“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
A cool breeze rustled the trees as Hayden Thofte carefully peeled away the padding from the blade of her falchion. Beneath the heavy chain armor she wore, sweat clung to her body and pooled between her breasts. Evidence of a true workout. As if the constant sting in her right shoulder, where her student had landed a lucky blow wasn’t evidence enough.
“You coming with us, Hayden? We’re going to grab burgers,” Aaron Jameson called from the edge of the field.
She glanced up with a grin. Her student, Jacob Cooley, and three other men from their Association of Renaissance Martial Arts group stood beside Aaron. Jacob looked like he could pass out any minute, but the training session had gone better than she’d expected. He’d held his own. For the most part. Right up until his ego got the better of him and he challenged her.
She’d trounced him soundly, save for the one, initial hit to her shoulder.
Hayden chuckled. “Maybe Jacob wants to commiserate with just the guys.”
Jacob rolled his eyes as Aaron clapped him on the shoulder.
She plucked the rest of the foam off and tucked it into her duffle bag. “I’ll meet you there. I need to drop by my house and put this away.” No trunks for her beloved falchion. No excess heat, no lingering dirt or drops of sweat. Not for a weapon that pre-dated the United States by a good four hundred years. She really shouldn’t be fighting with it, all things considered, but out of her vast collection of ancient weapons, it was her favorite. Plus, she was scheduled to film an episode of Swords and Masters with the falchion as the spotlight weapon. She needed to brush-up before cameras rolled.
With one last careful eye to detail, she smoothed a soft cotton cloth down the reconditioned blade once more then brought it level with her nose and looked down the curved blade for pits to the steel or other signs of damage.
Satisfied it had survived training combat as well as it had survived the passing of centuries, she tucked it into the replica wood and leather scabbard and stood, holding it tight in one hand. “Order me a double cheeseburger, would you?” she called to Aaron’s retreating back.
He raised a hand, indicating he’d heard and continued on down the slight rise to the gravel parking area below. The others trailed along behind, steps heavy, bodies likely as weary as hers.
Hayden blew out a hard breath as she arched her back to stretch out the kinks. Even after nearly a decade of routinely donning the heavy linked chain hauberk for training sessions with the members of her group, the damned armor still weighed uncomfortably on her shoulders. Sure, she could move as naturally as she did in street clothes; she hardly noticed when she put it on. But after a rigorous session, she felt every place the woven links touched her body.
More so, as filming day grew nearer. They’d worked harder. Put more effort in, and even touched-up a few more artful moves. Swords and Masters was designed to educate the viewers about ancient weapons, but entertainment played a critical role when it came to ratings. And networks were all about ratings.
She pushed the coif off and tugged down a silk scarf that kept her hair from tangling in the steel links. A shake of her head loosened the matted-down locks and helped cool her off. Once more, the breeze stirred, and she turned her face into it, eyes closed. Maybe she’d jump in the shower before joining the guys.
An eerie moan drifted through the nearby trees.
Hayden’s eyes snapped open as every muscle in her body tensed. What the hell? There were coyotes in this part of Ohio, but that didn’t sound like any coyote she’d ever heard.
She only had a second to consider the possibilities before the trees shuddered. Twigs and limbs snapped. An indistinct shadow broke through the foliage with a gut-curling snarl.
It lumbered straight for her.
Her heart rocketed to her throat and lodged there, fear pinning her in place as the thing rapidly closed the distance.
Self-preservation overrode terror, and Hayden jerked out of her stupor. Fumbling with the leather fasteners on the scabbard, she frantically looked over her shoulder for a sign of her friends. “Guys!”
The sound of a disappearing car engine answered.
Shit! No help. Nowhere to run. No escape.
She tore her gaze off the rise in the field and faced the ground-covering beast. Yellow-green foam dripped from its mouth. It couldn’t possibly be human. Yet it ran on two legs.
Twenty more feet, and that thing, whatever it was, would be on her. From the looks of it, it didn’t intend on friendly greetings.
