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Tonight was the night.
In three hours and—Aislyn checked her watch—seven minutes, the names of the successful recruits were due to be announced, the thirty candidates whittled to ten.
“Where are you going, miss?” Her father’s stern voice jerked her to a halt. Aislyn’s hand slid off the brass handle of the front door. She plastered an impassive expression on her features and turned to face him. Her mother stood behind her husband, her pale hands flashing in front of her, clasping and unclasping before settling out of sight beneath her frilly white apron.
“I’m going to the ball.”
“You’re making this clan a laughingstock, persisting with your unfeminine ways. Fairies snigger and talk behind my back when I go to the pub. I’m ashamed to admit you’re my daughter.”
“Patrick.” Her mother’s low voice quivered with stress.
Patrick spun to glare at his wife. “Stay out of this, Bridget. It’s your fault for encouraging her when she was younger. When she should’ve stayed home to practice the feminine arts, you let her go out with her brothers. You let her dress as a male—you and that scandalous sister of yours. I’ve had enough. Aislyn, you will marry Fergus McKenzie. It’s time for you to raise a family and help the colony numbers swell.”
Aislyn fought to restrain the angry, frustrated words trembling on the tip of her tongue. Fergus McKenzie was a slobbering idiot. The idea of being a brood-mare disgusted her. She remembered the pride in her father’s eyes when she was naught but a fairling, recalled the hugs and kisses.
When had things changed?
She’d tried to go along with her father’s wishes but living the same empty life as her mother made her want to scream. She needed more than sewing and a brood of fairlings to fulfill her, and she didn’t understand why wanting a different life was wrong.
Her father turned his wrath back on her, his robust and big-barreled body quivering with rage. “I forbid you to attend the ball.”
Shock roared through her. “You can’t.”
Patrick O’Sullivan folded beefy arms across his chest. “Go to your room. Formal betrothal negotiations begin tomorrow.”
“Enough!” he roared, slashing one hand through the air to emphasize his point.
Aislyn stalked past her parents. She stomped up the wooden stairs, the hollow ring of the floor echoing her fury. It wasn’t fair. She didn’t have a fairy godmother, but she would attend the ball.
And she absolutely refused to marry Fergus.
Aislyn slammed her bedroom door. Muttering under her breath, she paced around her bed and the untidy dresser. Stepping over a pile of dirty clothes and a pile of old spell books, she crossed to the window and peered outside. A large oak grew a few feet from the house, its sturdy branches sparking an idea. Unfortunately, she couldn’t use magic because her father would sense the surge of power. He held supernatural knowledge when it came to his children and magic. Aislyn stalked to her bed and dropped onto the denim-blue quilt cover. Her eyes sought the alarm clock and urged it to speed.
Half an hour later, with the house quiet apart from the muted voices on the television in the lounge, Aislyn donned her witch outfit, slid the window open and crawled onto the roof. After wiping her moist hands on the front of her costume, she took a deep breath and leaped for the tree branch. Seconds later, she grinned up at her bedroom window. All right! The constant training made that easy.
Aware of the passage of time, she hurried away, her brisk steps taking her to the community hall near the village square.
She paused at the entrance, her stomach quivering with the nerves and expectation. Unconsciously, her hands clenched, and she winced at the flash of pain. Her scraped palms smarted after the encounter with the oak tree. She smiled because the battle scars were worth the nasty sting. Tomorrow, she’d worry about the fallout with her father.
The dramatic ending of a Gaelic reel drifted out to her as she hovered at the door. Even though a part of her wanted to run and hide, she forced the sniveling coward away, listening instead to the strong go-get-em fairy who occupied her mind most of the time. She drew a breath to settle her nerves and sauntered into the crowded ballroom.
Up on the stage, the latest string band sensation plucked their instruments while a blue-hair fairy, dressed in a gravity-defying red gown, crooned a sultry ballad. Aislyn gazed at the costumed dancers gliding past, listened to the jocular voices and tinkling feminine laughter.
All at once, loneliness assailed her, and longing seeped from her heart. She wanted what these fairies had—a sense of home and someone to come home to instead of parents who disapproved and friends and neighbors who sniggered behind her back because she dared to be different.
She had no sense of belonging. Perhaps she should fall in with her parents’ wishes, marry Fergus and apply her scant knowledge of sewing to produce pretty furnishings. A grimace compressed her lips.
No, she couldn’t cry defeat.
She refused to settle for second best.
There was only one male for her.
Across the crowded ballroom, Aislyn sought the man of her dreams. She found him dancing with Christel. A handsome goblin and a stunning white witch, they glided together in sync.
