Authors: Claire Ashgrove
Tags: #Romance, #Fantasy, #Gothic, #Paranormal
He squeezed his hands against his temple to block out the unwarranted suspicion. These days, he could do naught to stop it from crawling into his thoughts. God’s messenger had always behaved most strangely. The fact he omitted the danger that Noelle trusted a demon should not surprise him. Gabriel had his reasons. He and the Almighty were the only ones to share the purpose.
“Lucan? The cat—what is it doing here?” Caradoc asked for the second time.
Lucan expelled a long breath and lifted his head. He glanced at the gray feline curled up on Anne and Merrick’s sofa, contentedly grooming itself. It had yowled the entire drive. Now it seemed oblivious to the change in environment. “Farran ordered me to retrieve it.”
Merrick’s hearty laughter filled the sitting room. He sat forward and dropped his hand onto the cat’s back. His amused gaze met his wife’s smiling eyes. “Well, little demon, that confirms it.”
“Confirms what?” Lucan looked between the pair, searching for the knowledge they shared.
“She belongs to Farran.”
At Merrick’s proclamation, Caradoc sat upright. Jaw slack, he stared at their commander. “You cannot be serious.”
“Aye, I am. He dropped the phone and has not seen fit to make a return call. His swearing made me suspicious. The cat—Farran would not order its presence lest he had cause to concern himself with the maid’s comfort.”
Lucan rubbed his hands together between his knees. “Farran does not share your amusement.”
Anne’s laughter joined Merrick’s. “Of course he doesn’t. Does that surprise any one of you?”
As Lucan let his humor escape on a low chuckle, Caradoc joined in. Lucan shook his head. “Nay, it does not.”
Anne leaned back against Merrick’s side and stretched her feet out, propping them on the table. “She must be beautiful. Something has to crack through that shell of his.”
“On the contrary, milady. She is pretty, aye. But Farran’s whore is far more lovely.” A fact that only stirred the suspicion lurking in Lucan’s darkened soul further. To any who knew Merrick, his attraction for his seraph had been visible from the start. That Farran did not share the same left Lucan wondering if mayhap Noelle could not be some great deception of Azazel’s. None but Farran verified the mark. No one witnessed whether the serpents responded to Farran as well. It could all be a fiction within Farran’s head, planted by the demon when it ran the pair of them off the road. Even now, Noelle could be learning secrets Azazel craved.
On the heels of the thought, another occurred. Mayhap Farran did as Tane had with Anne. Mayhap he craved salvation so much he saw things that did not exist. Mayhap Noelle belonged to another.
He frowned at the straying thought. Nay. Farran had no cause to covet. Of all of them, Farran embraced their fate. He looked forward to the day darkness claimed his soul and the inevitable death Mikhail, or whichever knight stood at Farran’s side, carried out. Farran did not wish to exist forever.
“You are troubled, Lucan,” Caradoc observed.
Lucan leaned back in his chair and folded an ankle over one knee. “’Tis naught more than what plagues you, brother. I find myself doubting even the things I would swear upon.”
A reassuring hand clamped onto his ankle, gave a squeeze, then pulled back. Caradoc nodded. “The darkness grows within us all.”
All except Merrick. He alone knew healing.
As if he sensed Lucan’s thoughts, Merrick rose to his feet and went to the window, his back to the small gathering. “’Tis not as quick as you may think. The darkness lurks inside me as well, but I am beginning to believe again. My concerns lay with neither of you, however. Nor with Farran.” He pushed aside the curtain and braced a hand on the glass pane. “If Farran resists the vows, we must insure what happened with Tane does not occur again.”
Lucan’s gaze pulled to Anne. Her kidnapping had forced their brother from the temple. Yet in the weeks since, Lucan had yet to witness any form of hostility from her when Tane came into discussion. Even now, she watched Merrick with tender eyes. Naught like the gaze of agreement Lucan had anticipated.
“’Twill not happen,” Caradoc affirmed. “Noelle’s rooms are already prepared. They lay just beyond yours, Merrick. Mikhail has assigned the four of us to guarding her door.”
Merrick’s voice dropped, and he bent his head toward the window. “’Tis precisely my fear. Have you not noticed Declan withdraws from us? He is not present now. I could not begin to tell you his whereabouts.”
