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Something was wrong. Seamus sensed it in his gut. “Gary, has Aislyn checked in yet?”
“Well, hello to you, too,” Gary said. “No, I haven’t heard from her.”
Seamus paced around the kitchen table, pausing to pick up a magazine then tossing it aside. “She’s overdue for her check-in.”
“Not by much.”
“I have a bad feeling.” Despite several indigestion tablets, his gut burned. He’d tried magic to sense Aislyn, but the bloody amulet wasn’t working. “My amulet isn’t working again.”
Gary sniffed. “You keep putting me off when I ask you about sending it to France.”
Someone pounded on the front door, and Gary jumped up to answer the summons. He returned with Gill.
“Has Aislyn checked in yet?” Gill asked.
Seamus raked his hand through his hair. He hated this helpless feeling. “No, and I don’t like it. The boss shouldn’t have let her go.”
“We didn’t have a choice,” Gill said. “Aislyn will be fine if she keeps her head.”
The phone rang, and both Gary and Seamus sprang to answer. Gary beat him by a hairsbreadth. He picked it up, shaking his head to indicate it wasn’t Aislyn.
Gill nudged Seamus. “Why are you so bent out of shape? Last I heard you weren’t talking to each other.”
Seamus scowled. What if something had happened, and he’d left it too late to talk to Aislyn? His hands clenched, and he renewed his pacing. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“One of my friends,” Gary said. “Are you guys gonna wait for here until she calls? Do you want a pizza?”
“Is water wet?” Gill quipped. “What happened to your hair? I keep meaning to ask.”
“What?” Seamus stared at Gary’s hair. “I thought it was a wig.”
Gary tugged on a springy red lock. “No, it’s attached.”
“You’re saying…” Shock reverberated through Seamus. “Impossible. She would’ve told me.”
“Shall I order the pizza?” Gill asked. “Because I don’t know what the fuck you’re burbling about.”
“Use your cell phone,” Seamus snapped when Gill picked up the phone.
“Keep your shirt on. Gary, do you have the number for the pizza place?”
The pizza arrived, but the phone remained silent. Gill left at midnight.
Gary stared pointedly at him. “You should go home too. Aislyn won’t ring now. It’s too late. You know what it’s like working undercover. She’ll ring tomorrow night, for sure.”
Yeah, and that’s what worried him—the variables. “What about the mobile? Can’t we ring her?”
“And blow her cover,” Gary scoffed. “The staff phone is probably bugged. A cell phone is no safer. If we ring, we’ll draw attention to her. Cripes, if it were anyone else who’d missed check-in, you wouldn’t be worried.”
Yeah, right. This was Aislyn they were talking about.
Aislyn spent the rest of the night and the next day locked in the cabin. Johnson delivered food and let her use the facilities before escorting her back and locking her inside the cabin again. The boat never moved until the next evening. She watched through the portholes, unable to make out landmarks or lights from other vessels. She crawled into the large double berth in the early hours of the morning, when it became too cold for her vigil at the porthole. The sway of the boat lulled her to sleep, and the creak of the cabin door opening woke her.
“Breakfast.” Johnson marched into the cabin and placed the tray on a built-in dresser.
Aislyn leaped from the bed, dragging one hand through her tangled hair. “I need to use the restroom.”
“Don’t try anything funny, or I’ll toss you overboard and drop fish-bait in the water. Understand?”
The trip was a quick one, and after she stepped back inside the cabin, Johnson locked the door. She kneeled on the bed and pulled aside two blue velvet curtains to peer out the porthole. Vision was still limited. All she could see was the sea—endless miles of water.
Dejected, she slumped on the edge of the bed. Gary would start panicking. The boat rolled with the swell, and her stomach lurched. She stared at the tray, but in deference to her unsettled stomach didn’t eat.
Dizziness assailed her, and she closed her eyes. Losing sight made the giddiness worse, and she opened her eyes again. Colored spots danced in front of her eyes. Every muscle in her body tensed. Moaning softly, she curled into a ball and lay on the bed, shivering. Her nausea only subsided when she concentrated on Seamus.
