“This series (The Curse of the Templars) is explosive, sexy, riveting,
and Claire Ashgrove is a master of her craft.”
MAGGIE SHAYNE, New York Times Bestselling Author
“Ashgrove's Templars will steal your heart and her world building
will leave you wanting more.”
KARIN TABKE, National Bestselling Author
“Claire Ashgrove weaves complex layers of history, paranormal worlds
and romantic fiction seamlessly.”
CATHERINE BYBEE, New York Times Bestselling Author
Whence comes the teacher, she who is blind will follow.
The one who digs in dust precedes the finding of the jewel.
And she who understands the sword precludes the greatest loyalty.
When darkness rapes the land, the seraphs shall purify the Templar
and lead the sacred swords to victory.
—ancient prophecy of the Knights Templar
The sound of shattering glass stilled Rosa McGuire’s hands. As the hair on the back of her neck slowly rose to attention, she lifted her gaze to the closed door that separated her bedroom from the nursery. Goosebumps coursed down her arms. Her heartbeat kicked into overdrive.
This morning, September had warned the shadow would come. Rosa had taken the little girl’s proclamation as another of her fanatical dreams, particularly given September’s deadpan expression. No fear, no hesitation. No different than the simple, matter-of-fact way September had passed Rosa a sheet of paper and said, “Mommy’s hotel number is here.”
Rosa swallowed hard and took a tentative step toward the closed door. She reached out a jittery hand and turned the knob. Beyond, something heavy thumped against the floor.
Dear God, was this retribution? Had all the Speranza family’s illegal profits come back to haunt this poor, innocent little girl? Was she now to become a pawn in a game of power?
Not while she’s in my care.
Clenching her teeth, Rosa took a deep breath and forced instantaneous panic aside. In thirteen years of service to the Speranza’s, she’d never once feared the late night encounters with thugs or the guns tucked inside carefully hidden holsters. When Joe Speranza, September’s grandfather, ordered the family into hiding shortly before his death, Rosa hadn’t so much as shivered. When September’s mother, Isabelle, had received threats to turn over the jewels her grandfather had stolen, Rosa had locked them in the safe herself. She wasn’t about to let a potential kidnapper spook her senseless now. While the two male figureheads of the family might deserve to rot in hell—and God willing, they were—Isabelle and her daughter most certainly did not. They were precious innocents.
With her free hand, Rosa grabbed her pepper spray off the fireplace mantle and yanked the door open. A beacon of light spilled into the dark nursery, illuminating the shadowy figure of a man near the canopied bed. September slept like a rock—as she did each time her head touched the pillows. She’d slumber through a freight train barreling through the middle of her bedroom unless someone touched her.
Rosa poised her spray. “Get away from her. You leave this family alone, you hear me? It’s over. The ones you want are dead now.”
“Hm,” a deep masculine voice rumbled.
The sound sent another bout of chills coursing down Rosa’s spine. She shivered in the doorway and willed strength into her suddenly trembling hand. An oppressive weight enveloped her, tightening her lungs, making it near impossible to breathe. The urge to run as fast as her stubby legs would go and race as far as possible from this room, from this house, possessed her.
“Dead you say?” The man turned in the shadows, revealing a regal profile. He took one step forward, into the fringes of light. Sandy brown hair tumbled recklessly over one eyebrow. A smile played on his face.
Rosa ’s eyes widened. Isabella’s most recent client—what was he doing in September’s bedroom? “Paul? What’s going on? Isabelle’s not here, she’s in Italy. You know she left this morning.”
“Indeed. I booked the flight myself.” His smile widened as he stepped further into the stream of yellow that spilled across the floor. “She has something I want very much. I intend to have it.”
Understanding slammed into Rosa. September was a bargaining chip. A tool to make sure her mother returned with the piece of jewelry Paul Reid had hired her to procure. But the malice glinting in his dark eyes didn’t fit with that purpose. He’d know Isabelle wouldn’t leave September unattended. He couldn’t have hoped to break into the Speranza estate and not get caught.
Rosa took a step backward as Paul invaded her personal space. “Isabelle won’t break her word. She’ll bring your jewels back. You don’t need to take September. If you do, I’ll have to call the police, and then where will we all be?”
“Oh, that won’t be necessary.” His chuckle rasped low and guttural. “You’re going with her.” He stepped forward and caught her by the wrist. Long slender fingers stroked the inside of her arm. Intimate light danced in his gaze as his eyes locked with hers.
