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“I rang Seamus. He knows you’re here.”
Aislyn glowered at Gary. “It’s none of his business. Or yours.”
“Don’t get snappy with me, miss.” Gary planted his hands on his hips and tossed her glare right back. His red curls glinted in the morning sunlight, clashing with his lime T-shirt and black-and-white check trousers. “Personally, I’m glad you’re back. This hair is driving me crazy. I want my braids.” He thrust his face right up to hers. “And I’m not giving you any peace until you put them back.”
Aislyn yanked a stool from under the breakfast bar and plunked her backside down. “I can only perform elementary magic because they slapped this security bracelet on my leg.”
“Take it off,” Gary snapped, “or else you’re moving back to the hostel instead of sharing with me. I noticed you changed your hair back quick enough.”
“I promise I’ll try to fix your hair. Tell me about the case. Have we heard from the Maximillan resort? Did either of us get a job?”
“Two letters turned up yesterday. They didn’t want me. Here’s your mail.” He passed her three envelopes. “I wouldn’t get too excited. Rumor says they didn’t hire many applicants.”
She ripped open the top envelope and scanned the contents. “I’m in!” she shrieked. “I got the job and start…” She read the bottom line of the letter. “Today. Gary, what’s the time? I need to catch the midday ferry to attend the orientation and familiarization afternoon. The letter says I should take my bags with me. Accommodation is at the staff hostel.”
“That’s great! We’ve been trying to get someone on the island for months. The midday ferry—damn, that doesn’t give us much time. You pack your bags, and I’ll contact the boss and Seamus.” Gary paused in the doorway. “Will Seamus stop you going? And what about your hair? It’s a different color from when you went to the interview.”
Not if he knows what’s good for him. “This is a coup,” she said. “I don’t think there’ll be problems with my hair. If anyone asks, I’ll say I dyed it. Do you have a hacksaw?”
The ferry pulled alongside the dock, and Aislyn disembarked with the rest of the passengers. Most were guests. A woman with a clipboard escorted them to a small open-sided bus while two men piled their luggage on a truck with the Maximillan resort logo painted on the side.
“New staff over here, please,” a crisp voice ordered.
Aislyn recognized Sameth from the recruitment day but didn’t recall any of the four women who crossed the jetty to join her.
“My name is Sameth. I’m Maximillan’s assistant, and over the next hour, I’ll take you through the familiarization process where we will sign confidentiality contracts, arrange accommodation, and job assignments. Questions?”
Aislyn had lots of questions, none suitable for Maximillan’s assistant. She would need to find the answers on her own.
“No questions?” Sameth scanned their faces, her dark gaze intense and disconcerting. “Good. Ladies, if you’d follow me, please?”
I want you to remember every little detail about the resort. The boss’s words flitted through her mind while they walked through the resort. During her previous visit, she’d seen the conference room, but now Sameth led them through a different part, down lushly carpeted corridors and past rest areas filled with green tropical plants. Large windows overlooked the sea.
“How many people does the resort cater for at one time?” Aislyn asked when they reached a small office tucked deep inside the bowels of the resort.
“Since we target the luxury end of the market, we take a maximum of thirty couples at once in the private bungalows. We have day-trippers from the mainland, but we regulate the numbers, so the visitors do not inconvenience our guests.”
Aislyn nodded. “But you hold conferences on the island.” Although she’d learned brief details during the recruitment drive, she wanted to confirm her facts.
“That’s correct.” Sameth sounded intrigued, and Aislyn prayed this was a good thing. The woman’s intent gaze made her worry she’d given herself away with her questions. “We hold at least one conference each week, sometimes two overlapping. The conference guests stay in the hotel part of the resort. Any further questions?” Sameth glanced at her clipboard and reached for a pile of papers. She handed one to each of the women. “Take a seat, ladies. We need to get through this quickly since I have a meeting in an hour.”
One hour later, Aislyn unlocked the door of her assigned room. Excitement and trepidation made her insides flutter. This spy business was both interesting and challenging. She was determined to do a professional job and prove a point to Seamus. This was the reason for joining the fairy force—to fight crime and make a difference.
After a quick exploration of her room—it was plain and held a single bed plus a set of scarred wooden drawers—she sauntered to the window. A distinct rustle under the bed made her freeze. Seconds later, something patted her ankle. She squeaked and backed rapidly away from the bed, her heart halfway up her throat. With a trembling hand, she yanked on the blinds. Light flooded the room, and she looked beneath the bed. A familiar cat hid in the far corner.