Now that she’d had time to think about his confession, she understood why he hadn’t informed her of his Guardianship. But she didn’t know why he’d kept his betrothal secret. That was the part that hurt.
Aislyn sighed, made an experimental move, and found the queasiness had disappeared. She opened her eyes to stare at the ceiling and shrieked. Panic tore through her. Frantic gasps emerged from her throat, but she clapped her hand over her mouth. She didn’t want Johnson to investigate. Aislyn sat up and stared up at the cup on the breakfast tray, at her hands and feet.
Footsteps thundered outside the cabin, forcing her to explode into action. Johnson mustn’t find her like this. She muttered a magical incantation.
She tried again. Still, nothing happened.
“Bother!” She bounded to the end of the bed and used the bedclothes to clamber to the floor. She searched for a hiding place. All the furniture was built-in with no convenient gaps underneath for her to slide beneath. The key turned in the lock, and she leaped behind the door, the only available hiding place.
The door swung open with a protesting squeak. Johnson stepped into the cabin, but Aislyn didn’t wait around to witness his shock. She dropped to her belly and slithered underneath. Once outside the cabin, she sprinted to the wooden steps leading to the upper deck.
Johnson’s roar of alarm made her flinch. Her heart raced as she struggled to regain her breath and remain quiet.
Johnson raced from Maximillan’s cabin and searched the other cabins. Just as she’d hoped, once he’d conducted a search, he thumped up the stairs to hunt for her on the upper deck.
“Dave, the girl’s gone.”
“Didn’t you lock the door?”
“Did you check the portholes? Has she broken one?”
“No, I checked. I had to unlock the door to get into the room. I’ve searched everywhere.”
“Aw, man. You’re pulling my leg,” Dave said.
Aislyn huddled under the stairs trying to decide her next move. Escape. Swimming was out of the question, which meant she needed to get to the dinghy. Then she’d wait until they used the rowboat again. She cocked her head, attempting to listen to their conversation.
“Go on,” Johnson snapped. “I tell you, she’s not there.”
They thumped down the stairs and into Maximillan’s cabin. Aislyn dived from cover and clambered up the steps, arriving at the top exhausted and out of breath. No time to stop. Pounding footsteps raced from cabin to cabin, rocking the boat. She sprinted the length of the deck, holding her side when the stitch threatened to defeat her.
The dinghy. It was her only lifeline since they’d use it to land on the island.
She reached the stern to find the dinghy trailing behind the launch, attached by a stout rope. Her stomach turned when she saw the drop to the water. She hesitated, but the thud of boots helped her to decide in a hurry. If they caught her, she’d never live a normal life again. The threat of capture made her fear of falling in the water seem ludicrous, her decision easy.
Aislyn ran to the railing, where the rope held the dinghy fast. The approaching footsteps and voices raised in anger propelled her to speed. Gripping it with both hands and feet, she swung out over the water. Don’t look down. Do not look down.
A blur of red and white stripes flashed before her eyes. The man was close. If he looked to the right… Panic made her rush, despite the burn of her palms. Then she was over the edge and out of sight. She kept her hands and legs moving and hoped like heck neither of the men checked the dinghy.
Sweat dripped in her eyes. Each time she changed her handhold, she had to push her fingers into the rope strands. A jagged pain sprinted from her fingertips up her arm as she bent a fingernail back. She bit down hard on her bottom lip to stem her agonized cry. Tears clouded her vision, and for an instant, terror clogged her throat when she slipped and almost fell. Both shoulders screamed for relief, and her hands burned from the friction of the rope.
Her abused fingernail throbbed. Fiery hot agony throbbed the length of her body, screaming at her to give up—to release the line. Waves slapped the boat, splashing Aislyn. The line shook like a live beast. Droplets of icy water soaked her clothes.
Aislyn glanced down and shuddered with horror. If she let go, she’d drown. She had to continue. She was fairy force, dammit! If she fell to her death, Seamus would never give another female the chance to join the force.
Doggedly, she reached for another handhold and inched her body down the rope to the dinghy.
