The raucous crowing of Miss Mapleton’s rooster woke Aislyn from a deep slumber. She didn’t remember getting in bed. Seamus—depression grabbed hold. After the previous day’s excitement, her bleak future loomed.
Perhaps she’d stay in bed since there was nothing better to do. They wouldn’t miss her at the sewing bee, and she’d avoid her father.
Yanking the blankets over her head, she screwed her eyes shut and willed herself to sleep. Miss Mapleton’s rooster continued his enthusiastic wake-up call.
“Damn bird.” Aislyn flung off the blankets and jumped out of bed. “I’m gonna toss you in Ma’s soup pot.” She ripped the curtains back and glared at the bird. Her eyes narrowed when she spied her target. Chicken noodle soup. Her favorite kind. She drew a breath, ready to blast the pesky bird with an Aislyn special to singe his tail feathers.
“Chook, chook, chook!”
Aislyn’s hand dropped to her side. Miss Mapleton to the rescue. “Another time, birdbrain.”
Seamus must have put her to bed. He mightn’t be interested in her romantically, but he’d given her more—an experience to savor for the rest of her life.
In the bathroom, Aislyn stripped and jumped into the shower, thankful the family home was empty. Wait a minute. Maybe she wasn’t a total loser. Her nose shot into the air, her hands fisted to prepare for a drying spell. No! She’d continue to live without using magic. It was good practice. Next year, she’d apply to join the fairy force again. She’d keep trying until she made the grade.
She darted back to her room and searched the drawers for clothes. The ironing pile produced better results. After dressing in her favorite Kelly-green midriff top and a pair of white trousers, she picked up the clothes littering the floor and shelved two books on Irish myths and one on old spells.
A glimpse of black jerked her memory. The witch’s costume.
Oops. The costume was due back yesterday. Still, weighing up a visit to Auckland versus an angry Mr. Fitzgerald, she’d do the same again.
Sighing, she scooped up the costume, shook out the worst of the wrinkles, and steeled herself to face Mr. Fitzgerald. Despite the early hour, she’d find him at the coffee shop near the square. Perhaps if she groveled and offered to help him in his shop for a few hours, he’d waive the charges?
Potholes riddled the cobblestone backroad leading into the village center. Half the streetlamps refused to work, and not one of Aislyn’s spells made them glow again. Even so, this was better than the risk of meeting someone she knew by walking along the main road.
Aislyn set a nippy pace, keeping to the edge of the road. Last week, during a training run, the milk cart had almost run her over, and she didn’t want to repeat the eye-to-eye experience with the milk fairy’s Clydesdale.
When she passed the Rafferty farm, she waved to old man Rafferty, busy tending his goats. Seconds later, the scramble of pounding feet from behind had her whirling in astonishment. The low warning growls from two dogs froze her to the spot.
“Mr. Rafferty.” Her voice held a distinct quiver. “Mr. Rafferty!” She prayed the man would hurry. Despite her magic embargo, she searched her mind for a suitable spell. The dogs stalked nearer. The closest, a huge fluffy Alsatian, growled deep in his throat, his body quivering with eagerness. She swallowed. “Bibity bobity…um…” Her mind remained blank of even the most basic spell. Where was Mr. Rafferty?
“Get in behind!” a man’s voice thundered.
Aislyn backed away, not daring to take her focus from the dogs. “What…what’s wrong with them? They’ve never behaved like this before.”
The hair along the Alsatian’s spine lifted, making the dog look big and mean. She took another step back. She bumped into someone and gasped in fear. She glanced over her shoulder.
“Steady, lass.” Rafferty tugged his snowy white beard. “Can’t rightly say why they’re misbehaving.” Puzzlement shone on his face. “Get in behind,” he ordered his dogs. They stole to his side, and he grabbed both by their collars. “Away with you, lass. You should be right now.”
Aislyn wasted no time fleeing. By the time she reached the butter factory on the outskirts of the village, her breath came in rasping pants. She waved at the post lady, riding by on her shiny green bicycle. Her steps faltered when the woman snubbed her greeting. The post lady wasn’t the only one who ignored her presence. When she arrived at the café, she caught her breath and gathered her composure.
The scent of freshly ground coffee beans perked up her mood. She’d have a latte before she faced Mr. Fitzgerald. After stuffing the costume under her arm, she grabbed the door handle, intending to creep inside.
