Stone Guard

Warriors of Stone #2

A single mom becomes a fighter to survive her lover’s war-like world. A royal warrior sworn to protect the gargoyle Prince wavers in his duty when the woman he loves is threatened.
If he can’t protect them both, one of them may die—the choice between love or duty may cause him to lose everything.
Sir Nikolau has been watching Bea for weeks. Only his declaration to claim her as his mate has put her in danger, and now she’s come to the attention of the enemies who threaten the gargoyle court. They can use Bea as a pawn, and Niko won’t let that happen.
She’ll have to accept his protection, his presence in her home, even if she doesn’t like it. But he plans to ensure she does, and that he wins the fight to claim the right to be her husband.
Bea has never battled anything scarier than a spreadsheet full of formulas. Suddenly entangled in the gargoyle court, she must learn to be a warrior in order to protect herself, her daughter, and to be a worthy mate for the man she’s coming to love.
But will the danger to her life be too much for their fragile new relationship to handle?
If you love stern, broody alpha males with wings, who fight hard and love even harder, you’ll enjoy Stone Guard. Book 2 in the Warriors of Stone series, it is a steamy paranormal shifter romance with a HEA. Read now because this is a world and a fiercely real romance with a strong, curvy woman you don’t want to miss. You’ll be instantly immersed in futuristic tech, shifter magic and heady passion.

CHAPTER ONE

Nikolau slathered his mother’s homemade preserves on a slice of bread and took a bite. It tasted like tension.

“Repeat what you just said,” his father demanded, gruff voice heating. He was a warrior, so despite his age and beaten in face, he still spoke and moved with the energy of a much younger male. His temper wasn’t anything to scoff at, but neither was Niko’s.

Niko chewed, swallowed, and glanced at his mother who continued to eat her dinner, gaze averted, as if she were unaware her only son and her husband were a hairsbreadth from coming to blows. His sister Veda rolled her eyes and grimaced, glancing at her wrist unit as if hoping a communication would come through and interrupt the upcoming fight.

If the male would just stop trying to control him, they would get along fine. He figured there was a reckoning coming soon, and not just because of how his father treated his mother when Niko and Veda weren’t around.

“You heard me just fine,” Niko said, and eyed the white casserole dish of steamed vegetables. He picked up the serving fork and rooted around for the spear of broccoli with the most lemon pepper seasoning. It was the only way he could stand the cow chew. Not that he’d ever say that to his mother.

“Don’t sass me, boy,” Arthur growled, slamming his fork down on the table. “I’ve worked hard to get you where you are—”

Niko snorted, and ate a carrot, side-eyeing his mother to make sure she’d noticed.

“What does that sound mean?” Arthur demanded.

I’ve worked hard to get where I’m at, old stone,” he said. “But you were lecturing me. Carry on.”

His mother sighed and rose, probably glad the oven beeper went off that very second. It gave her an excuse to escape. She entered the kitchen and the scent of hot cinnamon apples wafted out. Niko mentally counted the number of green vegetables he’d eaten and quickly heaped his plate with a half dozen more. He wouldn’t get any pie otherwise.

“That’s your problem,” his father fumed. “You don’t take anything seriously. Trusted friend of Prince Malin himself, and you don’t even exert yourself to use your influence to help your family.”

“We’re friends. It’s not a quid pro quo relationship. Asking for favors would be the fast track to not be friends anymore.”

A friendship kindled because Niko didn’t have the energy or willingness to kiss ass like his father. After butting heads for a few years as teenagers, he and Malin had settled into a satisfying alliance based on an understanding that neither of them wanted the other for favors and influence, sex, or money. It was a relationship he valued, even if he didn’t like Surah that much. At least she allowed Malin to be himself, and worked hard in his interests like a proper female, despite her mother’s unfortunate genetics. Though he admitted to himself that his dislike of her was propably irrational, and based on his father’s own anti-human prejudices.

“You’re not making the most of your opportunities,” Arthur said. “No one gets ahead on merit alone. It takes connections, and the right balance of favors. A female can get away with laxity in these matters—her husband will take up the slack. But you have to—”

Veda pushed back her chair with a loud, rude scrape. “I’ll go help mother with the pie,” she said, lip curled, and stalked out of the dining room.

Arthur frowned after her. “Needs a mate. If you were better placed in the guard, you could use your influence to find her a suitable match.”

“You don’t know your daughter very well, do you? Veda isn’t going to marry anyone you or I choose. If she marries at all.”

A purplish hue colored his father’s grey cheeks, the blush of anger in a gargoyle. “A disgrace, a single female her age. I blame your mother. Human blood always tells.”

