Hard as a Rock
Return to a mesmerizing world in which the laws of attraction are never written in stone—and love knows no bounds…
Wynn Powe comes from a long line of powerful women, and an equally long line of Wardens. Unfortunately, Wardens all over have gone missing—her brother included—just when the threat from the Order of Eternal Darkness has begun to rise. Now more than ever, humanity needs Guardians to stand between them and the ultimate evil, so Wynn has returned to Chicago to locate a Guardian of her own. But the Order of Eternal Darkness has beat her to the punch, and the statue she’s come to investigate has been blown to smithereens. An elusive enemy is on her trail… and this time, she’s on her own. It’s up to her, a woman with no training as a Warden, to summon a new Guardian to the fight.
HARD AS A ROCK
Enter Knox. He may be a newly summoned Guardian, but he possesses all the skills and memories of his race…along with drop-dead, expertly-chiseled good looks. Bound to Wynn as his Warden, Knox vows to learn the truth about the destroyed Guardian—and protect Wynn at all costs. But he never could have imagined the fierce attraction that has taken hold of him, body and soul. Is his desire for Wynn worth the risk of being destroyed by the Order? The only thing he knows for sure is that he won’t go down without a fight. Nor will he pass up a night of pure blind passion...
+ “Warren’s smoldering-hot gargoyles return for this third paranormal adventure where the stakes are fatally high and the chemistry simply blistering.”
— Bridget Keown, RT Book Reviews awarding Hard as a Rock 4.5 Stars!
Read the whole review.
+ “An alluring, fast-moving tale with a wry, gutsy heroine and a sexy-as-sin hero. This is a fiery, fierce, and fun outing in a series that has staying power. ”
— Publishers Weekly
Read the whole review.
“Wynn? What is it? What’s going on? Did you find him?”
“Um, in a manner of speaking.”
“Huh? What’s that supposed to mean?”
Wynn Powe stared down into the wide, shallow crater that marred the otherwise serene landscaping of the old Van Oswalt estate and pursed her lips. “I found what’s left of him. I think. The pieces are pretty small.”
“Oh, my God! Pieces?” Ella gasped into the cell, her distress obvious and right in line with the feelings Wynn currently battled. “How bad is it?”
“Are you familiar with the term smithereens?”
Ella groaned. “What happened?”
Wynn crouched at the edge of the hole and reached down to sift through the debris. Soil and grit and small chunks of limestone and granite tumbled across her fingertips. “At a guess? Some pretty serious explosives, but I just got here myself. My plane was delayed last night, and I didn’t land until after two this morning. But I’m surprised I didn’t see anything on the news when I woke up. A bomb going off in Lake Forest should have gotten more than a little bit of media attention.”
Heck, given the average income of the residents of the affluent suburb north of Chicago, a bomb going off in their neighborhood should have merited a SWAT team, the activation of a National Guard unit, and a televised statement by the president. Wynn had eaten breakfast in front of the TV and booted up her laptop before she headed out this way. She should have seen headlines.
“You seriously think the statue blew up?”
“El, I’m looking at a scene straight out of 1945 Dresden. Check it out.” Wynn switched her smartphone to the camera function and snapped a picture of the scene before her, then sent it to Ella. “Apparently, the fact that the Order didn’t get to blow up Spar last month only made them more determined. This guy did it right.”
“Crap. I wonder when it happened. I mean, when you’re operating on rumors and chasing a stone statue through multiple owners across multiple continents, it’s easy for details to slip through the cracks, but nothing I saw indicated he had been damaged. Of course, the last record I have was for his installation at that location about five years ago. Still, I would have thought I’d have heard if anyone knew about the damage. I don’t suppose it could have happened recently?”
“I don’t know. The crater’s not still smoking or anything, but how would we tell? Maybe if my plane hadn’t been delayed, or if I had left on Monday like I should have—”
“No.” Ella cut her off swiftly and decisively. “No second-guessing. It’s not your fault, Wynn. Put the blame where it belongs. On the nocturnis.”
Yeah, that shouldn’t be hard. Blame a secret organization of evil magic users intent on resurrecting seven of the most powerful demons ever spawned and thereby ending the world as she knew it? Wynn could get on board with that.