Trapped by a warm, sensual smile that spoke erotic words to her long-neglected heart, Rosa could do no more than suck in a deep breath. Her senses dulled, awareness narrowing to a sharp pinpoint of scalding sensation where his fingertips touched her skin. Warmth traveled through her veins to her shoulder, following the slow caress of his hand. He trailed one finger along her collarbone. Traced the plunging v-neck of her off-white sweater.
Swallowing thickly, Rosa fought through the haze of suggestion. Keep September safe. This wasn’t right. She had to make Paul leave. It might have been a long, long time since a man had looked at her like he found her desirable, but this wasn’t the time or place. He wasn’t the right man.
She glanced down at the solitary finger atop her left breast, breaking the magical spell of his hungry gaze. It took a moment to make sense of the crimson warmth spreading down the front of her sweater. Down the length of her arm.
Everything clanged together in one agonizing thunderstroke. Blood. Her blood. It poured in rivulets across her abdomen, dripped off her fingertips to pool on the floor. The fingernail that depressed the soft tissue of her breast transformed into a gnarled, ebony claw that slid slowly through her flesh.
Pain ricocheted through her body. A scream bubbled in the back of her throat.
Before it could rip free, a grotesque hand locked under her jaw and thrust her head back, forcing her gaze to meet a fathomless dark stare. A touch of beauty clung to his shadowy form. His long limbs bore grace; his face carried the glory of God despite his wicked sneer. Ethereal onyx wings extended from his back to feather against the tall ceiling.
Pure terror took root in Rosa’s limbs and stifled her building scream. Dear God, save me.
“Call to him all you wish.” Unholy laughter echoed through the room. “But you shall look upon Azazel as you die.”
If ever an archangel deserved eternal damnation, ’twas most assuredly the mighty warrior, Mikhail. In nine hundred years of service to both the Templar Order and the venerable servants of the Almighty, Caradoc could not recall a time when he had been more infuriated with their commander. If ’twere possible, he would lead Mikhail to Azazel’s fiery realm and chain him there beside the Dark One. If ’twere possible, he would raise his sword against his esteemed leader and lob off his head.
If ’twere possible…
Grinding his teeth together, Caradoc silenced the thought. ’Twould serve no purpose, beyond further stimulating his anger, to enumerate the torture he would like to inflict upon Mikhail. Orders remained orders. Naught would change the fact he was bound to Sicily for the immediate time, yanked from battle and instructed to reclaim the priceless necklace that housed Christ’s tears.
Still, the acknowledgement he could not change his circumstances did little to combat the fiery ache that ravaged his body or the discontent of his tormented soul. Nor did it soothe his absolute hatred of the starched shirt and crisp suit jacket this temporary distraction required.
He stuffed a finger into his collar and tugged, longing to rip the dark blue tie around his neck into pieces. God’s teeth, ’twas misery worse than any finery his former status as Lord of Asterleigh had ever demanded.
“Aye, I feel like a noose is about my neck as well,” Tane remarked as he mirrored Caradoc’s attempt to gain breathing room.
Caradoc pursed his lips and fixed his stare on the long table across the wide, marble-embellished room, where the recently deceased Antonio Shapiro’s antiquities lay in glass cases. Two weeks travel together had allowed Tane and Caradoc time to sort out their differences and rekindle the bonds of brotherhood that Tane’s disloyalty had strained. And yet, striking an amicable conversation with the brother who had kidnapped the first seraph felt somehow traitorous. Caradoc would like to. Aye, he would like to forget the entire ordeal had ever occurred. However, he could not. Not until Merrick could embrace Tane as the brother he had once been.
Gareth shifted his weight with a grimace. “Saints’ blood, remind me if I should ever come across the maker of these shoes, that I should love to run him through.”
Caradoc could not help but chuckle at the pained look etched into Gareth’s youthful countenance. For the first time in centuries, the European knight knew the meaning of miserable. ’Twould serve him well to experience even a small portion of the misery his American brothers suffered. Too long now the Europeans had lived in comfort, the dark stains on their souls lacking the venom others bore.
“Four days, and we shall be free of these threads that are worse than chains,” Caradoc grumbled. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply. Four days until he could return to battling demons and his eternal quest to escape the pain that worsened with each sunrise. Then this insufferable existence would end. He would confront the demon that would forever extinguish the light in his soul, and his brothers would bring him blessed death. A fate that could not come soon enough.
