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The Adventures of Aislyn O’Sullivan – Chapter 3

The Adventures of Aislyn O'Sullivan

Missed the previous chapters?

Chapter 1
Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Tonight was the night.

In three hours and—Aislyn checked her watch—seven minutes, the names of the successful recruits were due to be announced, the thirty candidates whittled to ten.

“Where are you going, miss?” Her father’s stern voice jerked her to a halt. Aislyn’s hand slid off the brass handle of the front door. She plastered an impassive expression on her features and turned to face him. Her mother stood behind her husband, her pale hands flashing in front of her, clasping and unclasping before settling out of sight beneath her frilly white apron.

“I’m going to the ball.”

“You’re making this clan a laughingstock, persisting with your unfeminine ways. Fairies snigger and talk behind my back when I go to the pub. I’m ashamed to admit you’re my daughter.”

“Patrick.” Her mother’s low voice quivered with stress.

Patrick spun to glare at his wife. “Stay out of this, Bridget. It’s your fault for encouraging her when she was younger. When she should’ve stayed home to practice the feminine arts, you let her go out with her brothers. You let her dress as a male—you and that scandalous sister of yours. I’ve had enough. Aislyn, you will marry Fergus McKenzie. It’s time for you to raise a family and help the colony numbers swell.”

Aislyn fought to restrain the angry, frustrated words trembling on the tip of her tongue. Fergus McKenzie was a slobbering idiot. The idea of being a brood-mare disgusted her. She remembered the pride in her father’s eyes when she was naught but a fairling, recalled the hugs and kisses.

When had things changed?

She’d tried to go along with her father’s wishes but living the same empty life as her mother made her want to scream. She needed more than sewing and a brood of fairlings to fulfill her, and she didn’t understand why wanting a different life was wrong.

Her father turned his wrath back on her, his robust and big-barreled body quivering with rage. “I forbid you to attend the ball.”

Shock roared through her. “You can’t.”

Patrick O’Sullivan folded beefy arms across his chest. “Go to your room. Formal betrothal negotiations begin tomorrow.”

“But Patrick—”

“Enough!” he roared, slashing one hand through the air to emphasize his point.

Aislyn stalked past her parents. She stomped up the wooden stairs, the hollow ring of the floor echoing her fury. It wasn’t fair. She didn’t have a fairy godmother, but she would attend the ball.

And she absolutely refused to marry Fergus.

Aislyn slammed her bedroom door. Muttering under her breath, she paced around her bed and the untidy dresser. Stepping over a pile of dirty clothes and a pile of old spell books, she crossed to the window and peered outside. A large oak grew a few feet from the house, its sturdy branches sparking an idea. Unfortunately, she couldn’t use magic because her father would sense the surge of power. He held supernatural knowledge when it came to his children and magic. Aislyn stalked to her bed and dropped onto the denim-blue quilt cover. Her eyes sought the alarm clock and urged it to speed.

Half an hour later, with the house quiet apart from the muted voices on the television in the lounge, Aislyn donned her witch outfit, slid the window open and crawled onto the roof. After wiping her moist hands on the front of her costume, she took a deep breath and leaped for the tree branch. Seconds later, she grinned up at her bedroom window. All right! The constant training made that easy.

Aware of the passage of time, she hurried away, her brisk steps taking her to the community hall near the village square.

She paused at the entrance, her stomach quivering with the nerves and expectation. Unconsciously, her hands clenched, and she winced at the flash of pain. Her scraped palms smarted after the encounter with the oak tree. She smiled because the battle scars were worth the nasty sting. Tomorrow, she’d worry about the fallout with her father.

The dramatic ending of a Gaelic reel drifted out to her as she hovered at the door. Even though a part of her wanted to run and hide, she forced the sniveling coward away, listening instead to the strong go-get-em fairy who occupied her mind most of the time. She drew a breath to settle her nerves and sauntered into the crowded ballroom.
Up on the stage, the latest string band sensation plucked their instruments while a blue-hair fairy, dressed in a gravity-defying red gown, crooned a sultry ballad. Aislyn gazed at the costumed dancers gliding past, listened to the jocular voices and tinkling feminine laughter.