“This is really not good.” Ella’s tension and worry came across loud and clear, despite the geographic distance separating Vancouver and Chicago. “I have to tell Kees, then we need to call Fil and Spar. If we’re really going into the next stage of this fight already down a Guardian, we’re going to have to do some serious rethinking of our strategy.”
Wynn ended the call and pocketed her cell phone with a grimace. For her, Ella’s words only drew attention to the fact that as far as Wynn could see, they didn’t even have a strategy. What they had was a problem of epic—not to say biblical—proportions: An army of evil minions appeared determined to set the Seven—at least one of whom was already at least half awake—loose on humanity, and five decidedly un-super-heroes were all that stood against those assembled forces of Darkness. If the situation had been the plot of a summer blockbuster movie, Wynn would have dismissed it as totally unrealistic and just assumed the good guys would wind up with nothing but bloody stumps to perch their white hats on.
Okay, so maybe that was a little harsh. Wynn supposed that two of their band of brave Bedlamites actually did count as heroes. She, Ella, and Felicity—aka Fil—might be nothing more than puny humans, but Kees and Spar were bona fide Guardians. If those guys didn’t qualify as heroes, then the definition needed some serious editing.
As a race, the Guardians had come into being to protect humanity from the Seven demons—an evil so powerful that when joined together, they could rip the very fabric of reality into pieces and condemn the world to an eternity of suffering. The Guardians, seven warriors who took the shape of stone gargoyles when resting in the times between battles, had been summoned to earth by a group of human magic users known as the Guild of Wardens specifically to fight against the Seven. When defeated, the demons had been bound in separate prisons so they could never achieve their goal of conquest. In Wynn’s book, that made the Guardians heroes.
Unfortunately, it would take all seven Guardians to face the threat that loomed over them today, and so far Wynn had only noticed two of them being conscious and ready for action. Everyone had been counting on the dust at her feet to make number three. So what the hell were they supposed to do now?
Wynn stepped back from the blast site and winced. She’d sprained her ankle a couple of weeks ago wrangling with the nocturnis—the shorthand name for members of the Order of Eternal Darkness—in another city, and the joint still gave her a twinge when she moved wrong. With a grim expression, she shifted her weight and took a belated look around her.
The driver’s door of her battered white Toyota hung drunkenly open, and the buzz of the alarm told her that she hadn’t even bothered to take the keys out of the ignition when she’d caught sight of the scene of destruction. She’d rounded the curve of the drive, seen the hole in the ground surrounded by stony rubble, and her stomach had done an Olympic-caliber dive straight into the soles of her sandals. She had slammed on her brakes, thrown the shift into park, and flown straight to the debris field.
As if rushing could have turned back the clock. She’d obviously been too late, which was not the way she wanted to go into this battle. Half a step behind wasn’t going to cut it when it came to stopping the Order from succeeding with their plans. In fact, it had cost a life back in Montreal. One of Fil’s friends became another victim sacrificed to the Seven, and Fil herself had nearly ended up the same way. It had been a close call, and something told Wynn there would be more of those before this thing ended.
She had never considered herself to have any particular precognitive abilities. She was a witch, not a psychic. She couldn’t see into the future, no matter how much she might want to, a fact attested to by her generally really weak divination skills. Her powers ran more along the lines of powering charms, hex removal, and herbology, hence her small business making soaps, lotions, ointments, and teas, which supported her pretty nicely. Ask her to whip up a remedy for itchy, dry skin and Wynn was your girl; ask her what would happen if you took a certain path into the future, and all she could tell you was that time would pass. Not exactly useful stuff.
Power, the kind of power that passed down through her mother’s family, had its own agenda in Wynn’s experience. Possessing it made her a witch, but she didn’t get to choose what form it took. The power did what it wanted, and she could either accept that and learn what it wanted to accomplish, or she could fight it and try to make it do her bidding, which usually just ended in frustration and a lot of nasty side effects for everyone and everything in the vicinity.