A heavy silence descended on the room. For several long moments, they all avoided eye contact. Though none would speak the obvious, all had observed Declan’s subtle changes. What could not be explained was the reason for such. The injury Caradoc dealt him had not yet healed enough to allow Declan to fight. His soul had taken no further damage. Still, the change was marked. Declan’s once frequent smile came with less abundance. His constant laughter diminished. He spent long hours brooding in silence, never offering to share what plagued his mind.
Anne broke the stillness. “Have hope, Merrick. I see the same changes in all of you. Caradoc’s pain increases. Lucan, you just admitted your suspicion deepens. Farran gets angrier and angrier.”
“Aye, but we fight. Declan does not,” Lucan argued.
“True. Still, if you were confined, you’d get hostile too. All of you would. Declan’s been bound to the temple for weeks. I’m sure it’s nothing more than cabin fever.”
“If we all possessed your hope, Anne, we would conquer Azazel overnight,” Caradoc replied on a chortle. “’Tis as she says, my brothers. She is the only one of us who can see clearly. Let us not concern ourselves with possibility. I shall pick up Declan’s guard should he fail to attend to Noelle as Mikhail ordered.”
“I shall also,” Lucan added. In so doing, he would assure himself the seraph was not false.
Merrick gave a sharp nod. “Then we are agreed. Should Farran refuse the vows, Noelle shall come to no harm.”
“Aye,” Lucan and Caradoc answered in chorus.
“Then off with you both.” Merrick turned from the window with a wide grin. “’Tis late. I desire time with my wife.”
Lucan rose to his feet with furrowed brows. Did Merrick truly wish time alone with Anne? Or did he have concerns he did not wish to voice in front of Caradoc and himself? Annoyed with the wayward path of his thoughts, Lucan grasped for the conviction of faith. He would not doubt Merrick.
However, he would report his concerns to Mikhail. He picked up the satchel Noelle gave to him. “Aye. I must turn this over to Mikhail. He will wish to know of Farran’s pairing.”
Merrick answered with a supporting nod. “Farran relayed they shall arrive tomorrow. Be at hand so you may give your oath of loyalty.”
“Aye,” Lucan agreed as he followed Caradoc into the hall.
* * *
Anne turned to Merrick, concerned. She watched him pace in front of the television, followed the path of his hand as he raked it through his dark hair. “What is it, honey?”
Merrick stopped and expelled a heavy sigh. He turned around, his expression fraught with conflict. At once, she knew. The only time his emotions warred so fiercely nowadays was when Tane concerned him.
“Armand informed me Tane came by the temple today.”
She extended her hand, seeking Merrick’s. He crossed to her, clasped her palm in his much larger one, and sank into the cushions.
“I do not want him here, Anne.”
Leaning closer, she pressed a soft kiss to his cheek. “He’s part of what brought us together. You don’t need to carry my burdens for me. I’m not fond of him, but I don’t hate him, Merrick.” She trailed her fingers through his long black waves. “What did he want?”
“He wants funds from the Order to open a shelter for homeless teenagers.”
Anne’s lifted an eyebrow, perplexed. “Aren’t there some already established?”
“Aye. But Tane does not wish to open something large scale. He intends to create a family environment. Long-term residents like the young woman Marie he knows. No more than six or eight at a time. Teenagers who must meet criteria and follow regulation to stay within the program. He intends to fund college educations for them.”
Anne let out a low whistle at the prospect. She’d have never guessed that buried inside Tane’s jealous soul he carried that much compassion. Definitely a noble venture. If it worked, he’d really make a difference. No transitionary beds. A real place to call
. “He told this to Armand?”
“Aye. He requested Armand relay the request to me.”
Picking her words carefully, Anne asked, “What did you tell him?”
Merrick shook his head. “I have not answered.”
The tension that had accumulated in Anne’s spine relaxed. In truth, Tane had scared her, but he hadn’t harmed her. She felt little fear when it came to him, for that matter. The animosity existed solely between her mate and his former brother. Still, she didn’t want to contribute to Merrick’s hostility. Didn’t want to encourage him to keep Tane at a distance. If the man wanted to do good with his excommunication, then he should be allowed to do so. For that matter, after he’d fought for the Order in Louisiana, he shouldn’t have been evicted. But nothing would have convinced Merrick out of that idea.