Without warning, a piercing siren blasted to life right behind her. She lurched forward, tripping on the second step. A squeak of alarm escaped when she overcompensated and toppled down the step she’d already navigated. She landed on her butt. Her hands crept up to cover her ears while the witch’s costume dropped to the ground at her side.
Shopkeepers and fairies peered through windows and doors, trying to locate the source of the ear-splitting alarm.
“What is it?” asked Mr. Fitzgerald, from the doorway of the cafe.
“I don’t know,” another fairy replied.
A defense force truck raced along the street. Its blaring siren added to the clamor. Behind the vehicle, a platoon of fairy protectors ran at full speed. The synchronized thud of their feet was impressive, and Aislyn watched in awe.
An announcement started over the loudspeaker in the defense force vehicle. “This is a CAT alarm. There is a CAT loose in the colony. Walk straight to the nearest building. Do not run. Do not panic. This is a CAT alarm.”
The burst of excited, panicked chatter covered Aislyn’s shocked gasp. Pandemonium broke out. Fairies scattered. They tripped over each other. They fell and scrambled to their feet. More than one panicked fairy ran straight into another.
Aislyn scooped up her witch’s costume and scrambled out of the way as five fairies tried to force their way through the doorway of the café at the same time. Part of her wanted to run, and the other part wanted to watch the protectors in action. She noted the new automatic machine wands with approval. Curiosity battled with prudence and won. She inched her way along the side of the café wanting to witness the unfolding events firsthand. But she wasn’t stupid either. She kept a wary eye out for the cat.
A trio of fairies in white overalls appeared out of thin air. They carried strange packs on their backs. Sparks shot from the instruments, and a low-pitched whine filled the air.
“Over there!” one of the trio cried.
The defense vehicle screeched to a halt. The stench of burning rubber filled the air. The platoon turned as one to face the direction the fairy pointed.
The platoon aimed their weapons.
“Hold your fire! Make way for the cat-busters,” an official ordered. “We want to take the cat alive.”
“Where’s the cage?” another of the trio asked.
Aislyn watched spellbound. History in the making. Where were the reporters? The cameramen? She needed photos to cut out and paste in a scrapbook. Stories. She’d give a quote to the journalists.
“Bring on the cage.”
A cage appeared out of nowhere and clattered to the ground.
The fairy commander thrust his head out of the window of the defense vehicle. “Where’s the cat?”
Aislyn glanced at the trio in white overalls. So did the commander. The trio glanced at each other and consulted their gadgets. Lights glowed. Sharp beeps echoed down the alley. The trio huddled and held a brief, whispered conversation.
“Stand back,” one ordered.
They stepped forward, shuffling toward Aislyn. The beeps grew louder, turning into a high-pitched whine. Her head throbbed.
“Grab the cage!”
Several of the protectors broke rank and hoisted the cage off the ground.
“Instruments on full power.”
“Full power on one,” a fairy squeaked.
“Full power on two,” another fairy shouted.
The trio moved close enough for Aislyn to see the color of their eyes beneath the strange rubber goggles they wore. She couldn’t wait to inform her brothers. Then she remembered only Duncan would talk to her now. He was at the beach colony. There was no one to tell, not even Seamus. She edged farther along the brick wall of the café.
Without warning, a beam of blue light surrounded her. She tried to flee and found herself glued to the spot. Rats! Why hadn’t she escaped to safety when she had the chance? The blue light exerted a fierce pull on her body, dragging her from the safe viewing spot and placing her in the middle of the alleyway.
The blue light flickered out, freeing her. Panic gave her feet the speed of a champion sprinter. She lurched for cover, her heart pounding with terror. She didn’t want to die this way, not before she’d made peace with her family, not before she’d kissed Seamus again.
“Release the net! Before the cat gets away.”
The urgency in the fairy’s voice made the hair at the back of Aislyn’s neck stand to attention. She detected the thud of running feet and smelled the fetid breath of the cat as it gave chase.
“Throw the net!”
Hurry before the wretched creature pounces. Her lungs screamed for oxygen. Adrenaline pumped through her body. A spell. She needed a spell. “Majesty protect me now, send me—”
A strange whir snapped through the air. The shock wave knocked her off her feet, surrounding her with darkness.
“Is everyone all right?” the commander asked.
“Yes, sir. Mission accomplished, sir. We’ll take the cat back to the lab.”
Fools. Were they blind? They’d captured her, and the cat remained on the loose, somewhere in the colony.