It had taken her a while to stumble onto that realization, and even longer to come to terms with it. When she had been a little girl, Wynn was certain down to her bones that she had been born to be a Warden. Seven generations of her family before her had served in the Guild—all men, of course—but anyone with eyes could see that the same magic that flowed in their veins flowed in hers. She had just as much power as her younger brother, but magic had never been enough for the crusty old men in charge. All they cared about was that she didn’t have a dick, never mind that her metaphorical balls put their actual ones to shame. The Guild viewed female Wardens in the same light as demonic minions and the Ebola virus—such things might exist in the world, but virtue and good hygiene would probably be enough to keep them at bay.
So Bran got to be the Warden in their generation, and Wynn got to be a witch, just like her mother and her aunts and her female cousins. Not that she disliked being a witch, but there were days when she still felt so restless, as if something more hovered just out of her reach. Only knowing her luck, reaching for it would land her face-first in a pool of quicksand.
Dusting her hands off against the legs of her jeans, Wynn took another look around at the Van Oswalt estate. Built in the late 1800s as a retreat by one of Chicago’s many tycoons, the house rose from its park-like setting north of the city in Victorian splendor, a mix of brick and sandstone and intricate decorative work in both wood and stone. Even though she had read that the last of the family to live there had left the place nearly ten years ago, the Van Oswalts had never relinquished their hold on the property. Maybe they were sentimental millionaires, but it seemed a shame to Wynn to let such a beautiful old building sit there all closed up and empty.
No one could call her an expert in real estate, but she couldn’t imagine that someone wouldn’t snap the property up in a minute if they were to put in on the market. Not only did it feature the gorgeous old mansion, but its multiple acres and location on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan made the land itself worth its weight in gold. She thought she remembered something about beach access, and imagined there would be stairs down the face of the cliff and a dock and boathouse nestled below. After all, that was how the other half lived, wasn’t it?
At least the Van Oswalts appeared to be paying someone to maintain the grounds. Though she imagined they had run a little less wild while the family had been in residence, a little more French country garden and a little less English cottage garden, nevertheless the lawn had been mown, the hedges roughly trimmed, and the windows properly shuttered, not broken or covered in ugly plywood.
Heaving a sigh, half disappointment with her morning and half envy of stupid rich people, Wynn walked back to her car and pushed the door closed with a thud. No sense in letting the batteries run dead and leaving herself stranded out in the middle of nowhere. As far as she could tell, the homes in this particular enclave right on the lake had to sit on multiacre parcels. Any tow truck driver worth his salt would charge her a year’s salary to jump her ancient battery, let alone haul her butt out of here and back to the city if the jump failed. Talk about the last thing she needed.
No, wait. The very last thing she needed was that figure in the navy-blue uniform that appeared to be striding her way from the top of the driveway. She should have realized an enclave of the super-rich like this one would have private security roaming around to keep the riffraff away. Glancing down at her faded jeans, loose-fitting top, stretched-out tank, and simple sandals, she wondered if she counted as the riff or the raff.
“Miss, you’re currently trespassing on private property.” The man raised his voice to be heard over the crunch of gravel as he approached.
Even from a good fifty yards away, Wynn could make out the solid, stocky build of a onetime high school football star and the baton, radio, and gun strapped to his belt. He was certainly equipped to mean business, even if his tone of voice hadn’t already clued her in.
“Just because the home behind you is currently unoccupied doesn’t give you to right to be here. I’m going to have to ask you to identify yourself and wait with me while I summon the local authorities.”
Wynn huffed, taken aback. “Seriously?”
The look on the guard’s face, now that he’d drawn close enough for her to make out his expression, answered her question for her. If this guy had a sense of humor, she doubted anyone had ever gotten up the nerve to mention it to him.
“You don’t need to call the police,” she reasoned, reaching behind her for the car door handle. “I’ll leave right now. I just drove by to take a look at the place. I didn’t even try to go up to the house.”
The security guard tensed and drew his brows together to glare at her. “Miss, you need to step away from your vehicle. I can’t let you leave until I’ve consulted with the Hierophant.”
“With who?” Wynn blinked, the reference catching her off guard. She’d heard of the Hierophant in Montreal, and the name had boded nothing good at the time. It took a minute for her brain to catch up, and that was all the opportunity the guard needed.
He launched himself at her, hands outstretched, as if Wynn had suddenly found herself in the middle of a zombie movie—the freaky modern kind where the zombies moved fast instead of shambling forward at an easily outrunnable pace, the way the gods and George A. Romero had intended. She didn’t care if he was after her brains or any other part of her body, Wynn intended to keep them all.
