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Aislyn escorted Gina to her friend’s house and spent half an hour afterward lurking in the shadows to watch for suspicious activity. Nothing more substantial than a bird disturbed the peace, so she slinked through the dim-lit streets, taking lots of false turns before heading for the bus stop. When the bus arrived in Queen Street, Aislyn alighted, ducked up Vulcan Lane, and turned along High Street, intending to check out the Metropolis hotel.
During the ride back into the central city, she’d decided she needed to glimpse this man, John Watson, to get a sense of him.
At the hotel, she sauntered through the double doors into the vast marble foyer. A bank of elevators filled the wall on her right while an officious man stared at her from behind the reception desk. She hesitated, unsure of what to do next.
A hand settled on her shoulder. “I knew I’d find you here.”
Aislyn spun, ready to defend herself. A male with familiar braided hair halted her arm midair.
“Gary!” She shot a glance at the nosy receptionist and dragged Gary by the arm until they reached a seating set aside for guests. After dropping onto a plush black two-seater, she said, “What are you doing here?”
“Do you think you’re the only one who wants to join the fairy force? Oh, for goodness sake! Pick up your jaw before it strikes the floor.”
“You too?” Stunned disbelief infused her voice.
“Don’t act so surprised. Lots of us have ambition.”
After working with Gary for a week, she’d learned of his intelligence and efficiency. Seamus relied on him. Although on the scrawny side and flamboyant, if he toned the clothes down, he’d fit in with the other recruits.
“Why weren’t you accepted?”
Gary planted his hands on his hips and did a shimmy. “Why do you think?”
Aislyn pretended to ponder as she surveyed his slender body struck in a pose. “Let me see…the board members aren’t progressive, they hate change and love their rules.”
“Yeah, well.” Gary shrugged, but she spotted the vulnerability under the attitude, and it changed everything.
“All right,” she said. “We’re in this together.”
“Seamus will kill us.”
“If we stick together, we’ll be okay. It’s harder to dispose of two bodies.”
“True,” Gary drawled. “Droll but true.”
They shared a grin before lapsing into silence. Aislyn peeked around the sizeable potted fern, screening them from the foyer. The receptionist couldn’t see them, but the porters standing outside could. One of them winked at Aislyn through the wall of plate glass. The admiration on his tanned face brought heat to her cheeks.
“We’re attracting attention. My hair is a bright beacon, and you’re not exactly unforgettable. We’re not doing this scientifically.”
Gary struck a pose. “Unforgettable, that’s what I am.”
Aislyn bit her lip to halt her grin. “Quit fooling around. We need disguises, and we need them fast.”
“I have stuff we can use at my flat, except if we leave, we might miss something important.”
“We’ll have to risk it. What time do people check out of hotels here? Is it like the colonies? Check out is usually mid-morning?”
“Good point, except if the man is a crook, he won’t play by the rules.” Gary’s beads chattered with the motion of his shoulders. “How do we know he’s gonna check out at all?”
“Rats. We don’t. I’m making assumptions, aren’t I?”
“Yep—rule number two hundred and thirty-five. Never assume.”
“There’s no such rule,” Aislyn said. “Gary, we need a plan. We should go to your flat, work out our disguises. Then, we should come back early in the morning and watch for the man to leave. He has to leave sometime, right? When he does, we’ll follow him. If he’s taking part in the scavenger hunt, he’ll need to organize a hit on Little Barrier Island or one of the other islands that have kakapo.”
Gary fiddled with one beaded plait. “Have you seen the list of things the competitors must collect for the scavenger hunt?”
“Not the full list. I’ve heard Seamus and Gill discussing kakapo and tuatara.”
“Well, I’ve read the list and the rules. The competitors have two months to collect fifteen items. Each team comprises three people plus the person who puts up the money. Each person in the team collects certain items, and those people must check the items in with the judging panel in person. If the judges think the team has extra help, they’re disqualified.”
“We need to leave,” Aislyn said. “The porters keep giving us the side-eye.”
As they stood to leave, she noted a new arrival in the foyer. Strong and wiry, although not as tall as Seamus, the man glided across the marble foyer and disappeared into a waiting elevator. Not their man. He wasn’t old enough and didn’t have a scar.
She grasped Gary’s arm. “Let’s go. We don’t want them to call security.”
Half an hour later, they arrived at Gary’s home in Greenlane. When the cab pulled up in the drive, Aislyn noted the old wooden bungalow blazed with lights.
