Maeve Crawford has her life mathematically calculated down to the last detail; Leave her podunk Arizona town, graduate MIT, get into the space program, be the first woman on Mars, read lots of books, get a cat (not necessarily in this order).
All Maeve’s careful plans come crashing down when her parents are killed in a freak accident, and she discovers she’s inherited a real, honest-to-goodness English castle – complete with turrets, ramparts, and four gorgeous male tenants.
Corbin – the protector wallowing in guilt
Arthur – the warrior tired of fighting
Flynn – the trickster with an artist’s soul
Rowan – the enigma whose scars run deep
As soon as Maeve enters Briarwood, she’s drawn to Corbin, Arthur, Flynn and Rowan – four beautiful boys drenched in grief, hope, and ancient magic. Maeve needs them all to heal her broken heart, and they need her to help them protect the world from the fae host baying at the castle gates.
Dark forces converge on Briarwood castle, and Meave Crawford – science geek, scarred soul, lover of four remarkable men – must draw from herself a power she never imagined in order to protect the shattered remains of her life.
The Castle of Earth and Embers is the first in a brand new steamy reverse harem romance by USA Today bestselling author, Steffanie Holmes. This full-length book glitters with love, heartache, hope, grief, dark magic, fairy trickery, steamy scenes, British slang, meat pies, second chances, and the healing powers of a good cup of tea. Read on only if you believe one just isn’t enough.
Eeeeeeee! My new book, The Castle of Earth and Embers, is launching this week. It’s a reverse harem paranormal romance with witches and fae. Because I’m quite excited (can’t you tell?) I’m going a little reverse harem crazy on the blog this week.
Today I’ve got an excerpt from my book. This is the first chapter. (It also hasn’t been through my final edit yet, so there might be some spelling/grammar mistakes).
“I don’t care if we’re late,” Kelly mumbled as she twisted a strand of cotton candy around her fingers and licked it off. “This diabetic coma I’m about to inhale is a hundred-and-twenty percent worth it.”
“Nothing can be a hundred-and-twenty percent worth it,” I reminded her, biting into the enormous ball of cotton candy we held between us. The pink fluff dissolved on my tongue. This is way better than a birthday cake. “It’s a mathematical impossibility.”
Kelly made a face at me, her mouth full of cotton candy. “No maths on your birthday. Now be quiet and help my finish this sugary fluff, Einstein. We’re running late.”
My adoptive sister was the only person I let get away with calling me Einstein. Being the a lone science nerd in Coopersville, Arizona, was hard enough without having to deal with a nickname that confirmed to the world I didn’t fit in. There was a jock in sixth grade who tormented me with the name. It lasted until I “accidentally” tripped him in chem lab, where he fell hard enough against a bench that his head required stitches. He left me alone after that, but then I made the mistake of chopping my brown hair into a layered pixie cut, and the kids started to call my “dyke” and “lesbo”, when they bothered to talk to me, which wasn’t often.
Kelly was annoying as hell, but no way was I going to hurt her any more than I already had. So I was stuck with Einstein.
We shoved our way through the thick crowd that had gathered on the fairway. Harried-looking housewives tugged their children from sideshow to sideshow, dishing out tiny plastic tokens like they were prescription painkillers. A long line at the shooting range stretched past the hot dog stand as the high school jocks waited for their chance to show off their shooting skills.
Our parents had told us to meet them at the Ferris Wheel twenty minutes ago for some awkward Crawford family fun time. Mom was big on family fun time, especially on birthdays, and especially if it included wholesome and PG-rated activities like attending the annual Coopersville county fair, which occurred every year on my birthday. Not exactly a twenty-first birthday blowout, but Kelly could make anything fun. She had dragged me away from our parents as soon as we got inside the gates. She didn’t want anyone from school to see us with our parents. It hurt her cred bad enough being the pastor’s daughter, but being seen with them in public was just too much.
I couldn’t really care less. I’d graduated high school two years ago and I’d been living at home since then, taking advanced physics classes at a community college in Phoenix while I saved money for a real college. I didn’t really hang out with anyone apart from Kelly and the folk in my college astronomy club.