Her fingers managed to free her falchion. She shook the scabbard off hastily. What to do now? She could recite untold facts about countless weapons, could exhibit their common uses and spar like she was amid a raging battle. But in all her years of training and study, she’d never fought a living creature. If that frothing thing could be considered living.
Another snarl tore free from its snout-like mouth. Ten more feet.
Hayden set her feet apart and braced her weight. Lifting the falchion before her, she breathed deeply, refusing to acknowledge the trembling of her weapon hand. She stared into yellow-green eyes that didn’t blink.
It struck like lightning. Hard. Fast. And devastating.
Claws ripped through her sleeve, dug deep into her left shoulder. The force knocked her backward, sending her falchion tumbling uselessly to the side. She screamed, desperately hoping someone, anyone would hear her. Though what they could do to help, she didn’t know.
Another burst of agony flashed through her system as fangs tore into her arm. Blood poured free, hot against her skin. She kicked with her feet, managing only an ineffective thump against its leg. The blow only seemed to enrage the beast further, and with another gut-churning snarl, it lashed out with its teeth again. Two razor sharp canines descended toward her neck.
As Hayden summoned her remaining energy and shoved against the creature, a white light burst into blinding existence. The flash sent a shockwave rolling through the field, though it made no sound. With it came a surreal calm. Peace Hayden had never known. The pain in her body fled, and she closed her eyes, welcoming final surrender.
Three Months Later...
Hayden down-shifted her Mustang and eased off the Interstate onto a seldom traveled road bordering suburbia and country. She glanced at her surroundings, noting the dense undergrowth that had overtaken tall trees. Thick tar covered cavernous potholes and smaller crevices in the asphalt. Isolated put it lightly. Though civilization was just a handful of exits ahead, this turn-off looked like some farm road that hadn’t been brought into the 21st century.
The perfect place to hide if someone didn’t want to be seen.
An even more perfect place to take refuge and dodge Aaron and Jacob’s repeated phone calls. Or dodge the attorneys that were breathing down her neck for walking out on her production contract.
Not like she’d had a choice. If she’d tried to explain an archangel served her with a higher calling, the production company would have cancelled on her, certain she’d gone insane.
“So this is the Knights Templar home base. Interesting.”
Her companion, Wilfred, answered, “As I have told you before, ’tis more than it seems.”
Hayden glanced at the empty passenger’s seat where his hollow, ethereal voice projected from. “Hearing is one thing. Seeing is something completely different. Where’s the turn?”
“Ahead. The next intersection. Turn right, and you shall see the temple above the treetops.”
As she followed Wilfred’s instructions, the antique band of brass around her left bicep tightened by a fraction. She rolled her shoulder against the sensation. Three months of wearing the double-headed serpent should have made her accustomed to the occasional flex of the heavily patinaed arm torc. But even with all the unnatural things she’d been exposed to since her brutal attack, the arm band’s sentient nature still mystified her.
Wilfred had explained its purpose, what it signified. He and Gabriel, though they’d never occupied the same space at the same time. It had taken a good thirty days for her to accept that she was predestined as a life mate to an immortal Templar Knight. Even longer for her to believe she possessed some mystical light that would heal a dying man’s soul. The irony that her calling resembled the service of a mercenary knight summoned to war wasn’t lost upon her either. But eventually, between Gabriel’s and Wilfred’s constant insistence, she’d come to believe. Having Wilfred actually materialize—a feat he’d so far only managed once and failed every other attempt—probably helped.
Whatever the case, she understood the role she must play. And if that role meant protecting the rest of the world against savage beasts like the one that had nearly killed her, she’d wear the responsibility proudly.
Even if it meant throwing everything she’d worked for aside.
She eased down an even more dilapidated road, creeping toward a long, two-story brick building that had clearly seen better days. Between the cracked bricks pockmarking the once-regal façade, the overgrowth of weeds and shrubs in the rolling yard, and the peeling paint on shutters that hung askew, the old building looked on the verge of falling down. But she knew better. Appearances meant nothing. Behind that decrepit façade lay strength unlike any power known to mankind.