“Is your flatmate afraid of the dark?”
“Not that I’ve noticed.” Gary sprinted up the narrow concrete path, his boots pounding on the wooden verandah. He flew through the open front floor. “Jacob? Are you there? What’s wrong?”
“I’m in the spare bedroom.” His voice held both frustration and irritation.
Jacob was tall with short, brown hair. He wore jeans and a striped cotton shirt. As he swaggered along the passage toward them, Aislyn noted the soft blue halo shining around his head. Another fairy.
“About time you arrived home. Your mother keeps ringing, wanting to speak to you. If you don’t contact her soon, there’s no telling what she’ll do. She threatened to petition the board and mentioned tying herself to the council building.”
“I spoke to her this morning,” Gary said in exasperation. “Let her bother the board. I’ll make a pot of coffee. We need caffeine to help us think. Aislyn, this is my cousin, Jacob. Jacob, why are all the lights blazing? The house resembles the rear end of a firefly.”
Jacob ignored his cousin and stretched out his hand in greeting. “Hi, Aislyn. Have we met before? You look familiar.”
“Aislyn O’Sullivan,” Gary said over his shoulder as he filled the coffee pot with fresh water.
“Oh! That Aislyn.” Jacob grabbed her in an exuberant bear hug and danced her down the hallway into the bright kitchen. “You deserve a medal for battling the board.”
“You’re a lone voice.” Aislyn liked this male. Why weren’t there more liberated men like Jacob and Gary? They didn’t treat her like a helpless, cat-attracting female.
Gary jabbed the start button on the coffee machine. The water gurgled and dripped through the filter. “You haven’t told us why the lights are on.”
Jacob released Aislyn and pulled out a red wooden chair, indicating with a sweep of his hand for her to sit at the table. They exchanged a grin.
Circling the table, he sat opposite. “It was the strangest thing. Someone knocked on the front door. When I answered the summons, I found a half-grown cat sitting in the middle of the doormat. It ran inside before I had time to shut the door. I’ve been looking for it ever since.” His blue eyes widened in sudden alarm. “I say, you’re not going to shrink any time soon, are you?”
“I’m on the pill,” Aislyn said. “This cat—did it have lots of toes and white whiskers on the right side? Was it black?”
“I didn’t get a good look. It was black and on the skinny side.”
“That sounds like my cat. I have a cat called Joe.” Nothing her cat did surprised her.
A grin spread across Jacob’s face, so dazzling it made Aislyn blink.
“Jacob, snap out of it,” Gary said. “Aislyn isn’t looking for a husband. We need help with a disguise. We’ll look for the cat later.”
“Why do you want disguises?”
“The recruits at the hostel keep playing tricks on Aislyn. We intend to pay them back.”
Aislyn blinked at the outright lie. While she couldn’t lie to save herself, Gary possessed the gene.
“What did you have in mind?” Jacob asked.
“We both look distinctive—Aislyn with her red hair and me with my braids and beads. Wigs and makeup would fool the latest batch of recruits. They give Aislyn such a hard time.”
Gary sounded so put out even Aislyn believed his story.
“I can lend you a few wigs and props.”
“Can we do it now?” Aislyn asked.
“After Gary rings his mother. The last thing we need is Aunt Sylvie with her knickers in a twist.”
“Huh,” Gary said. “You’re lucky your parents don’t harass you.”
Pain sliced through Aislyn at the mention of parents. Although her mother contacted her, her father refused to have anything to do with her.
“There’s that damn cat,” Jacob said.
Aislyn leaped to her feet. Jacob did, too, advancing on the cat. Joe didn’t budge from his position in the middle of the doorway. He ignored Jacob to groom his face.
“That’s Joe,” Aislyn said. “He has extra claws. I’ve no idea how he arrived here. I left him in my room at the hostel.”
“Your hostel is in central Auckland.”
They both stared at Joe as he finished his grooming and ambled toward Aislyn.
“Aren’t you frightened?” Jacob asked. “Can’t you read its mind? Those orange eyes are imagining T-bone steak a la Aislyn.”
Aislyn shrugged. “I’m safe enough as long as I take my pill. Seamus assigned Gary to remind me every day. Seamus asks me every time I see him. I carry spare pills—enough for three days. I’m covered.”