Aislyn glanced at her voluminous black witch’s gown and back at Christel, noting the glaring deficiencies in her costume. Seamus had filled every waking hour with training exercises. Hell week lived up to its reputation. Aislyn had sweated through the various mental and physical activities designed to test if she possessed the skills required of a fairy force recruit. By the time she’d recalled her need for a costume, only the wicked witch variety remained in the costume hire shop. Complete with stick-on warts and a hooked nose to fit over her own more pert model, she presented a striking picture. She grimaced again. Yeah, striking was the right word for her all-encompassing black skirts and neon orange warts.
Aislyn straightened her shoulders, stood tall despite her diminutive stature, and headed into the fray. She skirted the whirling dancers to join her brothers and their friends. Her father would learn of her attendance, but right now, the threat of punishment didn’t matter.
Her oldest brother, Duncan, recognized her first. “Hey, Aislyn. Looking good.”
Aislyn grinned good-naturedly and cuffed him on the shoulder. She caught another glimpse of Seamus and Christel and sighed.
Accept the inevitable.
The stubborn part of her psyche insisted on fanning the tiny grain of hope. Instead of worrying about Seamus, she needed to concentrate on the second part of her dream—to join the fairy force.
Seamus treated her as a baby sister. No matter how much she willed it otherwise, things never changed. Someone tapped her shoulder, and she whirled in alarm.
Steve, her brother’s friend, grinned at her. “Wanna dance?”
“Sure.” Aislyn stepped onto the dance floor, determined to enjoy the ball. At midnight, they’d announce the ten finalists, and she’d learn her fate. A tremor goose-stepped across her skin.
Foretelling things to come? She hoped not.
Aislyn danced with friends and chatted with acquaintances, filling the long minutes with activity. She even danced with Fergus and managed polite chitchat. As midnight neared, the jitters in her stomach intensified. The odds were against her, but she crossed her fingers beneath her voluminous black skirts, anyway.
She whirled so fast the sparkling, purple punch slopped over the top of her goblet and splashed her skirts. Rat’s tails. She didn’t have money to spare for dry cleaning. Her chin shot upward, and she inserted attitude in her glare.
“Dance with me?”
Aislyn’s outrage popped like a burst balloon as Seamus removed the goblet from her trembling hand. He led her to the crowded dance floor and gathered her close. Two rats and a mouse! She wasn’t much of dancer and prayed she didn’t mangle his feet.
“I thought you’d want to dance the midnight dance with Christel,” she blurted, unsettled by his seductive scent. Part of her wanted to edge away while her more adventurous self shouted to stay put and enjoy his proximity.
His gray eyes twinkled, almost as if he could read her mind. “No.”
No? Exactly what did that mean? Her eyes narrowed at his enigmatic expression, then another thought bloomed. He belonged to the fairy force. Did he know the identities of the successful candidates?
“Watch out,” Seamus warned a fraction too late.
A couple doing an energetic salsa jolted Aislyn, knocking her against Seamus. Hard muscles flattened her softer curves, and warmth suffused her body from the tip of her nose to the end of her big toes. Immediately, she wanted to snuggle and nibble the soft skin below his jaw.
The idea weakened her knees. Good grief! He’d laugh at her reaction. She stiffened and attempted to pull away before his citrus aftershave swamped her senses, and she did something outrageously stupid, even for her. Her adventurous self had consumed way too much purple punch.
“Stay, Aislyn,” he said, pressing a soft kiss to the top of her head.
“Seamus?” Her pulse thundered, and she couldn’t prevent the quaver in her voice.
Before he replied, the music ceased, and a drum roll rippled through the expectant hush. Aislyn trembled. Seamus brushed a soft kiss on her lips. She stared up at him in stupefied surprise. Had he drunk punch too?
Aislyn was dimly aware of the fairy force commander starting his spiel.
Seamus had kissed her.
“Aislyn, we’ll talk later.”
Her brows puckered, and he chuckled.
Sweetheart? Her heart flip-flopped as he sheltered her from the crowd. Off-kilter, she leaned against his hard chest and attempted to make sense of the commander’s words.
“Without further ado, the trainees for this year are…”
Aislyn’s breath caught, and she tensed, even more, when Seamus gripped her shoulders. All the training, all the hard work and it came to this announcement. She counted off the names as the commander announced them. Five, six, seven…
Loud cheers broke out from different parts of the ballroom as the successful trainees ran up to receive their wings. The beaming recruits stood on stage beside the commander. The recruits greeted each arrival with an enthusiastic pounding on the back.
Two more names to go. She swallowed to dislodge the lump of tension in her throat. Two more. She still had a chance.
“…Cameron Cassidy, Sean Riley.”
