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Not one thing had changed in Glenveagh. The fairies who inhabited the village still thrived on gossip.
Aislyn sat at an outside table in front of the Majick café, trying to ignore the gaggle of fairies at a neighboring table. They whispered, glanced in her direction, and laughed. Life in the colony was the same—it sucked.
She pulled on her sunglasses and sprawled back in her chair, pretending their discussion didn’t bother her in the slightest.
When the male waiter strolled over, she ordered a flat white. While she waited for her coffee, every building in the square changed color from dazzling lime green to a pristine white. A howl of protest erupted from the cluster of fairies at the far side of the square. Aislyn sighed.
It was as if she’d never left.
“Aislyn O’Sullivan! Just the fairy I wanted to see.”
She rolled her eyes. Patrick Leary, the reporter from the News of the Colony tabloid. Ever since she’d returned from the human side, he kept popping out of the woodwork and hounding her for a story.
“Aislyn, sweetheart.” His grin was wide and insincere. “Fairies have a right to learn the identity of the Guardian. I’m offering big money, enough for you to set up in one of the other colonies. Ever thought of moving to the French Riviera?”
She tsk-tsked. “Patrick, I know nothing about the Guardian. And even if I did, I wouldn’t sell a story to you.”
“The board treats you like a leper,” he said in a low voice. “Don’t you want payback?”
A snort escaped her. The board acted like a bunch of scared, old women, immersed in the past with not an original thought between the lot of them. When would they decide it was time to incorporate modern ideas? “Go away,
Since her arrival back in the colony, she’d been under restrictions. Another blast of whispers from the neighboring table made her fidgety. Realizing her agitation was visible, she froze, but not before the tinkle of the security bracelet encircling her left ankle underlined her lack of freedom. She reported to Murphy every morning at ten sharp. During the meeting, he interrogated her as to her plans for the day. That was bad enough, but worst of all was the way they’d stripped her of all but the most basic magical powers.
A fuss at the other end of the square drew Aislyn’s attention. Murphy. She’d expected his appearance, but she stiffened when she noticed the dark-hair female with him. Why did it have to be Renee who witnessed her embarrassment?
Renee had arrived one week ago. Everyone adored her. Heck, even she liked Renee. She was charming, and she followed the rules.
“Ah, Aislyn,” Murphy boomed.
Aislyn forced a weak smile. Renee possessed an adorable French accent and dressed with distinct Gaelic flare. Squirming uneasily in her scruffy jeans and T-shirt, she eyed Renee’s short black skirt and form-fitting shell. Her makeup looked flawless.
No wonder Renee was the chosen one.
“Waiter!” Murphy pulled out a seat for Renee, seated her, and dropped onto a chair opposite Aislyn.
The waiter arrived with Aislyn’s coffee and produced beverages for Murphy and Renee in double-quick time.
“To business,” Murphy said in a brisk voice. “I’m too busy to oversee your integration back into the community. It’s the middle of tax season, so Renee offered to help.”
Aislyn’s stomach flipped and tied in a painful knot. She placed her cup on its saucer to hide the tremor of her hands. Why Renee? Hadn’t this fairy mucked up her life enough?
“I don’t see why I need to report to anyone,” Aislyn said.
“Seamus ordered it,” Murphy boomed.
Several fairies turned to stare in their direction with great interest.
She cringed and lowered her voice. “Why did Seamus order this? I’ve done everything expected of me. I haven’t spread gossip, and I’ve kept to myself, and I’ve done the community work you assigned me. I even agreed to wear this stupid bracelet around my ankle.” This time she needed to work hard to keep resentment from her tone.
“No point arguing, O’Sullivan. Renee will oversee your rehabilitation from tomorrow.”
Bitterness warred with frustration and coffee seesawed inside her tummy. The punishment wasn’t fair. Seamus had overreacted because she was friendly with Gill. She wondered how he’d explained her absence.
“Fine.” She forced herself to turn to Renee. “What time would you like to meet each day? At ten?”
Renee pouted. On her, it appeared charming rather than sulky. “We’ll discuss this later, no? Let us enjoy this coffee and the sunshine.”
“Seamus is a lucky man.” Murphy punctuated his words with a loud gobble, and Aislyn huffed in exasperation. “Yes, a lucky man.”
“Renee, have you met Lady Wickham yet?” Murphy asked.
Aislyn tuned out. She stared into her coffee cup and stewed over the injustice of Seamus’s punishment.
