A Dark Guardian (Shields Series #1)by Donna Grant, Antony Ferguson
In all the time he has led the Shields Hugh has
Hugh and his men are faced with fighting creatures only thought to live in legend but which have been brought to Earth by evil bent on annihilating all the realms. That is Hugh's life—and he loves it. At least he did until he found himself staring into the angelic, innocent face of Lady Mina of Stone Crest.
In all the time he has led the Shields Hugh has trusted his instinct to keep his men alive, yet now he doesn't know what to believe. Everything points to Mina as the evil summoning the creatures, but she proclaims her innocence. He should be able to see through her lies, if she is indeed lying, but his attraction to her blinds him to even that. The last time he found myself so drawn to a woman, it nearly cost him the lives of his men. Hugh cannot allow that to happen again. He won't allow that to happen again. Yet every time she looks at him, begging him with those blue-green eyes to believe her, he finds himself sinking further under her spell. Her mouth is a temptation mortal men will never know, and her love will either bring him the peace he thought he'd never find—or the death he's managed, thus far, to avoid.
Read an Excerpt
Central England, Stone Crest Castle
The darkness of night summoned Evil like a warm tavern to a weary traveler; the velvety thickness blanketing any who dared to oppose its will. And the Evil enfolding Stone Crest had one task in mind--the demise of all.
"Faster," Mina whispered urgently into her mare's ear. She bent low over the horse's neck and chanced a look over her shoulder; her hair sticking to her face and neck as the ground raced beneath her.
The dark, menacing road was vacant, but she knew the creature was near. Stalking. Mina's skin tingled with anticipation and her heart pounded fiercely in her chest as her mare continued to run toward the trees.
A terrible, unearthly scream rent the air. Mina quickly covered her ears and her mare slowed, then stopped and danced around in fright.
"Nay," Mina hissed while she tried to gain control of the mare. "Run, Sasha, run. Our lives depend upon it."
The mare sensed Mina's anxiety because her long legs stretched out and the ground flew beneath them once more. Mina gripped the reins and Sasha's mane tightly as her blood rushed wildly with fear and dread. The hair on the back of her neck rose, but she didn't need to look behind her to know the creature followed very close.
Mina focused on reaching the clearing. Sasha was fleet of foot, the swiftest of her family's horses. If anyone could outrun the creature, it was Sasha. At least, she had thought so. Now Mina wasn't so sure.
A small smile formed on her face when she saw the clump of trees that signaled the clearing was just a short distance away. As she was about to reach the trees, theflap of wings overhead reached her.
Something long and sharp passed in front of her face and sliced across her arm. A frantic Sasha reared, and it was all Mina could do to hang on. Then suddenly, the world tilted and Mina jumped clear as her beloved mare collapsed and lay deadly still on her side.
Mina raised her eyes to the night sky and saw the creature that had come to their small village hovering above her, a sardonic smile on its grotesque face. Its small beady eyes flashed red in the gloom, and she knew her time was at an end.
Long, razor-sharp talons lengthened from its hands. She swallowed her failure like a lump of coal. This wasn't how it was supposed to end.
Fear immobilized her. She couldn't even scream. The creature moved slowly towards her, as if he wanted to torment her prior to killing her. Before the creature's talons carved open her face, she saw a blur of movement out of the corner of her eye. In the next moment, she found herself thrown roughly to the ground and over the side of the hill. The weight of whoever had landed atop her knocked the wind from her lungs in a gush. As they rolled down the hill, she heard the furious screams of the creature.
Just as she thought they might roll for eternity, they finally came to an abrupt, bone-jarring halt. She was afraid to open her eyes and find that another evil had taken her. After all, it had been the worst kind of wickedness that had plagued her village for a month now.
A deep, soft voice reached her ears through her panic. A man's voice. "Are you all right?"
Slowly, she opened her eyes. Instead of a face, all she saw was the outline of his head. His tone held a hint of concern, but this was a stranger. She had come to mistrust anything that wasn't part of her village and so she was slow to respond.
"Aye," she answered at last.
"I was beginning to think the fall had addled your brain." There was no mistaking the trace of humor in his meaning as he swiftly rose to his feet.
He held out a hand to aid her. She hated to do it, but she accepted his help because she didn't think she could gain her feet alone after the tumble she had just taken. As he pulled her to her feet, her arm burst into agonizing pain. She could barely move her hand, but she wasn't about to let the stranger know she was hurt and give him an advantage. It was something she had learned very early in life. One had to be strong to survive in this land.
"'Tis not a safe night for a woman to be out alone."
She sensed he wanted to say more but held back. They were mere inches from each other, so she took a step back to offer herself more room. "There are many things that should keep people safely inside at night. Including men."
He bowed his head slightly. "I mean you no harm, lady."
She didn't believe that for an instant. Only a wandering idiot would take a stranger's word.
A bizarre whistle-like noise sounded from atop the hill. The stranger whistled back and then the eerie silence reigned once more. Not even the sound of crickets could be heard.
With her good hand she dusted off her breeches and then looked around for the dagger she had swiped from the armory earlier that day. She couldn't believe she had dropped her only weapon.
"Is this what you seek?"
Mina grudgingly turned to the man and saw her dagger in his outstretched hand. She accepted the weapon. "Thank you. For everything." She bit her lip and thought of Sasha. Without another word, she began to race up the hill.
The stranger was at her side in an instant, aiding her when she would have fallen. When they reached the top, she came to a halt as five men on horseback stared at her. They sat atop their steeds like kings, watching her every move. She dismissed them when Sasha's soft cry of pain reached her.