All at once, loneliness assailed her, and longing seeped from her heart. She wanted what these fairies had—a sense of home and someone to come home to instead of parents who disapproved and friends and neighbors who sniggered behind her back because she dared to be different.

She had no sense of belonging. Perhaps she should fall in with her parents’ wishes, marry Fergus and apply her scant knowledge of sewing to produce pretty furnishings. A grimace compressed her lips.

No, she couldn’t cry defeat.

She refused to settle for second best.

There was only one male for her.

Seamus.

Across the crowded ballroom, Aislyn sought the man of her dreams. She found him dancing with Christel. A handsome goblin and a stunning white witch, they glided together in sync.

Aislyn glanced at her voluminous black witch’s gown and back at Christel, noting the glaring deficiencies in her costume. Seamus had filled every waking hour with training exercises. Hell week lived up to its reputation. Aislyn had sweated through the various mental and physical activities designed to test if she possessed the skills required of a fairy force recruit. By the time she’d recalled her need for a costume, only the wicked witch variety remained in the costume hire shop. Complete with stick-on warts and a hooked nose to fit over her own more pert model, she presented a striking picture. She grimaced again. Yeah, striking was the right word for her all-encompassing black skirts and neon orange warts.

Aislyn straightened her shoulders, stood tall despite her diminutive stature, and headed into the fray. She skirted the whirling dancers to join her brothers and their friends. Her father would learn of her attendance, but right now, the threat of punishment didn’t matter.

Her oldest brother, Duncan, recognized her first. “Hey, Aislyn. Looking good.”

Aislyn grinned good-naturedly and cuffed him on the shoulder. She caught another glimpse of Seamus and Christel and sighed.

Accept the inevitable.

Move onward.

The stubborn part of her psyche insisted on fanning the tiny grain of hope. Instead of worrying about Seamus, she needed to concentrate on the second part of her dream—to join the fairy force.

Seamus treated her as a baby sister. No matter how much she willed it otherwise, things never changed. Someone tapped her shoulder, and she whirled in alarm.

Steve, her brother’s friend, grinned at her. “Wanna dance?”

“Sure.” Aislyn stepped onto the dance floor, determined to enjoy the ball. At midnight, they’d announce the ten finalists, and she’d learn her fate. A tremor goose-stepped across her skin.

Foretelling things to come? She hoped not.

Aislyn danced with friends and chatted with acquaintances, filling the long minutes with activity. She even danced with Fergus and managed polite chitchat. As midnight neared, the jitters in her stomach intensified. The odds were against her, but she crossed her fingers beneath her voluminous black skirts, anyway.

“Aislyn?”

She whirled so fast the sparkling, purple punch slopped over the top of her goblet and splashed her skirts. Rat’s tails. She didn’t have money to spare for dry cleaning. Her chin shot upward, and she inserted attitude in her glare.

“Dance with me?”

Aislyn’s outrage popped like a burst balloon as Seamus removed the goblet from her trembling hand. He led her to the crowded dance floor and gathered her close. Two rats and a mouse! She wasn’t much of dancer and prayed she didn’t mangle his feet.

“I thought you’d want to dance the midnight dance with Christel,” she blurted, unsettled by his seductive scent. Part of her wanted to edge away while her more adventurous self shouted to stay put and enjoy his proximity.

His gray eyes twinkled, almost as if he could read her mind. “No.”

No? Exactly what did that mean? Her eyes narrowed at his enigmatic expression, then another thought bloomed. He belonged to the fairy force. Did he know the identities of the successful candidates?

“Watch out,” Seamus warned a fraction too late.

A couple doing an energetic salsa jolted Aislyn, knocking her against Seamus. Hard muscles flattened her softer curves, and warmth suffused her body from the tip of her nose to the end of her big toes. Immediately, she wanted to snuggle and nibble the soft skin below his jaw.

The idea weakened her knees. Good grief! He’d laugh at her reaction. She stiffened and attempted to pull away before his citrus aftershave swamped her senses, and she did something outrageously stupid, even for her. Her adventurous self had consumed way too much purple punch.

“Stay, Aislyn,” he said, pressing a soft kiss to the top of her head.

“Seamus?” Her pulse thundered, and she couldn’t prevent the quaver in her voice.

