“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
La Roche-Guyon, France
Nerves possessed Alaric le Goix.
For a man who had seen the passing of centuries, buried the mortals he loved, and had willingly gone to battle knowing he would not return, nervousness was a foreign thing. And yet, as he glanced up at the hulking walls of the La Roche-Guyon stronghold and the mountain rising behind it, his pulse stuttered wildly.
Three months he had been gone. Three months he had dwelled with Merrick and Anne and the others in the North American Temple of the Knights Templar. Trying to make his legs work. Trying to understand how he had come to be spared. Trying to find purpose in a cause that had come to an end.
“Raphael awaits you inside, sir,” Franz Mortimer said at his side. The young knight carried Alaric’s duffle bag. Like the other men Alaric commanded, he had returned a week after the final battle with Azazel.
“Aye. I will see him accordingly. Take my things to my chambers.” Using his cane to ease the weight from his tired legs, Alaric started for the disguised access door that led into the temple deep within the heart of the mountain.
Indeed Raphael and Gareth would be anxious to apprise Alaric of the goings-on in the temple. They would wait longer. A more important greeting demanded his immediate attention—Sierra.
The knot in his belly tightened, and his pulse stuttered again. He had not bid her goodbye. Had not contacted her once since the afternoon in the garden, the day before he left. He had no right to hope she would be pleased to see him. Women did not take kindly to neglect, and she, most certainly, did not deserve such. At best, she would be angry.
He knew from brief correspondence with Gareth her identity remained beyond her grasp and she still remained within the temple. Word would have reached him if she had been discovered as a seraph and her pairing occurred. Beyond that, no information had been supplied—and he had not asked. To do so would invite questions he could not answer and suppositions he cared not to evade. How he felt for her, the space she took up in his heart, was not the business of others.
He took a deep breath as he entered the wide tunnels. To his right lay the twisting maze of corridors, the barracks of men, training grounds, sacred alter, and his own private chambers. He turned left, heading for the rear access to the castle La Roche-Guyon. God willing, he would find her in her beloved gardens. With spring upon them, the budding flowers and lush greenery would surely draw her constant attention.
With each step, he reminded himself his visit was cursory and expected. The ridiculous irregularity of his heartbeat was the product of knowing he had treated her unkindly and he would have much to make amends for. He most assuredly was not returning to a lost lover.
At the door to the gardens, though, his heart would have none of that logic. It lodged in the base of his throat at the sight of her chestnut ringlets peeking over a manicured hedgerow. He wiped damp palms on his jeans, then adjusted his grip on his cane and pushed the door open.
Four steps into the garden, when he saw her fully, the world slowed for a priceless moment. She wore a simple yellow sundress that accented the strength in her legs. Her hair flowed loose and free over her narrow shoulders and down her long back. The slight breeze stirred it from the side of her face—he had not forgotten a single detail. Soft inviting lips the color of a blush rose. Slightly upturned nose that suggested impish fairies meddled in her bloodline. A dimple that tugged her left cheek and begged a man to place his lips there. She laughed, and his heart returned to its place behind his ribs, beating strong, swelling with a sense of utter…rightness.
A feeling that was dashed as he witnessed who made her laugh so. Gareth. He sat at her side, holding her hand as only a lover might. Regret twisted through Alaric. He closed his eyes to it, choking down the emotion he had no right to experience. They were both young and passionate and in love with the world around them. ’Twould be natural for them to come together. He could not begrudge them. Gareth would do well by her—he was a good knight and a fine man.
“Sir,” Gareth said, surprised.
Alaric opened his eyes and forced a smile. “Hello, Gareth.” His gaze fell once again to Sierra. “Sierra.”
“Alaric!” She shook her hand loose from Gareth’s and jumped to her feet.
He barely had time to open his arms before she was in them. His cane clattered to the ground. She clung to him tightly, her soft body compressing into his.
When his shock subsided, Alaric tucked his face into the cranny of her neck and shoulder. He breathed in the perfume that clung to her skin—light flowers, citrus, and something richer, more sensual. He spanned his hands over her back, cherishing this one chance opportunity to really touch her. God’s teeth, he had missed her. How much, he had not realized until this moment.
She released him only far enough to look at him. Her smile made ice blue eyes sparkle and her dimple dance. She pressed a palm to the side of his face. “I’ve missed you.” Her thumb caressed the short hair of his beard near the corner of his mouth.
Alaric’s breath caught as she moved infinitesimally closer and her warm breath danced against his lips.
* * *
Sierra remembered herself, before she acted on foolish impulse. She couldn’t just kiss a man who’d never once indicated he felt anything more than friendship for her. Talk about awkward.
She chuckled and ran her thumb over his beard again, hoping it appeared deliberate the first time. “This is new.” It looked good on him, too. Neatly trimmed, the circular style stopped short of his cheeks and throat and accented the strength in his square jaw. Short brown hairs held a touch of copper tint. Beneath his lower lip, grey hairs filtered in, making him look somehow even more distinguished than he had before.
“Aye,” he chuckled. “I grew lazy.”
“If you will both excuse me,” Gareth said. He gave them a smile and moved around Alaric, heading back inside.
Oh, wow—she’d completely forgotten Gareth was present. That was the kind of effect Alaric le Goix had on her. And poor Gareth probably knew it; she’d talked more about Alaric with him than she cared to admit.
Alaric tensed and untangled himself from her hug. “I did not mean to create trouble between you.””