Plus, I was checking out of Coopersville in T-minus forty-three days. My mind flashed to the MIT acceptance letter with a full academic scholarship pinned to the fridge at home. Finally I was getting out of podunkesville and starting my life for real. Goodbye horse manure and creationism class in school and jocks ruling the world – in just forty-three days, I’d be sitting in classes at one of the best schools in the country learning about the universe from top physicists and astronomers.
Hey, gorgeous.” Some dumb guy fell in step beside us, interrupting my vision of receiving my acceptance into the NASA graduate space program. “Where are you off to in such a hurry? All the fun is right here.”
I didn’t bother to slow down. He couldn’t be talking to me, with my pixie hair (now sporting a vivid pink stripe through the fringe), and my boring hazel eyes. My birth mother had been British and she died during childbirth, so the only thing I had of hers was a name no one could pronounce and skin that burned at the very mention of sun. Not exactly a turn-on for the opposite sex when surrounded by bronzed, blonde Arizona beauties like my sister.
Speak of the damsel – Kelly switched on her hot-guy-incoming smile, but I grabbed her arm and started dragging her away. She shot me a filthy look I pretended not to notice. It was my birthday, after all. The guy was hot, I’d give her that – he spoke with a British accent and stood out as much as I did. With his dark hair tinged with gold flopping over his face, broad shoulders, black-and-grey tattoos peeking out from his collar and cuffs, and luminous skin that looked as though it hadn’t seen the sun in decades, clear and smooth as crystal.
He also had cold, dead eyes and a self-satisfied smirk instead of a smile. I already disliked him. But Kelly dug her heels into the dirt, and we ground to a halt. Fine, whatever.
“I haven’t seen you around before, sugar,” Kelly purred, reaching out and touching the stranger’s arm in that overly-familiar Arizona way. “You new to Coopersville?”
“I’m just passing through.”
“Ah, a wanderer?”
“You might say that.” He flashed Kelly his cat-ate-the-canary smirk, but his crystal eyes remained focused on me. A flicker of unease squirrelled around my gut.
“We can’t talk now,” I said, squeezing Kelly’s arm. “We’ve got to meet someone.”
“We’re going to the Ferris wheel.” Kelly batted her eyelashes at the guy. “You want to join us?”
Dammit, Kelly. Forget subtlety. I elbowed her in the ribs. She winced but continued to ignore me.
“It would be my pleasure to escort two fine ladies.” His deep, velvety voice caressed my ears, but something about it seemed … off. His accent was almost too perfect, like he’d practiced every word in the mirror beforehand. He inserted himself between us, wrapping his arms around our shoulders. His hand snaked down the edge of my tank top and I flinched away. I didn’t want him touching me. Kelly shot me a look of ‘stop cramping my style.’ And I remembered that I was leaving her alone in forty-three days, so I clamped my mouth shut and tried not to think about the guy’s arm around my neck.
He kept his eyes on Kelly as we pushed our way through the crowd, but then his hand slipped again, his fingers brushing against my breast. Oh, no you don’t. I ducked out from under his arm. “Don’t touch me, creep.”
“Whoa, ease up, sweetheart.” He held one hand up in mock surrender, the other arm still firmly wrapped around Kelly’s shoulder. I noticed his other hand pressed against the side of her breast. Kelly shot me a look. Stop being so uncool, she mouthed.
Whatever. If cool meant having to hang out with this twat (I loved that word; picked it up from a British TV show, and I gotta say it a lot because my parents didn’t know what it meant), then I was perfectly happy being a square. I thought about putting my foot down and dragging Kelly away, but I knew the guy couldn’t do much in the crowded fair, and Kelly could handle herself.
I shrugged. “Three’s company. So if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll just meet you guys at the wheel. Kelly, just remember what we learned in school about gloves.”
Kelly stuck her tongue out at me.
The guy’s smirk froze on his lips. Clearly, he wasn’t used to woman rejecting his charms. “No, that’s not how it works. It’ll be the both of you, so don’t go running off now.”
The guy lunged for me. I leapt back, my heart pounding. “Don’t touch me!”
A fist came out of nowhere and slammed into the guy’s temple. His expression froze for a moment, all smushed against the phantom fist. Then he was flying backward, crashing into the crowd waiting at the duck-shooting booth. People shouted and leapt out of the way. Beer pitchers and cups of coke spilled, and a kid howled as his corn dog was knocked out of his hand.
