Immortal Surrender (Curse of the Templars), page 1
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For my mother, who never stopped believing.
All my love.
To my wonderful agent, Jewelann Cone, and my equally wonderful editor, Whitney Ross, for your constant support and enthusiasm, most particularly when the writing becomes “work” and the details become painstaking. Cassandra Ammerman, you make the other aspects of authorial life all fun! Thanks for your dedication.
To my mother and my boys, your patience is amazing, even when the days run together and seem never-ending. Without you, there would be no Curse of the Templars. Your faith, belief, and support keep me focused and directed.
To Jason, my rock when the world around me turns into a landslide. Your support is amazing. Your patience even more so. Thank you for being a bright light and a beacon of hope.
As always, to my invaluable critique partner, Dyann Love Barr, there simply aren’t words to convey how much I appreciate and treasure both your knowledge and your friendship. And, Dennis, thank you for always keeping the coffee warm.
Jackie Bannon, it’s been a long road, one I’m proud to walk beside you on. Thank you for countless hours on the phone, for wisdom, and for the ability to cut through the muck and get to the point of the matter.
Diana Coyle, Alicia Dean, Cathy Morrison, Goldie Edwards, Sunny Cole, Elisabeth Burke, Judy Ridgely, and Linda Kage, your insight as beta readers and trusted coworkers makes my visions come to life. Alfie Thompson, you are a mentor above all others, and you gave me the courage to pursue this project from the get-go. You kept the faith when times got rough. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
To the members of Heartland Romance Authors, Midwest Romance Writers, and Mid-America Romance Authors, you teach, you guide, you laugh with and dry tears with. Thanks for being family away from home.
To my readers, you’re the reason I do this, and I thank you for not just your constant support, but for everything you bring to my in-box, my blog, and my day-to-day work. I greatly appreciate your dedication.
Tor Books by Claire Ashgrove
In 1119, nine knights rode with Hugues de Payens to the Holy Land, becoming the Knights Templar. All were bound by marriage or by blood. Eight were recorded over time. The ninth vanished into history.
Beneath the legendary Temple Mount, the knights uncovered holy relics, including the Copper Scroll—a document written by Azazel’s unholy hand. For their forbidden digging, the archangels exacted a sacrifice. The knights would spend eternity battling the demons of Azazel’s creation, but with each vile death they claimed, a portion of darkness would enter their soul. In time, they would transform into knights of Azazel, warriors veined with evil, destined to fight against the Almighty.
Yet an ancient prophecy remained to give them hope. When darkness raped the land, the seraphs would return. Female descendants of the Nephilim would carry the light to heal their dying souls.
Centuries have passed. Azazel’s might grows to intolerable limits. With the acquisition of eight holy relics, he will gain the power to overthrow the Almighty.
Six Templars stand above the rest in duty, honor, and loyalty. But each is haunted by a tragic past, and their darkened souls rapidly near the end. As they battle both the overwhelming power of evil and the nightmares of lives they left behind, the seraphs are more than tools to victory.
They are salvation.
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
You must save your seraph. Azazel knows of her existence. I cannot come.
Gabriel’s adamant warning pounded through Iain’s head as he jogged down the darkened alley the archangel bade him to follow. At the end of the street, Bianca Moreau’s weatherworn apartment building sat in the shadow of a hulking modern high-rise. Forgotten and neglected. Like the woman within.
Iain knew she had suffered much in her young life, but he knew not what he would find. Whether she would be lovely or plain, refined or crude. However, his heart took wings at the prospect of binding himself to the seraph who would heal the darkness in his soul. He would take her from this cold, unfeeling city of Paris and care for her. Devote himself to her. And like the American Templar commander, Merrick, Iain would know coveted peace.
A greater gift, the Almighty could not grant.
He set his hand on the doorknob, and a slight smile tugged at his mouth. Convincing her to accept her role might prove a more difficult chore than battling Azazel’s minions, but ’twould be worth the effort.
Hurry. We haven’t much time.
Gabriel’s words rose to his memory, and Iain dismissed the quandary of how to explain all to his immortal mate. He turned the knob, finding it unlocked as Gabriel foretold. As he eased open the door and stepped into a musty hall, a rat scurried across his boot. He kicked the vermin aside, briefly reminded of a different season, a different century, when he had walked the streets of France and witnessed the horrific destruction by the plague. How he despised the city. A seraph should not be bound to these degrading conditions.
He took the dingy staircase to the fourth floor, aware of the strange quiet that clung to the hall. No muted televisions echoed beyond closed doors. The insects stayed within the walls. Even the air stilled. He breathed deeply, searching for the putrid scent of rot that would identify one of Azazel’s foul creations.