“Joe? How did you get here?” She coaxed him out of hiding and scooped the small black cat into her arms. He emitted a purr when she stroked his head. She set him on top of the bed and started to unpack, the animal’s presence making her feel less alone.
Maximillan strode backward and forward in front of Sameth’s desk, unusually agitated. Sameth guessed the cause but waited for his confirmation.
“John rang. He wants to meet.”
She sighed. “You must have known this was a possibility since you invited your brother to join the scavenger hunt.”
Maximillan dropped onto one of the chrome chairs. “I wanted to show off,” he admitted. “Show him I could run a successful enterprise. I didn’t expect him to accept my invitation.” He threw his hands in the air. “My stepbrother is practically a recluse. Ever since the accident…” He trailed off and stared at her wordlessly.
Ever since the accident, you caused. “The accident happened before you employed me.”
“Ah, yes. I forgot. It appears you’ve worked for me forever.”
Sameth studied the clipboard in front of her. Her boss was right to feel nervous. The noose was tightening around his neck even as they spoke. “Where are you meeting? You intend to meet him?”
Maximillan frowned and fingered the heavy gold ring on his left hand. “John says he’s collected the items on the list. I don’t see how since the competition hasn’t been going for long. He can’t finish this soon if he abides by the rules.”
“Max, you’re whining.”
“I never whine.”
Sameth shrugged. “What do you intend to do?”
“I’ll meet him at the prearranged checkpoint for competitors. I can hardly break the rules in my own competition.”
Exhilaration pounded through her. The plan was working, as John expected. She reached for a pen, determined not to falter at this stage. “Would you like me to go instead?” Her nerves jitterbugged while she waited for the answer to seal her future.
“Would you?” Maximillan asked. “No. No, I’ll go,” he said in a quick about-face. “I want a kakapo chick for my private collection.”
“Whatever you think best.” She picked up the clipboard. “Did you want to meet up with the new employees?”
His pensive expression retreated. “Any redheads in the group?”
On the second day of the job, Aislyn kneeled on her hands and knees and scrubbed a toilet in one of the private bungalows. She wasn’t surprised when Joe appeared behind her. “I don’t know how you manage it,” she scolded the cat. Aislyn had checked her room door was locked before she left to start her shift. She scratched the cat behind one ear.
“These people might have piles of money, but they’re slobs.” She clambered to her feet and winced at the flash of pain from protesting muscles. After listening for approaching guests, she searched the bathroom before moving to the bedroom.
She discovered a rugby jersey hidden in the depths of the walk-in wardrobe, and since it was from the Scottish football union, it was obviously part of the scavenger hunt list. Once her excitement calmed, she replaced the jersey and continued with her cleaning duties.
In the second bungalow, she found literature for upcoming stamp auctions strewn over the top of the coffee table. In the third bungalow, her search revealed airplane ticket stubs for flights to Brazil—not a frequent destination for the average tourist.
Aislyn paused in the middle of toilet scrubbing. “Yes?”
A man appeared at the end of the passage. “Hello, I’m Maximillan, the owner of the resort.” He sauntered closer and thrust out his hand in greeting. “You’re new, I understand.”
He was so pretty with his boyish face and golden hair Aislyn couldn’t help but stare, but the hedonistic lust in his blue eyes warned her to take care. She gestured at her pink rubber gloves with a smile. “I’m pleased to meet you, Mr. Maximillan.”
“Call me Maximillan.” His gaze wandered down her tunic top and trousers, the uniform provided by the resort for employees to wear. “I like to greet my new employees in person.”
So, this was the famous Maximillan—the man Gill and Seamus both hated. According to Seamus, the man dipped his fingers in every crime pie in the city. Aislyn didn’t like the way his gaze crawled up and down her body.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
The man smiled, and she acknowledged his charm. “Do you have a boyfriend?”
“Yes,” Aislyn lied. “We’re engaged,” she added. Dirty, old lecher! “You have a beautiful resort.”
“Thank you. It suits my needs.”
I bet it does. “I haven’t explored yet, but the parts I’ve seen so far are stunning.”
His smile widened into a wolfish smirk. Even without prior knowledge of the man, something in his assured manner made her wary.
