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“Where have you been?” Aislyn spared a quick glance at her watch before turning the full spectrum of her glare on him. “You said six o’clock, and it’s almost seven. You promised to help me train, and I’ve seen you once since you agreed to help, for all of five minutes.”
The female was a shrew. After the week he’d experienced, he wasn’t in the mood for a bollocking. “Surely, you can train with the other applicants?”
Her pained grimace strained his temper.
“What have you done now? Turned someone into a rat? A frog? As a recruit, you need to practice doing things without magic. Can’t you do anything without stirring trouble?”
The lass inspected his pissed expression and backpedaled. “I’m sorry.” She gestured at the young males at the far end of the sports stadium. “The other applicants refuse to take me seriously. They won’t speak to me, let alone train with me. And I have resisted turning anyone else into a rat.”
Seamus tightened his jaw against the onslaught of a yawn. Bone-deep exhaustion weighed him down, bringing sluggish thoughts and an uncertain mood.
“I’m here now.” Unfortunately, one eyeful of Aislyn in her tight ice-blue tank top told him there was nothing amiss with his hormones.
“Bad day at work?”
“I can spare an hour, so we’d better get started. Tell me what you’ve done in the way of training during the last week.”
“I can ride a brumby now—mostly without taking a spill, so my reactions and balance have improved. I’ve memorized the rules and regulations for the theory section, and I’ve started my weapons training.” She wrinkled her nose when she mentioned weapons.
The sprinkling of freckles across the bridge of her nose reminded him of fine gold dust, and he fought the urge to brush his hand over her cheek to learn if her skin was as soft as it appeared.
Get a grip.
He gave himself a mental shake.
Remember your promise to your mother and the board. By the end of the year, he’d be married to a fairy from another territory, one with a sizable dowry. For the sake of the colony, he had to push aside this senseless attraction to Aislyn.
“Seamus? Are you listening?”
“Yeah.” Engulfed by her scent, he steeled against the burst of groin-jolting sensation. “What else have you done?”
“My shooting sucks, but I go to the range as often as I can afford. I will shoot the required number of targets. All I need is practice.”
Seamus’s gaze swept her lithe body, noting the smattering of bruises on her arms and legs, the colors ranging from brilliant purple to an ugly sulfurous yellow. If enthusiasm counted, she’d top the list of recruits. Unfortunately, passion wouldn’t help her through. She required all-round skills, including physical strength. Even making it through hell week wouldn’t guarantee her a place with the recruits.
“What about physical fitness? The fitness and stamina tests are the ones you’ll have problems with because of your size.”
Aislyn’s chin shot upward. “I can do this.”
“How, if you don’t train?”
She tossed her head, her copper curls bouncing to highlight both frustration and irritation. “I hate running and going to the gym. It’s boring.”
Seamus considered her carefully. If he pushed hard enough, would she relinquish her ambition to join the recruits? For her sake, he had to spell out everything and make her understand. Perhaps if he described the everyday frustrations the members of the force faced, she might change her mind. Those rose-tinted glasses of hers were blinding her to reality. Even if part of him cheered her efforts, she must understand how dangerous it was to leave the colony.
In Aislyn, he saw bright-eyed ambition, the idealism, and the love of life he used to possess. Lost and eroded by dealing with the murky underworld of criminals, board politics, and the fairy paparazzi. “Fairy force work is tedious. It bears little resemblance to action movies on the fairy network.”
“Don’t you think I know that? I can do this. I know I can.”
Too exhausted to argue, he gave way. He strode to the far end of the stadium. “We’ll start at the gym,” he said, nodding at a group of young males. The fairies greeted him and ignored her. A flurry of masculine mutters following them into the gym.
Humor burst to the surface, his mouth twisting in a wry grin. Aislyn might be petite, but she left a trail of chaos. She couldn’t help herself.
“We’ll concentrate on a full weights program supplemented by aerobics and cardio work,” he said. “You can work with a personal trainer when I’m not here.”
Aislyn skidded to a halt. “I can’t afford a personal trainer. Finding the shooting range fees is difficult enough.” She stared at her feet. “Still haven’t found another job.”
“Can’t your parents can help?”
Won’t help her, he surmised, unsurprised. It was a wonder Patrick O’Sullivan hadn’t contacted him already to spout outrage at Seamus’s involvement with Aislyn. “What about your brother, Duncan?”
“I can’t ask Duncan and Julie. Every penny they can spare goes into their new business.” Aislyn caught his sympathetic glance and glared. “I don’t need a personal trainer. Show me what to do, and I’ll do it.”
“After you.” He gestured at the weight machines and followed her. A mistake, he realized as his gaze zapped to her tanned legs and traveled higher, past her tight black shorts, to study the feminine sway of hips. He watched, mesmerized by the way Duncan’s sibling had matured into a stunning fairy. When he caught himself pondering her love life, he jerked his wayward thoughts to an appalled halt. He tried to conjure the image of the top contender on his first lady list and failed. Instead, he pictured Aislyn in another fairy’s arms and instantly wanted to hit someone.
