Last month New York Times bestselling author Monica McCarty released her latest book in the Highland Guard series, THE STRIKER; now, she’s back with yet another new installment–THE ROCK, on sale today from Pocket Books! Can you say holiday treat or what? Keep reading below for a sneak peek excerpt for the book, and be sure to pick up your copy or download today!

Chapter 1

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, that is.

“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 his sword.”

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 themselves.”

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-so-imaginatively 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 Thom’s neck.

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 allotted.

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.

Acceptance. Fate. 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 tonight.