“She said not to touch her.” A deep voice with an even-more-perfect English accent growled from behind me.
“Ow, fuck!” The golden-haired twat yelled, grabbing his face. Blood cascaded from a cut above his eye. He tried to get to his feet, but several of the jocks in the crowd shoved and kicked him. Not because they were trying to save my honour, but because they were jocks and that’s what they did.
“Hey, thanks for—” I turned to my saviour, and stopped short.
For the first time ever, I knew what it meant when authors talked about being “mesmerised by beauty,” because I literally could not tear my eyes away from this guy. He stood with tree trunk arms folded, glaring at the twat with emerald eyes pierced with light. They looked like prisms that might shatter at any moment. A soft nose and strong jaw completed a face that would’ve looked right at home on a men’s shaving commercial, complete with a mop of dark, feathery hair that stuck out at all angles, a wild mane I wanted to tangle my fingers in.
Tattoos spiralled down both his arms – intricate celtic knots weaving over his toned muscles. He wore a black t shirt with some indecipherable band logo on it, dark jeans, and heavy black boots coated with a layer of Arizona dust. He was staring at me like I was the only thing that mattered in the whole world.
This was the kind of guy who carried around a suitcase of broken hearts. He’s the guy all lonely female country singers wrote songs about, except he looked more like a rockstar than a lone ranger. Why was he here, at the Coopersville county fair, of all places, and why was he bothering to rescue me?
“Are you okay?” he asked, the syllables rolling off that sexy British tongue of his.
“I—” articulation wasn’t happening in the presence of such a fine specimen of humanity. “Um …”
My phone beeped. I tore my gaze away from my hot rescuer, and checked the message. It was Mom. The thirty heart emojis at the beginning of the message gave it away without even having to read the “from” bar.
“We’re in line. Hurry up!”
Kelly slammed into me. “Who’s this guy?” She flashed Mr British a toothy smile. Obviously, she was already over her infatuation with the black-haired twat. “You saved us from a crazy stalker. What can we do to repay you? I could buy you a drink?”
Inside, I groaned. Typical Kelly. Not two minutes ago she was practically purring on the twat’s lap, and now he was our crazy stalker? Well, too bad, she wasn’t getting her hands on my green-eyed hero.
“You’re not twenty-one, remember?” I elbowed her out of the way. Kelly glared at me. Hey, it was my birthday, after all. I flashed Mr British what I hoped was a flirtatious smile. “But I’d be happy to.”
“What about Mom and Dad?” Kelly moaned, suddenly desperate to see them now that I had the guy’s attention. “We can’t just keep them waiting at the Ferris wheel forever.”
As if on queue, my phone beeped again. Mom. “Where are you?” and about twenty sadface emojis.
I handed the phone to Kelly. “Reply to that. Tell her we’ll be there in a second.”
“It’s your phone. You do it.” Kelly tried to shove it under my nose, but I jerked my head away, and turned back to Mr British, who was staring at me with this intense expression that was almost unnerving, if it didn’t make my stomach flutter.
“What?” I asked. “Do I have cotton candy up my nose or something?”
Mr British shook his head, his dark hair waving around his face. “You’re just … really beautiful.”
That was such a ridiculous line it should have made me snort, but instead, the butterflies in my chest danced like crazy. The intensity in this guy’s eyes when he said that … it was like he really believed it was true. It made me feel like a goddess, instead of the frumpy science nerd with a haircut or indeterminable gender that I really was.
My phone beeped again. Kelly glanced at the screen and smiled. “Never mind. Mom said they just hopped on. They want us to wait for them at the bottom, and they’ll go again with us.”
“I’ll walk you,” Mr British said, with a glance over to the twat, who was now having a shouting match with two of the jocks. Mr British picked up my hand and looped it in his, like an old-fashioned gentleman escorting a lady to a ball. Electricity fizzed up my arm. My gaze fell on his lips again, and my body heated up as I wondered what it would be like to kiss them, all soft and sensual. I’d make him talk to me with that gorgeous husky British voice, and tell me everything he’s going to do to me …
A loud explosion shook the earth, jolting me out of my dirty thoughts.