“Which machine first?” she asked.
Ignoring the slide of pleasure brought on by her husky voice, Seamus chose the closest machine and demonstrated its use, determined to concentrate on the task at hand. The sooner he started, the quicker he could remove himself from her vicinity and the ever-present temptation. He loaded weights on the machine and reclined, showing her how to position her body.
“Lift this way.” He leveled his gaze at a cobweb on the ceiling. “Make sure you don’t jerk. Keep each move smooth and your breathing even. Remember to warm up first to avoid injury. I’m going in cold today since I’m showing you how to use the machines, and we’re short of time.”
“Looks easy enough.”
Her husky voice made him shudder. It was way too seductive for his tired mind to cope with today. He hoisted the weights. A sigh grabbed his attention. He glanced over and almost dropped the bar. Her admiring expression held a hint of hunger. He blinked and sneaked another fleeting glance. She peered innocently back.
“Can I have a turn?”
Seamus shook himself. Too many late nights working the case. He needed to rein in his imagination and sort out his betrothal to preserve his sanity.
“Sure.” The weights rattled as he set them in the rack. He sat up, making way for Aislyn on the narrow bench. She was so petite. Feminine. He could crush her with his two bare hands. The idea of her coming face-to-face with a criminal shoved shivers down his spine.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” He maintained a low voice so the males using the neighboring machines couldn’t eavesdrop.
“Lift weights?” Aislyn chuckled. “It looks boring, but I’ll do it along with the other fitness work required.” Her chin jutted upward in the characteristic gesture he was coming to recognize. “I will join the fairy force.”
Despite what everyone else thought. She didn’t care if she was out of step with every fairy inhabiting the colony.
Aislyn O’Sullivan marched to her own drummer.
* * * * *
Another day. More training.
Be careful what you wish for.
She’d wanted Seamus to train her because he was the best, but each session seemed more grueling than the previous. Sweat dripped down her forehead, stinging her eyes, making her skin itch. She swiped her face with her shirt, flashing her bare stomach, and not giving a damn.
Seamus scowled over his shoulder. “Pick up your feet. Move your butt!”
He, of course, moved freely and looked as fresh as this morning’s brown bread. She was a heavy lump of dough.
Aislyn shot a look of acute dislike at the back of his neck. She had feelings for this male? This tyrant. This bully.
She needed her head examined.
“Two more laps, thirty push-ups, and a warm-down. We’ll move to weapon training next.”
Aislyn’s breath wheezed in and out while her feet pounded the track. Fitness. Weapons. Theory plus the hundred and one other things Seamus considered necessary for her training. Some came naturally while others, like this fitness kick, were torture. Sheer-gritted determination and pride kept her running even though her body screamed to stop.
Up ahead, Seamus halted and dropped to the ground, the muscles in his shoulders and back bulging with each smooth push-up. Sweat shone on his bare skin.
The sun radiated sweltering heat, and Aislyn considered stripping off her shirt. She scanned the busy arena and couldn’t summon the energy to smile. A topless recruit. Now that would cause a sensation with everyone except Seamus.
With lungs puffing like bellows, she dropped to the ground and commenced push-ups, groaning with the exertion and effort it took to coordinate tired, straining muscles.
Seamus had agreed to train her, but she’d seen him three times. He was moody, short-tempered, and his abrasive orders tore her natural confidence to shreds. Only this morning, she’d joked of sexual frustration—his. A mistake on her part because Seamus decided on fitness training soon after. Aislyn wasn’t sure she wanted to continue with this tension between them.
“All done?” His mocking voice sounded from above.
Aislyn faltered before picking up the rhythm again. A familiar voice. She would have to show up now. Christel—voted Miss Fairy Princess last year, the beautiful fairy with long blonde hair and a stunning figure. The fairy with a trail of males panting after her.
Aislyn muttered a rude word under her breath, cursing fate. Christel wanted Seamus, and he wasn’t running in the opposite direction. So much for Aislyn’s ego.
Aislyn collapsed to the ground after her last push-up and crawled to her feet slower than a geriatric fairy with gout. She bit back a groan when Christel neared. Talk about contrasts. Her skin was sticky with sweat, and she suspected she smelled ripe too. No wonder Seamus preferred Christel. Miss Fairy Princess wrinkled her perfect nose when she halted beside Seamus, confirming Aislyn’s worst fears.
Christel leaned nearer and lowered her voice. “I’ll see you at the Witches and Goblin’s ball. Save a dance or two, hmmm?” She sidled close enough for her full breasts to slide across his chest and brushed a lingering kiss on his lips.