Only dust, the aroma of human bodies, and stale sex filtered to his nose. Dimly, a soft feminine moan rose to his ears. A sound of pleasure, he realized with a wry smile.
He strode down the s
The hair at the nape of his neck lifted. He dropped his hand to the hilt of his sword. His fingers closed around air, and he silently cursed. He had left the weapon in the SUV, afraid ’twould frighten her and make his task more difficult. Saints’ blood, he had been foolish!
He set his hand on the painted wood and pushed the door open. Darkness flooded her front room. Her kitchenette. The hall. The oppressive silence clung more thickly here, and Iain’s pulse tripped.
Faint light at the end of a short hall caught his eye. He breathed easier as a rustling drifted to his awareness. The sound of a mattress creaking. Covers unfolding as she put herself to bed.
Yet the nagging suspicion something was amiss prevented him from calling out and making his presence known. Quietly, he approached the light.
“Please…” she begged softly. “Please.”
His throat tightening, Iain stepped into the doorway. The sight before him stilled his heart. Nude, two figures lay atop her bed, oblivious to his presence. Her long blond hair spilled across the pillow. Her lips sought the masculine mouth that hovered over hers. She arched her back, a mewl bubbling in her throat, as the man eased his hand between her parted legs.
’Twas not, however, the sight of her sexual pleasure that constricted his chest. ’Twas the man. For as Iain’s gaze traversed his broad spine, he glimpsed what only centuries of living amongst angels could reveal. From powerful shoulder blades two cloaked wings spanned toward the ceiling. And there could only be one angel who would indulge in carnal delight.
“You will serve me,” he cooed against her engorged nipple. “Please me. Do my bidding.”
She answered with a moan.
Rage, unlike any Iain had ever experienced, surged through his body. It overpowered the fear that came with Azazel’s unholy presence and possessed him like a mad man. He threw himself at Azazel, knowing ’twas futile, hoping he could pull her from her trance enough to bid her to run.
With a malicious snarl, Azazel reared off her body. With one effortless swing of his arm, he flung Iain across the room, sending him crashing into the wall. Something inside his chest cracked. Pain erupted, white hot and engulfing.
With the distraction, Azazel’s magic collapsed. But in the half second where he clung to his human form before his fathomless black wings could emerge, Bianca regained her senses. She lifted her legs and kicked Azazel in the chest. It sent him staggering.
“You have doomed her,” Azazel hissed.
Iain struggled to rise. Agony dropped him to his knees, scarcely able to breathe. Helpless to aid his seraph, the only woman in this world who could save his soul and aid the Templar purpose, he watched as Bianca scrambled across her bed in a vain race for the door.
Azazel snatched at her shoulder. Claws dug into flawless flesh, whipping her around to face him. Before she could do so much as whimper, he thrust his hand into her chest. She screamed. Her body convulsed in his deadly embrace. Azazel released the hand that supported her back, and she fell to the floor. Her heart remained in his vile hand. Blood poured down the length of his arm.
A smirk drifted to Azazel’s lips as he carelessly tossed her heart atop her broken body. “A pity. She was most entertaining. I could have enjoyed her company a good while before that became necessary.”
Unable to form words through his blinding pain, Iain spit at Azazel’s feet, daring the Lord of Darkness to take him next. To put an end not only to his physical suffering, but also to the eternal damnation of his soul.
Yet Azazel would not grant him such respite. He chuckled at Iain. “You will serve me soon enough. I await the power of your sword.”
A fetid breeze stirred, and Azazel vanished.
Iain’s gaze fell to Bianca’s bloodied form. He closed his eyes to the hot rush of tears. Fighting against the searing heat that taunted him with the bliss of unconsciousness, he dragged himself across the carpeted floor to her lifeless side. With a shaking hand, he pushed her thick hair away from her face. Long lashes graced high cheekbones. She had been beautiful.
His heart broke as he touched her still-warm cheek. He had failed his seraph. Failed his brethren. There would be no salvation for his tainted soul. Not now. Not ever. He would suffer until the darkness overcame him. When it did, he would know escape. But he would raise his sword against his brethren and join Azazel’s ranks to conquer the Almighty.
“How’s it feel to prove the existence of Christ?”
The wavering masculine voice invaded Noelle Keane’s laboratory as a door clicked shut. She looked over her shoulder to greet aging archaeologist Gabriel San Lucee with a smile.
“Morning, Gabriel.” She turned back to the cloth.