Immortal strength. Timeless honor. Eternal devotion to a battle that had raged for centuries.
The gates loomed before her, strangely lacking rust or corrosion. Black paint looked fresh, as if someone had recently painted the bars. It stood shut, barring her from entry. Odd. Wilfred had said it would be open.
“What gives? Isn’t this supposed to let me in?”
He let out a sigh, one that hinted at exasperation. “You possess such little patience. Wait a moment, and ’twill be as I said.”
She stopped, the nose of her Jeep a mere six inches from the heavy iron gates. While she waited, she ducked her head to peek under the visor and examine the intricate gables along the top of the roof. Dirty windows faced a setting sun, reflecting warm, salmon light. Three, however, had been shined, the filth removed and curtains drawn against the sunlight. The paint on their surrounding shutters wasn’t peeling off. It too held a sheen. As did a pair of shutters on a neighboring window with scaffolding attached to the brick beneath.
“Let me guess—my room?”
“Aye,” Wilfred confirmed. “They will have repaired the bricks, and inside you shall find a design suitable to your style.”
She chuckled. Only archangels could pull off that feat. Between her passion for anything archaic she could get her hands on and her preference for clean, crisp, modern lines, her style wasn’t easily matched. But everything else Wilfred and Gabriel told her had proven true, so she wouldn’t doubt somehow the archangel had managed it. Still, she couldn’t get past one detail.
“How do the Templar not know I’m coming if there are workers rehabbing that room?”
“’Tis not a matter of not knowing a seraph will appear. You are expected in that regard. ’Tis your appearance at the door, and you specifically.”
She supposed that made sense. The other four seraphs—Anne, Noelle, Chloe, and Isabelle—had turned up out of the blue. Hayden was the only one who would be coming to the Templar. The only one who knew, before her knight, what she was.
“Good grief, Wilfred, are these things ever going to open? Should I get out and knock or something?”
“Do not exit the car.” The surrounding atmosphere thickened with his emphatic words.
“Okay, okay. Calm down. No need to bark at me.”
“’Tis foolishness, Hayden. Demons wait in the boundary. They will not hesitate to attack if you step foot outside.”
“But Gabriel trained me to fight them.” And other, more chilling, creatures as well, though she hadn’t encountered anything except one pretty damn ugly demon. She suppressed a shudder. Right now, she didn’t want to think about the foul beast that almost killed her. Right now, she wanted to meet her intended mate, take the oath that would lock her into eternal duty, and make a difference to the fight.
Her thoughts drifted to the knight she’d be bound to. Wilfred explained as much as he could, but he was limited in what knowledge he was allowed to share. Her future partner had evidently betrayed his brethren and still struggled to prove himself to his commander Merrick and the archangel Mikhail. She knew his past—how he’d kidnapped Merrick’s seraph, how he’d been cast out, how he’d founded a shelter for homeless teens—but she knew little of the man himself. Would he be tall? Would he be riddled with scars from battles fought before his oath? Would he be as overbearing as a feudal lord?
She shook off the questions. It made no difference. This was about duty, nothing else. They had a role to fulfill together, and whether or not they liked one another only mattered if it impacted their responsibilities. She’d never been the sentimental sort anyway.
A high-pitched squeaking broke through her thoughts. She squinted as the gates slowly eased apart.
“As I said, ’twould open.”
She’d prepared for this. Schooled with her weapons. Memorized countless facts under Gabriel’s tutelage. Pep-talked herself until she was blue in the face. Still, as she faced the turning point of her life, a sudden bout of nerves left her stomach clenching.
There’s no going back. I can never be normal again. From here forward, I’ll live by the sword. She’d given up everything for this outrageous purpose, thrown away a lucrative career and all the respect she’d worked so hard to achieve.
She glanced once more at the passenger’s seat and the onyx sword that hung from the headrest. Wilfred’s sword. She’d had it for nearly two decades, unaware it would eventually lead her here. Her path had been chosen long ago. She didn’t dare turn away now.
