“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
MacNeill Holdings, 1121
He had wedded, much to his dismay.
Raucous laughter bounced off thick stone walls and high wooden timbers as an inebriated guest made an obscene gesture at his belt whilst Edana climbed the stone stairs. Declan MacNeill chuckled as was expected, but he did not feel the humor. Today had been difficult enough for her. She did not need the harassment of men to remind her of her expected duties tonight.
She stopped on the stairs and looked back at those who had feasted in celebration. Her gaze searched the room, resting on her sister, her father, and finally Declan. His heart tripped a beat under her scrutiny. A more beautiful woman he had never met. Long wheaten hair trailed in two loose braids to her narrow waist where dainty ribbons danced against her shapely backside. Her face held youth and innocence, and ’twas as flawless as if the angels touched her.
He raised his goblet with what he hoped was a reassuring smile. She narrowed her eyes. When she turned, her back tightened like the iron bars on the bailey gate as she proceeded up and out of view. He would join her soon in their bedchamber.
He drank the rest of his wine in one deep swallow. She hated him. They had met for the first time only just this morn, and she had not hesitated to express her true thoughts about their joining. Though he had been none too excited about assuming the role of husband, he had hoped the prospect of uniting peace between their families might see them on easier first footing.
Such was not in his fortune.
As the men laughed and jeered around him, he turned the narrow band around his finger. Soon, she would see he was not the monster she proclaimed him. He had done all he could to see to her comfort tonight. On discovering her passionate objections, he had put his mind to the expected consummation for hours. The long years of feuding with her family, the Bànachs, and the neighboring Fitzgibbons, would bring questions about the legitimacy of their wedding, and as such, the consummation must be witnessed. Which seemed insurmountable initially.
What he eventually designed with his most trusted friend was simple. There would be two witnesses—their fathers had agreed without protest. Edana’s sister, who was too innocent to know about the ways between a woman and a man to question things, and Fingal would perform the necessary observation. Declan would close the curtains around the bed. He would kick the covers a bit, whisper to her she should make some sort of womanly sound, and then a vial of lamb’s blood would provide the proof of their physical union. When she came to understand him better, they would come together naturally.
She might hate him now, but she would come to see he was fair, reasonable, and did not hesitate to grant kindnesses when they were deserved.
Fingal clapped him on the shoulder. “To a married man’s delight!” With an exaggerated laugh, he raised his goblet in toast.
Declan did not smile.
Leaning closer, Fingal said at his ear, “The time is upon you, my friend. Do act the role accordingly.”
Indeed. The joyous husband. With a false grin, Declan leaned away, clinked his goblet accordingly, and rose from the table. “Better?” he asked quietly.
Declan turned to the guests at the table, a mixture of his father’s friends, Edana’s family, and trusted members of their respective armies. Men who would not have normally been present in the great hall, but when neither family completely trusted the other, some securities were necessary.
“My friends, I thank you. I see now to my bride and wish you all good fortune. I ken I shall have mine.” He paused then affected a suggestive smirk. “You may ask Fingal how good it may be.”
More loud cheers burst from the men whilst the women giggled behind their hands. Hesitantly, Edana’s sister Iona rose from her chair. Declan acknowledged her with a warm smile. Her demeanor was so guileless and trusting he almost hated to deceive her. But ’twas for a better purpose, and he took some comfort from that knowledge.
He worked his way through the crush of people to the stairs. Fingal stopped him at the bottom.
“I will fetch the sister and delay her a few moments. ’Twill give you time to explain your intentions.”
Declan nodded. Nerves twisted his belly, and he let out a hard breath. God willing, tonight would lay a path to peace.
He took the stairs slowly, giving his new bride more time to become comfortable. At least her simple dress did not require the attention of handmaidens. For that matter, she had not brought any with her. He would assign a maid to her needs in the morn.
At his door, he gave her the courtesy of knocking. He shifted his weight as he waited for her answer.
When none came, he assumed she did not intend to, and opened the door a crack. Torchlight flickered within. “Edana. ’Tis Declan. Are you abed? You may close the curtains if you wish.” That should prove he did not intend to throw himself on her at the first opportunity.
Odd. Mayhap she already slept. He could not fault her weariness—he too looked forward to escaping the day in slumber.
He let himself inside the room and closed the door behind him. When he turned, he stumbled back.
She swayed from a thick ceiling timber, bound there by the thin cord to their bed curtains. Her pale blue gown dragged across the legs of an overturned chair. The words she had spat at him mere minutes after their meeting echoed in his mind.
I would sooner die than suffer your bairns.