“O’Sullivan, one more thing. The board filing system requires modernization, so we have purchased one of these new-fangled computer systems. You will load the data onto the computer. Plenty of work there to keep you out of mischief.”
Aislyn cast a resentful glare his way. While Murphy and Renee continued to chat and discuss the current state of the colonies, she mulled over a plan she’d been pondering for the last three days.
Night fell. The colony inhabitants retreated to their homes. The sickle moon hung low, shedding scant light over the village.
Perfect for her plan.
Aislyn skulked past the young security guard posted outside her dwelling and made her way to the track she’d used on the night of the ball. Although, she wore the security bracelet on her ankle, she hoped no one would note her absence straightaway, since she’d delivered a bottle of Irish whiskey to the guardhouse earlier in the evening, ostensibly to apologize for the error of her ways.
She hurried along the twisting path, pushing her body hard on the uphill parts. Her breaths came in strangled gasps. The backpack she carried dug into her shoulders. Packed with supplies for her trek to the Guardian’s house, she’d no intention of ditching a thing, no matter how heavy her pack. It was time the Guardian knew what sort of tyrant he’d appointed to run the fairy force on the human side.
After ten minutes, Aislyn reached the area where she’d stood to spy on the Guardian. The magical barrier between the two worlds made the view hazy, and she couldn’t see much. She paced the boundary, a scowl firmly in place. This was the spot where Seamus called forth the portal entrance. Yes, right by the totara tree.
She tugged a crumpled piece of paper from her pocket. Torn from an old spell book, it was very similar to the one Seamus used. This journey from the village might turn out a waste of time. The spell was ancient. There weren’t many fairies practicing Celtic magic now, but Aislyn had always loved to read of the Motherland. She’d picked up an old text years ago at the second-hand market stall. Time to see if her skills were good enough to use the spells and open a portal.
But first, she needed to locate the opening. She stilled to focus, seeking an invisible surge of power. There it was. A faint hum no louder than a buzzing bee. She sucked in a deep breath, suddenly apprehensive. She wiped moist hands on her jeans and centered her mind.
The old Celtic language tripped off her tongue concisely as the book of spells specified. The words still echoed through the air when the first shimmer began. Holding her breath, she spoke the second part of the incantation. The portal coalesced into a shining doorway, a bridge between the fairy and human.
Exultant, she stepped through and muttered the words to close the portal. Now for the tricky part. Since she hadn’t been able to get her hands on size-enhancing pills, she needed to hurry before every cat in Newmarket discovered her presence.
The plants towered above her, the leaves spreading overhead like huge umbrellas. An ant clattered past only a few feet away, its mandibles crammed full of seeds. The insect let out a warning hiss, and Aislyn stood aside.
She peered through the gloom. Tiny green lights signposted the ant pathway into the distance, and she sprinted across. Ants didn’t travel alone, and she didn’t want another face-to-face experience.
Aislyn trotted through the thick grass jungle using the steady drone of the traffic on the street outside the Guardian’s house to guide her. Given her size, the journey would take time. She didn’t care. Anger at the injustice of her position propelled her onward. She’d plead with the Guardian. Let him deal with Seamus.
Since she’d left the colony without permission, she needed to present her case with care. Unfortunately, there were a few variables in her plan. Given her luck, the whole scheme might backfire, but she couldn’t be worse off than she was now, stuck with community work and an outcast, ignored by most upstanding citizens.
The grass forest gave way to a mountain range. The footpath. She pulled a compass from her pocket, double-checked the direction, and proceeded down the edge of the path.
Three-and-a-half-hours later, she reached the three steps leading up to the Guardian’s front door. She swiped the tail of her shirt across her brow and studied the climb in front of her. After sliding her pack off her back, she opened it to retrieve climbing gear.
She inched her way up the steep face, banging in spikes to take her weight, climbing up one and thumping in the next. A thin film of sweat beaded her forehead and dripped into her eyes. She swiped it away and kept doggedly going, determined to make the top. Finally, she heaved her trembling body over the lip of the last step. Tired but exhilarated, she stood to confront the next obstacle—the door.
Bother. This might prove more difficult. Aislyn tilted her head upward. Heck, no way was she going through the door. Perhaps under? She studied the gap—a tight squeeze but manageable. She dropped to the ground and slithered beneath the door. Halfway through, her bottom caught fast. She wriggled to no avail.
Aislyn groaned, trying to suck in her stomach.