Aislyn squirmed beneath the heavy net, endeavoring to wriggle free. The screech of tires and the pound of running feet halted her escape attempts.
“Commander, have you captured the cat?”
Aislyn groaned. She recognized the breathless brogue. Scott McGuire, a reporter from the Colony Rag. Rats, she’d pictured five minutes of fame but not with that scurrilous excuse of a reporter.
“Commander, yoo-hoo! Yoo-hoo! Can you tell us if there are injuries?”
Oh, no. Aislyn shuddered. She was doomed. Maisie Bubblehead, the gossip columnist for Fairy television.
“Stand back. We haven’t restrained the cat under the net.”
A burst of excited chatter greeted this statement. Aislyn issued another heartfelt groan. Half the colony had arrived to witness the capture. After this debacle, her father would disown her properly, and Aislyn hated to imagine Seamus’s reaction. He’d lecture her for the rest of the week.
“Troops, control the crowd,” the commander ordered.
Conversational buzz faded, and she presumed they’d contained the bystanders behind a wall of determined protectors.
“Where are those cat busters?” the commander asked in a tetchy voice. “You, over here.”
Aislyn resumed her frenzied wriggling. She had to escape—perhaps fashion a quick spell, one that worked for a change.
Suddenly, they whisked the net off her. Shouts and screams echoed in the alleyway. Camera shutters snapped while Aislyn squinted at the bright lights, her mouth dropping open in a sheepish smile.
Oops. A bit late for a sneaky exit.
* * * * *
One week later.
Seamus paused at the door of the boardroom and stared in pure astonishment. Pandemonium. The ten board members were shouting over each other, shaking their fists and—may the good lord have his hands over his ears—cursing loud enough to enable the Irish colonies to eavesdrop.
Murphy gobbled at the top of his voice. The room throbbed with frustrated magical vibes, but as yet, none of the males had broken the rules and let rip with a spell on council premises.
What had set them off?
He hadn’t heard such a heated kerfuffle since his father confessed to diverting colony funds to finance his high-rolling lifestyle. Seamus’s stomach roiled at the thought. God’s balls, surely his father hadn’t turned up and caused this ruckus? He’d promised he’d stay away—for what his pledge was worth.
In trepidation, he marched into the luxurious boardroom, another legacy of his father’s rule. Seamus gritted his teeth each time he saw the needless waste. Time for this meeting to come to order, otherwise he’d never get back to Gill. He slid into the large leather chair.
“Seamus.” The tall, spare commander glared at him, his walrus mustache twitching.
Seamus fought an urge to magic up two antacids.
“The Guardian has arrived,” Murphy announced, cutting through the raised voices with a sharp gobble of command.
“He’ll sort out this mess.”
Seamus sighed, sensing this meeting might take longer than he’d anticipated. He reached for the coffee carafe sitting on the large oak table in front of him, poured the black liquid into a bone-china cup, and sat back to await developments.
Gradually the noise abated, and each of the board members subsided into their assigned seats. They studied him with varying degrees of expectation.
“Can someone enlighten me?” His fingers beat a tattoo on the tabletop.
Murphy gobbled from the far end of the table. “You don’t know?”
Seamus leaned back in the leather chair, working at holding his temper. “I’m investigating an important case.”
“Where’s the paper?” the commander demanded. “Does anyone have a copy?”
Several of the board members thrust newspapers at him.
Seamus accepted the closest. “Anything in particular, you want me to read?”
Impatience had his irritation tugging for freedom. Why didn’t someone tell him? If his father had returned to the colony, he damn well wanted to know so he could send him packing—after he extracted the much-needed gold from his father’s Swiss bank accounts. Thanks to his father, the colony was broke, and it wasn’t merely a matter of using hocus-pocus magic these days to get what they wanted.
“Front page, second and third pages and the back of the front section,” the commander replied tersely.
A distinct air of anticipation hovered in the boardroom. Seamus frowned at their scrutiny. They were staring at him as carefully as a research scientist studied cat hair under a microscope. Shrugging off his unease, he unfolded the newspaper. The headline exploded across the front page. A color photo took up most of the page. He cursed under his breath. Fuck, she’d done it this time.
“Tell me what happened.” When everyone burst into speech at once, he held up his right hand. “Murphy, you tell me.”
Murphy’s face burned with emotion. He gobbled and spoke fast, almost tripping over words in his haste. “Somehow, we don’t know how, the lass left the colony and came in contact with a cat. The colony alarms picked up the scent, setting off a full-scale alert.”