Aislyn clenched her fists and noted Seamus didn’t protest. For the brief second it took to control her surge of temper, she considered using a sneaky spell. She changed her mind on meeting Seamus’s knowing grin. Christel smirked, and Aislyn tempered her glare. She probably still looked as if she’d eaten a sour apple.
If the impossible happened and Seamus looked at her with romance in mind, she wanted—needed to know she’d won on her own merits.
* * * * *
John Watson was eating lunch at his country estate in England when the invitation arrived.
An abrupt noise, loud and sharp as a thunderclap, made him start. His head jerked up, and his aristocratic nose twitched like a fox sensing danger.
“Sorry, sir.” The flustered maid righted the dinner trolley she’d tripped on and smoothed her black skirt, her gaze darting around the cobblestone patio.
John set his knife and fork across the middle of his plate. His gaze flicked over the hovering maid. “What do you want?”
The maid flinched but held her ground. She remained silent, refusing to meet his gaze, inching closer and extending her hand—the one containing a pale blue envelope.
He made the maid stand, her hand outstretched while he wiped his mouth on a cream Irish linen napkin. He picked up a crystal glass containing chilled vintage chardonnay and sipped the wine while watching her through narrowed, assessing eyes.
“I haven’t seen you before. Are you new?” His words crackled through the air with shotgun quickness. He studied the attractive brunette and the way the sun caught the streaks of red in her hair.
She swallowed before saying in a quiet yet firm voice, “Yes, sir. I started yesterday.”
He took a perverse pleasure in making her wait, keeping her with an outstretched arm until her hand trembled.
Whether from nervousness or fatigue, John wasn’t certain, but he allowed himself a sliver of satisfaction.
He’d made his point.
Extending his hand, he accepted the envelope from her. “Next time, bring it on the silver tray.”
She sketched a brief curtsy. “Yes, sir.”
The maid turned to leave. John checked her departure with an upheld hand before turning his attention to the envelope.
It told him little.
A frisson of unease filtered through him. He hated surprises, and this innocuous blue envelope presented one.
He picked up his steak knife, slit the envelope open with one decisive cut, and extracted the fancy embossed card. With a faint frown, he read through the invitation. His frown metamorphosed to a delighted chuckle.
“A game!” He leaned back in his chair, a grin playing on his lips. “Oh, Maximillan, I accept with pleasure.”
The maid frowned. “Sir?”
“Send Morgan to me,” he ordered.
He watched the feminine sway of her hips beneath the black uniform skirt as she moved toward the house. Her high heels clicked on the tiles, signaling her departure. Cocking his head to one side, he thought of Natasha. She was exhibiting an annoying tendency to cling. She was also common, but this one…this one would bear watching. This new maid possessed an innate style he found pleasing, and she knew her place. John frowned and nodded. He’d need to do something about Natasha.
Soon. And meanwhile, a replacement waiting in the wings wouldn’t hurt.
“You wanted me, sir?”
“Ah, Morgan. We have a small challenge to amuse us.” He handed his brawny personal assistant the engraved invitation and waited while the man pulled out a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles.
Morgan’s blond brows rose as he read the invitation. “A worthy challenge, indeed. The stakes are high, sir.”
John allowed a gloating smile to distort his lips. “Look at the field. It’s small enough to be exclusive yet large enough to allow healthy competition.”
“You want me to accept on your behalf? Even though the invitation comes from Maximillan?”
“Yes, Morgan.” He chuckled. “I rather think I do. I can handle my darling stepbrother.”
“Very good, sir. I’ll see to it straight away. Will there be anything else?”
“Has the latest shipment arrived?”
“An hour ago, sir.”
John rubbed his hands together, almost gleefully. “And is the Little Spotted Kiwi settling into its new home?”
“The vet checked him over and released him into the nocturnal house. All seems well.”
“Good. Good. Maybe now we’ll have success with our breeding plan.” He pushed to his feet, dropping his napkin on top of the Royal Dalton plate. “Tell Tim to expect me later this afternoon. I want to check on the tiger cubs, but I’m eager to see our new arrival.”
Morgan nodded and turned to walk across the spacious tiled courtyard to his office. John watched his employee leave. A smile hovered on his lips as he wandered toward his rose gardens.
Lately, life had become humdrum. He sauntered between the rows of perfumed blooms. Maximillan’s invitation brought a hidden dare. Enough risk to add spice, but with his money and buying power he’d avoid any awkward entanglements with the law.
Money could buy anything.
He pursed his lips and halted in front of a Claude Monet, a mottled pink and cream rose, and his current favorite. The trick would be to manage his resources more efficiently than the other competitors.
He glanced at his scarred hands and reached up to finger the faint scar running the length of his face from his right eyebrow to his jaw.
It was an opportunity for revenge.
Chapter 3 coming next Monday