She went to her mare and knelt beside her. She ran her hand lightly over the open gash across Sasha's whither and closed her eyes. It was a mortal wound.
"The mare has lost a lot of blood," the stranger said as he knelt beside Sasha. "I'm afraid she is lost to you."
Tears came quickly to Mina's eyes, and she tried to blink them away. Tears were for the weak. "I'm so sorry, Sasha," she said and leaned down to kiss the mare's head. "I should never have come."
She knew there was no way to save Sasha and to leave her like this was to see her suffer needlessly. With trembling hands, she held the dagger to Sasha's throat, but moments slowly drew on.
A large, warm hand encased hers. "Shall I do it?" the stranger offered.
Before she could change her mind she nodded. He took the dagger and she laid her head on Sasha's. It was over in a heartbeat. Sasha never made a sound, but it cut through Mina's soul like a silent scream of anguish.
She gained her feet and looked around her as the moon broke through the dense clouds. Now she was alone with six men.
The stranger rose and faced her. "I am Hugh."
"From wense do you come?"
"London," he answered after a bit of a hesitation. He extended his arm to the men on horseback. "My companions are Roderick, Val, Gabriel, Cole and Darrick."
Each man bowed his head as Hugh said his name, and she was quick to note the array of weapons and the large shields, even in the cloud laden night. Then, six pairs of eyes were on her.
"I am Lady Mina of Stone Crest."
"Well, Lady Mina, what manner of men would allow you to be out at night unprotected?"
Hugh's question had her thinking of the trap she and some of the villagers had set. "I'm not alone," she said with more conviction than she felt. Her eyes scanned the sky above her, but there was no sign of the creature.
"Where are your men?"
She turned and pointed toward the clump of trees. "In the clearing. I was luring a ... an animal into a trap."
When she turned toward the men, the moonlight lit upon Hugh for just an instant, but in that moment she saw his skepticism. "It would have worked," she defended herself, "if Sasha had made it to the clearing."
"I hate to point out the obvious," the man in the middle said. Gabriel was his name. "But your men have yet to come to your aid."
Fear snaked its way through her and nestled comfortably in her stomach. These men could easily kill her. "I have only to call to them."
"Then call for I would meet the manner of men who would allow a woman to take such a risk," Hugh said.
"I would rather see the trap," Gabriel said and nudged his horse forward.
She stood her ground, ready to bolt, as Gabriel and his mount walked past her. She nearly sighed aloud but recalled that she wasn't alone.
Hugh watched Mina closely. Her hesitation said all he needed to know. The men that should have been with her had deserted her. Had she lied? Was she alone?
The creature she had lured must have frightened them away. Yet, if what she said was indeed true and they had set a trap, then the men wouldn't have deserted her.
"Come," he said and put his hand on her back to guide her toward the clearing.
She walked a little ahead of him, and he tried not to notice that she wore breeches instead of a gown. It had been awhile since he had given in to his urges and bedded a woman, and with one walking just ahead of him with her derriere swaying so enticingly from side to side, he found it hard to ignore.
He mentally shook himself and made his eyes look away from her delectable back end. Her hair had come loose from her braid and hung down her back in thick waves. Its exact color was hard to detect in the darkness, but he knew it was light.
Thankfully, they reached the clearing then. Just as he suspected, no one waited for her. "Where is the trap?" he asked.
"I was to lead the creature into those trees," she said and pointed straight ahead. "Once I passed the trees, the men would cut a rope that held a spike that would impale the ... animal."
Hugh heard the hesitation and wondered when she would tell them exactly what manner of beast had been chasing her. Could it be she really didn't know? Despite his misgivings about the situation, they had been sent to help.
The creak of leather sounded loudly in the quiet as someone dismounted, and when Hugh looked over he found Gabriel beside them.
"Not a bad plan," Gabriel said as he stared at the trees. "I wonder if it would have worked."
"I guess we'll never know," Mina said softly.
"Scout the area," Hugh told his men. "See if any of Lady Mina's men are still around."
While his men did as ordered he handed Mina his water skin. She drank greedily before returning it to him.
"We aren't here to harm you."
She shrugged her shoulder. "We've learned not to trust anyone. Are you knights?"
"In a way," he answered. "Do your parents know what you were about tonight?"
"They are dead."
That explained much. He made a mental note of those facts. "By the beast that was after you?"
She became very still before she briefly nodded her head. "You know what hunts us?"
"I do," he admitted.
"How?" Her voice held doubt and hope.
"I'll explain once we're safe. Do you have any other family?"
"A brother and sister, and they did know what I was doing," she answered.
Before Hugh could ask more questions, his men returned without good news. It was just as he expected, and it left a foul taste in mouth. There was no excuse to leave a defenseless woman alone to face the sort of evil they hunted.
"We will take you home." When she hesitated he said, "If you would prefer to face that creature alone and on foot, then we will leave you to it."
He had an idea she was about to do just that when the creature screamed some distance away and silenced any words she might have said. Without waiting for her to agree, he swiftly lifted her onto his horse.
He glanced at his men before he grabbed his horse's reins and mounted behind her. Their expressions said it all.
They had found exactly what they looked for.
Meet the Author
AudioFile Earphones Award winner Antony Ferguson, a native of London, England, is a classically trained actor and has appeared in numerous productions in London, Off-Broadway, and regional theater. As a voice actor, he has over fifty audiobooks to his credit.
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