again with some stunning magical battles. Surprising twists keeps readers on their toes and there’s never a chance to become bored as this fairy tale romance takes flight on a magic carpet ride that readers can’t help but enjoy.