“The girl’s not here.”
“She can’t have vanished.” Johnson’s disgruntled voice sounded from above.
“You didn’t lock the door.”
“Of course, I did. I had to unlock the door to get into the cabin.” Fury and a trace of fear colored the man’s voice.
A swell hit the rowboat, kicking up a curl of white. Droplets of seawater splashed her square in the face. She spluttered and almost lost her grip on the rope.
The journey to the dinghy became a battle with the elements—a quick frenzied scramble in between waves.
When her feet clattered against boat, she sobbed with relief. Just a little farther. She fought the tremble of her arms, the furtive urge to give up. A tiny metallic rattle sounded when her legs and bottom hit the aluminum dinghy.
She released the rope and fell in an untidy sprawl against the solid surface.
A wave hit, water rushed over the edge, sweeping her across the dinghy bow like a piece of flotsam. She grabbed the nearest handhold. Her jaw clenched, and her shoulders shrieked at the strain but she clung like a limpet. The water subsided, and she half clambered, half fell into the body of the dinghy before another wave hit.
Her chest heaved, each muscle in her body screamed of abuse, but for now, she was safe.
“She’s not in the dinghy either. Damn, the woman can’t just disappear. I locked the door, I tell you.”
“You can tell Maximillan tonight when we meet him.”
The voices faded, still arguing. Aislyn slumped in a dry corner where she hoped to escape notice when the men used the dinghy.
Hours passed. Exhausted, she slept, waking in alarm when the boat tilted to one side. From her hiding place, she glimpsed a faded canvas shoe. She edged back until the wall of the aluminum dinghy pressed against her spine. A pulse roared in her ears. If they saw her…
She prayed the closing night would hide her until they reached the shore.
The engine started with a gruff roar. The dinghy lurched, the movement sending Aislyn flying. She grabbed for a handhold, saw the man’s striped T-shirt before she scuttled back into hiding.
Johnson stepped into the boat, his face sullen.
The journey to their meeting with Maximillan seemed endless. The swell tossed her from side to side and battered her against the hull of the dinghy. She bit back her cry of pain, tears filling her eyes.
“Over there,” Johnson grunted. “There’s the light.”
The dinghy changed direction. Waves continued to pound the hull. Aislyn closed her eyes and prayed they’d drag the dinghy ashore like last time they’d landed. She’d never survive the waves crashing to shore.
The noise the dinghy made as it scraped the sandy bottom brought more tears to her eyes. Solid ground.
Johnson jumped out, and Dave turned off the outboard engine before leaping out too. They hauled the boat onto dry sand.
“They’re over there,” Dave said. “Don’t forget, you tell Maximillan about the girl.”
“I’m not likely to forget with you harping on the subject.”
Aislyn counted to fifty then crept from hiding. She cocked her head, listening for voices but couldn’t hear anything except the waves. Ignoring her aching body, she hauled herself onto the rim of the dinghy and slid down the rope hanging over the side.
With her feet on solid ground, she stood, trying to decide which direction to hide. A gunshot echoed through the night. A shout followed, and a second gunshot.
Pounding feet raced toward her, and Aislyn scrambled for cover behind a nearby rock.
“Damn, did you see that?” Johnson spluttered. “The man’s crazy. He came out of nowhere and shot Maximillan point-blank.”
“I was there, dammit.” Dave manhandled the dinghy out to sea. “Give me a hand, will you? I want out of here before that fanatic comes after us.”
“Who was he?”
“Looked like Watson. Maximillan’s stepbrother.”
Johnson peered over his shoulder. “Shit.”
“We’re out of here.”
As the sound of the dinghy outboard receded, Aislyn stepped from behind her rock.
She’d heard the gunshots and the discussion between the two men. Watson had shot Maximillan? Was he dead or injured? And Maximillan and Watson were stepbrothers?
Wanting answers, she crept in the direction the men had come from. Then she needed to figure out where she was and how to get back to Auckland.
Voices guided her steps, and she crept as close as possible. A group of people stood next to two bodies on the ground. Neither moved.
“John, what are you going to do next?” a woman asked.