Too many hokey pokey ice creams while she was on the human side. Then she heard a sound to make her blood chill.
She wriggled, frantic to escape the cat.
A tiny bell tinkled. Meow.
Scented flea powder filled the air. She sneezed and popped out the other side like a champagne cork exploding from a bottle. Hot breath wafted under the door. A disgruntled meow sounded, followed by scratching. She scooted away from the gap and crawled to her feet. Three rats and a mouse—a close call.
A low rumble sounded in the distance.
Her breath stalled halfway up her throat. What…what was that? The foreign noise rumbled through the room again like an earthquake. She hesitated and edged forward with caution. When the sound repeated for the third time, she slumped in relief. A giggle punctuated the rumble.
The Guardian was snoring.
She wandered toward the racket. At the doorway, she nibbled on her bottom lip, hesitating about her bold plan.
“Things can’t get much worse,” she muttered while she stood in indecision. She’d already broken too many rules to count. Seamus would instruct the board to ship her to Outer Mongolia or an equally isolated colony.
Boldly, she strode inside the Guardian’s lair. The drapes were open, allowing moonlight to creep into the room. The Guardian’s arm hung over the edge of the enormous bed. A pile of clothes covered the floor between her and the bed. From her perspective, they seemed like a mountain range.
A loud roaring snort shook the floor. Her feet parted company with the ground. She clapped a hand to her chest, poised for flight before she realized it was another round of snoring. Cripes, for a moment, she’d thought the heavens were falling.
A navy-blue sheet hung over the end of the bed. She took a running jump and shimmied upward before she lost her courage. She clambered on top of the mattress and paused to regain her breath.
Another snuffle came from the Guardian, and the mattress trembled beneath her feet. Aislyn’s eyes widened, and a squeak of alarm escaped her. The Guardian was turning over in his sleep! She whirled and half scrambled, half sprinted across the mattress to the bottom of the bed. When she reached the end, she squeezed into a tiny ball, her breath coming in wheezy pants of terror.
The Guardian turned, flinging his arm out and dislodging the sheet. The navy-blue sheet whispered to the floor.
When the mattress stilled, Aislyn uncurled and stood. Her brows rose before she slapped a hand over her mouth to cover her giggle.
The Guardian slept in the nude.
She swallowed and pondered the ethics of seeing the Guardian without clothes. Her gaze wandered the length of his legs, the light dusting of dark hair, and the muscular thighs. Keeping a close eye on him, she moved another step up the bed and came to a halt.
The Guardian was large. Ah, she meant tall! She averted her gaze from his cock and chewed her lip. Meeting the Guardian face-to-face suddenly seemed like the worst idea ever.
Too late for second thoughts now, especially with a cat outside. She bounded two rapid steps up the bed, gaining a view of the Guardian’s flat belly and muscular torso. His arm was in the way. She’d have to climb over. Hopefully, the man wasn’t ticklish or, worse, mistake her for a pesky insect and try to squash her.
As she clambered over the Guardian’s arm, she noticed the silver armband on his left biceps. It looked familiar.
She moved farther up the bed, past the man’s shoulders to survey his face.
“Hell’s teeth!” Aislyn’s shocked curse blistered the air.
She stared at the familiar dark hair, the harsh planes of his face, and sank down to sit on the mattress.
Why was Seamus at the Guardian’s house? In the Guardian’s bed?
The obvious answer…no. Aislyn shook her head in disbelief. Yet, the truth lay before her in full naked glory.
Seamus Gallagher was the Guardian.
Fury rose within her. Of all the lying, cheating…
The Guardian won’t like you doing that. It’s dangerous for the fairy colony if you do that. Follow the rules, Aislyn. The Guardian says we must for the good of all.
The situation with Renee had confused her most of all. She’d never understood Seamus’s betrothal to a princess from a European colony, but if he was Guardian that explained everything. The role of the Guardian carried clout—political clout, and he made an attractive marriage prospect.
No wonder he’d turned her away. The Guardian had to marry for the good of the colony. Especially since the last Guardian had run off with the colony funds—those he hadn’t squandered on wine, women, and a jet-set lifestyle.
It was surprising Seamus had associated with her given her penchant for breaking the rules. The last lingering shreds of hope for reconciliation between her and Seamus faded. She jumped to her feet and stomped up to the pillow.
“Seamus. Wake up.” When the great lug didn’t move a muscle, she reached up to tug his earlobe. “Seamus.”