Before he replied, the music ceased, and a drum roll rippled through the expectant hush. Aislyn trembled. Seamus brushed a soft kiss on her lips. She stared up at him in stupefied surprise. Had he drunk punch too?

Aislyn was dimly aware of the fairy force commander starting his spiel.

Seamus had kissed her.

“Aislyn, we’ll talk later.”

Her brows puckered, and he chuckled.

“Later, sweetheart.”

Sweetheart? Her heart flip-flopped as he sheltered her from the crowd. Off-kilter, she leaned against his hard chest and attempted to make sense of the commander’s words.

“Without further ado, the trainees for this year are…”

Aislyn’s breath caught, and she tensed, even more, when Seamus gripped her shoulders. All the training, all the hard work and it came to this announcement. She counted off the names as the commander announced them. Five, six, seven…

Loud cheers broke out from different parts of the ballroom as the successful trainees ran up to receive their wings. The beaming recruits stood on stage beside the commander. The recruits greeted each arrival with an enthusiastic pounding on the back.

Two more names to go. She swallowed to dislodge the lump of tension in her throat. Two more. She still had a chance.

“…Cameron Cassidy, Sean Riley.”

A roaring sound rushed through her head. Her body slumped.

She hadn’t made the cut.

She’d failed.

Aislyn bit her lip, fighting waves of nausea sweeping her belly. What should she do now? She hadn’t envisaged failure. Not once. She’d focused her determination and energy on achieving this one goal. She stared at the ten males standing beside the commander, their ceremonial wings shining under the lights, broad smiles of triumph on their faces. Acute envy sliced through her, piercing and painful.

Her hopes, her dreams felled in one swoop.

“Seamus,” the commander’s voice boomed over the loud applause and excited chatter. “Are you ready?”

Around them, fairies turned to stare. Aislyn heard their whispers and cringed under the weight of embarrassment.

Her chin lifted, and a masculine chuckle sounded right before Seamus whispered in her ear, “Wait there. Don’t dare move.”

Disconcerted, she froze. Seamus squeezed her shoulders for a second time and strode toward the stage. Numb, she inched to the door, determined to leave before her emotions spilled free. Already, pressure built behind her eyes.
She could count the number of fairies who’d offered encouragement on one hand. Most were aghast at her cheek. Questioning the rules wasn’t right. The debate had waged on the local talkback radio for weeks, ever since she’d announced her application. The letters to the newspaper editor lambasting her impudence for challenging the rules created great discussions over the breakfast table and morning coffee.

“Good evening, fairies,” Seamus said, his pleasing baritone finding each corner of the room. “Is everyone having a good time?”

“Yes!” the crowd roared.

Aislyn crept closer to the exit, craving privacy to lick her wounds.

 

Up on the stage, Seamus laughed. “I have a quick announcement before the band starts again.”

“Well, get on with it, man!” one of Aislyn’s brothers hollered.

Seamus grinned, pausing for the laughter to subside. From the corner of his eye, he watched Aislyn. She’d edged to the door. He wished, for once, the female would follow orders. A glance at her wart-covered face told of her bitter disappointment. He wished he could tell her how close she’d come to success, but they never disclosed the final scores.

“Okay, I’ll make this brief,” he said.

“Brief is good,” someone shouted.

Aislyn was almost out the door. He’d never get out his congratulatory speech before her departure. Drastic action required. “Aislyn O’Sullivan, I told you not to move. Stop right there.” She froze like an animal under a bright light. “Don’t let her move,” he said over the microphone to the people standing in her vicinity. The outrage cutting into her features made his lips twitch. “Now, where was I?”

“Being brief!” his heckler shouted.

Seamus allowed a grin before he began his speech, congratulating the successful recruits. “So there you have it, fairies. I give you the ten successful candidates. Trainees—choose your partners.”

The beaming trainees stepped from the podium. The music started with a flourish, the beginning notes of a ballad rippling from the singer’s throat as the trainees grabbed their partners of choice for the supper waltz. Seamus searched for Aislyn and couldn’t see her. He headed toward her brothers. They’d know where she’d gone.

“Where’s Aislyn?” he asked.

“She was here a minute ago,” Duncan said. “Why did you want her?”