Instinct took over, and she let herself drop, landing ass-first in the dirt an instant before the guard’s hands would have closed around her throat. She heard a grunt and a thud as his momentum drove him into the side of her car, but she didn’t wait to watch the impact. Immediately upon hitting the ground, she rolled to her side and pushed up on her knees to scramble as fast as she could away from her attacker. As soon as she cleared his immediate space, she lurched to her feet and took off running. Her ankle screamed a protest, but she ignored it. If the choice was hurt or die, she was going with hurt, and going as fast as she possibly could.
Her brain raced along even faster, processing several pieces of information simultaneously. First, it issued a mental slap upside itself in the form of reminding her that by taking off in the direction opposite her car, Wynn had just removed herself from her best means of escape. That left her with two choices; to run into the empty house—assuming she could even get inside a structure that appeared to have been well secured against trespassers—or to head for the road, where an unfamiliar woman being chased by a security guard employed by anyone who might actually see her was more likely to elicit help for the guard than for her. So, essentially, she was screwed.
Second, her brain provided additional support to that primary conclusion by finishing its delayed parsing of the security guard’s short speech. The phrase “consult with the Hierophant” indicated at the man who had attacked her wasn’t likely to be a run-of-the-mill rental cop who just wanted her taken away by the local police and charged with criminal trespass. She doubted this boiled down to the desire to teach her a lesson about respect for her financial betters. No, unless she missed her guess—and given the mess she’d just witnessed in Montreal, it really counted as more of a certainty than a wild guess—that phrasing indicated a pursuer who was employed by a group slightly more sinister than the residents of Lake Forest.
Like, say, the Order of Eternal Darkness.
In other words, her brain supplied, she was now in deep shit.
It got deeper when she heard a muttered curse that couldn’t have come from more than a couple of feet behind her. A hand reached out and grabbed for her, catching the back of her shirt and hauling hard enough that she stumbled and nearly lost her balance.
“Oh no, you little bitch,” the guard panted as he attempted to drag her closer. “I got you now.”
Fear spiked, adrenaline pumping so hard Wynn could barely hear over the roaring of her own blood pounding in her ears. She reached up and grabbed the two sides of her blouse, ripping them apart like She-Hulk. Buttons popped and flew, one of them catching her in the cheek just below her right eye, but she ignored the sting. The two halves of the shirt parted, and she tore herself from the tattered remains to take off running for a second time.
The guard cursed, loud and vile, but she didn’t pause to see what he did with his hands full of poly-cotton blend. She headed down the drive for the road, her mind racing frantically through her options. Getting to her car still seemed like the surest way to get out of here, but turning around and heading directly for it would amount to serving herself up to her pursuer on a bed of purple kale. If she wanted to make it safely, she’d need to double back around and set herself up with a considerable lead over the guard.
Ignoring the pain of the small pieces of dirt and stone that had worked their way into her sandals and the throbbing of her sprained ankle, Wynn made her move and leapt off the gravel for the line of trees that bordered the drive. The wooded area might be small, but it was dense, and any cover at all made it that much harder for her to be seen and subsequently captured.
Oh, and, you know, killed.
It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the dimmer lighting under the canopy of leaves, and she just barely missed getting a face full of pine needles. Darting around tree trunks and slapping aside branches, her pace slowed, but so did her attacker’s. She could hear him lumbering after her, hear him swearing in frustration as the terrain also interfered with his speed.
Wynn gritted her teeth in satisfaction and focused on the glimpses of bright sunlight that penetrated the trees at the edge of the copse. She needed to judge the best point to leave the cover of vegetation, where the distance between her and the car was shortest and she would have the highest chance of reaching it before the guard reached her.
Her breath rasped in and out of her chest, and she knew she’d have to find her way out soon. Her ankle was screaming like a blonde in a horror flick, and she could feel the stitch developing in her side, so she knew she didn’t have much more running left in her. That lifelong disdain of jogging as a form of exercise was really coming back to bite her in the ass, wasn’t it?