A roaring sound rushed through her head. Her body slumped.
She hadn’t made the cut.
Aislyn bit her lip, fighting waves of nausea sweeping her belly. What should she do now? She hadn’t envisaged failure. Not once. She’d focused her determination and energy on achieving this one goal. She stared at the ten males standing beside the commander, their ceremonial wings shining under the lights, broad smiles of triumph on their faces. Acute envy sliced through her, piercing and painful.
Her hopes, her dreams felled in one swoop.
“Seamus,” the commander’s voice boomed over the loud applause and excited chatter. “Are you ready?”
Around them, fairies turned to stare. Aislyn heard their whispers and cringed under the weight of embarrassment.
Her chin lifted, and a masculine chuckle sounded right before Seamus whispered in her ear, “Wait there. Don’t dare move.”
Disconcerted, she froze. Seamus squeezed her shoulders for a second time and strode toward the stage. Numb, she inched to the door, determined to leave before her emotions spilled free. Already, pressure built behind her eyes.
She could count the number of fairies who’d offered encouragement on one hand. Most were aghast at her cheek. Questioning the rules wasn’t right. The debate had waged on the local talkback radio for weeks, ever since she’d announced her application. The letters to the newspaper editor lambasting her impudence for challenging the rules created great discussions over the breakfast table and morning coffee.
“Good evening, fairies,” Seamus said, his pleasing baritone finding each corner of the room. “Is everyone having a good time?”
“Yes!” the crowd roared.
Aislyn crept closer to the exit, craving privacy to lick her wounds.
Up on the stage, Seamus laughed. “I have a quick announcement before the band starts again.”
“Well, get on with it, man!” one of Aislyn’s brothers hollered.
Seamus grinned, pausing for the laughter to subside. From the corner of his eye, he watched Aislyn. She’d edged to the door. He wished, for once, the female would follow orders. A glance at her wart-covered face told of her bitter disappointment. He wished he could tell her how close she’d come to success, but they never disclosed the final scores.
“Okay, I’ll make this brief,” he said.
“Brief is good,” someone shouted.
Aislyn was almost out the door. He’d never get out his congratulatory speech before her departure. Drastic action required. “Aislyn O’Sullivan, I told you not to move. Stop right there.” She froze like an animal under a bright light. “Don’t let her move,” he said over the microphone to the people standing in her vicinity. The outrage cutting into her features made his lips twitch. “Now, where was I?”
“Being brief!” his heckler shouted.
Seamus allowed a grin before he began his speech, congratulating the successful recruits. “So there you have it, fairies. I give you the ten successful candidates. Trainees—choose your partners.”
The beaming trainees stepped from the podium. The music started with a flourish, the beginning notes of a ballad rippling from the singer’s throat as the trainees grabbed their partners of choice for the supper waltz. Seamus searched for Aislyn and couldn’t see her. He headed toward her brothers. They’d know where she’d gone.
“Where’s Aislyn?” he asked.
“She was here a minute ago,” Duncan said. “Why did you want her?”
Seamus paused. Not a topic he cared to share, even if Duncan was his best friend in the colony. He should’ve kept his mouth shut. Seamus cleared his throat. “I wanted to offer her a job,” he said in sudden inspiration.
“What sort of job?” A trace of suspicion colored Duncan’s voice.
Duncan’s wife, Julie, speared him with a militant look. “Why did you embarrass Aislyn in front of everyone? Hasn’t she suffered enough public humiliation without you drawing attention to her tonight?”
The couple glared at him, united in their displeasure. Seamus remained silent. He couldn’t have explained his feelings for Aislyn if he tried. “I tried to help Aislyn. I told her the odds were against success. I know she’s unhappy here in the colony, that she’s having a tough time finding a job. I wanted to help.” As Seamus stopped speaking, he noticed the way Duncan held Julie to his side, protective yet proud. The facts clicked, now making sense. “You’re pregnant.”
Duncan grinned, and pride and love radiated from him. “To be sure, we are indeed pregnant.”
His wife cuffed him over the shoulder. “Quiet.” She turned to Seamus. “We have told no one yet.”
“But this is marvelous! There hasn’t been a fairling born in the colony for going on six years. This is cause for celebration.”
“I’m not past the danger time for miscarriage yet.” At Seamus’s dismay, she hurried to reassure. “I’m fit as a horse. Duncan and I want to make sure everything is okay before we announce the pregnancy. Besides, I’m not ready for the cotton wool treatment. Everyone will behave as if I’m a prize cow at the Glenveagh agricultural show. I remember the Geraghty fairy when she announced her pregnancy. Frankly, I’m not surprised the poor thing miscarried, and I don’t want the paparazzi camped on my doorstep, thank you very much.”