He stirred, and when it looked as if he might roll again, she prepared to jump to safety. She’d rather face a broken limb than have her death certificate read squashed by Guardian.
“Seamus!” Aislyn roared.
Seamus jerked upright. “What? Who’s there?”
She whipped up her hands to cover her ears. “Seamus, it’s me.” She stormed across the mattress and kicked his upper arm.
He flinched and glanced down. “Aislyn? Aislyn, what the devil are you doing here? You…you’re fairy size. Are you mad?”
“Damn straight, I’m mad,” Aislyn spat. “Why didn’t you tell me about your office instead of lying to me? Did you think I’d toss you to the tabloid press? I thought we were friends.”
“We are friends.”
“We’re not,” she snapped. “Gary is my friend. Gill is my friend. You…you’re the Guardian.”
Seamus bent to snatch up the sheet over jerked it over his lap. He scrubbed a hand across his face. “Aislyn, keep still. I don’t want to squash you.” He rubbed a thumb over his silver armband and murmured an incantation.
Without warning, she grew to human size. She toppled off the edge of the bed and landed on the floor, scrambling to her feet. “I suppose you think that’s funny.”
“None of this is funny. How did you leave the colony? You’re wearing a security bracelet.” Seamus glanced down at her leg. The security bracelet glinted in the moonlight.
“I wanted to appeal my punishment with the Guardian. Seems like I’ve made a wasted trip.” She whirled and made it to the door before Seamus rose from the bed.
“Oh, no, you don’t,” he said, grasping her arm and jerking her to a halt.
Aislyn sneaked a look at his naked body. “Won’t Renee object to you wandering around naked in front of me?”
“We have to straighten out this mess.”
Her brows arched. “How? You’re the Guardian, and you’ve abused your position.” She folded her arms across her chest. “I think the tabloids will be very interested.”
Awareness shot to his cock. God, Seamus had missed her biting, teasing tongue. He wanted to grab her, to hold her and never let go. “Let me dress, and we’ll talk.”
“We’ll talk, or you’ll talk at me?”
Seamus searched for his jeans and found them in a heap on the floor. He yanked them on and zipped them up, watching Aislyn the entire time. The idea of her traveling from the colony and arriving in his bedroom, still fairy size, made him sick to his stomach. “Please, Aislyn. You’re here now. You might as well stay for a while. Please?”
“I’ll wait in the lounge,” she said. “Which way?”
“Down the passage, turn right at the end.”
Aislyn left, and Seamus scrambled to find a shirt.
He arrived in the lounge, out of breath, with no idea how to handle her. “The trip here was dangerous and foolhardy.”
She shot to her feet so quickly, her chair teetered off balance. “Punish me if you want, send me to the colony in Outer Mongolia—I don’t care. All I wanted was justice from the Guardian. Instead, I discover a tissue of lies.”
“It’s not like that.”
“Tell someone who cares,” she snapped. “You’ve lied to me from the start. I’m going to Gary’s flat.” She swept from the room, the set expression on her face daring him to stop her.
Seamus let her go. He sank onto his shabby armchair and held his head in his hands. Everything thing he said, everything he did concerning Aislyn misfired. Hell’s teeth, she was a stubborn wench.
And he loved her like crazy.
His feelings had grown stronger. How could he forget the woman who held his heart in her hands? How could he marry Renee when he loved another?
“Hell, what a mess,” he muttered.
It wouldn’t be long before his alarm went off. As he opened the cupboard to find the coffee, he made a mental note to courier a supply of pills for Aislyn to Gary’s flat. His magical spell to change her to human size wouldn’t last long.
The phone rang, jerking his mind off Aislyn.
Seamus’s mind diverted straight back to Aislyn. “Yes, Gary?”
“Aislyn’s here.” He sounded hesitant.
“I know.” And he had no idea what to do about the situation. She’d called him a liar.
“Can she stay with me?”
Seamus’s smile was wry. Aislyn had escaped from the colony without setting off any alarms. She’d managed once.
Seamus had no doubt she could repeat the feat. “Yes, that’s fine. I’ll send a package of pills to your flat today. I expect you to make sure she takes her pill each day.”
An exuberant cheer filtered down the line as he replaced the phone. A sense of loneliness assailed him without warning. Everything in his life was on schedule. His betrothal to Renee was official, and the board intended to organize a ball to celebrate the coming nuptials. Renee was charming, and both colonies approved of the match. The refilled coffers didn’t hurt either. So why did he feel the nagging sense of dissatisfaction?
