Anyone who knows me well knows how much I love medieval romance. I discovered Monica McCarty when she published her debut novel, Highlander Untamed in 2007 and have been a devoted fan ever since. One would think that after eleven books, McCarty's Highland Guard series would be beginning to lose steam but, if anything, it's gaining in intensity with each new novel that is released. McCarty has her own keeper shelf in my book collection and I'm excited to add today's release, The Rock to the sixteen books already residing there. Please enjoy Chapter One from The Rock and be sure to leave a comment for a chance to win a copy of your own.
by Monica McCarty
Publisher: Pocket Books
Release Date: December 29, 2015
New York Times bestselling author Monica McCarty continues her Highland Guard series in this eleventh steamy historical romance set against the sweeping backdrop of the Scottish Highlands.
The first time he caught sight of Elizabeth Douglas, Thomas MacGowan thought she was a princess. To the son of the castle blacksmith, the daughter of the powerful Lord of Douglas might as well be. When it becomes clear that his childhood companion will never see him as a man she could love, Thom joins Edward Bruce’s army as a man-at-arms to try to change his lot. If he’s harbored a secret hope that he could close the gap between them, he faces the cold, hard truth when Elizabeth comes to him for help. She might need the boy who used to climb cliffs to rescue her brother from the hands of the English, but she would never see the son of a smith as a man worthy of her hand.
Douglas, South Lanarkshire, February 1311
Thom (no one called him “wee” anymore) had waited
long enough. He struck one last blow with the hammer
before carefully setting aside the hot blade.
Wiping the sweat and grit from his brow with the back
of his hand, he pulled the protective leather apron over his
head and hung it on a peg near the door.
“Where are you going?” his father asked, looking up
from his own piece of hot metal—in his case a severely
dented helm. The Englishman who’d once worn it must be
suffering a foul headache. If he was still around to be suffering,
“To the river to wash,” Thom replied.
His father frowned, the dark features made darker by
the layers of grime that came from toiling near the fires all
day. Every day. For forty years.
Though no longer the tallest man in the village (Thom
had surpassed his father in height almost ten years ago),
Big Thom was still the most muscular, although a few more
years of Thom wielding the hammer might force his father
to cede that title as well. Physically the men were much
alike, but in every other way they were opposites.
“There is still plenty of time before the evening meal,”
his father pointed out. “Captain de Wilton is anxious for
Thom gritted his teeth. Although the villagers in Douglas
had no choice but to accept the English occupation of their
castle—with the current Lord of Douglas a much hunted
“rebel”—it didn’t mean he had to jump to their bidding.
“The captain can wait if he wants the work done properly.”
“But his silver cannot. Those tools aren’t going to buy
Though there was no censure in his tone, Thom knew
what his father was thinking. They wouldn’t need the coin
so badly if Thom wasn’t being so stubborn. He was sitting—or
more accurately sleeping—on enough silver to
replace every tool in the forge and expand to take on a
handful of apprentices if they wanted them. But that was
his father’s dream, not his. His mother had left him the
small fortune, and Thom wasn’t ready to relinquish it—or
the opportunity that went along with it.
They wouldn’t need coin at all if the current Lord of
Douglas wasn’t so busy making a name for himself with
all his “black” deeds that he actually gave thought to those
who were left in his wake and bore the brunt of English
retaliation. Thom tried to push back the wave of bitterness
and anger that came from thinking of his former friend,
but it had become as reflexive as swinging his hammer.
The last time Sir James “the Black” Douglas had attempted
to rid his Hall of Englishmen—about a year ago
when he’d tricked the then-keeper, Lord Thirlwall, from
the safety of the castle into an ambush but failed to take
the castle—the remaining garrison had retaliated against the
villagers, whom they accused of aiding the rebels.
“War is good for business,” his father liked to say. Except
when it wasn’t. Big Thom MacGowan, who’d never
been shy about his loyalty to the Douglas lords, had paid
for that loyalty with a nearly destroyed forge and the loss of some of his most expensive tools. Tools that were probably
in some English forge right now.
Fortunately the garrison and commander who’d replaced
Thirlwall, De Wilton, seemed a more fair-minded
man. He didn’t blame the villagers for the actions of their
rebel laird, and he and his men were frequent customers
of the village smith, or as the wooden sign not-soimaginatively
proclaimed it, The Forge. His father might
not like the English, but he was happy to take their silver,
especially at his special English rates.
“I’ll finish it soon enough,” Thom said. “And Johnny is
almost done with the mail, aren’t you lad?”