“Julie is right to worry, which is why we’re heading for the beach colony early next week. I’ve applied for a month off, and by the time we return, Julie will be four months along,” Duncan said. “We’re taking the honeymoon we didn’t have time for when we first married.”
The couple’s exchange of smiles made Seamus uncomfortable. He studied Julie in light of the new knowledge, searching her face for signs of illness. Instead, her face sparkled with vitality. Julie was right. She looked as fit as a racehorse in training. Now, if only she carried the fairling full term the colony would have a chance of survival.
The colony spent a fortune researching the low birth rates. Scientists spouted about global warming, the sad fact that fairy woman attracted cats, stoats, and weasels. Few lived through the attacks. The human population faced the same problem with their native birds, and, so far, neither humans nor fairies had found a suitable deterrent.
Seamus imagined Aislyn out loose in the human world and shuddered. Cat food in the first five minutes. “Is this the new business you’re telling the family about?”
“We had to tell them something,” Duncan said.
Seamus reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a small pager. “Take this.” He pressed the pager into Julie’s hand. “Call me if you have a problem. Day or night.”
Duncan pulled him into a bear hug. “Thanks. Your support means a lot to both of us.”
Julie kissed him on the cheek. She searched his face in the scant light and gave a slight nod. “Aislyn has probably gone for a walk by the river. It’s where she goes to think. You shouldn’t have trouble locating her.”
Seamus nodded. “Call me. I want weekly reports.” With a wave, he ambled from the ballroom, not wanting to attract undue attention. Once he rounded the corner, he jogged to the river. Aislyn better not do anything stupid. He ran faster. Given her current mood, he wouldn’t put anything past her.
As he approached the river, the rush and thunder of the water as it poured over the falls grew in intensity. During the day, mist and spray rose from the water, but right now, he had difficulty seeing farther than a foot either side of the path.
She wouldn’t do anything dumb, would she? Seamus recalled the disappointment on her face.
“Aislyn!” His holler echoed, bouncing back at him, her name repeating three times before silence fell. Impatience rippled to life. He’d told her to wait. “Aislyn!” This time the echo rang with annoyance.
“I’m over here.” The faint voice stopped him dead in his tracks.
A faint shimmer to his right caught his attention. When he squinted, the gleam formed into an object of substance. Aislyn stepped onto a spot of the moonlit path. “You blend in that stupid outfit,” he snapped, his temper surging now he’d found her unharmed. “Why didn’t you wait?”
“So, you could make an even bigger fool of me?”
“I intended to offer you a job.” Seamus paused after repeating his excuse. A job was a good cover for his temporary lapse of sanity. A task to keep her occupied and out of mischief.
“What type of job?” Aislyn asked, turning to face him for the first time.
His heart twisted at the tear tracks gleaming on her cheeks. “Ah, Aislyn.”
“Don’t feel sorry for me. I’m not a charity case.” She prickled up like an agitated hedgehog and flounced to a fallen log. “Do you have a job for me, or are you trying to make up for my failure?”
He’d thought it before and, no doubt, he’d think it again. The female was a shrew. For an instant, he wondered why he bothered, then she stretched, and his hormones jogged his memory, tightening his body in places that had no business reacting. He counted slowly to ten. So the girl owned one or two less than sterling qualities.
“I have a job.” Seamus thought on his feet. “I’m working on a case at present. We’re short-staffed and need help. It’s not exciting, but you’d be helping on a real case.” The more he explained, the better he considered his off-the-cuff idea. A brainwave, the job fixed several problems at once.
Aislyn rose from the log and stepped toward him, her face shining with eagerness. “You mean to let me help work on your case?”
Seamus nodded and lurched back under Aislyn’s weight when she threw herself at him. The armful of quivering female almost did him in. He registered her softness and curves and smelled her delicate scent—not the floral fragrance associated with most of the women of his acquaintance, but apricots.
“When can we leave the colony?” she asked. “Tomorrow? I’m so excited I could burst.” Without warning, she tore from his light grasp and whirled in circles, her copper curls flying while she danced with sheer delight. “Wait until I tell everyone. They’ll soon stop their malicious whispers.”
Leave the colony? God’s balls! What had he done? Seamus grabbed her arm. “Aislyn, wait. You can’t leave the colony.”
She stopped dead. “But you said…” She trailed off, staring at him. Her blue eyes reminded him of a whipped puppy.
“You said I’d help with your case,” she whispered.
The melancholy tone made him cringe. Aislyn’s bottom lip wobbled. Please don’t cry again. He wanted to help but could only do so much. His hands were tied.
