“Did she name her accomplice?” the commander asked the instant Seamus entered the boardroom.
Scalding fury at the board members and his own culpability warred within him. He shoved guilt aside and concentrated on the here and now. “Rule five hundred and twenty, section two, subparagraph four,” he stated, glaring at each of the board members until they wriggled their bums on their padded chairs. “Guardian’s privilege.”
“Now wait one pixie-popping minute,” the commander said. “You can’t evoke the Guardian’s privilege. We’re the board. We have powers.”
“Hear, hear,” O’Regan said.
Around the oak table, the board members hooted, emphatic in their agreement.
“I’m the Guardian,” Seamus said, meeting the commander’s gaze square on. “I was coerced into the position. You pleaded and told me I owed the colony. You can’t have things both ways.”
While Seamus agreed he owed the colony, the way they’d treated Aislyn was abysmal.
“You’ve got the hots for the O’Sullivan female. She’s scrambled your brain. Why don’t you bed her and move on? There’s no law against taking your ease with a female. You’re not betrothed yet,” Murphy said, punctuating his accusation with a breathless gobble.
Shocked silence met Murphy’s charge. Each of the board members stared at Seamus. Beady speculation glinted in their eyes.
A muscular tick burst to life at the corner of Seamus’s jaw. Under the table, his hands clenched. “I wasn’t aware my private life held such interest for you. But, to clear the air, I’m not involved with Aislyn O’Sullivan. I have not had sexual relations with that fairy.”
“You helped her to train for the fairy force recruitment exam,” Murphy objected.
“Aye, you did.” O’Regan jotted a note in his notebook.
Seamus fought an inner battle for calm, fisting his hands to prevent a grab for O’Regan’s pen or worse, his neck.
“I trained Aislyn to help prevent potential problems.” He strove for a reasonable tone. “I know you were against allowing her application, but the board must act fairly.” Hell’s teeth. His personal life was under a microscope. The board was out of line. His life was just that—private.
The commander poured himself a cup of coffee. “Perhaps if you’d announce your betrothal and set the colony on the way to financial recovery with a big, fat dowry, we might think more kindly toward the O’Sullivan female.”
Out and out coercion. Seamus clacked his teeth together, his eyes narrowing. “Anyone else have anything to add?” Cool contempt filled his voice.
“Yes,” O’Regan refused to meet his gaze. Instead, he concentrated on Murphy and the commander. “The O’Sullivan fairy has broken the law. She has endangered the lives of our wives and children. We must expel her from the colony.”
“The Guardian is right,” Murphy spoke fast, no doubt fearing they were treading into dangerous territory. “We have no proof she left the colony. We can’t leave her languishing in jail. I say we send her on the exchange program. Send her to another colony and let them deal with her militant ideas.”
An excited discussion broke out. Seamus tensed, although he maintained his casual sprawl. He didn’t want Aislyn to leave.
O’Regan yelled over the top of the babbled arguments. “Good idea, but it won’t work. The papers picked up the story. The overseas colonies have heard the news. They’ll refuse her entry.”
Seamus straightened. Time to take control. If he didn’t speak up, she’d end up exiled in Outer Mongolia or somewhere equally hostile. “We should let her join the fairy force.”
“What?” Murphy squawked.
O’Regan leaped to his feet, smacking his hands on the oak table. “Are you mad?”
“You’re rewarding the female,” the commander snapped. “Hardly the thing. Not the thing at all.”
“What if I take responsibility for her while she’s out of the colony?” While it wasn’t the best idea, he couldn’t think of a better one. He’d foist her off on his assistant, Gary, and avoid her and the temptation she provided.
The board members muttered. They argued. Some shook their heads while others tsk-tsked, setting Seamus’s teeth on edge. They were a pack of old women.
“I have it!” O’Regan shouted, leaping from the seat he’d only just reclaimed.
“Spit it out,” the commander said. “Let us judge.”
Let them judge.
That was ironic. Seamus folded his arms across his chest and waited for O’Regan to spill his pearls of wisdom. The burden of his Guardian duties weighed as heavy as a yoke around his neck.