The cluster of people moved, and the light shone on the woman’s face. Sameth—Maximillan’s personal assistant.
Aislyn frowned at this new piece of the puzzle.
“I will play the bereaved brother to the hilt, my dear, and savor the feeling when I inherit all of Max’s beloved possessions.” He chuckled. “Ah, my dear, revenge is so sweet. And I owe it to you. A reward. Anything within my power—ask and it’s yours.”
“All I want is to marry Kyle and take two months off.”
Watson grinned. He turned to the tall, silent man at his side. “I can arrange that. Look me up when you get back.
There’ll be jobs for both of you.”
While Aislyn watched, the couple left.
“What will we do with the bodies, boss?”
Watson stared down his stepbrother, his expression dispassionate, cold. “Leave them for the birds to eat.”
As one, the rest of the men turned. Aislyn noticed the boat pulled up on the sand and cursed. With no time to get to the boat, all she could do was watch while the men departed, leaving her stranded.
The piercing cry of a gull jerked Aislyn from a deep sleep. The flap of wings and painful peck on the foot galvanized her to action. She sprang to her feet and ran, zigzagging to a small pile of rocks. The gull squawked, flapping after her, but panic lent her greater speed.
From beneath the rocks, she took stock. Her skin felt stretched and tight. Sunburn. A thud sounded, and the gull’s red legs strutted toward her. Hell, she needed a better hiding place.
After five long minutes, the gull gave up and took flight. She peeked from under the rock and scanned both beach and sky. No birds. No animals. No humans. She wriggled from her hiding place and raced to the undergrowth for shade and protection.
The mew from the bushes took her by surprise. She came to an abrupt halt on seeing two glowing orange eyes. A purr rumbled from within so loud the ground under her feet shook. Aislyn backed up rapidly. The eyes edged toward her as the animal stalked her. Terror froze her on the spot.
“Joe?” she croaked.
It was Joe, and he looked hungry.
The black cat stalked closer. With nowhere to hide, a quiver racked her body. All she could think of was Seamus and how much she loved him. Her last words to him had been hateful, angry ones. And it was too late to confess the truth now. How much she’d always loved him.
She hung her head, knowing her luck had run out. She was going to die.
Seamus was right.
She wasn’t smart enough to make it as a fairy force member.
Leaves rustled, and grass twigs snapped. Joe prowled closer. Fishy breath whooshed across her face, hot and fetid.
She held her breath, waiting for sharp teeth to rip into her flesh and waited.
When nothing happened, her head jerked up. Joe sat in front of her, and she could’ve sworn his feline face bore a smirk. Hope of survival surged through her only to die when Joe resumed his stalking. Soon his furry face and wet nose filled her vision. Her breath quickened, and she wiped her clammy palms down her legs.
Joe rubbed his nose against her, opened his mouth, and swiped his rough tongue over her face. Then he backed up, leaving her reeling in astonishment. Swallowing, she stared at the myriad colors sparkling around Joe. His feline features warped, twisting to a new shape.
“Yes!” he squeaked in a high voice. His fur changed to a smart red shirt and dazzling pair of lime green trousers.
A pointed hat appeared on top of his head, held in place by a pair of pointed ears.
Aislyn’s mouth dropped open. “You’re a gnome.”
“Of course, I’m a gnome,” he snapped.
“But you were a cat.”
“Old Lady Wickham put a spell on me.”
“Lady Wickham from Glenveagh?”
“That’s the one. Wanted me to pose nude while she painted, and when I refused, she bespelled me. I’ve waited twenty years for a fairy female to flout the rules and leave the colony. And now I’m free!” He spun about, clicking his heels together in a snappy jig of delight. “I’m free, and I’m going home!” Joe warbled, painfully out of tune, then he started to fade from view.
“Wait!” Aislyn shrieked in panic. “I helped you. Can’t you help me too?”
“Nope,” Joe said. “Maybe. I’ll think about it.”
Her hand darted out to grab his shirtsleeve and snatched empty air instead. Joe faded in front of her eyes, leaving her alone with no way of returning home.