Huffing a little, she once more wished that being a witch was a lot more like Harry Potter made it out to be and a lot less like being a good cook. This whole situation would be vastly improved if all she had to do was dig her magic wand out of her bag, point it at the security guard chasing her, and shout, “Stupefy!” Too bad it didn’t really work like that. She’d have better luck picking up a hunk of stone from the ground and chucking it at the guy’s head. Back when she’d played junior high softball, she’d had a pretty decent arm.
Wynn grunted and stumbled a couple of steps as the cover of trees gave way. She stepped out into the bright sunlight and blinked against the sudden glare, momentarily blinded. Shit. She needed to get to her car, like now.
Sandals digging into the crushed stone, she swiveled in the direction she thought she needed to go and poured on one last burst of speed. She could hear the snap of branches as her pursuer pushed his way out of the woods and knew she had only seconds to get into her vehicle, lock the doors, and take off like a bat out of a belfry. Already, she was thinking of how tight a turn she’d need to make to head back to the main road, but she shouldn’t have worried. She never made it that far.
One minute her legs pumped, carrying her over the even field of the driveway; the next, the world dropped out from under her, and Wynn took flight. For all of the distance between her face and the crater left behind by the demolished Guardian statue. The two items met with an abrupt impact, Wynn’s cheek and temple getting the butt end of that encounter.
In the adrenaline-fueled race to escape her attacker and the sudden alteration in light levels, she had completely missed seeing the ditch in front of her, and now it looked like she might as well have served herself up to the Order on a silver platter. Or maybe that should be bloody altar-stone? Whatever.
Wynn rolled to her back, unable to suppress the groan that welled from her throat. She’d hit the ground hard. The side of her face, her knees, and the heels of her hands felt like raw hamburger where she’d hit the disturbed bed of soil, gravel, and stone debris. Not to mention the state of her already injured ankle, which currently throbbed like a bass drum and felt as if it was beginning to swell up again, at least judging from the way the straps of her sandal now seemed to be taking on the role of accidental tourniquets.
The crunch of a man’s shoe on the drive tore her focus off her discomfort and forced it back onto the more urgent matters. Like attempting to not get herself offed like the secondary female lead in a low-budget slasher film. She wanted to be the battered but victorious survivor girl, damn it.
Wynn managed to roll onto her hands and knees and was scrambling to get her feet back under her when the high-speed train slammed into her from behind. Back into the dirt and stone she went, only this time the weight on top of her also managed to force all the air out of her lungs. She struggled to remember how to breathe even as a hand fisted in her hair and dragged her head up out of the crater bottom.
“You shouldn’t have come poking around here,” the security guard growled in her ear even as he used his free hand to press a shiny knife blade to the skin of her throat. “Do you work for the Guild? Did they send you? You Wardens are supposed to be dead, not hanging around here making trouble.”
The Guild? Wynn started to shake her head, but the feel of a trickle of her own blood against her skin stopped her cold. She hesitated in confusion, trying to figure out the correct answer. If her attacker knew about the Guild, then he definitely had to be connected to the nocturnis, but if he couldn’t tell for himself whether she was a Warden, then he couldn’t be an actual member of the Order; their own magic had no trouble identifying the energy of a Warden’s power. Was this guy not a full-fledged nocturnis but some kind of hired lackey instead?
“Are there more of you?” He jerked harder on her hair, and she bit back a yelp. “There’s a reward out on your heads, you know. The Order is searching, but why should the big boys get all the cash, right? You got friends I should know about?”
Sickness roiled in her stomach. Was that why she hadn’t heard from Bran in nearly a year? Had someone like this gotten ahold of her brother and used a knife to silence him as well?
Instinct curled her fingers around the wrist beneath her chin, and her nails dug into flesh, but the guard didn’t even flinch. He was way stronger than she was. From the looks of it, he really was about to slit her throat. Goddess, her mother would never recover. She was already burdened by the weight of Bran’s disappearance. Losing Wynn, too, might just knock her the rest of the way down.
Boy, could she use a Guardian of her own right about now.
The Order’s minion shook her, using his grip in her hair to rattle her from side to side. Her eyes teared at the sharp pain, and she clenched her teeth to keep from crying out. Only a low hiss escaped her. She wouldn’t give the bastard more satisfaction than that.