Niko’s fingers curled around his fork and he reminded himself that if he smashed his father, his mother would pay for it later. Niko got to go home to his quiet, Arthur-free apartment. Stacia was stuck with her husband, and refused to leave no matter how her two adult children pleaded with her.

Stacia and Veda entered the dining room. His mother carried a steaming glass pie dish in her mittened hands while Veda carried a tub of ice cream. “I thought we could have dessert while we finish our dinner,” Stacia said. “It’s a waste not to eat apple pie when it’s fresh out of the oven.”

Veda thumped the carton of ice cream on the table with a glance at their father. Her blank expression told Niko everything he needed to know—the females had been eavesdropping. Not that they hadn’t heard it all before. At least his father was an honest asshole; he said the same stupid shit to a person’s face as he did behind one’s back.

“Maybe Niko doesn’t want to be a palace guard,” Veda said.

“Stay in your place,” Arthur snapped. “This is warriors’ conversation.”

“Mother, I can’t stay here any longer. He’s ridiculous.”

“I’d like you to have some dessert,” Stacia said, “but if you have to leave early, take a container with you.”

“She’ll sit down and finish her dinner.”

Veda bared her teeth at Arthur. “Make me.”

Arthur stood, planting his hands on the table and leaning forward. His hair was cut short, a new, fashionable style in court. “Don’t make me rein you in, girl. I let you have your little business—”

Let? Have you finally lost your damn mind, old stone?”

“Veda,” Niko said. The last thing their mother needed was for her to goad their father into striking out. Niko would have to stop him, and dinner would be ruined. And a whole lot more. It wasn’t time yet. Their mother wasn’t ready to leave, and Arthur wasn’t ready to change—if he would ever be ready. Veda left the table and came back a moment later with a brown recyclable container and cut herself a slice of pie.

Niko stood. “I’ll walk you out. Do you want an escort home?” A gargoyle female was no weakling, and the only danger in the skies was other gargoyles, but Veda was known in this area, and only an enemy would lay a finger on her.

She shook her head. “No, I’m going to fly the long way and get some fresh wind.”

He walked her out of the house. It was a small sign of his mother’s human blood that Stacia had chosen a single story house rather than a tower, or even an apartment in a high-rise building. Or maybe it was a subtle dig at his father. Females were traditionally allowed to choose the marital dwelling, and it was one area where the husbands had no say. It must irk Arthur every time he had company, that they had to walk to his front door rather than set down on a second or third story balcony.

Veda turned to him once they cleared the front steps and walk to the sidewalk. “He’s got a sock in the jaw coming, Niko.”

“What about mother?”

Frustration shone in her expressive eyes. “Mom needs to leave him already. He’s a jerk.”

“He’s still your father, and you need to show respect.”

“Like you do?”

Niko crossed his arms. “That’s different. We’re both warriors, and guards. I’m a colleague just as much as a son.”

She snorted. “Excuses. If he ever lays a finger on me—”

“Then I’ll beat the shit out of him. But he never has, and he won’t start now. He just barks.”

“If he ever lays a finger on mother…”

“Then I’ll kill him. That would be the line in the sand.”

“I should have been a son. Or born to a father who would have let me train.”

A familiar refrain. Veda wanted to fight. Veda wanted her freedom from the strictures of being a female in gargoyle society. He’d taught her a few things over the years, the kind of self-defense all females should know, but she nagged him for more. He thought fleetingly of Surah. She had a kind of freedom few highborn females enjoyed. Was Veda any less capable than a half-breed with a smart mouth? There were always one or two female warriors around, though they were exceptions.

“Maybe,” he heard himself say, “I can arrange something with Kausar. You’ll owe me.”

Veda gaped at him. He couldn’t believe he’d said it himself. “But now isn’t the right time. The Prince is on edge and the court unsettled. Give me a few months.”

“The offer is enough, brother. Thank you. I’d like to be able to defend myself. Against father, or anyone else.”

She should be allowed to defend herself. There wasn’t always a male around. Arthur was mean, hard to live with and borderline verbally abusive. But he’d never hit Stacia, and never physically harmed her in any other way. He hadn’t quite crossed the line verbally, at least in front of Niko and Veda, where they would feel justified to override their mother’s will and take her away from her husband whether she liked it or not. So Veda was as on edge as he was. Stacia needed to be on her own, but they couldn’t do anything about it without disrespecting a woman who’d been disrespected enough.

Veda’s wings flared, skin darkening to a pearly dove-gray as she made the subtle shift to her true form. Black nails lengthened, clutching the box of pie and she rose into the air, strength evident in her arms, shoulders and back. If their father ever did take his daughter on, he’d be in for a nasty surprise. Veda wasn’t as delicate as she looked. Maybe they were wrong not to train the females.

When she’d flown away, Niko entered the house again.