His fourteen-year-old brother nodded. “A few more
rivets and it will be as good as new.” He grinned, his teeth a
flash of white in his blackened face. “Better than new.”
Thom grinned back at him. “I don’t doubt it.”
Although more like their father in his even-keeled, contented
temperament, Johnny possessed the same instinctive
skill with the iron as Thom. Big Thom liked to say his lads
were born to it, which made Johnny beam and grated on
Thom like emery under his plaid. The instinctive skills such
as knowing just when to pull the metal out, where to strike
it with a hammer, and how to make it strong enough to do
its job without being so hard that it shattered or broke that
made his father so proud felt like a chain wrapped around
It would have been far easier if he’d never showed any
talent for the work. If he’d shattered one too many blades
by cooling the metal too quickly or striking it in the wrong
place while hardening. If he were less precise in detail,
couldn’t fit a handle to save his life, a poorer judge of temperature,
off on his proportions . . . anything.
His father didn’t understand how someone with Thom’s “God-given talent” wasn’t content. Skill like theirs was
meant to be used.
Which was part of the problem with Johnny. Johnny
was too good with the hammer to haul coal and operate
the bellows, the tasks normally given to a young apprentice.
With Big Thom handling most of the day-to-day smithing
work, from repairing cast iron pots to shoeing horses,
and Thom with more sword work than he could handle,
they were turning away jobs as it was. Big Thom wanted
Johnny at the forge, which meant they needed someone to
do the apprentice work. But Thom couldn’t bring himself
to give up the one chance he had to change his destiny. His
mother had wanted to give him a choice.
Thom opened the door and—ironically—coughed at the
breath of fresh air. His lungs were so accustomed to the black
smoke it was as if the purity somehow offended them. Daylight
at this time of the year didn’t last long, and night was
already falling. The mist, however, was not. The stars would be
out tonight in full force. That was what he was counting on.
He wasn’t all that surprised to hear the door open behind
him. “Son, wait a minute.”
Thom turned, seeing the features so like his own aged
by time, hardship, and loss. He knew his father had a
woman in town he sometimes saw, but no one had ever
replaced Thom’s mother in his father’s heart. Not that you’d
ever hear his father rail or complain about the injustice fate
had handed him. Like everything else, Big Thom had taken
his wife’s death with unquestioning, stoic acceptance.
Thom never accepted anything. It was his curse, and the
source of his discontent. He envied his father and brother
sometimes. Life was simpler when you didn’t question.
When you didn’t want more than what birth so capriciously
He met his father’s worried gaze.
“Don’t go, son.”
“I’ll finish the sword—”
“I know she’s back.”
The words fell with the weight of an anvil between
them. Thom stiffened, his jaw clamping down like a steel
wall, an implicit warning that beyond there be dragons. The
subject was not one he wanted to discuss with his father—
ever. It was a subject upon which they would never agree.
But his formidable father wasn’t one to back down from
dark looks—or dragons. “I know Lady Elizabeth is back,
and you are going to try to see her tonight. But don’t go,
Thommy. No good will come of it. Leave the lass be.”
“You don’t know what you are talking about.” His father
had never understood about him and Ella—or Jamie for
that matter, when they were still friends. From the first
time he’d come home after rescuing Ella from that tree,
his father had tried to discourage his friendship with the
Douglases, warning him not to get too close. But the four
of them had been inseparable before Ella had been sent
away to France for her protection at the start of the war—
and Jamie had discovered Thom’s secret. He’d lost the girl
he loved and his best friend in one day.
Thom tried to turn away, but his father took hold of his
arm. “I know more than you think. I know she’s been back
for the better part of a fortnight. I know she’s staying at
Park Castle with her stepmother and younger brothers. I
know that she could have come to see you, if she wanted,
but she hasn’t. I know you’ve loved her since she was a little
lass, but she’s not a little lass anymore. She’s a lady. A noble.
The sister of our laird. She’s not for you. She’s never been
for you, and there is nothing you can do to change that. I
wish it were different, but that’s the way it is.”
“So I should just give up, is that it? Accept it?” Thom
shook him off. “That isn’t me, that’s . . .” You.
He stopped before the word was out, but it was too
late. He saw the flinch reverberate through his father’s big
frame. His father, who was one of the toughest men in the
village, who’d broken up more fights in the alehouse because
no one was fool enough to strike him, could be hurt
by his son’s unthinking words.
“I’m sorry,” Thom said, raking his fingers through his
sweat-soaked hair. “Don’t listen to me. I’ve no right to take
my foul mood out on you. I just wish you’d try to understand.”