He glanced out the window. The sky had lightened to a soft blue-black, and it wouldn’t be long until the sun rose. He checked his watch and decided to visit the colony. No doubt, someone had noted Aislyn’s disappearance.
Seamus stepped out the door and almost tripped over the small black cat crouching in the middle of his doormat. He cursed. The cat arched its back and hissed before retreating under the hedge. The creature blended with its hiding place, but a pair of yellow eyes glared out at him. Aislyn had risked death to visit the Guardian.
A twinge of guilt made him examine the real reasons he’d sent Aislyn back to the colony. Jealousy. Shoving aside the uncomfortable thoughts and soul-searching until later, he hurried down the garden path. The portal appeared the instant he spoke the Celtic incantation. He stepped through and strode along the road that led into the village.
At this early hour, the square was deserted. The owners of the deli where Aislyn used to work were setting tables ready for breakfast. He hesitated, then turned up Tui Lane and cut across to Pohutukawa Drive, a residential street. He strode up the narrow path of number five before he could change his mind and rapped on the bright yellow door.
“Renee. Can I come inside?” Her bright smile dredged up a wave of guilt.
She stepped aside and made a sweeping motion with her hand. “But of course, Seamus.”
Now he’d arrived he wasn’t sure what to say. More self-reproach washed over him. His hands clenched and unclenched as he considered her. Renee was beautiful with her glossy raven hair and her smart clothes. Despite the early hour, her mouth bore red lipstick, and she’d done something to her eyes to make them appear dark and lustrous. Renee was everything Aislyn wasn’t.
“Is something wrong, Seamus?”
Seamus started to speak, to deny anything wrong. “No, I—” He loved Aislyn. Seamus glanced at Renee again. He knew she was intelligent, she followed the rules, and she’d no desire to leave the colony. Renee was a fairy satisfied with her lot. A sigh escaped. “I’m in love with someone else,” he blurted.
A hushed silence fell upon the room. Renee stared at him, her mouth dropping open in an uncharacteristic loss of composure. “You don’t want to marry me?”
Seamus braced for tears, knowing they were inevitable. Somehow, he’d have to cope. “I’m sorry, Renee. It’s nothing you’ve done. It’s me.”
“You wish to wed someone else?” Her French accent was more pronounced than before.
His gaze dropped to his feet as he edged toward the door. One of his socks was red while the other was black. He glanced back at her, regret slicing deep. “Renee, I’m sorry. Really sorry. I’ll organize your trip back to—”
Renee launched herself at him. He flinched, prepared for her to strike out with her fists, or burst into a noisy tantrum.
“Excellent.” She hugged him so tightly he’d thought his ribs would crack. Finally, she loosened her hold and stood back to beam at him. “I am glad.”
Seamus frowned. “You don’t want to marry me either?”
“Is there another man?”
“No.” She paused, appearing to search for the right words. “I want to marry where my heart leads. I do not wish to go where my father orders.” As she spoke, her chin tilted upward. “I do not love you. I offend you, yes?”
“No, I’m not offended.” Seamus indicated she should sit. “What about your father?”
“Pah!” Renee exclaimed. “What my father does not know will not hurt him.”
Seamus took in the stubborn look on her face and felt a twinge of alarm. “I don’t want to give your father grounds to declare war on my colony.”
“If I remain with your colony, he will not declare war. My father received two offers for my hand—one from you and another from an English prince. He will renegotiate. He does not care who I marry.” She gave a Gaelic shrug, and Seamus read the hurt flickering across her face. “My mother will side with me should I wish to stay in New Zealand.
She was born in the Australian colony. Her parents immigrated when she was young.”
Before he’d arrived here, Seamus had envisaged a distraught Renee, a female wronged. This happy, smiling fairy was an enigma.
“Who do you love?”
He hesitated. No, he owed Renee the truth. “Aislyn O’Sullivan.”
Renee grinned. “Ah! The pretty copper-haired fairy, no? The one who makes Murphy gobble with alarm.”
Seamus nodded. Yes, Aislyn was pretty. She was also determined, brave, stubborn, and a credit to the fairy force. He realized he didn’t want to change her. “Renee, I need to go back to the human side. Will you talk to Murphy and cancel the ball?”
“I will take care of Murphy and the board,” she agreed. “You find Aislyn. Put your ring on her finger. Make your engagement official, no?”
What’s going to happen next? Come back next Monday to find out.