Arthur scowled. “You should have flown her home. Stubborn girl. When I was a boy—”

“That was a century ago.” He bent to kiss his mother’s cheek. “I have to leave, mother, I have duty in a few hours.”

She smiled at him and patted his hand. “Take an extra slice of pie since you ate your vegetables. You’re too skinny.”

“He’s lean, and mean,” his father said. “Like he should be. Don’t know why he hasn’t married, either. All that potential wasted with no female to appreciate it. Won’t ever get grandchildren. I’d even settle for a human at this point.”

Niko snorted. “Funny. You would throw a fit.”

Arthur frowned at him. “You take the trial, boy. A position in Prince Geza’s personal guard will make your career. You’ll have your pick of the highest caliber females for wife.”

Niko’s brow rose. “I have my pick now.”

His father trailed after him as he left the house. “You two are so blasted worried about your mother, how do you think she feels with no babies to take care of during the evening? Do your duty,” he shouted as Niko took off. “Take the trial, get a wife.”

“Whatever, old stone.”

* * *

He stopped at his friend’s mansion since it was on the way to work, and he needed someone he could safely vent to, someone he knew wouldn’t betray the tension between him and his father. A family should never show weakness or division in front of strangers. He landed on the balcony outside Malin’s study, having already checked in with aerial security two miles away.

“Niko,” the Prince greeted him. “You seem ruffled.”

He accepted a glass of wine and prowled the study, briefly relating the conversation with his father, ending with the demand for marriages and garlings. Malin’s lips curved in a smile.

Niko glowered, irritated. “It isn’t funny.”

Malin’s wings rustled and Niko reflected again on the miracle of the Prince’s increasing recovery. Two years after his mating and marriage to Surah, and it was almost as if he’d never been ravaged by the Ioveanu hereditary disease. The lines of pain around his eyes and mouth were gone, his nature more relaxed, open. At least in private.

“I agree with Arthur, though it galls to admit it. You’re too old to be unmarried,” Malin said. “Geza needs stability around him. The young, single ones encourage his foolishness. Married males with families are a better influence.”

“Let me just go out and snap up the first eligible female I see then,” Niko snapped, then shuddered. The females at court were predatory at best, and not in a warrior-like way. He wasn’t even sure what kind of wife he wanted. His parent’s marriage wasn’t exactly an advertisement for marital bliss.

A toddler streaked into the room followed by two females, one lean and dark, exasperation on her face, the other a tall, rare blonde willowy and serene.

Surah stopped, scowled at Niko. “You’re here.”

He lifted his wineglass in a salute. “Your favorite person.”

She snorted. The toddler wrapped herself around Malin’s leg and attempted to climb him, little wings flapping furiously, babbling all kinds of things that sounded like a mixture of cursing and complaints.

“She won’t let me comb her hair,” Surah complained. “And she bit Lilu.”

Lady Sililu smiled. “Her teeth are sharp.”

Niko studied the females. Surah was too much the warrior, and coupled with her edgy intelligence, set Niko’s teeth on edge. He needed something more soothing in his life. Lady Sililu …she might be more of the right type, but when he watched her he felt empty. Too quiet. Too polished. She reminded him of the court ladies, but without the hunger in their eyes. Of course she was already well wed, wife of the only Ioveanu princess even if it was in name only, and under the protection of her wife’s husband. Malin looked at her with the warm affection of a brother—many females would kill for her position in life.

“I’ll let you prepare for your day,” Niko said. “I need to get ready for work.”

Malin nodded. “Let Lilu find you a wife. She has an unparalleled talent for organization and management. I’ve only seen better from my personal assistant.”

A female’s face swirled to the front of his mind, dusky with full lips and serious, wide eyes. Bea. He’d seen her shop in Veda’s market stalls several times, though he’d never approached her. A bit of a mouth on her when he and some others came to visit Malin at his offices. She probably thought he hadn’t noticed—the others were too dense to notice since it didn’t occur to them that a human female in Malin’s employ would ever be deliberately disrespectful. But recalling her wary look whenever they met gazes in the Garden, and the way she shied when he begun to approach, she was probably well aware that he was aware. Niko’s lips curled before he remembered himself.

“Keeps us in line,” Surah muttered, and it took Niko a second to recall the conversation.

“You’re seeking a bride, Sir Nikolau?” Sililu asked. She was the only one who ever used his technical title, which as a palace guard he was entitled to. Always correct, always formal.

“I haven’t decided.”

“I’d be happy to make some discreet inquiries when you’re ready. We can sit down and discuss your requirements. Finding a wife shouldn’t be a stressful endeavor for a male of your level of responsibility.”

She was serious, too, and not mocking. He nodded at her, and stepped out onto the balcony, launching into flight.