Declan recovered from his shock and raced to her. Behind him, the door opened. He clutched Edana around her thighs and pushed her toward the ceiling to take the weight from her elegant neck. ’Twas useless, she hung limp, and her neck twisted at an unnatural angle. Deep purple colored her lips.
“My God!” Fingal shouted.
Iona’s scream pierced the night.
Sophie McPherson stood beneath the shadow of the overhanging porch, staring up at a rusted iron chandelier. To the unsuspecting, the decrepit, old brick building tucked away a few miles north of Kansas City created the perfect appearance of neglect and abandonment. Shutters hung askew on the east side, mortar crumbled between bricks, and what paint remained peeled and curled from a century of hot, humid, Missouri summers. To the unsuspecting, the grime-covered windows looked in on crumbling plaster walls, weathered wood floors, and rooms that hadn’t held life in a good fifty years. To the unsuspecting, she stood on the sad remains of a forgotten asylum, a building better suited for ghost hunters and urban legends.
But she knew better.
The illusion the archangels cast upon the windows hid immaculate rooms and aged but otherwise intact wallpaper. Beneath the steps she stood upon, a network of underground hallways connected Spartan barracks rooms where men who’d lived through centuries slept the afternoons away before fighting unspeakable evil in the dark of night.
She stood on the threshold of the North American Temple of the Knights Templar.
Within, the sister she hadn’t seen in far too long waited. Anne had been the lucky one. Paired with the Templar commander, Merrick, she’d entered a world she’d been obsessed with for as long as Sophie could remember. She’d probably leapt for joy when she found out she was destined to spend eternity with an immortal knight. In one fell swoop she’d not only learned every Templar secret but she’d landed a marriage to the oldest, most respected, knight in service then gone on to recently give birth to his son. From what Gabriel relayed, they’d discovered a life of bliss amid dark circumstances.
Not so, Sophie.
There would be no easy escape from darkness, no bliss, no laughter among the death and despair. She’d been paired with a monster. A man so affected by Azazel’s darkness he’d turned against his vows. A man who’d tried to murder his own brother. A man she must somehow save…or if she couldn’t, a man she must kill.
What a far cry from the carefree, luxurious, and fast-paced life of an event planner for Hollywood’s elite. Not so long ago, her non-working hours involved regular manicures, margaritas at three until God knew when, late night galas, and impromptu vacations to exotic places with equally exotic people. Now…
Sophie glanced down at her stubby nails and chuckled. Things were different now.
She hitched her modest duffle bag higher on her shoulder and reached for the doorknob. Before she could turn it, the door flung open wide and thunked into the wall.
“Sophie!” Anne hurled herself outside and flung her arms around Sophie’s neck. Hugging her tight, she cried in a rush, “I’m so glad to see you. I’ve been so worried. Then we found out you were with Gabe. I’ve missed you!”
Sophie stumbled but quickly regained her footing. “Hey, sis.” She returned Anne’s tight hug. “I’ve missed you, too.” A lot more than she’d ever confess. What she would have given to have Anne there when Gabe disappeared for days on end. But that would stay tucked away, buried beneath the layers that divided them. Anne was too strong to ever suspect Sophie’s secret weaknesses.
Anne leaned back and clasped both of Sophie’s hands. “How are you?”
“Good.” Sophie took Anne in with one sweeping gaze. Still the same bright smile, the same radiant blue eyes. Still astoundingly pretty in a way Sophie had always had to work to achieve. And damn it all if she hadn’t recovered from pregnancy almost entirely. She was every bit as thin as she’d always been. Everything always came easy for Anne. The golden halo her aura created confirmed it always would—angels protected her.
She turned her focus away from her sister’s unique aura. “Where’s my nephew?” Sophie asked, forcing a grin to push back sudden bitterness.
“Sleeping.” Anne tugged her inside the temple and shut the door. “Mikhail told me to watch for you, and Isabella took Hughes and September for a nap.”
“Hughes? That’s quite…appropriate of you both.” Sophie chuckled.
Anne rolled her eyes. “Let’s just say Merrick’s first suggestion was Aethelred, after King Edward’s real father.”
Sophie grimaced with her sister. “Okay, you win. Hughes is beautiful.”
“I did convince him to modernize the spelling.” Laughing, Anne gave her wrists another squeeze then let go of one. “Let me show you to your room and help you get settled. When Hughes wakes, he’ll let the entire temple know he’s hungry.” Grinning, she pulled Sophie toward the stairs. “How much did Gabe tell you?”
“I think pretty much everything.” She followed behind, ascending a dark walnut staircase surrounded by faded, striped wallpaper that looked more like it belonged in a Victorian dollhouse than a house full of knights. She inclined her head toward the curling paper. “You call the shots here, but you’ve let that stay?”