The cat sidled past Jacob and slipped under the hem of the bright floral tablecloth to rub against Aislyn’s legs. Unable to resist, she bent over to stroke the animal’s smooth black fur. A rumbling purr like the putter of a small engine emerged from the cat. A grin surfaced. “This is one clever cat, but I’m not in any danger.”
* * * * *
“Are you clear on the plan?”
“Yes.” Aislyn studied the pedestrians strolling along the footpath outside the Metropolis Hotel. All her bravado had seeped into the car upholstery, not that she intended to admit her trepidation to Gary. Irritably, she brushed a blonde curl off her forehead. She resisted the impulse to fiddle with her wig. “You’re as bad as Seamus. We’ve been over our plan so many times, I could recite it in my sleep.”
“Get on with it then.” Gary drummed his hands on the steering wheel of the van. He shuffled on the driver’s seat, sending anxious gazes at the hotel and her. “This skullduggery is making me nervous. My heart can’t take much more stress. Here, take the package. Let’s get this done.”
With a cheeky wink, Aislyn let herself out of the van and sashayed toward the hotel. Gary’s nerves had given her a new surge of courage. They could do this—she was sure of it. She smiled at the doorman who held the glass door open for her and marched across the marble foyer carrying the package under her arm. The weight of a stare told her the doorman had continued watching her. Maybe it was true—that blondes had more fun. She fluttered her long and false eyelashes at the receptionist and stuck out her chest, showcased in a tight, black T-shirt. Emblazoned across the front were the words Kiwi Couriers.
“Hello,” Aislyn chirped.
The receptionist was an older woman. Aislyn realized she was in for a hard sell the instant the woman glared over the top of her gold-rimmed glasses. Aislyn chewed vigorously on her wad of gum, maintaining her friendly smile.
“Yes?” Even though the woman remained sitting, she peered down her nose.
“Package for John Watson.”
“Leave the package with me. I’ll see he receives it,” the woman said, reaching for the package and dismissing her in one smooth move.
Aislyn stepped away from the counter out of the woman’s reach. “Sorry, I need a signature. Company policy.”
“I’ll sign for the package,” The woman grabbed a pen.
“Sorry,” Aislyn chirped. “I need Mr. Watson’s signature. Company policy.”
She could literally hear the woman’s teeth grind together, and she bit back a smile of triumph.
“Take the elevator to the twenty-sixth floor. Mr. Watson is in the Rata suite.” The switchboard rang, and she answered it with a professional smile in her voice, her conversation with Aislyn finished.
With the first hurdle over, Aislyn trotted over to the bank of elevators. From the corner of her eye, she saw Gary loitering outside, somber in a pair of black jeans, a black T-shirt, and his colorful braids tucked under a nondescript brown wig.
A bell indicated the arrival of the elevator, and Aislyn stepped inside. The doors whooshed shut. In the elevator where no one could see, her confidence wavered. She sucked in a fortifying breath. Okay, so she had a few nerves dancing inside her tummy. No problem. Nerves were good. The elevator sailed up to the twenty-sixth floor far too fast. Hesitation made her dawdle until she realized she was acting silly. Seamus wouldn’t hesitate. Tightening her hold on the package, she strode to the door of the Rata suite. One brisk knock and it was too late to turn back.
The door flew open, and the tallest man she’d ever seen stood in front of her.
“I have a package for Mr. Watson.” Aislyn fought to keep her voice confident, but to her discerning ear, she spoke with a distinct wobble.
“I’ll take it.”
“No! I mean, Mr. Watson needs to sign for the package.” With a racing heart, she waited for the man’s response. What happened if he refused?
“He’s having breakfast. Give me the package, and I’ll get him to sign for it. Where does he need to sign?”
“Ah…no!” Panic made Aislyn splutter. “I can’t let you do that. I…ah…have to see Mr. Watson sign for the package.” She forced herself to meet his gaze while she continued to pray.
“Very well,” he said. “You’ll have to wait.” He pointed to an upright chair sitting in the corner. “I’ll inform you when Mr. Watson is free.”
Aislyn was sure a courier wouldn’t stand for a delay—not when their livelihood depended on delivering packages as quickly as possible. “How long? I have other packages to deliver. Should I come back later? Or I could deliver the package tomorrow. The package is from England.” Holding her breath, she waited for his reaction. Would the man call her bluff, or would he want the package delivered to his employee?
“Mr. Watson won’t take long,” he said. “Please take a seat. I can get you a cup of coffee while you wait.”