Thirty-three inches of fragile cloth swathed the laboratory table. Laid out with less care than anyone had given the delicate weave in centuries, it bore dark stains in the wrinkled center, telltale marks of its original insignificance. But though it had once been little more than a scrap meant for the trash, millions revered it. Now the flimsy piece of material would gain more respect and attract thousands of devotees. All in the name of a mythical being who no one could prove existed.
Noelle ran her gloved hand across the rough surface, smoothing out wrinkles that would never see an iron. In her other hand, she held a typed printout of her carbon-dated findings. The evidence was there, and yet all it proved was that the Sudarium of Oviedo covered a body in the approximate year 33.
Not what body. Not which month. Not even where it had been used. Supposition laid claim to all those things. Scientific fact, however, verified only its age. That and the blood type AB. All the rest of the findings—such as pollen type and traces of myrrh that had been verified in the midnineties—could relate to any number of ancient funerary practices in Palestine.
She folded it into a loose square, small enough to fit into the airtight canister that protected it.
“You didn’t answer my question.” Pulling on gloves, Gabriel joined her at the table and leaned a hip on the edge. He extended a wrinkled hand toward the metal container. “May I hold it?”
She passed him the canister. “I haven’t proved Christ existed. Until they dig up his bones, that won’t happen. And even if they do dig up his bones, barring your God suddenly appearing to tell us otherwise, we can’t prove the bones are Jesus Christ’s.”
He clucked his tongue as he pulled the veil-thin cloth out and draped it between his palms. “You still haven’t come to see the truth?”
“The truth is here.” Noelle wagged her paper beneath his nose. “Black and white.”
A lazy grin crinkled the corners of his gray-blue eyes. He put the Sudarium back into the canister and reverently set it in the middle of the table. “Tell that to all the people lined up outside and the throngs of Christians waiting to follow that little can to the airport.”
“I suppose that’s why you’re here?” She picked up her travel log, signed the necessary forms to verify she’d performed the accelerator mass spectrometry herself, and stuffed them all into her briefcase. She couldn’t remember a time Gabriel hadn’t dropped into her sanitized laboratory unannounced. Since she’d accepted the lead scientist position in D.C. six years ago, he popped in almost monthly.
Truthfully, she already knew what brought him here today. Gabriel had been part of the team of scientists that dated the Shroud of Turin in the eighties. He’d want to see this supposed counterpart.
“Well, yes and no.” He slung a leather satchel that had seen better days over his shoulder and set it on the table. “Yes, I wanted to see the Sudarium. But I needed to talk to you as well.”
“Make it quick. I’
“With good reason, Noelle.” Gabriel pulled out a rolling stool and sat down. “The same reason I wanted to talk to you. People coveted that cloth before it came here. Now, people would kill just to touch it. Let alone possess it.”
She shot him a glance through the mirror and adjusted her glasses. “I think I can handle escorting the thing back to Spain. I got it here, didn’t I? Seth’s going to meet me at the airport and keep me company across the ocean.”
“Ah yes, your faithful shadow, Seth.” Humor lightened Gabriel’s eyes. He pushed a hand through short, thick, white hair, and a frown tugged at bushy eyebrows. “I don’t think you should trust anyone with this, Noelle. It’s too significant.”
Slowly turning, Noelle dropped her gaze to the gnarled cane resting against Gabriel’s left leg. He’d devoted his life to proving the Shroud of Turin was legitimate. Now he was almost eighty, and all he had to show for his research was a shroud that dated from the thirteenth century and a crippled leg. His shooting upon that shroud’s return was the reason for her cadre of governmental guards.
She met his concerned gaze with a warm smile. “I’ll be fine. There’s four cars ahead and behind me. The Church owns the plane. My assistant will be with me—I’ll be just fine.”
His eyes narrowed as he studied her expression.
She’d seen that look enough times to know Gabriel was about to dump some revelation on her she wouldn’t like. The hairs on the back of her neck lifted, and unease rolled in her belly.
“I’ve arranged for a personal guard.”
“You what?” She blinked. Her glasses slipped down her nose, and she hastily shoved them back into place.
“I spoke with the director. We both feel it would be a good idea to have someone with you. Driving you. The caravan is nice, yes. But the men inside are strangers easily bought. It’s not like Pope Benedict arranged for the Secret Service to escort you.”
Other author's books:
- Waiting For YesImmortal Hope: The Curse of the TemplarsDoomed to TormentDestined to DieEnslaved by FearImmortal ProtectorMarked for DeathImmortal Trust
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