Anne shrugged. “Call me sentimental. I hated it at first. Now it’s sort of grown on me.”
Hated it? Anne had been immersed in her singular fascination since their father told her about the Templar and she’d hated something here? Odd. Sophie studied the back of her sister’s curly auburn hair. Maybe Gabe hadn’t told her everything.
Anne stopped at the top of the stairs, pointing down a long hallway at a closed door. “Hayden and Tane’s rooms are there at the end of the hall. Next door are Chloe and Lucan.” She pointed at the opposite door on the other side of the hallway. “My room. Noelle and Farran are next door to me.” She reached for the closest door and pushed it open. “And, my dear sister, your rooms. Don’t blame me if the wallpaper is bad. Nobody asked for my input.”
Sophie shook free of her sister’s grasp and hesitantly approached the room. She poked her head inside, expecting the plain drab colors found in hotel rooms along with equally uninspiring sparse décor.
Instead, comfortable, rustic luxury spread before her eyes.
A soft gasp tumbled free. Like she’d teleported to a mountain lodge, thick timbers lined the walls and ceiling, accented by grey, hand-laid stone—not the prefab, square-cut tiles. A central fireplace of the same rough-cut stone occupied the center of the room, it’s tall, thick chimney reminiscent of a long-ago hearth. A shelf of rough-cut wood encircled the stack, laden with the eclectic assortment of crystals and dragon figurines Sophie had collected growing up. Sitting prominent in the center was a picture of their old family dog—a chocolate lab named Elvis—her father had taken the spring before he died.
Tears gathered in her eyes as she slowly stepped inside. She blinked them back, unwilling to have her sister see her sentimentality. No doubt about it, Gabriel brought all these things here. The many conversations they’d shared during her stay in the cathedral in California made prominent appearances—the figurines, the three China dolls in tiny rockers that had been her mother’s, the leather couch she’d spent way too much money on when she’d moved into her first apartment. The same handmade quilt her then-roommate had made to protect it draped over the rich chocolate leather. Jules had overdosed at a party three months later.
Sophie ran her hand over the back of the couch, remembering her roommate’s voracious appetite for life. She’d loved everything…sometimes too much.
“Well?” Anne asked hesitantly.
“It’s… perfect.” She turned a circle, taking in everything. Adjacent to the leather couch sat a smaller sofa that invited intimacy. A thick, white, shag rug lay on the living room side of the fireplace. A harvest table and chairs poised on the opposite side, so perfectly weathered and rustic it could have passed for antique. On the dining area wall a faded tapestry hung, no doubt made to mirror the authentic theme Gabriel interwove.
She turned another circle, studying the walls more intently, and stopped, head cocked curiously. “There’s no television.”
Anne grinned broadly. “Yes there is.” She stepped around Sophie and picked a remote off a coffee table made of stout timbers. When she pressed a button, a click echoed faintly. In the next instant, a section of paneling on the wall across from the couch rolled back, revealing a hidden flat-screen. “You have to admit it sort of clashes with everything else.”
“Wow.” Sophie plucked the controller out of her sister’s hands and pressed the power button. The television blinked on. She quickly put it on mute. The picture alone was enough distraction to temper her overwhelmed emotions.
“I checked it out this morning, but it didn’t exactly scream you, so I wasn’t sure you’d like it.”
Not scream her? How could Anne think it didn’t? Every sentimental thing she’d lugged through life was here. On top of those priceless memories, new comforts abounded, and the whole thing radiated home. She moved toward a closed, inner door. “Bedroom?”
She opened the door and stared at the most inviting bedroom she’d ever seen. Heavy timbers supported a planked wooden ceiling. Set into a recessed wall, a four-poster bed had been decked out in a sage quit, fluffy cream pillows, and a soft, knitted blanket folded at the foot. An oversized trunk sat against the footboard; it matched the large wardrobe and quaint little nightstand.
Above the bed hung a silver chandelier, and scattered about were matching silver accents: two tall candlesticks, a jewelry box, the supports on a hanging sword mount that was conspicuously empty. The surrounding wood paneling held a weathered appearance that added an odd touch of light as well as an eerie feeling of age. Almost as if she’d stepped onto the set of a ghost movie—she could almost envision the strategic placement of fake cobwebs.
“Oh, my gosh,” she murmured. “I could sleep here for…ever.”
Anne chuckled softly behind her. “I think that’s the point. The archangels do a good job, don’t they?” She wandered across the room and flung open the closet door. “It’s a walk-in, so your immense wardrobe should fit fine. Lots of cubbies for shoes.”