The faint scent of honeysuckle tickled his nose. Every muscle in his body coiled into knots at the familiar perfume. Isabelle. He squeezed his eyes shut more tightly to block the association, but no matter how he tried to bar the memories from rising, her deep indigo eyes bored into his soul. Lush rose-pink lips tormented him with memories of their silken feel against his bare skin.
Laughter, more lyrical than the words of Keats, echoed in his head. Faint, distant soprano tones blended with a richer alto that rang in harmony. The lilting cadence drifted through the layered remembrances, rising to the surface. Dancing closer.
Caradoc’s eyes snapped open as his heart drummed to a standstill. Nay! It could not be. Someone had kidnapped her laugh.
As a cluster of suits blockaded his view and the sound died off, he let out a harsh breath. In the next moment, however, all the relief that flooded into his veins morphed into particles of ice as waist-length golden hair broke through the crowd of dark-coated men. Caradoc’s gaze riveted on the blonde, his throat so tight he could not begin to pull in air.
Here. In Palermo. Standing less than twenty feet away.
As his heart thundered into an erratic beat, the pain in his body compounded. He grabbed the table behind him to keep from doubling over from the force of it. Visions of the long ago days he had spent in the rack, his body stretched beyond its limitations, pounded through his head.
Isabelle . He had done all he could to keep from seeing her. To force her out of his life, knowing he could never fulfill her needs. Yet, it seemed as if the Almighty would grant him no quarter. Not only had she haunted his every waking moment for the last three years, he must now confront the reality of the only woman he had ever loved.
Try as he might, he could not tear his gaze off her slender body. To his utter shame, the hope rose that she might turn around and gift to him her brilliant smile. To see that angelic light one more time… His heart twisted.
To touch her one more time.
Longing fisted around his innards, and he swallowed hard.
“Brother?” Tane’s hand fell to Caradoc’s shoulder. “What ails you?”
Naught could force a single syllable through the narrow straw his throat had become. Time moved in slow motion as Isabelle turned, glanced over him, looked at the paintings on the wall to Caradoc’s left. Her eyes snapped back and locked with his. For one tumultuous thrum of his pulse that warmed him from the inside out, she held his gaze.
Then, those deep blue eyes that taunted him each time he slept narrowed to mere slivers of indigo light and filled with condemnation.
The hatred emanating in her stare flayed him open. He had put that vile gleam there. Had asked for naught less when he fled the rooms they shared three years prior without so much as a goodbye. He deserved every bit of it. Mayhap more. And yet, the knowledge he had crushed the love he had so cherished, cleaved his heart in half.
She had been the only woman he had ever even considered spending eternity with. That he could not, that some day he would be forced to pledge himself to a seraph, drove him away. He could no more bear the thought of telling her he must join with another, than he could bear the idea of her eventual mortal death.
Caradoc looked away with effort. He could not stand here a moment longer.
Shouldering his way past Tane, he struck off across the marble floor toward a distant table of jewelry and antiquities. ’Twould be a better purpose to focus on their mission. Identify the necklace, locate its number in their program, and appear only when the auctioneer placed it on the podium. Gareth or Tane could claim the urn and the other minor relics of interest to the Church that Antonio Shapiro had amassed throughout his life. The less time Caradoc spent where he must confront Isabelle’s presence, the better.
He reached the row of glass cases, set his hand on one, bowed his head, and took a shaky breath. Isabelle here. Damnation, no greater torture could exist.
Footsteps approached his side. “Caradoc,” Tane prompted. “What did you see? You look as if you witnessed a ghost.”
A ghost indeed. One he had desperately tried to bury.
Caradoc shook his head. “’Tis naught.”
“Naught, my arse!” Behind him, Gareth let out a hearty laugh. “Did you not see the woman, Tane? ’Twould seem as if our brother was besieged with lust.”
As Caradoc lifted his head, he met Tane’s widening eyes. What had just occurred was lost on the European knight, but the five whom Caradoc had spent nine centuries with knew his struggle. The shared knowledge, the brief pity that reflected in Tane’s eyes, was too great for Caradoc to shoulder. He scowled to ward it off. “Leave me. See to the urn, to the painting. I care not.”
Tane answered with a deferential nod. But as he took a step back, the sweet scent of honeysuckled wafted to Caradoc’s nose once more. Before he could turn around, the delightfully feminine voice he could not hope to forget rang over the surrounding hum of activity.
“Please stay. I’d love to have an audience while I tell your friend to go to hell.”