Aislyn chewed on her gum, hovering indecisively from one foot to the other. “I don’t know.” She glanced at her watch and frowned. “I have a schedule to keep. Five minutes. That’s all, then I’m outta here.”
“I’ll check with Mr. Watson.”
She crumpled into a heap on the chair. Unable to keep still, she bounded to her feet and peered out the large window. The view of the harbor and the bridge was incredible but didn’t hold her interest. When she spun away from the window, a pile of suitcases caught her attention. It looked as if Mr. Watson and party were leaving the hotel. Aislyn sidled toward the luggage. Her heart thudded faster than usual. How long would the bodyguard take? Did she have time to inspect the bags? Terror welled inside as she bent to read the luggage label.
Bother. Aislyn knew the bags belonged to John Watson. Aislyn peered at the next label half expecting to hear the bodyguard’s firm footsteps at any second.
The door burst open, and Aislyn sprang away from the suitcases. Did she look guilty? Under the blonde wig, her ears burned. She certainly felt awkward.
“Mr. Watson will see you now,” the man informed her.
Aislyn tucked the package under her arm and stepped toward the big man. Her knees shook as she followed him.
A middle-aged man sat alone at a round table, a china coffee cup to his left, and a cooked breakfast of bacon and scrambled eggs sitting in front of him. Instantly, Aislyn’s stomach growled, reminding her she’d skipped breakfast. As she neared the table, the man set down his knife and fork and wiped his mouth with a linen napkin. The scar on his face told her this was the right man.
Forcing a smile, she stepped forward, her hands extended with the package.
“Good morning, Mr. Watson. I’m sorry to disturb your breakfast. I need your signature. Company policy, I’m afraid.” To her horror, she noticed the faint tremor of her hands when she handed over the package along with a pen. Would he notice? Every bit of spit dried inside her mouth, while she waited for the man’s reaction.
He scrawled his signature on the courier sticker Gary had designed.
“Thank you, Mr. Watson.” She replaced the pen in her pocket and forced a smile even though frustration beat at her. What now? She’d learned zilch. Dispirited, she turned and walked to the door where the bodyguard waited. She glanced back over her shoulder and noticed Mr. Watson watching. The intent pale eyes stared holes through her. Aislyn fought to conceal a shudder. Good job she wore a disguise. The way he hadn’t uttered a word the entire time she’d waited for him to sign the parcel was weird, but his rapt gawp put the seal on it. Truly strange. It was a relief once the connecting door closed behind her. Now all she had to do was vanish before he opened the parcel.
Even though she needed to hurry, each step they took toward the front door caused Aislyn’s spirits to plummet. Do something, her brain screamed. Don’t let this chance waste.
“Are you spending long in Auckland? Or are you holidaying in another part of the country? I noticed the accent. British, isn’t it?” Thank you, Gina! Aislyn wouldn’t have known an accent if it hit her on the head. Another of the many things she scrambled to learn, so she didn’t stand out as a newcomer.
Frustration at the man’s slow, careful consideration of her question made her want to shake him despite the considerable difference in size. The silence stretched until she feared he didn’t intend to answer.
“We’re here for two more days before we head to Coromandel.”
Aislyn’s palms moistened. She wanted to wipe them on her trousers. Instead, she smiled. “I haven’t visited the Coromandel, although I’ve heard it’s beautiful. Where are you staying?” The pause, while she waited for the bodyguard to speak, was long and nerve-racking. Part of her waited for Mr. Watson’s inevitable roar when he opened the parcel and found the Suzanne Brockmann book inside wasn’t the one on the scavenger hunt list.
“At the Kowhai Lodge Resort.”
Aislyn beamed at the man. He blinked as he opened the suite door for her. Oops—too many megawatts. Dimming the smile, she said, “I’m sure you’ll have a great visit. Crap, is that the time? I’d better hurry, or my boss will sack me. I hope you enjoy the rest of your visit to New Zealand.” After adding a breezy wave to her smile, she strode to the elevator. The edgy sensation between her shoulder blades told her the bodyguard loitered to watch her departure.
The elevator doors edged together slowly as if an invisible force held them back. Through the gap, her gaze stayed on the bodyguard. She froze then recalled her very first ride in an elevator. Seamus. The kiss. A flash of heat joined the nerves inside her stomach.
The doors shut.
Aislyn sagged against the back wall, her eyes fixed on the indicator lights. Without warning, the elevator stopped. The doors slid open. She gasped.