“I can give you a personal tour if you like. And if you’re interested, I’ll show you my private residence. It’s a listed building. Reverend Rogers built the house during the 1800s. I have renovated, of course, but I’ve retained the character of the building.”
“It sounds fascinating.” Despite her need to investigate, the last thing she wanted was a personal tour.
“Shall we say on your day off? You can stay for dinner, can’t you?”
Aislyn took a deep breath, accepting he’d neatly trapped her. “That sounds lovely. I have only one day off this week, and it’s not worth catching the ferry home.”
“That’s settled then. I’ll contact you later in the week. Welcome to my resort, Aislyn. I’m sure you’ll enjoy your time here.”
Maximillan left. He knew her name, which meant he’d checked up on her, perhaps watched her at some stage. A warning shrieked inside her. Maximillan’s interest might make her situation difficult. On the other hand, he was offering her an open invitation to visit his estate. She could hardly refuse this opportunity, even if the man made her cringe.
The flat door opened at his thump, and Seamus pushed inside. “I’m here to see Aislyn.”
Gary shut the door after him. “She wants nothing to do with you.”
“She can tell me in person.” Seamus was in no mood for Gary’s shenanigans. He’d sorted out things with Renee, and now he wanted to fix things with Aislyn. He intended to ask her to marry him despite the fallout. His mother and the board could protest as much as they liked. He wouldn’t change his mind. The antique ring worn by Gallagher brides for centuries was a solid weight in his pocket. A unique ring, it absorbed the properties of the wearer. He imagined the stone would glow a fiery green, bright enough to dazzle everyone, just as Aislyn overwhelmed and continuously amazed him.
Gary folded his arms across his chest and leaned against the wall. “She’s not here.”
“Aislyn.” Seamus started with the kitchen and rapidly searched the rest of the rooms.
“I told you she wasn’t here.”
He grabbed Gary by the collar of his hot pink shirt and shook him. “Where is she?”
“I’m not telling you until you stop shaking me.”
Seamus scowled. Gill always said he excelled at intimidation, except his skill was failing him today. He loosened his hold on Gary’s shirt and stepped back.
“Look what you’ve done.” Gary smoothed his hands over the wrinkled fabric.
“I’ll buy you another one. Tell me where to find Aislyn. I need to talk to her.”
“I bought this shirt from Barkers. It’s not a cheap rip-off.”
Seamus snorted. The pink hurt his eyes. “I’ll purchase two shirts. Please, tell me.”
“Maximillan’s resort. She got a job. I didn’t.”
Fear whopped Seamus in the gut. “What about backup?” They’d found it impossible to place their people on the island. The boss would’ve grabbed the opportunity to put Aislyn on the workforce.
“She’s allowed to return to Auckland every second week. She has a cell phone for emergencies, and she calls every third night to talk to me. We’ve prearranged a code to prevent anyone eavesdropping from becoming suspicious.”
“Why didn’t someone tell me?”
“You’ve been busy at the colony. No doubt, the boss will tell you today. Gill and I kept it quiet.”
“In case Maximillan has someone inside the police force.” Seamus felt sick to his stomach. The dangers Aislyn faced alone on the island chilled him to the bone. What the hell would he do if something went wrong? Hell’s teeth, he loved Aislyn. He’d die if anything happened to her. “Thanks for telling me. I’d better go. Gill and I are checking out a lead.” He bolted for the door.
“Don’t forget my shirts,” Gary hollered after him. “I’ll have one shirt in peach and the other in lapis lazuli blue.”
The day before her scheduled time off, a note appeared under her door. Aislyn eyed it with misgiving. Although instinct shrieked to turn down Maximillan’s invitation, she couldn’t. There was too much at stake.
She ripped the envelope open and perused the contents. He wanted to spend tomorrow afternoon and evening with her. Joe jumped onto the bed and rubbed against her arm until she scratched him behind the ears.
“I hope I’m not making a mistake accepting this invitation,” she said. “Especially while my powers are AWOL.” Each day she attempted to use her magic and failed. Scowling, she stared at a jar of moisturizer sitting on the dresser.
The jar rose and hovered for two seconds before crashing to the surface and rolling onto the floor. “Better than yesterday, I suppose.”
She glanced at her watch. “What do you say to an evening stroll, Joe?”
Minutes later, she hurried down the beach path. The trail wound through the resort, past one of the swimming pools, and a stand of kauri trees before arriving at the jetty. The nippy breeze tugged at her hair. She zipped her jacket and thrust her hands in her pockets before turning right.
