“Does this mean I won’t get breakfast?” Aislyn asked, unable to bear the suspense. A real date with Seamus, a memory to hold close and treasure once she returned to her humdrum existence in the colony. He wouldn’t withhold this treat. He couldn’t.
Gill stepped close and slid a comforting arm around her waist. “Don’t you worry, cupcake. If this grumpy lout refuses to buy you breakfast, I’ll take you.”
Seamus glowered, and Aislyn noticed with surprise, he shared his glare with Gill. She’d disobeyed orders. What had Gill done? Sure, the man made cryptic comments regarding mysteries and women, but the interview with Elsa had gone well.
“Thank you, Gill.” A peek at Seamus told her he intended to return her to the colony without the promised sightseeing trip. “Where do you suggest for breakfast?” she asked, fluttering her eyelashes at Gill.
Seamus scowled. “Do you have something in your eye?”
“Has this lout shown you any of the city?” Gill’s lips quivered as if he were suppressing laughter.
“Not yet,” Aislyn said. “We were going this morning. Unfortunately, I’m not here for long.”
“Where are you from?”
“Tipperary,” Seamus said. “If you cease the chit-chat, we can get going.”
Gill kept his arm around Aislyn’s waist as they ambled to the car. “Tipperary? In Ireland?”
“That’s what I said.” Seamus jerked open the car door for Aislyn and waited. He drummed his finger on the car roof. Bang. Bang. Bang.
She slid inside the vehicle.
“Tipperary,” Gill mused. “That’s a long way to go.”
“Hell’s teeth.” Seamus stomped around the front of the car and wrenched open the passenger door. The slam of the door punctuated his tetchiness.
Gill whistled and climbed into the driver’s seat. He turned to wink at Aislyn. “We’ll work on changing his mind.
I’m sure we can fit in a night on the town before you leave.”
“Sounds good,” Aislyn chirped.
“Over my dead body.”
Gill started the car. “That could be arranged.” He glanced at Aislyn. “How does breakfast at The Viaduct sound?”
“Near the harbor?” Aislyn had read of Auckland and the beautiful harbor.
“Ah, the voice of approval. The Viaduct, it is.”
Gill sped from the park. Aislyn spied more people this time. They scurried to work, and the children, wearing cute matching clothes, were heading to school. More cars. She concentrated, attempting to remember every detail. This visit to Auckland was a treat, and she wanted to make the most of her opportunity.
* * * * *
Appearances were deceptive.
Maximillan, for one, understood the cliché rang with truth. Each morning when he glanced in the mirror, he saw himself as others saw him—a man with the face of an angel. He chuckled and sauntered along the jetty to meet the incoming boat. The smooth tanned skin, the clear sparkling blue eyes, and the golden curls hid the soul of a depraved man.
The chug-chug of the launch distracted him from his musing. The captain had notified him of Sameth’s presence on board. Acute eagerness churned his gut, although, to outward appearances, he remained a calm, suave man in control of his destiny.
He spied his second-in-command standing at the bow of the boat and fought an uncharacteristic need to fidget. Had his idea borne fruit? Had his friends, his enemies taken the bait?
The churn of the engines slowed, and the skipper guided the launch alongside the jetty with precision. Two of the crew jumped ashore and fastened the mooring lines. Three minutes later, by Maximillan’s watch, the gangplank hit the dock with a metallic clank, and the passengers disembarked.
His second-in-command left the boat last. In her short, tight red skirt and fitted red jacket, Sameth strutted like a high-fashion model. The tall woman possessed a sharp brain along with Eurasian beauty.
“Maximillan, is something wrong?” she asked in her smooth, well-modulated tones.
He hid his impatience with difficulty. “Nothing at all. I worked in the office this morning and decided I needed fresh air.”
One dark brow arched. “Are you returning to the office? Would you prefer a verbal report now?”
He prolonged the anticipation to test his willpower. Waiting improved the soul, even his depraved one. His gaze followed the sleek curves of her body, and he experienced a lightning bolt of lust. The woman had class, but he thrust aside thoughts of physical gratification. Messing in his backyard was distasteful. Assistants of Sameth’s caliber were challenging to find.
“I thought I’d walk to the headland first and enjoy the fine weather before the forecast front brings rain.” Curiosity had him pondering his assistant’s family. Sameth was close-mouthed—useful for his business purposes—but it left a yawning gap in personal details. Perhaps she had a sister or a presentable cousin he could use for his sexual pleasure?