“The research scientists are always complaining they can’t test their cat remedies outside the colony. I say we suggest to the O’Sullivan female that she is our…ah…” He hesitated, inhaled, and cast a quick look at Seamus.
“Appoint her as a research assistant and have her test the cat remedies.”
“Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant!” Murphy’s gobble of triumph made Seamus itch to throttle him.
Seamus shot to his feet. He grasped the edge of the table to keep his hands busy and hopefully prevent bloodshed in the hallowed halls of the council. “Would you let your daughter test cat remedies?”
The commander drew his bushy eyebrows together and fidgeted with his pen, refusing to meet Seamus’s wrath. “That’s not the subject under discussion.”
“You said you’d offer support and supervision.” O’Regan narrowed his piggy eyes. “Or does the female tempt you to forgo duty?”
“Why you—” Seamus took two steps in the direction of the slight fairy with the big mouth and froze. “I’m busy drawing up a list of prospective first ladies. Once I decide on a candidate, and the negotiations are complete, I’ll announce my betrothal,” he gritted out. “I know my duty.”
Delighted grins bloomed on their faces. Several fairies stood to clap him on the back.
“Excellent news,” the commander said, beaming.
Seamus slunk back to his seat, a wide grin pasted on his face. Inside, nausea swam through his stomach and attempted to crawl up his throat. Saying it aloud to the board made his betrothal sound final. A trap that made him resentful. Couldn’t he ever think of himself before the colony? His grin fell away but not the sense of obligation.
Murphy beamed. “We’ll have a wee dram in celebration once we hammer out the specifics regarding the O’Sullivan female.”
The noose of responsibility tightened around Seamus’s neck. He managed another weak smile. “Any suggestions as to where she could live?” If they suggested his house, he was doomed. He only had so much willpower.
“The fairy force members are fully integrated with the human police recruits. Why can’t we move the O’Sullivan female into the hostel? Several of the human officers are female,” Murphy said.
An old-timer nodded. “Perfect. That’s settled. Jameson’s, I think. The good stuff.”
“Who will tell her?” O’Regan asked.
The fairies studied each other, then turned to Seamus.
“You’re Guardian so it should come from you,” the commander said.
“She should sign a contract first,” O’Regan said. “The contract will have to come from the board.”
Murphy gave a distressed gobble. “Too time-consuming. A contract will take time.”
Seamus watched them communicate silently and come to a rapid decision.
“We’ll have the contract ready for the female to sign at ten o’clock tomorrow morning.
Seamus checked his watch. “I have Aislyn in a safe place and will bring her here in the morning.” His glare cut potential arguments to nil. “One more thing. I know you have problems with Aislyn, but make the contract a fair one.”
Heads nodded in unison. Red faces shone with innocence.
Seamus snorted as he strode from the building. Now, why did he have trouble believing them?
* * * * *
The next day dawned bright and sunny. With plenty of time in hand, Seamus picked the old-fashioned way of traveling. He walked, savoring the flirtatious breeze and the heat from the sun on his bare head—a fine day to test his willpower. The sooner he picked a consort, formalized their betrothal, and made an announcement, the better. He wasn’t blind. Aislyn didn’t think of him as a brother.
Changing his mind about walking, he stabbed the blue button on his armband. Seconds later, he popped into a minute steamy room. A woman sang one of the latest fairy hits, her body gyrating to a silent beat only she heard. The scent of ginger-and-fresh apricots filled the room. Groaning, Seamus peered through the misty air, his stomach swooping and plunging as horror worked up his throat. Wet, red curls hung around her head and resembled curly rat’s tails. He snapped his eyes shut, but not before the imprint of Aislyn’s naked body ricocheted around his mind. Ah, hell. She bore seriously touchable curves—ripe, wet curves that begged him to reach out and touch, slender legs long enough to wrap around his hips…
Reaction flooded his body, lust pulling his cock tight. He groped for the door and flung himself into the passage, breathing hard and heavy. Three gasping breaths later, he still smelled Aislyn. He’d never eat an apricot again without thinking of her, picturing her naked.
Thank the good lord Aislyn hadn’t noticed him pop into the bathroom.
Seamus jerked in shock. His mouth worked, but no sound came out. Like an idiot, he stared at the blonde fairy woman.