“I do, Thommy, more than you know. I was in your place
once. But the daughter of a household knight is a far cry
from the daughter of one of Scotland’s leading nobles and
sister of one of Robert the Bruce’s chief lieutenants. The lass
has spent the better part of the last five years in France; can
you honestly see her happy with the life you could give her?”
His father’s words struck too close to the mark, raising
fears Thom didn’t want to give voice to. “Ella isn’t like that.
You know her.”
His father’s eyes leveled on him somberly. “I knew a
chattering magpie of a ten-year-old lass who I had to ban
from the forge so you could get some work done, and I
knew the sweet, teenage lass you used to sneak out to go
visit at night.” He paused at Thom’s look of shock. “Aye, I
knew about that. Just as I knew that if I tried to stop you,
you would only find another way. The lass looked at you
like a brother, I didn’t think there would be any harm. But
I was wrong. The Douglases put ideas in your head. They
made you think this wasn’t good enough.” Thom started to
protest, but his father put up his hand to stop him. “Maybe
not in words, but by bringing you into their world. A world in which you don’t belong. Not even your mother’s coin
will raise you high enough for a Douglas—whatever you
try to make of yourself. You’ve a God-given gift, son. With
your skill you could be making swords for a king one day;
don’t waste it by chasing a foolish dream.”
Thom tightened his jaw. It wasn’t foolish. The bond between
him and Ella was special—different.
He didn’t want to hear it. “So I can stay
here and chase your dream instead?”
Thom regretted the words as soon as they left his
mouth. But it was too late to retrieve them.
His father stilled, his expression as tight as steel hardened
right to the shattering point. After a pained pause,
he stepped back. “Perhaps you are right. I’ve no right to interfere.
You’re a man now. Three and twenty is old enough
to make your own decisions. I’ll not try to hold you here if
you wish to leave. But make sure you are doing so for the
right reasons. Leave because you don’t like being a smith,
not because you think it will give you a chance with Lady
Elizabeth.” He paused and held Thom’s gaze. “I know how
you feel about her, lad, but if she feels the same way, why
hasn’t she come to see you?”
It was a good question, and one Thom would have answered
The old stone peel tower of Park Castle wasn’t as easy to
climb as Douglas Castle. Or maybe it was just that Thom was
out of practice. It had been nearly five years since he’d scaled
the walls of the tower house of Douglas Castle to meet Ella.
Their rooftop meetings had started not long after his
father barred Ella from the forge, where she would sometimes
(often) “drop by” with some excuse to watch him finish his work. His father was right. The lass could chatter
for hours. But Thom had never minded. He’d listened to
her stories and her silly jokes and even cleaning up had
Knowing how disappointed she was, and missing her
company more than he’d expected, one night he’d decided
to surprise her. She’d mentioned that sometimes when
she couldn’t sleep, she climbed up to the roof and sat on
the battlements, looking at the stars. He had to climb
the tower five nights in a row, but on the sixth she finally
She’d been shocked, excited, and amazed. Not just at
his ability to climb the keep, but also that he could do so
while evading the castle watch. It hadn’t been all that difficult—although
he certainly didn’t tell her that (even back
then he wanted her admiration)—people didn’t look where
they weren’t expecting to see anything. All he had to do
was watch the guardsmen on patrol, figure out their pattern,
and stick to the shadows. The castle itself, although
“enceinte,” and fortified by a stone wall, was of wood frame
construction, giving him a virtual ladder to climb.
For the next handful of years, a few times a month on
the nights the mist permitted the stars to shine, Thom
would wait in one of the outbuildings for the castle to quiet
and then climb the tower where Ella would be waiting for
him. They’d talk for hours—actually, Ella would do most
of the talking, except when he’d point out the constellations
and tell her the old stories his mother had passed on
to him before she’d died. He didn’t know how many times
he’d had to retell the one about Perseus and Andromeda,
but the lass never grew tired of it.
Those nights on the tower were where their friendship
had turned to something more—at least for him. The meetings had been their secret, until Jamie discovered
them right before he’d marched off to join Bruce. Or so
Thom had thought. He still couldn’t believe his father had
known this whole time and never said anything.
Thom’s arm muscles strained as he reached for a gap
in the rock big enough to grab on to in the rough surface
of the stone wall. He made sure his grip was solid before
moving his right foot and then his left up another couple
of feet. Finally, with the next handhold he was able to reach
the edge of the crenellated parapet wall and lift himself
over and onto the battlements.