“The O’Sullivan lass won’t utter a word.” The commander’s mustache jiggled with his indignation. “She refuses to tell us anything.”
“The female must leave.” Murphy pounded the boardroom table to emphasize his point. “Expel her from the colony. She’s trouble, a stick of dynamite primed to blow.”
Everyone spoke at once.
Seamus glanced from face to face, and guilt sliced through him. He couldn’t blame Aislyn for this debacle. If he were an ordinary fairy without responsibility, without a duty to uphold the rules, he might have an excuse. But he was the Guardian, and because of his father’s right royal cock-up, he owed his loyalty to the board of directors.
This was his fault.
He couldn’t fail the colony.
Seamus stood, and silence fell. Self-recrimination made him scowl. Aislyn hadn’t told the board of his involvement. He needed to learn why as soon as he’d confessed.
“I doubt she’ll talk to you,” the commander said, tugging at his jacket sleeve.
O’Regan, the farmer’s representative, spoke for the first time. “I agree with Murphy. We must expel the O’Sullivan girl from the colony. We need to make an example of her. Females in the fairy force. I ask you.” He emitted a rude snort of disgust.
“Hear, hear,” another member said.
Seamus felt smaller by the minute. “What’s next on the agenda?” Maybe they’d sort everything else out, and he’d make his confession right at the end.
“Aislyn O’Sullivan is the agenda. She’s created chaos, Seamus. You haven’t been here. We’ve had riots and panic, the like I’ve never seen since our previous human Guardian brought us to New Zealand instead of Australia. Today we had protest marches with the right-wing militants demanding equal opportunities for females. Since the lass’s costume set off the alarm, the press is crucifying the scientific community. The newspapers are full of the scandal and the television…” O’Regan shuddered. “I refuse to switch on my television. Maisie Bubblehead is out of control.”
“This is my fault,” Seamus thundered over the outpouring of venom against Aislyn.
“I hardly think so,” the commander said into the shocked silence.
“But I—” Seamus stopped, deciding to talk to Aislyn first. “I’ll go to see Aislyn now.” He stalked from the boardroom and hurried through the ornate picture gallery to the main entrance.
Footsteps thundered behind him, but he was in no mood to debate the situation. What a monumental mess. Perhaps he took after his father, and bad blood ran through his veins too.
“Seamus, wait, dammit!”
Seamus slowed for Murphy to catch him. He fell into step with Seamus, his face red and his breathing as harsh as a combustion engine.
“There’s no point going to visit the O’Sullivan lass at her parents’ home.”
“I need to speak with her,” Seamus said, clenching his fists when what he wanted to do was smack something. He brushed past Murphy and jogged down the steps into the square.
With a burst of speed, Murphy whipped around him and grabbed his arm, clinging like a vine until Seamus halted. “The O’Sullivan female is in jail.”
“What?” The idiots. Aislyn was no criminal. He was the one who needed incarceration.
Murphy backed away. “She…she’s in jail.”
“Which jail?” Menace laced Seamus’s voice. None of this would’ve happened if he hadn’t succumbed to her tears. So help him, if another female cried in front of him, he’d shoot them.
A high, nervous gobble escaped Murphy. “Solitary confinement.”
“Are you all mad? She’s not a criminal.”
“She refused to talk.” Murphy emitted another nervous gobble.
Seamus narrowed his eyes and stalked Murphy until he crowded him against the cobalt blue wall of the council building. “Rule five hundred and twenty, section two, subparagraph four,” he gritted out. “The Guardian’s extra special powers. I’m invoking them. Go back to the boardroom and inform the rest of the board. Wait for me there.”
Murphy paled to a color the exact pasty white of his bottom. “Rule five hundred and twenty?” he whispered. “Are you sure?”
“Very.” Seamus took the stairs two at a time and headed back into the council buildings. The blathering fools. Why hadn’t they called him? Why had they taken matters into their own hands? He stomped down the winding stone staircase leading to the dungeons, barely holding raw emotion in check.
“Who goes there?” the guard demanded.
“Keys,” Seamus snarled at the male at the bottom of the stairs. He stepped into the light, making no attempt to conceal his towering rage.
“You,” the guard whispered.
“Give me the keys.” Seamus thrust his face near the guard’s. “Hurry, I don’t have all day.”
The guard’s hand shook, and he dropped the keys. He picked them up and thrust them at Seamus.