Instead of the scream he expected, she smiled at him. “I didn’t realize Aislyn expected a visitor. Sorry, I’ll make myself scarce. Tell Aislyn goodbye for me.”
By the time Seamus had his mouth in working order, she’d disappeared out the front door, leaving him alone with Aislyn. Alone with naked temptation.
“I don’t have to succumb to temptation.” Tomorrow he’d give the amulet to Gary to send for servicing. Hang on a minute. What did she mean, she didn’t realize Aislyn had company? Jealousy stopped him short. Did Aislyn make a habit of bringing male fairies home for the night?
The bathroom door opened, and ginger-and-apricot scented steam billowed into the passage. Seamus’s gut churned as he straightened to face the pint-sized fairy who made him weak at the knees.
“Good morning,” he said, managing a half-smile.
“Sorry, have you been waiting long?” Aislyn asked, a cheery smile on her face. “I had to wait for Caitlin to collect my clothes from home.”
“She told me to tell you goodbye on her behalf.” Seamus dragged deep for calm, even as he digested the reason for the other fairy’s presence. Aislyn acted as if she paraded in front of male fairies all the time, wearing nothing more than a skimpy towel and a smile. Perhaps she did? No, Glenveagh was so small the gossip would’ve reached him. Relief weakened his knees, the reaction irking him.
“We’re due at the council buildings in five minutes,” he said, his burst of temper aimed at himself as much as her. “I’ll wait in the lounge.”
Seamus stomped along the hall and slammed the door while he struggled to deal with a myriad of compelling, confusing emotions. He wanted her. He wanted the right to stroke her naked body and share the shower with her. Her bed. He sucked in a deep breath, willing his unruly body into submission. Aislyn wasn’t for him, no matter how much his body throbbed with the urgent need to claim her.
“I’m ready,” Aislyn chirped, a mere five minutes later.
Not long enough to work off his lust or build walls of protection. Seamus’s temper strained for freedom but pride bade him hold his tongue. Instead, he gnashed his teeth, struggling to come to terms with the situation. Situation—hell.
The problem was Aislyn. In her black jeans and tight black-and-white jumper, she seemed an adult rather than Duncan’s little sister. He jerked his lustful gaze away before she caught him slobbering.
“We’re late,” he snapped. “Take my arm.”
Holding his breath, he thumped the amulet. If they landed anywhere except the council chambers, so help him, he’d deliver the faulty product to the guru in France himself. Let one fairy mutter the words, out of warranty, and he’d ram the bloody thing somewhere uncomfortable. They wouldn’t sit for a week.
Seconds later, they shimmered into the square in front of the council rooms. Seamus propelled her into the board room and shoved her onto a chair. Mission accomplished, he dived from the boardroom.
Man, he’d thought it before, and he’d think it again—he was never gonna eat an apricot again. He stalked over to the commander on the other side of the reception room.
“Aislyn’s waiting in the boardroom,” he said. “Let’s get the agreement signed. I have a meeting on the human side.”
The men filed into the room one by one. They were hard-put to contain their glee. Each sat in their assigned seat, apart from the commander. He planted a sheaf of papers in front of Aislyn.
“I take it Seamus has explained what will happen?”
Aislyn sought Seamus. Her heart thudded, only settling when she found him, leaning against the wall, arms folded across his chest. The brooding expression on his face should have made her nervous. He intended to scare her away, but she suspected his moodiness was a facade to keep her at bay. His presence helped her jittery nerves to relax.
“No.” Under the table, she clasped her hands together, tense while she waited for her punishment.
“You will leave the colony,” the commander said.
Expulsion. A sick sensation settled inside her belly, and she slumped in her chair. “Where will I go?”
“Hell’s teeth,” Seamus snapped, pushing away from the wall. He sounded angry on her behalf. “Aislyn, what the commander means is they’re allowing you to take up a job on the human side. You’ll become an unofficial part of the fairy force.”
Her head snapped up, her shoulders straightening from a loser’s slump. “The fairy force. Me?” she croaked.
“There are conditions,” Murphy informed her in a snooty tone. “If you fail to abide by the conditions we set, we’ll make alternative arrangements.”