The farther from the resort she walked, the more care she needed to take. The sea air filled her lungs, the surge and retreat of the waves oddly restful.
A quiet hum of voices made her hesitate. She ducked behind a flax bush and waited anxiously. Two men strolled past without noticing her presence. She waited for several minutes before venturing out of hiding.
The path ended, leading down to the water. The beach comprised sand and broken shells that crunched underfoot. Not the ideal situation for someone who wanted to skulk.
With the resort in proximity to the protected island sanctuaries, she thought she’d discover nocturnal activity on this beach.
Clouds skittered across the face of the crescent moon, obliterating the scant light. Aislyn pulled out her torch. A foreign noise made her freeze. She strained her ears to identify the sound. A pebble kicked by a careless foot? She waited for agonizing minutes before deciding to proceed. Afraid to switch on her torch, she fumbled along the beach in the dark.
In the distance, the lights of one bungalow glittered. Officially named the Veronica bungalow, it was situated nearest to the sea. Aislyn had no idea why, but all the cottages had women’s names. As she neared the accommodation, she eased into the deep shadows thrown by a pohutukawa tree. She crept closer, intent on learning if the guests were inside.
The wind shifted, and low voices carried from the balcony above the lounge—a male and a female. When a third voice joined the discussion, disappointment surged through her. All the Veronica occupants accounted for. She slipped back the way she’d come when the rattle of pebbles occurred again.
She stilled, and when the noise subsided, she moved down the beach away from the resort. The moon appeared briefly and disappeared. She kicked something…a large log she discovered when she cautiously stretched out her hand.
Ow! Something stunk to high heavens. She wrinkled her nose and breathed through her mouth.
Without warning, the unidentified sound came again, carried on the wind. A knot of fear constricted her throat. Had someone heard her? She crouched low, unwilling to sprint for cover, and attract attention. At least her dark clothes wouldn’t be too noticeable. If she kept her face from the light, she might escape notice. A pebble dislodged, and the distinctive crunch of footsteps on the broken shells escalated her anxiety. Half of her wanted to flee, while the other half was too petrified to move. And she wanted an active part in the fairy force. The wry thought echoed through her mind and lent steel to her backbone.
People were counting on her.
She cocked her head, listening to the retreating noise. Her breath eased out with relief. Yes, she was positive. She stood and stole down the beach, away from the foreign stench and possible discovery.
The lights in Veronica bungalow winked out, and she hesitated in the total darkness. Then she heard a boat motor, the low throbbing of an engine carrying across the water. A man on a fishing trip would use lights to help him navigate and avoid another boat, but someone with something to hide might try a clandestine landing.
The boat moved away from her. Bother. She took two quick steps and stumbled. A startled cry escaped as she sprawled head-first on the sand. The air exploded from her lungs. She gasped for breath. Something furry rubbed against her face. Terror welled inside her. Damn, she wasn’t cut out the fairy force. Then she heard a familiar purr.
A second purr and the flick of a tail across her cheek made her giddy with relief.
“I thought you’d gone back to our room.” She sat up and gathered the black cat to her chest. “You’ve interrupted an important mission.” Once her tremors receded, she placed the cat on the ground and clambered to her feet. She needed to hurry if she wanted to witness the boat landing.
Aislyn increased her speed, grimacing at the noisy rattle of shells when Joe raced after her. Someone would hear, but his presence made her feel braver. She paused. Frustratingly, she couldn’t see or hear a thing. Perhaps she’d try again tomorrow. Make that the night after. Tomorrow she had a date with Maximillan. Disappointed and disheartened, she turned back in the resort’s direction.
The lights blinked in the distance. Aislyn frowned, surprised at how far she’d walked.
“Are you coming, Joe?”
The chug of a motor halted her on the spot. Surely, she couldn’t be so lucky? The splutter of the engine died. Voices carried from nearby. Two men, maybe three, strode toward her from the resort.
She hesitated, unsure whether she should wait or move toward the boat. The voices were louder, too close for comfort. She crouched, making her body small and unnoticeable in the dark. Soon, she made out the silhouettes of three men. Their faces were turned to the sea. She felt Joe brush her leg and stroked his fur while she waited. As the boat neared the shore, a single light flickered on. The boat coasted with the waves and finally ground to a stop in the sand. Two men jumped from the boat and hauled it clear of the water.