I pitched forward. Mr British caught me in his arms. A sizzle of electric current flared through my body from his touch, immediately extinguished by the searing pain in my ears as the world around me shattered.
The earth pitched, knocking our feet from under us. We slammed hard into the ground, the force driving the wind from my chest. Mr British wrapped his body around mine, his weight reassuring against me, protecting me from … what? I tried to see through the throng of stampeding, screaming people. An intense wave of heat swept over me, like someone had opened an industrial oven right over top of us. I gasped for air. Mr British yelled something to me but I couldn’t hear it over the roar in my ears.
Mr British yanked me to my feet, his other arm around a sobbing Kelly. We were swept along with the rest of the crowd fleeing back through the midway. I craned my neck around and finally saw what had happened. My blood froze in my veins.
The Ferris wheel was on fire.
Flames licked their way through the spokes and darted from carriage to carriage. People hung out of the buckets, screaming and crying for help. The whole thing groaned as it buckled in the middle, shooting sparks in all directions. Someone leapt from one of the top gondolas, and more people screamed as his body slammed into the top of the coffee truck and bounced to the ground. People rushed to him, but he didn’t get up.
My heart leapt into my throat. The only parents I’d ever known were on that wheel. I wrenched my body from Mr British’s grasp and took off toward the burning ride.
“Maeve, no!” Kelly yelled after me, but her words were swallowed up by the fire and the fury.
I shoved my way through the crowd, screaming my parents’ names. I hit a lull in the crowd and sprinted across the field, just as the ground beneath me buckled. With a groan, the whole Ferris wheel toppled over, like it had been shoved by some invisible giant.
No. No, no, no.
I crawled toward the corn dog cart as the Ferris wheel crashed into the ghost train, sending a shower of sparks down into the midway. Fires leapt from awning to awning, consuming the flimsy fabric of the petting zoo tent in one giant inferno. I noticed someone pulling a sobbing child from a mangled ghost train cart. I picked myself up, ignoring the trembling in my legs, and raced toward the wreckage again.
Mom and Dad are in there somewhere. I’ve got to find them. I’ve got to—
I’d just swung myself under the outer ring when a fire leapt up from the ghost train, sending another wave of heat at me. Thick smoke rose from the fires – it wasn’t thick here on the ground, but it stung my eyes so badly tears obscured my vision. Everything smelled like a charcoal BBQ.
I stepped back. How the hell was I going to get inside? Loose wires sparked on the ground. In the distance, I heard the faint ring of the fire department’s siren.
My weeping eyes caught sight of a figure standing on the other side of the field. While everyone around him ran in all directions, he stood still, his arms folded, his expression placid as he watched the horror unfold around him. It was the black-haired twat who harassed me and Kelly earlier. His eyes met mine, and he lifted a hand and waved at me.
What the hell?
He smiled, his white teeth reflecting the glow of the fire. My blood turned cold. A cloud of smoke billowed in front of my face, burning my eyes so I turned away. When I looked back, the guy was gone. All I could see was an enormous black dog loping across the fairway.
With a sickening CRACK, half of the Ghost Train building fell away. The Ferris wheel groaned. The outer ring slid off the edge of the collapsed structure. I ducked as a live wire swung dangerously close to my head. A gondola dangled just above me, two pairs of legs hanging over the edge of the wooden seat. The owners of the legs weren’t moving or crying out.
That could be my parents. I have to—
The Ferris wheel lurched again. I rolled away as the beam above my head crashed to the ground. I scrambled back as the entire outer ring collapsed, folding in on itself like some kind of terrible accordion. Burning hot debris slammed into the ground around me as the whole Ghost Train collapsed. Both structures crashed into the earth.
The force knocked me off my feet, slamming me hard into the packed earth. My head hit something hard, and stars appeared in my vision. I tried to get up, but the heat rolled over me, paralysing me in place. Moving only made my head spin worse, and the world around me bubbled and blurred.
I’m going to die … I’m going to burn up right here …
Mr British’s face appeared in my vision. His big eyes filled my vision, reflecting dancing orange flames. At least the last thing I saw before I died was a really hot guy. I could do much worse.
Then the vision blurred away to nothing, and the world went black.