Sophie frowned and set her duffle on the trunk. “I don’t have that much anymore.”
Anne gave her a curious look, but thankfully didn’t ask. Sophie didn’t feel like reliving the whole experience with Chandler and abandoning her apartment as well as everything she owned. She never wanted to see any of that stuff again. It was too fake, too materialistic. Too much the flighty, unreliable person she used to be.
“You should check out the bathroom.”
“I don’t think I can take any more bits of heaven.” Sophie grinned. “I’ll wait. It’s bound to be better than the virtual closet I’ve been using.”
“Oh, it is. Try hot tub that could hold four.”
Damn, it was like Gabe had set out to insure she’d never waffle on her promise to help. She’d walked away from luxury, only to be handed it. Every comfort she’d ever wanted. Subtle declarations that as a Templar, or more accurately a seraph, she’d never want for anything. So long as she didn’t give up and go back to what she’d once known.
How could he know her so well and fail to understand she’d never break the vow she made to him? The Templar needed her. One way or the other, she had a monster to destroy.
“I should warn you,” Anne said as she sat on the edge of the bed. “There are ghosts around the temple. Hayden has at least one with her—Wilfred. So if some strange guy shows up in your room, don’t freak. You and Hayden should compare notes on your mutual abilities.”
Sophie opened her duffle and pulled out a small bundle of folded clothes. She shook her head. “I can’t see them anymore.”
“You can’t?” Anne blinked.
“No, I see auras now.”
Nodding, Sophie continued to lay her clothes out on the bed. “Everyone has an aura. They often shift, depending on situation, mood, environmental factors, and so forth. But there’s a core color that pervades. That’s what I see—the heart of the person, if you will.” She glanced up, taking in again the golden halo that radiated off Anne. Always the favorite—first their parents, and now the archangels. She bit back envy. “Yours is gold. It shows angels protect you.”
Faint pink infused her sister’s cheeks, and she looked at her hands. “Do you have one?”
“Of course. As I said, we all do.”
Anne glanced up, hesitant. “Can I ask…?”
Sophie shook her head. “They’re very personal, honestly. Just like I’m sure you see a lot about people when you touch them. You only relay the most significant.” Hers was orange-red, but right now, confidence and power had abandoned her. Once more, she’d slipped into bygone years, and the same sense of inferiority she’d always felt around her younger sister engulfed her.
Anne nodded. “Makes sense. I won’t pry.” She picked up a rumpled shirt of Sophie’s and began to refold it. “So did Gabe tell you which knight you’re here for?”
Sophie’s hands stilled. Anne didn’t know—how was that possible? How would she react when she found out the bane of the Order would become an intimate part of their family?
The shutting of the door in the other room stopped her from answering. She turned over her shoulder to see who owned the footsteps heading toward the bedroom.
A shadow slowly filled the doorway. It gave way to a tall man with long russet hair that fell in slight waves to the middle of his back. Steely silver eyes shone within a face that held so much beauty Sophie flinched. And his aura—the intensity of its stark white luminescence forced her to look to the floor, the same way Gabe’s had when he’d unlocked her true gift. She needed no introduction. Mikhail.
“Sophie, I trust your journey here saw no discord?”
Bracing against the power of his presence, she looked him in the eye. Gabe had taught her how to look beyond the aura, to focus on the person and let the rest slide into her periphery awareness. Once she employed the trick, she never observed anything she wasn’t actively looking for. Now, Mikhail appeared much like a man. “It went well, thank you. I’m glad to be here.”
He arched a thick eyebrow. “Are you truly?”
She nodded. She couldn’t blame him for not being wholly convinced. It had taken Gabe a long time to really realize she was prepared for this, whatever the outcome. That she’d accepted she would never have the loving relationship her sister found, and that, quite likely, she might fail in saving her knight and spend eternity alone.
“Well, if you will pardon my intrusion then, I must break up your reunion.” He gave Anne a cordial nod of greeting. “Gabriel has taken his sweet time in bringing you here, and now I have not a minute to waste. The Spear has been taken—’twould not have been, had you arrived earlier.”
Sophie chewed on her lower lip. She’d been here all of twenty minutes or so and already disappointed the Templar leader, their general more or less. But she’d not been instructed to leave Gabe until recently. He couldn’t solely fault her.
“You must go to the cell immediately. Anne, you will escort her. I cannot risk Declan in his current state. He is far too dangerous to our mission.”
A soft gasp from Anne told Sophie all she needed to know—her sister wasn’t thrilled Sophie had been paired for life with Declan MacNeill, traitor to the Order.
Available April 14th, 2017