Pure, exquisite joy spurted and bubbled through her veins. Her gaze sought Seamus, and not even his scowl dimmed her happiness. They were letting her leave the colony to join the fairy force. “I’ll agree to anything,” she said fervently. “Anything at all.”
“Who helped you leave the colony?” Murphy asked. “A name. We want a name.”
Oh, heck. Not that. Seamus played such an essential part in the community, liaising between the human and fairy worlds. Her shoulders hunched in defeat. Confession was out of the question since Seamus had helped with her training, never once scoffing at her ambitions.
“I’m sorry. I can’t tell you.” Disappointment surged through her. “I guess I’ll have to stay here.”
“Murphy,” Seamus gritted out, an edge to his voice. He glowered—a man pushed to the limit.
A nervous gobble echoed through the luxurious room. “Read the papers and sign them. You need to initial each page to confirm your agreement with our terms. The contract will last for one year. Once the year expires, we will renegotiate the terms.”
They hadn’t told her everything. A few board members wore expressions of pity. With a visible tremor, she accepted the pen the commander handed her. She pushed aside her uneasiness and bent to read the official documents. Her eyes narrowed. They wanted her to test the anti-cat weapons. She turned the page in the quiet room and read the next page. Accident compensation rates, life insurance, public liability. Reports due on a monthly basis.
When she glanced up from the contract, she caught the stern visages. Some still bore pity while others appeared quietly satisfied. The fools. They thought this was a punishment. She schooled her expression to neutral, quashing the celebratory roar building inside her.
The adventure she longed for and a purpose.
She scrawled her initials and turned the page, exulting in anticipation.
At the end of the contract, she signed her name with a flourish. “Who wants to witness the agreement?”
Not one member of the board moved.
“I’ll do it.” Seamus stepped up beside her, affixing his heavy scrawl under her signature before stepping back. “I have to go. When do you want me to return for Aislyn?”
“One week from today,” the commander said. “That will give her time to pack and receive her instructions from the research department.”
Aislyn flashed a grin at Seamus. His return scowl did nothing to dampen her soaring spirits. Finally, she’d leave the colony and take her rightful place in the world.
She’d landed her dream job.
* * * * *
Sameth scanned the crowded room, searching for potential problems. The party was in full swing, the entrants assembled at Maximillan’s resort, ready for the start of the competition. Classical music played in the background. Candles glowed on the intimate tables. The buffet table held a vast and exotic spread. She’d planned the event with precision along with the endless supply of expensive champagne to lower inhibitions.
From the doorway, she observed the couples on the dance floor and compared her unrelieved black sheath with the peacock bright plumes worn by the other women. Armani gowns stood alongside New Zealander Karen Walker’s creations. The women glittered with diamonds, a conspicuous display of their wealth. The men wore designer labels too, ranging from formal to casual.
In every corner of the room, she spotted the subtle nuances of rich men and women trying to outdo each other. Every new gadget and toy was on display, competitors juggling for the essential mental edge in the coming competition. A few were open friends and others deadly enemies.
Sameth’s job was to discover which camp they fell into and use the information to Maximillan’s advantage.
No easy assignment when winning was everything to these people.
She surveyed the laughing faces with an edge of cynicism. She trusted none of them and remained watchful. Because of her job with Maximillan, she’d garnered enemies. Strolling past the buffet table, ostensibly to check on the caterers, she collected the careless gossip, filing away useful snippets for later reference.
It governed their every action.
Maximillan was no exception. In his face, she witnessed the thrill of the hunt and the desire to get one-up on his business competitors. Top dog. That’s what this competition meant to Maximillan.
Sameth checked her watch and slipped from the ballroom to check everything was in order for the start of competition tomorrow. Once clear of partygoers, she strode along a narrow but well-lit pathway to a small clearing where she’d left her motorized golf cart.
During the ten-minute drive from the resort to the estate, she went over the details in her mind. She parked the cart and dashed to the office. She liked to check the guards were alert and at their stations instead of goofing off. The instant she appeared in the doorway, the two brawny men standing at the office door stood to attention.
Although chunky, their weight rested evenly on their feet, poised to strike at a second’s notice.
