Shay smiled and took her parents’ hands. “Come back and visit. And bring your cat.”
Willa grinned. “I’ll see what I can do.”
She gave Nick a nod. “Let’s go before I get weepy.”
“You got it.” He shifted into gargoyle form in front of them, flexing his big stone wings. “Man, that feels good.”
Willa grinned, loving the gravelly timbre of Nick’s voice in this form and his awe-inspiring size.
“Wow,” Shay whispered.
Jarrel whistled. “Leviathan class, am I right?”
Nick flexed his wings one more time. “Yes, sir.”
Jarrel nodded, admiration in his eyes. “You did well, Willa.”
Her cheeks warmed. “Thanks, Dad.” She gave her mother a little wave. “Bye, Mom.”
Both parents waved back. Shay was too occupied with staring at Nick.
He crouched on all fours. “Get seated. It’s time to fly.”
She climbed up and situated herself between his wings, then patted his massive back. “I’m ready.”
She latched on to the base of his wings, and a second later, he leaped skyward. The ground fell away from them so fast it sucked the breath out of her. All over the kingdom, fae lifted their heads and shaded their eyes to see Nick soar over them. Willa screwed up her courage, lifted one hand and waved.
His enormous shadow ghosted above the kingdom’s patchwork of colors. She stared over her shoulder for a minute, watching Rhoswynn fade away.
“Sad you’re leaving?” he asked.
“Not sad I’m leaving the kingdom, but a little sad for my family, yes.”
“I can imagine.”
His words struck her hard. “I know you know what I’m feeling.” She lay down, resting her head between his shoulders. His skin was warm and hard but also soft. There was nothing to compare it to. It simply was the impenetrable hide of a living creature made of stone.
“You’ll see them again.”
She nodded against his back. “I know.” The wind rushed over them, cool but not unbearably so thanks to his warmth and the way his massive form provided a buffer.
“Looking forward to being home?”
“More than I can say. I miss Jasper. I hope he’s all right.”
“I miss him, too. I’m sure he’s fine. Probably hungry and mad, and maybe a little skinnier, but otherwise fine.”
“Oh, he’ll be mad, all right.”
Nick snorted, a deep sound that was carried off by the wind.
She traced circles on his skin with her thumb. “We need to talk, you know.”
He flew on silently for a long moment. “About?”
“Were you really going to leave me?”
“I…hang on.” A second later, they dove sharply downward.
The wind whistled past. She grabbed hold of his wings again and hung on until they landed abruptly in a wide-open field. A small herd of cows grazed off in the distance. She jumped off his back, and he transformed into his human self once more. She stared at him. “Next time, a little warning would be nice before you dive-bomb the countryside.”
“Why’d you land?”
“Because this is a conversation that needs to be had face to face.”
She nodded. “I agree. So let me ask you again. Were you really going to leave me?”
“Yes. I didn’t see any other choice. You were queen. I didn’t know you planned to abdicate. But I also understand why you didn’t tell me.”
“I wasn’t sure I’d get away with it.” She put her hands on her hips. “But me being queen wasn’t a reason for you to leave.”
He huffed out a short laugh. “Willa, that’s nice to think, but the truth is very different. The fae queen with a gargoyle?” He looked away. “I care too much about you to put that kind of stress on you.”
She dropped her hands, stepped closer and poked him in the chest with her finger. “That would have been my decision to make.”
He stared at her, a slight amusement in his eyes. “So I should have just gone along with it and suffered the comments and criticisms while your reputation took a hit and your rule was questioned?”
“You’re assuming that’s what would have happened.”
“And you’re assuming it wouldn’t have.” He took her shoulders. “Willa, your kingdom was going to crown Kyanna, who was about to reinstate slavery.”
She shook her head and stared at the grass beneath their feet. “I want to think there would have been an uprising.”
“I want to think that, too, but what if there hadn’t been?” He narrowed his eyes. “My presence could have made things very dangerous for you.”
She pursed her lips. “Your presence makes things a lot safer, if you ask me.”
“You know what I mean.”
She sighed. “I do. But the idea of you leaving because of what you think my best interests are is just…” She threw her hands up, knocking his grip on her loose. “Unacceptable. I love you. I can’t be in love with someone who might walk away from me one day.”
His hands settled on her waist and pulled her close. “That’s not going to be a problem moving forward. I have no plans to ever leave you again.”
He shook his head as he bent to kiss her. “Promise.”