Seamus paused. Not a topic he cared to share, even if Duncan was his best friend in the colony. He should’ve kept his mouth shut. Seamus cleared his throat. “I wanted to offer her a job,” he said in sudden inspiration.

“What sort of job?” A trace of suspicion colored Duncan’s voice.

Duncan’s wife, Julie, speared him with a militant look. “Why did you embarrass Aislyn in front of everyone? Hasn’t she suffered enough public humiliation without you drawing attention to her tonight?”

The couple glared at him, united in their displeasure. Seamus remained silent. He couldn’t have explained his feelings for Aislyn if he tried. “I tried to help Aislyn. I told her the odds were against success. I know she’s unhappy here in the colony, that she’s having a tough time finding a job. I wanted to help.” As Seamus stopped speaking, he noticed the way Duncan held Julie to his side, protective yet proud. The facts clicked, now making sense. “You’re pregnant.”

Duncan grinned, and pride and love radiated from him. “To be sure, we are indeed pregnant.”

His wife cuffed him over the shoulder. “Quiet.” She turned to Seamus. “We have told no one yet.”

“But this is marvelous! There hasn’t been a fairling born in the colony for going on six years. This is cause for celebration.”

“I’m not past the danger time for miscarriage yet.” At Seamus’s dismay, she hurried to reassure. “I’m fit as a horse. Duncan and I want to make sure everything is okay before we announce the pregnancy. Besides, I’m not ready for the cotton wool treatment. Everyone will behave as if I’m a prize cow at the Glenveagh agricultural show. I remember the Geraghty fairy when she announced her pregnancy. Frankly, I’m not surprised the poor thing miscarried, and I don’t want the paparazzi camped on my doorstep, thank you very much.”

“Julie is right to worry, which is why we’re heading for the beach colony early next week. I’ve applied for a month off, and by the time we return, Julie will be four months along,” Duncan said. “We’re taking the honeymoon we didn’t have time for when we first married.”

The couple’s exchange of smiles made Seamus uncomfortable. He studied Julie in light of the new knowledge, searching her face for signs of illness. Instead, her face sparkled with vitality. Julie was right. She looked as fit as a racehorse in training. Now, if only she carried the fairling full term the colony would have a chance of survival.

The colony spent a fortune researching the low birth rates. Scientists spouted about global warming, the sad fact that fairy woman attracted cats, stoats, and weasels. Few lived through the attacks. The human population faced the same problem with their native birds, and, so far, neither humans nor fairies had found a suitable deterrent.

Seamus imagined Aislyn out loose in the human world and shuddered. Cat food in the first five minutes. “Is this the new business you’re telling the family about?”

“We had to tell them something,” Duncan said.

Seamus reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a small pager. “Take this.” He pressed the pager into Julie’s hand. “Call me if you have a problem. Day or night.”

Duncan pulled him into a bear hug. “Thanks. Your support means a lot to both of us.”

Julie kissed him on the cheek. She searched his face in the scant light and gave a slight nod. “Aislyn has probably gone for a walk by the river. It’s where she goes to think. You shouldn’t have trouble locating her.”

Seamus nodded. “Call me. I want weekly reports.” With a wave, he ambled from the ballroom, not wanting to attract undue attention. Once he rounded the corner, he jogged to the river. Aislyn better not do anything stupid. He ran faster. Given her current mood, he wouldn’t put anything past her.

As he approached the river, the rush and thunder of the water as it poured over the falls grew in intensity. During the day, mist and spray rose from the water, but right now, he had difficulty seeing farther than a foot either side of the path.

She wouldn’t do anything dumb, would she? Seamus recalled the disappointment on her face.

“Aislyn!” His holler echoed, bouncing back at him, her name repeating three times before silence fell. Impatience rippled to life. He’d told her to wait. “Aislyn!” This time the echo rang with annoyance.

“I’m over here.” The faint voice stopped him dead in his tracks.

“Where?”

“Over here.”

A faint shimmer to his right caught his attention. When he squinted, the gleam formed into an object of substance. Aislyn stepped onto a spot of the moonlit path. “You blend in that stupid outfit,” he snapped, his temper surging now he’d found her unharmed. “Why didn’t you wait?”

“So, you could make an even bigger fool of me?”

“I intended to offer you a job.” Seamus paused after repeating his excuse. A job was a good cover for his temporary lapse of sanity. A task to keep her occupied and out of mischief.