“Shall we meet in an hour?”
“Excellent. I look forward to your report.”
Sameth strolled with Maximillan along the length of the wooden jetty, the strap of her laptop bag hitched over one shoulder. Their shoes thudded on the wooden planks, marking their progress. At the end of the dock, they parted ways, Maximillan taking the right fork of the path and her to the left. She strode straight to the office, wanting to open the mail she’d collected at the post office box before Maximillan returned. More entries and she wanted to vet them in private.
She tapped on the heavy, steel-plated door and waited. The scrape of metal indicated the movement of the surveillance equipment. Another metallic clatter sounded before the door creaked open.
“Miss Sameth, I thought you were arriving later,” the butler said.
Sameth gave a natural smile of greeting. “I finished earlier than expected.”
“Would you like coffee?”
“Coffee sounds perfect. I’ll be in the office. Maximillan is joining me at eleven.”
Jansen nodded. “Very good, miss. I’ll see to refreshments.”
Jansen made the flesh at the back of her neck crawl. The man might appear benign. She knew better. While he bore the title of butler, his duties were many and varied. Put simply, the man did disposal work for Maximillan, both on the island and farther afield. Body disposal. She didn’t trust him but maintained a cordial working relationship with the man. No way did she want to appear on his future hit list.
In the office, she opened the mail and sorted the correspondence into piles. The number of acceptances would please Maximillan—twenty-five in total. Initially, they’d limited the competition to twenty. However, twenty-five was equally manageable and more profitable. A cool twelve and a half million to bolster the coffers plus the interest they’d earn.
Jansen arrived with a pot of coffee, a teapot, and a plate of her favorite chocolate-and-ginger biscotti. Maximillan walked in soon after.
“Excellent timing.” Sameth leaned back and crossed one leg over the other. The whisper of stockings was loud in the quiet business atmosphere. “I’ve finished with the mail.” She ignored the way both men followed the shift of her leg.
Jansen coughed and gestured at the teapot. “Shall I pour, sir?”
“Please, Jansen. How was your week, Sameth?”
Sameth accepted a cup of coffee, smiling her thanks. “Excellent. I’ve hired the new staff you requested. They’re due to arrive on the late afternoon launch. The upcoming recruitment drive should take care of the rest of our requirements.”
“That will be all, Jansen. Make sure we’re not disturbed.”
“Yes, sir.” Jansen backed from the office, pulling the door shut after him.
Sameth waited until Jansen’s footsteps faded. “We have twenty-five confirmed entries for the scavenger hunt. I’ve directed the funds to the trust account.”
A glow of satisfaction flickered across his angelic face, and Sameth consulted her notes to hide her distaste. “We’ve decided on fifteen items. I’ll take care of printing the lists this week.” She bent to extract a manila envelope from her briefcase.
Maximillan frowned. “Security?”
Sameth schooled her expression to neutral while inwardly, she cursed. Maximillan continued to question her every step of the way. Surely, after working with him for five years, he trusted her? “The printing will take place in-house. Your secretary understands discretion is essential. I pointed out the benefits to her health.”
Maximillan chuckled, his rusty cackle producing goosebumps on her arms. “Ah, clever girl.”
Sameth experienced little satisfaction even though he phrased the words as a compliment. Showing the secretary photos of a mutilated body and telling the woman her daughter could suffer the same fate if she blabbed a word of the scavenger hunt made Sameth realize she’d reached the ranks of the lowest. Witnessing the horror on the secretary’s face had confirmed she’d plummeted straight to hell.
After five years, Sameth had assumed immunity to the reactions of other people. Maximillan paid well, and money was a powerful incentive for a girl born into a poor family. There were alternatives, but spreading her legs bore no appeal. Still, the horror on the woman’s face left her feeling tainted.
Maximillan tapped the edge of the envelope she’d handed him. “I’m looking forward to the scavenger hunt.”
“The contestants arrive in two weeks. I’ve organized suites at the resort, and the contestants have received invitations to your cocktail party here at the house.”
“The competition should prove interesting.”
Sameth stared at Maximillan, registering the gloating in his smile. The man resembled a cat with a saucer of cream, which ratcheted up her worry.
“Indeed,” she replied, concealing her anxiety with the ease of practice.
Maximillan dropped a slice of lemon into his china teacup. “I’ll leave the details in your capable hands.” He handed her the envelope to lock inside the wall safe.