Of course, she didn’t know he was Guardian or the constraints he labored under. Few fairies knew, and he liked it that way. The paparazzi tagged after him now whenever he appeared in the colony in his fairy force liaison capacity. If they discovered his Guardian duties, they’d make his life a living hell. The last thing he wanted was to relive the misery of his fairling years.
“I meant here, Aislyn. The work would come to you. I never said you’d leave the colony.”
Aislyn jerked from his touch and hurried away from Glenveagh, heading toward his house.
“Aislyn, you can’t go much further. Talk to me. Or better yet, return to the village and sleep on it. I’m serious about the job.” Guilt and alarm sharpened his voice.
The hard knot of disappointment inside Aislyn snapped, and her temper ignited. Talk to me, Aislyn. Return to town, Aislyn. You can’t join the fairy force, Aislyn. You’re a female, Aislyn. They don’t leave the colony.
Didn’t the fairies around here get the plot? Yes, she was a fairy. Yes, she was a female, but she had a brain too.
Her legs pumped harder, faster. She clenched her jaw and seethed at the injustice. It wasn’t her fault she’d been born a female. Heck, given a choice she’d have picked male. Males got to do everything. What was so bad in the human world? Cats? Hogwash! As far as Aislyn was concerned, cats were an excuse. She’d never seen one, for goodness sake. Not even a picture. The board of directors had banned photos in case some dim-witted fairy performed a magic spell and brought one to life. As if! Everyone talked about cats. The scientists were always trying out new potions and pills to deter the furry beasts. Yet, she’d take a bet most colony inhabitants wouldn’t recognize a cat if it sat next to them.
“Aislyn, stop!” Seamus grabbed her elbow, jerking her to a halt. “You’ll set off the alarms.”
“I don’t care.” She snapped her fingers in his face. “I don’t give a rat for your stupid rules and regulations.”
Seamus’s hands slid up her arms to curve around her shoulders, holding her in place while he glowered at her. “The rules are there for a reason. They keep us safe and help the colony survive. I know you’re disappointed not to make the recruits, but my job offer is serious. Will you reconsider?”
Dispirited, she considered the long days stretching ahead in her future. Her father disapproved of everything she did and, after tonight, she’d have to find a place and move out. Her savings account contained two pieces of gold, and if she didn’t find a job soon, she’d have to apologize to her father and admit her failure.
She brushed away a tear. “I’ll take the job.”
At least the work was related to the human world. Too bad it was the closest she’d come to traveling and exploring the countries outside the colony. “Thank you for thinking of me,” she added politely, knowing Seamus was trying to help.
“Good.” His touch gentled, and belatedly Aislyn realized how near they stood.
Her heart lurched. Her face heated.
“Come on. We’ll celebrate your new job.” He grabbed one of her hands and tugged her down the leaf-strewn path. Trailing green ferns brushed her skirts as she hastened to keep up with him.
Finally, she noticed they were still heading away from the colony. “Where are we going?” She dug in her heels, coming to an abrupt halt. “Seamus, stop! We can’t go any farther. It’s against the rules.”
He grinned, a devil-may-care grin that turned her insides to mush. “The rules don’t apply to fairy force members.”
Aislyn flinched. Did he have to rub it in? “I’m nothing to do with the fairy force,” she said, her tone dignified and designed to hide every scrap of the hurt hurtling around inside her.
Seamus chuckled. “I’m a member of the fairy force. Last time I looked, I still had my wings. Since you’ve accepted my offer of employment, we can make exceptions this once.”
Aislyn’s mouth rounded to a perfect O. A croak emerged when she tried to speak. Swallowing, she tried again. “Do you mean what I think you mean? You’re escorting me from the colony?”
His smile widened. “I am.” He held out his hand. “If you want to come.”
Was the male crazy? Yes, she wanted to explore outside the colony. Aislyn accepted his hand, and frissons of awareness sprinted up her arm from the point of contact. “Where will we go? What will we see?”
“I thought we’d visit the man at the top of the garden.”
“But…but…” Heat suffused her cheeks, a hue that, no doubt, clashed with the orange warts on her face. “Seamus,” she said in an agony of embarrassment. She’d admitted to spying on the man, but only because he reminded her of Seamus. It was Seamus she loved. The mystery man—well, sometimes Aislyn couldn’t help herself. She had to break out and defy the colony rules. It wasn’t as if her transgressions were enormous, world-altering ones.
She chewed on her bottom lip as rebel debated with sensible. Sensible won the race by a head.
“Wait,” she blurted, yanking at his hand. Breaking petty rules was one thing. Banishment from the colony was another matter entirely.
Chapter 4 coming next week.