With another deep breath, she eased onto the gas and rolled through the gates.
* * *
Tane du Breuil stared at the faint shadow of wings rising on the stone wall behind Mikhail. He dared not look the archangel in the eye, lest he wished to see the disappointment that registered there. Once more he had failed the Order. One more relic lay in Azazel’s unholy clutches.
It made no difference whether Caradoc had ordered him away from Shapiro’s Italian villa and to the European temple—he should have recognized his brother would need help. After all, he had known Isabelle was Caradoc’s seraph. He should have expected Azazel would come for her.
But he had not, and now, he must atone for his misdeeds.
“I spoke with Merrick,” Mikhail said.
Tane winced inwardly. He could only imagine what his commander had said upon learning Christ’s tears were lost to the Templar. Of all the men, ’twas Merrick who held the deepest grudge. Merrick, who Tane must prove himself to the most. Yet, it seemed at every turn, Tane fell further from grace.
“He informed me you have been training for hours each day.”
Tane confirmed with a short nod.
“And Anne tells me your shelter work is succeeding, despite the presence of the infidel Iain.”
Tane nodded again, though his spine tightened by several degrees. Iain might have turned away from the Templar, but his work with the teens was remarkable. They had become quite close, and Tane trusted few others as deeply as the European knight.
“What are your thoughts on Caradoc’s decisions in Italy?” The archangel leaned back in his chair. Across the stone surface behind him, his wings undulated twice.
“My thoughts?” Tane echoed, surprised by the question.
“Aye. I wish to know what you would have done, were you in Caradoc’s position.”
Uneasiness spread through Tane. ’Twas a test, most certainly. If he confessed he would have chosen the same ultimate course of action were his seraph and child in danger, he would surely be ousted from the ranks once again. Yet if he lied, Mikhail would know, and the punishment would be equal. He blew out a hard breath and found the courage to look his commander in the eye. “I would not have chosen to send my brothers away. There is where we differ. In so allowing myself and Gareth to stay, a different outcome might have occurred.”
Mikhail arched one eyebrow. Steely grey eyes flashed with brilliance before fading. “You would have given Azazel possession of the tears?”
“Aye. The seraphs are more important, are they not?”
“And yet, you think your sword would have made a difference in the battle, when Farran and Lucan, knights who have been strengthened by their bondings, were ineffective?”
His words hit like a steel fist to the gut. They were naught but a stark reminder that he was not equal to the men he had fought beside the longest. And yet, beneath the stabbing jealousy, he knew why he had not been chosen. He had not earned the salvation a seraph’s oath would bring.
He cleared his throat. “There is strength in numbers. You cannot deny such.”
Mikhail’s expression remained unreadable. He studied Tane, his stare penetrating and sharp. Tane fixed his gaze on the wall once more.
“You do believe such.” A note of surprise rang in Mikhail’s voice. “You blame yourself for the loss of the tears, when ’twas not your hand that passed them to Azazel.”
“’Twas my responsibility to acquire the tears. I allowed Caradoc to alter our orders.”
“Allowed?” Mikhail let out a soft laugh. “You were under his command. You did as you were ordered. A wiser decision could not have been made.”
And he could have defied the order and refused to leave as Caradoc instructed. He gritted his teeth but remained silent. Arguing with Mikhail would solve naught. ’Twould certainly not return the tears.
“Come now, Tane, you must admit you are not strong enough to fight Azazel. Had you, your soul would have been lost forever. Indeed, I daresay, that would have been the likely outcome should you have fought Azazel’s weaker minions.”
The truth burned through Tane, but he swallowed it down, clenching his hand at his side. His spirit was too weak. He had struggled for far too long. The ever-increasing envy, which he despised, evidenced what he could no longer ignore. He was not meant long for this world. Almighty willing, he would redeem himself before the last of his soul crumbled.
Mikhail rose from his chair, rounded the edge of the desk, and set a heavy hand on Tane’s shoulder. Power emanated through the grip of his fingers. “Your penance has been paid, brave knight. You did your duty well in Italy. Do not look for fault where none is to be found.”