* * *
Every fiber of Isabelle Speranza’s body vibrated with unspent anger. She glowered at Caradoc’s stiffened shoulders, silently daring him to turn around and confront her wrath. She’d known one day they would meet—her dreams promised nothing less—and for three years she’d rehearsed the glory of this moment—what she would say, how she would say it. If she could get away with driving her knee into his groin, she’d do so in a heartbeat. He deserved far more. More her father had promised Caradoc would receive, before his heart suddenly gave out.
“Or are you too cowardly to look me in the eye?” she challenged.
Conscious of the way the two men who flanked him tensed, she tipped her chin up, determined not to be dissuaded by the fact she had company. She’d tell Caradoc the things she’d longed to once heartbreak morphed to fury and be gone before he could think of a protest. His pretty words meant nothing to her anymore.
Slowly his head turned, then his broad shoulders. Words rose to the tip of her tongue, anxious for freedom. Fuck you. But when those hazel eyes met hers, and remorse washed over the noble lines of his face, her courage faltered. Against her will, her gaze dropped to take in the magnificence of the man she’d once believed in. Beneath the starched white shirt and the open front of an exquisitely tailored suit jacket, his chest was every bit as broad as she remembered. Crisply pleated pants accented the trimness of his waist, and though loose, the fine Italian fabric couldn’t hide his muscular thighs.
Memory supplied all the rest as visions leapt to life of the two of them tangled in the bed sheets, laughter rumbling in her ear, his bronzed body meshing perfectly with hers. At once, heat fanned through her limbs. Her stomach pitched to her toes.
God, she hated him. Hated how he could turn her into putty even after the despicable way he’d tossed her aside without so much as a word of explanation.
She jerked her gaze back to his. Not remorse. Regret. He regretted she’d finally caught up with him. He knew he’d been a bastard, and now he didn’t want to face the proverbial music.
“Isabelle,” he murmured.
The velvety baritone washed over her, intensifying the trembling in her hands. She opened her mouth, prepared to spit the rehearsed speech out. But to her absolute shame, words remained lodged in her throat.
Isabelle cleared her voice, determined to get the nightmare over with. Once she had, she could focus on accomplishing the job Paul Reid sent her to do. In four days, she’d never again see Caradoc Asterleigh. She’d never forget him, but she’d never see his handsome face looming a scant few inches from hers.
“You’re an asshole,” she muttered.
His wince rattled her beyond repair. Damn it all, this wasn’t how the fantasy played out. He was supposed to be standing behind her, touching her shoulder, pushing her hair aside so he could kiss the side of her neck. The scene had driven every speech she’d crafted until she’d come up with the exact words she intended to use. She’d twist aside, tell him to fuck off. He’d spew petty excuses. She’d laugh in his face and stride away.
But Caradoc didn’t look at all prepared to grovel, and her nerves of steel were rapidly turning into spaghetti.
The traitorous plea of her heart surprised her so monumentally that the papers she held in her left hand slipped free. They scattered to the floor in front of her high heels in a jumbled mess of programs, flight itineraries, hotel reservations, and pages of research she’d conducted on the priceless diamond necklace Paul wanted.
Before she could bend her knees to pick the mess up, Caradoc bent over and grabbed at the papers. A whiff of sandalwood and sage assaulted her senses. How many times had she buried her face into her pillow and fancied she could smell him on the sheets?
Oh dear Lord, she needed to get out of here fast. She was unraveling by the second. Any minute now, what she longed to ask would tumble free—Why did you leave me?
The feel of his strong fingers locking around her left ankle froze her frantic heart. Heat seeped into her skin, blending with the already present warmth and making her palms sweat. An all too familiar ache spread through her womb. She closed her eyes with a grimace. No, no, no! She would not forget the utter sense of betrayal she experienced when she’d woken up in the cottage they’d shared in England and found it empty.
Three weeks might have opened her to love. He might have said the same things. But this man had never truly loved her. She’d been nothing more than a fleeting excursion, and his words were empty lies.
She tensed her leg, prepared to kick off his hand.
“Isabelle, what is this?” Caradoc’s thumb caressed the tattoo on the outside of her ankle.
Fringed with a touch of disbelief, his question slammed into her. In one swift stroke, the already budding nightmare of confronting him transformed into a living horror. Caradoc wasn’t supposed to be here. He wasn’t supposed to be gallantly picking up her papers, and he damn sure wasn’t supposed to notice the tattoo she’d designed in a moment of uncontrolled yearning, a year after he’d abandoned her.
A tattoo that identically matched the colorful family crest on Caradoc’s right shoulder blade.
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