She slid her hand down Merrick’s broad shoulders to the small of his back and snuggled in close to his side. Inhaling the heady scent of spice she loved so dearly, she rubbed her cheek on his shoulder. “If you’re resisting because of me, don’t. Just like the knights who remain, Tane can’t help himself.” She bit her teeth into her lower lip debating how far to go. Did she tell him the obvious? That if Tane’s seraph appeared, he would have to return to the Order?
As Merrick bristled, she decided the argument would fall on deaf ears. Merrick wasn’t ready to let go of his anger. Wasn’t ready to forgive what he viewed as a risk to her life. Truth be told, Tane wouldn’t have harmed her. The darkness that ate at his soul just created illusions Tane couldn’t resist. But she’d tried to explain that so many times she already knew the outcome. Merrick would storm off, unable to understand how she could see what he couldn’t.
“Tane acted without honor. He broke the oaths of brotherhood. He betrayed us all by acting on his own selfishness. If something had happened to you…” He trailed off, his jaw so tight the faint scar there pulled white.
Anne slipped her fingers beneath the hem of his shirt and caressed his warm skin. In a low voice she murmured, “I know. That’s how I feel about you too.”
Merrick’s arms came around her fast and tight. He dragged her sideways onto his lap and cradled her in his strong embrace. In moments like this, they needed no words. As it had always been between them, they spoke from their hearts, words that came out through their bodies. As she understood Merrick’s deep love for her, he knew hers intimately. Just as he understood what she couldn’t bring herself to say—Tane might be gone, but his absence would only be temporary. As second only to the archangel Mikhail, Merrick held the decision for Tane’s fate. And he would inevitably have to allow Tane to return home.
When the time came for him to confront the reality, she would make sure Merrick knew she supported the decision.
Noelle fought the call of sleep as the SUV wound down a sweeping drive just outside the heart of Columbus, Ohio. Overhead, stars twinkled on glistening snow, blending with the rays of a silver moon. In the luster of winter, a two-story brick house stood out against a tree-covered backdrop. More a box on stilts than any sort of grandiose manor, the architecture was every bit as old as the house they’d left behind in D.C. The early 1800s home came complete with tall white shutters framing narrow windows and two columns supporting a white-trimmed front porch. It offered warm welcome. Not only did every light burn a soft yellow, but a lighted Christmas wreath dangled from the double chimney.
A vision of her childhood home took root in her mind, and Noelle let out a wistful sigh. If she’d been able to keep the property after her parents’ death, it would look much the same this time of year. Even with the wreath. While Noelle didn’t believe in Christ, she loved the festive tradition she always associated with home. She just couldn’t bring herself to participate alone.
“She keeps it up well,” Noelle remarked.
“’Tis all handled by the Order. Each summer, we spend time traveling to the adytums to repair, replace, and landscape.” Farran gestured at a stone-encased pond where a fountain sat dormant beneath a pale blue light. “Four summers ago, I aided with the construction of that.”
She cocked her head with a lifted eyebrow. “Construction? You mean you put it together?”
“Nay.” He slowed their speed as they passed the granite replica of a fantasy piece. Mounted on an armored horse, a knight bowed his head before a castle’s gate. Atop the tall tower, a dragon perched on the ramparts, its fearsome jaws opened in a timeless assault.
“What do you mean then? My aunt and uncle installed a fountain. They ordered the center piece, but had to connect the lines and electricity.”
“Five of us cut the stone. It took us all summer and well into autumn. I carved the knight and his mount. Declan crafted the castle. Caradoc the dragon. Gottfried and Ranulf cut and laid the stones for the basin.”
Noelle blinked. She looked to the fountain, almost lifelike in its precision. Then she looked to Farran, dumbfounded. The giant beside her didn’t seem capable of carving something so meticulous and delicate. Those large hands looked like they’d break that stone. But then, she’d experienced the gentleness in his hands, hadn’t she? That surprised her too.
“Where’d you learn how to do that?”
He shrugged. “It has been so long I have forgotten. ’Tis part of me now. Nearly all of us have the ability to carve.”
That put the missing link in place. Freemasons. His friends must all be part of an order of Masons. Which explained how his post-traumatic stress disorder fabricated the Knights Templar part. A wave of pity washed through her veins. He could really do something with that talent if he didn’t have his head all mixed up. And if he managed to straighten out those mental issues, he’d be one hell of a catch for some lucky woman.