The men from the resort joined the boat occupants. Now what? She was too far away to eavesdrop on the discussion, and her frustration made her fidgety. The wind nipped at her face and hands, making her shiver. Finally, she sank onto the damp sand and thrust her hands in her jacket pockets to keep warm. Joe climbed on her lap while she waited.
“Now, what have we here?”
Aislyn stopped breathing. Her head turned to find a man right behind her.
Busted. She pushed Joe off her knee and jumped to her feet, dusting the sand off her ass with a loud slap. Then she opened her mouth in a wide exaggerated yawn. “What time is it?” Her groggy voice sounded perfect. “I went for a walk after dinner and sat for a while and enjoy the peace. I must have gone to sleep.”
The man snorted. “Good try. I don’t buy it. Hey, boss.” His voice traveled to the group standing near the boat. “We got ourselves an audience.”
“Only the one?”
“Far as I know. Johnson’s along the other end of the beach. I’ll check with him.” The man grasped her elbow and shoved her forward.
A torch clicked on, the beam shining in her face.
“Aislyn. I thought our meeting was for tomorrow. Did I get the day wrong?”
Rats, Maximillan. She’d done it now. “I told the other man, I decided to walk after dinner, sat for a while, and nodded off to sleep.”
Maximillan’s brows shot upward. “In this cold breeze, my dear? Hard to believe. Why don’t you tell me what you’re doing alone in the dark?”
Aislyn forced a frown to her face and sighed. “I know it’s against the rules, but my boyfriend said he’d try to come over to meet me. His friend has a boat.”
“Really, my dear. Would you like to try again?” Maximillan stepped close and brushed a curl off her face. Although the gesture was careful, gentle even, she shuddered inside, recoiling with horror. The fury in his eyes didn’t match his kind actions. “Unload the cargo and take the girl with you. Keep her on the boat until I direct otherwise. Lock her in my cabin.”
Maximillan stepped away, and another bigger man grabbed her forcibly by the arm. He dragged her down the beach, Aislyn struggling every step. She took a deep breath and screeched. “Help!”
“Really, my dear,” she heard Maximillan say. “Johnson, hit her if she screams again.”
She yanked from Johnson’s grip and glared up at the mountainous hulk. One glance at his detached expression told her he’d strike her, given provocation. She willed her body to relax and silently chanted a magical spell. Nothing happened. When Johnson took his gaze off her for an instant, she bolted.
Johnson gave a gruff shout. Adrenaline lent her feet wings, but the soft sand made speed difficult. If she failed to escape this time, she was in big trouble.
Footsteps thundered behind her, then the man tackled her, knocking her to the ground. The air collapsed from her lungs. She struggled, kicking and punching, but the massive brute overpowered her.
“Keep that up,” the man gritted out next to her ear, “and I’ll think you’re attracted to me, that you’re interested in a little bed sport.”
Aislyn froze, her skin crawling once she realized the full extent of the danger. She’d be alone with this hulk of a man and his partner on a boat. They could do anything to her, and without magic, she was powerless to stop them. Gary wouldn’t raise the alarm until after she missed the check-in tomorrow night. No one would miss her at the resort either since it was her day off.
Johnson jerked her to her feet. In the tussle for freedom, grains of sand had collected in her shirt and shoes.
“Move,” he snarled, giving her a shove in the middle of her back. “Dave, you ready?”
The moon peeked out from the cloud cover and shyly lit the night. Aislyn watched the second man exchange a few words to Maximillan and look at her.
“In the boat,” Johnson ordered, digging her in the ribs with his elbow.
Aislyn sent him a belligerent glare and climbed into the dinghy. The two men pushed the boat into the waves before leaping inside. Dave started the outboard motor, and they headed away from the island, navigating without lights. Ten minutes later, they arrived at a moored launch.
“Get up on the boat.”
Aislyn followed his instructions, knowing Johnson would force her if she disobeyed. Another shove in the middle of the back, and she’d end up in the water. And that would be a problem because she wasn’t a strong swimmer. Once she stood on deck, Johnson followed and caught the rope Dave tossed him. He tied up the dinghy and jerked his head at her, indicating she should go below the deck. Furious with herself, she stomped down the steps into the luxurious living area.
“In there,” Johnson ordered.
She stepped inside, and Johnson slammed the door shut. The key rattled when he twisted it in the lock.
The pitch-black cabin reinforced her dangerous position. No one would help her.
She was on her own.