“Tea break,” Seamus said as he accepted the key ring. “Apart from the O’Sullivan lass, do you have any other prisoners?”
“Go home. You’re finished work for the day.”
“But…” The guard cast a fearful glance over his shoulder. “The board will sack me for leaving the dangerous female alone.”
Seamus stepped toward the cowering male again. His jaw flexed. The desire to thump the man into the next week made his hands shake. “Go,” he ordered, and he shot past the confused fairy guard heading for the cells without looking back.
The steady drip of water echoed against the rock walls. Loud. Monotonous. Fresh air gusted through a small hole in the wall. The window, high above his head, cast shadows and minimal light. Fear and guilt twisted his mind into knots. Unbelievable.
“Aislyn.” Sheer terror clogged his throat. If anything had happened to her, he’d never forgive himself.
A loud thwack resounded in the stone chamber to his left and a weak, tear-filled curse. “Seamus? Is that you?”
Seamus blundered through the dim dungeon. If they intended to outlaw magic, the least they could do was make sure the lights worked. Bloody stupid, pedantic rules designed to protect the colony. For not the first time, Seamus wondered if the colony was heading in the right direction. Was it right to segregate fairies from humans? Surely there was a better way. The board might consider more integration. He could imagine the consternation if he tabled a discussion of this nature during the next board meeting.
“Yeah, it’s me. Where the hell are you?”
“In the last cell. Seamus, please hurry.”
“What? What’s wrong?” He disliked the alarm in her voice. Nothing frightened Aislyn.
Her panicked cry thrust a burst of adrenaline through his veins. He jogged the remaining distance, thankful a second window lightened the gloominess. “What is it?”
Aislyn huddled on a narrow bunk bed—the bottom one. They’d restrained her hands behind her back, pre-empting escape via magic since fairies needed their hands to utilize their magical powers, except the fools protected the entire council building with shields. How did they expect her to escape by magic?
Seamus fumbled the keys while struggling to open the lock. Instead of leaping off the bunk, Aislyn remained on the bed, her legs drawn tightly to her chest. God’s bones, if they’d hurt her, he’d take them apart limb by limb. She moaned, a high panicked cry of terror.
Which key? Dread made him clumsy as a fairling learning his first magical spell. The third key slid into the lock, and Seamus flung the door open, rushing to her side.
“What’s the problem?” He snatched her into his arms, rapidly checking for broken bones.
“Sp…spell,” she mumbled.
Bloody fools. He clutched her to his chest and strode from the cell. His conscience shrieked at him, stridently settling the blame squarely on his shoulders. How did he fix this? Why hadn’t she told them this was his fault? The questions pounded at him, demanding answers. Not now. He had to get her to safety then unravel the spell holding her prisoner.
At the top of the dungeon stairs, he paused when he saw no one. Seamus couldn’t decide if this was a good thing or not. The instant he stepped beyond the shields, he stabbed the blue stone on his Guardian’s band, praying they ended up inside his colony flat. His assistant had offered to send the amulet for servicing, but Seamus had put him off, more worried about his case than magical equipment.
A blink of a horny toad’s eye later, they landed on his bed—the right location, lousy landing spot. The feather mattress gave under their feet, throwing them off balance. They rolled over the edge of the bed, toppling to the floor.
Seamus twisted to take the brunt of the fall. Aislyn thumped down, her luscious curves crammed against his chest.
He inhaled, sliding his eyes shut to hide the explosion of heat firing his body.
Gary was right. The Guardian’s amulet needed servicing. He murmured a quick-release spell to free her arms.
Aislyn groaned weakly and rolled her shoulders.
His eyes flew open, his hands smoothed down her spine. “Are you okay?”
She stretched against him, bringing their bodies flush in a male-female fit. He forgot to breathe, every particle of blood shooting from his brain to his cock faster than he could curse. He froze, his skin itching and burning beneath his clothes, and he swore under his breath.
“We need to get you upright to restore your circulation.” Seamus lifted her away from him and contrarily wanted to grab her back. He forced himself to release her.
Seamus stared at the female who’d upset his world without even trying. He swallowed and tried not to dwell on the things he’d like to do with her and to her. “I need to go back to the council chambers,” he said, willing his erection away.
Tomorrow, he’d contact his mother to start the ball rolling. Living in Europe, she had the contacts. The minute he announced his betrothal, he could focus on his duties and his future.
And it’d help him resist the lure of Aislyn.
Chapter 7 coming next Monday