Christ, that had been harder than he’d anticipated. His
arms were burning as he took a moment to look around
and catch his breath. It hadn’t looked that difficult, but
the jagged stone walls of Park Castle didn’t provide as
many foot- and handholds as the wooden framework of
Douglas Castle. Although the tower was small and no
more than thirty feet high, he might not have been able
to climb it at all had it not been neglected for years, with
much of the lime-rendered harling—meant to even the
surface and protect the stone from weather—cracked and
Park Castle had been built as a watchtower years ago
by the church, but was purchased some years back by the
English knight Lady Eleanor Douglas had married after
the death of the old laird. William the Hardy had died in
the Tower of London about two years after Thom’s mother
for rebelling against King Edward again. Ella had been
forced to leave Douglas Castle for a couple of years then as
well. It had been a difficult time for her, one that she didn’t
like to talk about.
With the English and Sir Robert Clifford in possession
of the old Douglas lands, Park Castle now served as home to Lady Eleanor (recently widowed for the third time), her
stepdaughter, Elizabeth, and Elizabeth’s two half brothers,
Archie and Hugh.
He looked around. The pitched wooden roof and surrounding
battlement were deserted. Thom tried not to be
disappointed. It was early yet. Ella usually waited until well
after everyone went to sleep, making it easier to sneak up to
the garret to access the small door.
Despite the clear night, it was cold, and Thom was
grateful for the extra plaid he’d tossed into his sack as he sat
to wait. He’d been right. The stars were out tonight. Coupled
with the nearly full moon, a soft glow had been cast
across the quiet countryside. It seemed so peaceful it was
hard to believe they were in the midst of a long, brutal war.
The village of Douglas had seen more than its share
of conflict, and as long as the English occupied its castle,
Thom knew it would see more. If James Douglas had to
destroy the entire town, he would to rid Douglasdale of the
English for Robert the Bruce. Thom wanted the English
gone, too, but Jamie’s vengeance went too far. His former
friend had changed.
Thom didn’t want to think so, but why hadn’t she come
to see him? When she’d left, he’d been so certain that she’d
begun to feel the same way as he. “Will you wear my ribbon
around your sleeve when you are a knight in a tourney,
Thommy?” or, “I know you hate it, but how will we go to
France when we are older if you don’t learn to speak French? ”
She’d been thinking about a future with him, even going as
far as telling him one of the rare times he lost his temper
with her that if he were her husband, she’d put spiderwort
in his soup (which was known for its digestive effect), and
give him cause for his black mood, if he ever snapped at her like that again. He’d been chastened and enchanted.
His little princess had some fire.
If only Jamie hadn’t sent her away, damn it.
Time passed slowly while Thom waited. After a few
hours, he was forced to concede that she wasn’t coming. He
stood and started to stuff the plaid back into his sack. He
was a fool. His father was right. Five years was a long time.
She’d probably forgotten—
The door opened, and his heart dropped.
He glanced up as she stepped over the threshold, a
beam of moonlight catching her in its hold and taking his
breath along with it.
He might have jolted. The glimpse he’d caught of her
with her stepmother, as she’d ridden through the village
a couple of weeks ago, had not prepared him for the vision
before him now. Long, shimmery waves of flaxen hair
tumbled around her shoulders in a silky veil down her back.
Her features were small and even, perfectly positioned in an
oval canvas of snowy white. Her mouth was red, her cheeks
pink, and her chin delicately pointed. Dark arched brows
and long feathery lashes framed round, wide-set eyes the
unusual blue of peacock feathers. She was gowned in an
ice-blue dressing robe lined with white fur, the thick gold
braid belt around her waist emphasizing its trimness as well
as the softly rounded curves above and below. Her breasts
were firm and generous, her hips slender, and her legs long.
Ella had always been beautiful, even as a child. But
it had become so commonplace to him that he stopped
thinking about it. The last time he’d seen her at a just-turned-sixteen,
she’d still possessed the vestiges of the
girl who’d traipsed all over the countryside with him and
Jo. But the woman standing before him didn’t look like she’d ever traipsed anywhere—she floated. She didn’t look
real; she looked like a figment from a faerie tale or an ice
princess from the lands of the Northmen. Refined, sophisticated,
and utterly untouchable. She looked nothing like
the girl he remembered.
Thom didn’t second-guess himself very often, but he did
It was only when he looked down on her wrist and saw
the faint edge of brass that he felt some of his confidence
return. She still wore the bracelet he’d given her right before
she’d been sent away. She hadn’t forgotten him.
Have you read any of Monica McCarty's books?
Do you have a favorite?
Are you a fan of medieval romance?
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