“Problems?” Sameth asked, pleased by their vigilance. Their assignment was an important one—to guard the list before the start of competition in the morning. Even Maximillan had no idea of the list contents since he’d wanted to enter the competition and pit his wits against his friends. Sameth was both author and custodian.
“All quiet,” one guard replied. “We haven’t seen a soul.”
“Keep alert,” she warned, seeking eye contact with both men to enforce the order. Satisfied, she hustled along the passage, her heels clicking on the tiled floor.
In her bedroom, she exchanged her gown for casual clothes, still unrelieved black, and tugged a pair of comfortable flats onto her feet. After yanking a black nylon daypack from under her bed, she opened her bedroom door a few inches to peer along the corridor in both directions. Empty. A smile curved her lips. The sleeping pills in the staff dinners had done the trick. Apart from the guards, the rest of the staff was asleep. Elation hummed through her, anticipation widening the smile on her lips. Everything was going to plan.
Sameth crept from the house and, once clear, increased her speed, a buoyant spring of expectancy in each step. The tang of salt became stronger, the crash of waves tumbling to shore more distinct now. Sameth escalated her pace until she was almost running.
Without warning, a body appeared on the path in front of her and unable to halt in time, she careered into them headfirst. The air whooshed from her lungs. She tripped, twisting her body in a blind panic. She muttered a curse.
Two hands settled on her shoulders, holding her upright. Instead of the rough treatment she expected, the hands relaxed. Her head jerked up to peer through the darkness.
She exhaled with a soft sigh. “You’re here.”
“I’m here, darlin’. I promised, didn’t I?”
Letting out a whoop of joy, she sprang into his arms, winding her legs around his waist. He gave a bark of surprised laughter and whirled them both around in a circle. Their lips met, the games ended, and night noises took over. The lonely cry of a Morepork came from the trees, the slap of water against the bow of a boat, and the breeze ruffling the trees.
The moon peeked from behind a cloud, and he smiled at her. “Ah, darlin’, I’ve missed you.” He smoothed his hands through her hair and mapped her face with his fingertips. “Can you spend the night?”
“I can stay until early morning.”
“Then what are we waiting for?” He swaggered along the path carrying her with ease. Sameth pressed against his chest, burrowing her hands beneath his collar to touch warm skin and inhaling to reacquaint herself with his scent. Inside, she ached with need, her body pulsing with a heady sense of expectation.
The path gave way to sand, the sand to the water. He waded into the shallows where a second man waited with an inflatable dingy.
The man greeted her with a wide smile. “Sameth, darlin’. Long time no see. How ya doing?”
She giggled. “Fine. I’m doing fine.”
The man who held her gave a mock growl. “She might be fine, but I’m not.” The moonlight showcased his wolfish smile, and she grinned back as he set her inside the boat. “Sameth and I have some private catching up to do.” He settled beside her and she leaned against his broad chest, treasuring the rare moment of togetherness.
The oars slapped the water with a rhythmic beat as the second man rowed to an anchored launch. Five minutes later, they pulled alongside.
Sameth’s tongue swept out to slide across her bottom lip. Longing seeped deep into her bones when she studied the harsh visage. He bore a maddening touch of arrogance, but she wouldn’t love a man who lacked confidence. He nuzzled the delicate skin at the base of her neck. She trembled, her body desperate for more personal contact.
“How long do we have?” the second man asked.
Reluctantly, she retreated a few inches, but she was unable to let go. Her hand stroked one biceps.
“Until four in the morning,” she murmured, only partly concentrating on the conversation. “I need to be on the beach at four. If I meet anyone on the way back to the house, I’ll say I’ve been for a run.” She relaxed against his chest again, reveling in their physical differences.
“I’ll knock on the cabin door at ten minutes to the hour. Did you bring the list?”
“Of course.” She shrugged off the pack and handed it to the second man. “All the details are in there.”
“You’re a champion, darlin’.”
The man holding Sameth grinned. “I knew that already, little brother. Now scoot, will you? I want privacy with my girl.” He bent his head, his mouth covering Sameth’s hungrily, before he swung her into his arms and headed for the master cabin.
Chapter 8 coming next week