“Trouble?” She scrunched her face in confusion. Then it hit her. She’d been holding Gareth’s hand. He’d taken it when melancholy struck, along with the frustration of not knowing anything about her life before knocking on the temple door. Alaric must have thought…
“No,” she rushed to assure. “Gareth and I are just friends. He keeps me company, and I keep him out of trouble. Or at least I try.” She laughed. “You know how he is.”
Alaric smiled, and Sierra’s heart slammed into her ribs. God, he could melt her so easily.
“I’ve been so worried about you.” The confession slipped out before she could stop it. Along with it came a pang of hurt. He hadn’t spoken to her in three months. Why?
Because he’s not interested.
She rushed to cover the uncomfortable beat of silence that hung between them. “You look good. You’re walking. Gareth said you were wounded pretty badly.”
He bent to pick up his cane and leaned on it. With his free hand, he indicated the bench she’d been sitting on. “Join me?”
She nodded. His steps weren’t slow, and he didn’t limp. But he clearly used the extra support. “Does it still hurt you?”
“Nay,” he said, sitting on the bench and resting his cane against his knee. “There is never pain. When I am tired or I have been on my feet too long, I still suffer some weakness.” He took her hand, drawing her to sit by him. “That is not what I wish to discuss.”
Savoring the feel of his long, roughened fingers against hers, she sat down beside him. Moved more by instinct and reflex than by any conscious awareness, she laid her head on his shoulder. Exactly how forward it might appear occurred in the next breath, and she tensed.
Screw it. These minutes were hers. At this moment she didn’t care. According to Gareth she’d nearly lost him entirely. Even if she was crushing on someone who didn’t feel the same, he’d get over a little bit of awkwardness.
She relaxed and drank in the warmth pressing into her side.
“I owe you an apology, milady.” He tipped his head to better look at her. A softness shone in his eyes she didn’t remember being there before. “I did not mean to be disrespectful to you with my silence.”
She pressed her fingers to his lips to silence him. “It’s okay. You were recovering.”
He took her gently by the wrist and moved her hand away. “Nay. ’Tis not all right, nor will I have it linger between us only to confront it later when I have believed it to be put to rest.”
Smart guy. Clearly he’d been around women. Amused, Sierra sat up.
“I thought of you oft. Each time I thought mayhap to phone, I convinced myself too much time had passed. That I should have done so earlier. ’Twas a vicious cycle, and I am not proud to admit ’twas mostly caused by fear of a tongue-lashing I well deserved.”
Wow. Candid, direct, and totally honest. Honorable—just like him. Sierra smiled. “If you always apologize like that, I’ll faint at your feet someday.”
Alaric chuckled. “Then I shall stay silent.”
A foreign glint of humor twinkled in his rich brown eyes. Since they’d met, he’d been so serious, so plagued by worries about the Templar’s success. Like the beard—the end of the war looked good on him.
Caught up by the lightness in her heart, she poked him in the sides where he was apt to be ticklish. To her delight, he jumped sideways and captured her wrist. Laughing, Sierra used the other hand to tickle him again. He wrestled that hand under control and grinned down at her.
His voice rumbled with humor. “Deal a knight a fair strike and he is apt to accept it. Deal an unfair strike, however, and he shall strike back.” He arched an eyebrow. “With twice the determination when his opponent is most disadvantaged.”
“Are you threatening me?” she teased.
“I would never threaten.” His expression sobered. “Only promise.”
In a flash, he snagged both her wrists with one hand and tickled her left side until she squirmed and squealed. His cane clattered to the ground.
“Uncle!” she rasped. “I give!” She twisted sideways, sending her sundress dangerously up her thigh.
Bent over her arched back, Alaric laughed heartily. He straightened, tugged her upright, and released her hands. His gaze locked on her bare hip, sending heat rushing through her body. Self-conscious, she pulled the flimsy hem down and cleared her throat.
“Well, lesson learned, huh?” She grinned to cover her sudden embarrassment. What had she been thinking tickling him in the first place? They’d never been that close.
“Aye. Next time I shall not yield so easily.”
“There are laugh lines I’ve never seen at your eyes, Alaric,” she blurted, having noticed just that. Where had this playful, happy man come from? Had he been this way before the war?
“Are there?” he asked more quietly.
She traced one with her fingertip. “Yeah.”
“Then I have you to thank for such.”
His gaze held hers more intensely, but the same twinkle of humor shining in his eyes warned she shouldn’t let the remark go to her head.
God, he was so close. Touching her so innocently in so many places—elbows, knees, hip. All she wanted to do was crawl into his lap, feel his arms settle around her waist, and kiss him until she couldn’t breathe. Then kiss him some more. She’d dreamed of it. Dreamed of doing so much more…
Desperately needing to do something to stop the sudden, fierce, ache that possessed her, she stood and picked up his cane. The smooth wood had more weight to it than she’d expected. Probably from the heavy, brass, t-handle.
She sat back down examining the etchings in the metal. Crude, imperfect marks indicated hand-tooling. Cross-hatching added depth, a practice that hadn’t come into fashion until the 1600s, or so. Yet the Templar cross that stood out dominantly where the brass wrapped into the wood said its symbolic roots ran much deeper.
“Alaric, this is amazing. You don’t see this kind of detail until the late Renaissance. It’s museum quality, and collectors would pay thousands for it. To blend it with the Templar…. If someone found this, they’d be very confused, because it’s certainly not a reproduction.” She looked up, awed.
And then, what she’d said, hit her. Once more, she’d pulled something utterly foreign from the depths of her locked mind.
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