His words were what Tane hoped to hear. But he knew better. He had done naught to earn them. All that he touched, he damaged. It seemed Wilfred du Roque’s last words were destined to prove true.
You will destroy the gift. The Order…will fall. You are the key.
Indeed. Tane let out a heavy sigh and bowed his head.
Mikhail squeezed his shoulder again then stepped away. “Answer the door, Tane.”
The abrupt change snapped Tane out of his dark thoughts. “Pardon?” Confused, he looked over his shoulder at Mikhail’s office door then squinted at Mikhail. “No one has knocked.”
Mikhail chuckled softly. “Not that door.”
“But Edmund and Richard are—”
The archangel’s voice hardened. “Answer the door.”
Tane pursed his lips and nodded once more. He pivoted on his heel, stalked across the room, and jerked the office door open. If Mikhail wished to dismiss him with such an insignificant task when two men relaxed in the common room, less than ten feet from the main entry, he would go. An archangel’s logic should not be questioned. Iain could attest to that fact. And Tane did not wish to find himself in Iain’s place.
He had been there once. He would not become an outcast again.
He trudged up the stairs to find Edmund lounging on the couch where Tane had last seen him. Richard had gone elsewhere. Puzzlement pulled at him. Edmund dozed. Surely he would not ignore a knock at the front door. Particularly when guests were not expected. Forbidden, in fact.
“Is someone at the door?”
Edmund curled forward, halfway upright. “Nay. The gates are locked, none could come in.”
Tane cocked his head as a sharp rap echoed off the door behind him. “Is that so, Edmund?” Instinctively, he dropped his hand to where his sword should be, but he had left it in his barrack room. Probably best. ’Twould only arouse greater suspicion if he answered an unexpected guest with weapon in hand. But why would someone knock?
Edmund seemed unconcerned. He tumbled back into the couch with an expansive yawn. “Probably someone lost and looking for directions. Or a ghost-hunter seeking a thrill.”
True, the Temple had its share of kids seeking out thrills. But the archangels had erected barriers so terrifying few crossed into this part of the expansive grounds. And if the gates had been locked—
The knock sounded again, more forcefully.
Shaking off the questions, Tane strode to the door and turned the lock. He would use the excuse they had long ago concocted; they were builders working on restoration.
He pulled the door open with a puzzled frown.
Standing beneath the rusty iron chandelier, a young woman pushed a short lock of smooth, chestnut hair behind her ear and offered a hesitant smile. “Hello.”
Tane’s gut fisted into a tight knot. Eyes the color of springtime grass sparkled brilliantly in the fading glow of twilight. She stood level with his nose, her easy posture belying the uncertainty in her smile. He took her in with one quick sweep of his gaze and drew in a sharp breath. Dressed in loose grey cargo pants, black work boots, and a simple, black T-shirt covered by a short black leather jacket, she did not radiate femininity. But the curves her clothing barely disguised were more breathtaking than any Tane had seen in several hundred years. Her narrow waist would easily span his hands. Her hips flared invitingly. And full breasts that pebbled beneath the light fabric as a breeze swept across the porch would fill his palms. His gut cinched several degrees more, and he swallowed down the sudden, unexpected rush of desire. Sweet Jesu, he had thought Anne beautiful. Compared to this startling contrast of a woman, Anne was merely pretty.
“May I help you?” he asked tightly.
She pushed the hank of hair that had come loose behind her ear once more. “I’ve come to see Tane. Tane du Breuil, if there are two by the name.”
The shock of her declaration nearly knocked him backward. He blinked hard. As he struggled to regain his thoughts, her gaze canvassed his body from head to toe. When those vibrant green eyes locked with his, words failed him all over again. Appreciation flickered through her unhesitating stare, her uncertainty having dissipated.
He cleared his throat and shook off the haze of confusion. He could only logic that somehow she was affiliated with his shelter work. Though he could not begin to answer how she had tracked him here, ’twas the only explanation for her presence. “I am Tane. What do you need of me?”
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