Sameth sighed, sensing the next month might make or break her position on the island. That was the trouble when you joined the bad guys.
Everyone had an agenda.
* * * * *
“It was great meeting you, Aislyn.” Gill enveloped her in a bear hug and gave her a big smacking kiss on the mouth.
“No doubt, I’ll see you again, since you’re staying with Seamus.”
“Not if I can help it,” Seamus muttered.
“We could have dinner one night,” she suggested.
Seamus took a firm grip on her forearm, dragging her away from Gill. “Aislyn, it’s late. We have that appointment. Remember?” He glared at his friend.
“I can take a hint.” Gill climbed into his car and waved before departing.
“Have you seen the time?” Seamus strode along the footpath leading around the rear of his house. “Someone’s bound to notice you’re missing.”
Lethargy made Aislyn wobble. He let her plop down to sit on the first step. “Apart from the costume hire place, I doubt anyone will care.”
Seamus dropped to the step beside her. “We’d better go back now. How are you feeling?”
“A bit tired, but we didn’t sleep last night.”
“You’re not dizzy?”
“Should I be?”
“Some recruits experience dizziness when they change size. The research team is working on a fix for the side effects.”
“I’m fine,” Aislyn said.
Didn’t she realize she was wobbling? She reminded him of a newborn foal with gangly legs and no balance. And she was slurring her words. Seamus curled his hands to fists, resisting his urge to gather her into his arms.
“You’d better cross your fingers because if one fairy sees us when we cross through the portal, we’re sunk.” Steeling himself, he reached for her hand and tugged her to her feet.
At first, she resisted until his greater strength prevailed. She moved with the speed of a cork popping from a champagne bottle, smacking into his chest and hitting his chin with her head.
“Ouch! What did you do that for?” Aislyn sent him a sullen glower.
Ignoring the inappropriate surge of lust, Seamus grabbed her black skirts to keep her upright and frog-marched her to the bottom of his garden. She staggered, her legs becoming increasingly uncoordinated. Her lost expression made him want to hold her and never let go. Mistake. He wished he’d never succumbed to her tears.
Muttering a curse, he scooped her off her feet. At first, he clutched her to his chest. Too tempting. He tossed her over his shoulder, dangling her like a sack of vegetables. He’d take her through the portal, escort her back to her flat and leave. Think of this as work.
Once through the portal, he set her down and activated the shrinking particles. Instead of walking back, he used his Guardian’s armband. He prayed the damn thing worked.
“Aislyn, are you awake?” He shook her. A series of tiny grunting snorts confirmed she was asleep. Probably for the best—he could drop her back and leave without messy recriminations. He picked her up, draping her over his shoulder again.
Seamus rubbed the blue stone embedded in his amulet. Nothing. Scowling, he jabbed the stone with his index finger. A sharp pop sounded in his ears, and a sense of weightlessness made him breathe a sharp sigh of relief. At last—something happening to plan. He’d pop in and out of Aislyn’s room, and no one would suspect a thing.
A flash of lights across his eyes warned Seamus of his impending arrival, and he flexed his knees, ready for landing. The bright blur coalesced into objects.
Seamus froze and clasped Aislyn more tightly, his eyes widening. Hell’s teeth. Desperately, he rubbed the blue stone in his amulet again. The bloody research department should quit watching old James Bond reruns and forget the whiz-bang gadgets.
Right now, he wanted to leave before Murphy and Moira realized their romantic rendezvous had become a cozy foursome.
A glance at Murphy’s pale white bottom had Seamus screwing his eyes shut. Way more than he needed to see. Seamus inhaled and stabbed the blue button again, picturing his destination in his mind.
Aislyn’s room. Aislyn’s room. The flurry of movement on the bed made him freeze.
“Who…what?” Moira stammered.
Seamus cursed under his breath. If there was ever a time, he needed the blasted thing to work. No time for an incantation. Work, dammit.
The familiar displacement made him release a breath. His knees braced. The world came into focus. Aislyn’s bedroom.
An untidy pile of textbooks propped up a three-legged dresser and yet more filled a bookcase to overflowing, some of them appearing ancient. The bed was unmade. Seamus set her down and smoothed the bed covers over her slumbering form.
“Keep safe, little mischief-maker,” he said, brushing her copper curls off her face.
One final glance over his shoulder was all he allowed himself before he departed.
Chapter 6 coming next Monday