Two men dressed in business suits stepped inside, and one reached toward her. She flinched, but the man pressed the button for the second floor, and the elevator continued its descent. On the second floor, the two men left. Alone again, she sent the elevator to the ground floor. When she couldn’t see Gary, she hurried for the exit. The memory of Mr. Watson’s pale eyes sent fear slithering through her body.
To her relief, Aislyn spotted Gary parked several spaces from where she’d left him. He was arguing with a short, dumpy woman in a uniform.
“Where am I meant to park?” Aislyn heard Gary demand. “I’m a courier. We deliver packages.”
The woman planted her hands on broad hips. “You’ve parked here for thirty-five minutes. The sign says ten-minute parking only.”
Aislyn hurried up to the van. “Can I help?”
“Yes,” the woman snapped. She thrust a piece of paper at Aislyn and stomped off.
Aislyn glanced at the paper. “What’s this?”
“A parking ticket,” Gary said. “I’m dying of stress out here, and you calmly waltz out after thirty-five minutes.” Gary glared at her. “Next time you get the waiting job, and you’ll pay half the cost of this bloody ticket.”
“We should leave in case they open the package and want to ask questions.”
“Did you get hold of Gina?” She climbed into the passenger side, put on her seat belt, and waited for Gary to answer. He pulled away from the curb, merging with the traffic on Victoria Street. She’d enjoy learning how to drive one of these machines.
“There’s no answer on either her cell phone or at her friend’s flat.”
Aislyn frowned. “I’ll drop around after work.”
“Did you find out how long they’re staying in Auckland?”
“Yep, they’re staying for another two days before they move to Kowhai Lodge Resort in the Coromandel.”
“Really?” Gary took his eyes off the road to stare at Aislyn. “How do you know? Are you sure?”
“The bodyguard told me,” Aislyn said with a nonchalant shrug. No way did she intend to confess how fear and panic had paralyzed her.
“Brilliant, Aislyn. If we catch a cab to work after we drop off Jacob’s van, we won’t be late. Since Seamus is away, we should let the big boss know.”
“Okay.” Aislyn shared a grin with him. This investigative business was easy. She’d no idea why Seamus insisted it was too dangerous for a female fairy to undertake.
* * * * *
“Seamus is back,” Gary said when Aislyn hurried past his desk to her small adjoining office.
She careered to a halt. “Have you seen him? Was he angry?” A stupid question. What she wanted to know was his depth of anger.
“He seemed more tired than anything. Seamus and Gill are with the boss right now.”
Aislyn rolled her eyes. “Why do I have a sense of impending doom?”
“We did good, Aislyn. The boss said we’d used our initiative.”
“Yeah, after he shouted,” Aislyn pointed out.
“Aislyn! My office. Now.”
At the whip-crack of Seamus’s roar, Aislyn jumped. She was chagrined to realize her feet actually left the ground. She glanced over her shoulder, took one look at his face, and wanted to hide.
“I’ll deal with you next.” The words wiped the grin from Gary’s face.
Aislyn sent silent commiseration in Gary’s direction. At least they’d had fun investigating, even if it meant the end of their budding careers.
A hand gripped her upper arm and propelled her forward at a fast rate of clicks. Seamus shoved the door open, and it flew back against the wall with a sullen thud. Once they were inside his office, he grabbed the door and slammed it. Finally, he turned and nailed her with a glare.
Aislyn braced for worse to come.
“Of all the foolish, hare-brained schemes. I leave you alone for one week. One week, and you’re knee-deep in trouble. And if that isn’t bad enough, you drag Gary with you.”
She drew a sharp breath. Gary had demanded participation. She hadn’t dragged him anywhere. “Gary and I did a good job.”
The female didn’t have a single scrap of common sense rattling round in her brain. Reckless fool. Gary and I did a good job. Hell’s teeth! They were lucky they’d escaped Watson’s clutches alive. The man’s rep preceded him from England. Just considering the consequences made Seamus break out in a sweat.
“You’re sore because the boss let us help,” Aislyn said.
Seamus gnashed his teeth together, while his hands clenched to tight fists. “Do you know what my boss has suggested?”
“No, but I’m sure I can manage.”
Seamus prowled across the space separating them. He stopped inches from her, close enough to smell the apricots in her hair. The familiar scent riled him, stirring the embers of anger to new heights. “Even if your task is to pretend to be my wife? Even if you have to share the honeymoon suite with me at the Kowhai Lodge Resort?”
Come back next Monday to read the following chapter.