“What type of job?” Aislyn asked, turning to face him for the first time.

His heart twisted at the tear tracks gleaming on her cheeks. “Ah, Aislyn.”

“Don’t feel sorry for me. I’m not a charity case.” She prickled up like an agitated hedgehog and flounced to a fallen log. “Do you have a job for me, or are you trying to make up for my failure?”

He’d thought it before and, no doubt, he’d think it again. The female was a shrew. For an instant, he wondered why he bothered, then she stretched, and his hormones jogged his memory, tightening his body in places that had no business reacting. He counted slowly to ten. So the girl owned one or two less than sterling qualities.

“I have a job.” Seamus thought on his feet. “I’m working on a case at present. We’re short-staffed and need help. It’s not exciting, but you’d be helping on a real case.” The more he explained, the better he considered his off-the-cuff idea. A brainwave, the job fixed several problems at once.

Aislyn rose from the log and stepped toward him, her face shining with eagerness. “You mean to let me help work on your case?”

Seamus nodded and lurched back under Aislyn’s weight when she threw herself at him. The armful of quivering female almost did him in. He registered her softness and curves and smelled her delicate scent—not the floral fragrance associated with most of the women of his acquaintance, but apricots.

“When can we leave the colony?” she asked. “Tomorrow? I’m so excited I could burst.” Without warning, she tore from his light grasp and whirled in circles, her copper curls flying while she danced with sheer delight. “Wait until I tell everyone. They’ll soon stop their malicious whispers.”

Leave the colony? God’s balls! What had he done? Seamus grabbed her arm. “Aislyn, wait. You can’t leave the colony.”

She stopped dead. “But you said…” She trailed off, staring at him. Her blue eyes reminded him of a whipped puppy.

“You said I’d help with your case,” she whispered.

The melancholy tone made him cringe. Aislyn’s bottom lip wobbled. Please don’t cry again. He wanted to help but could only do so much. His hands were tied.

Of course, she didn’t know he was Guardian or the constraints he labored under. Few fairies knew, and he liked it that way. The paparazzi tagged after him now whenever he appeared in the colony in his fairy force liaison capacity. If they discovered his Guardian duties, they’d make his life a living hell. The last thing he wanted was to relive the misery of his fairling years.

“I meant here, Aislyn. The work would come to you. I never said you’d leave the colony.”

Aislyn jerked from his touch and hurried away from Glenveagh, heading toward his house.

“Aislyn, you can’t go much further. Talk to me. Or better yet, return to the village and sleep on it. I’m serious about the job.” Guilt and alarm sharpened his voice.

 

The hard knot of disappointment inside Aislyn snapped, and her temper ignited. Talk to me, Aislyn. Return to town, Aislyn. You can’t join the fairy force, Aislyn. You’re a female, Aislyn. They don’t leave the colony.

Didn’t the fairies around here get the plot? Yes, she was a fairy. Yes, she was a female, but she had a brain too.
Her legs pumped harder, faster. She clenched her jaw and seethed at the injustice. It wasn’t her fault she’d been born a female. Heck, given a choice she’d have picked male. Males got to do everything. What was so bad in the human world? Cats? Hogwash! As far as Aislyn was concerned, cats were an excuse. She’d never seen one, for goodness sake. Not even a picture. The board of directors had banned photos in case some dim-witted fairy performed a magic spell and brought one to life. As if! Everyone talked about cats. The scientists were always trying out new potions and pills to deter the furry beasts. Yet, she’d take a bet most colony inhabitants wouldn’t recognize a cat if it sat next to them.

“Aislyn, stop!” Seamus grabbed her elbow, jerking her to a halt. “You’ll set off the alarms.”

“I don’t care.” She snapped her fingers in his face. “I don’t give a rat for your stupid rules and regulations.”

Seamus’s hands slid up her arms to curve around her shoulders, holding her in place while he glowered at her. “The rules are there for a reason. They keep us safe and help the colony survive. I know you’re disappointed not to make the recruits, but my job offer is serious. Will you reconsider?”

Dispirited, she considered the long days stretching ahead in her future. Her father disapproved of everything she did and, after tonight, she’d have to find a place and move out. Her savings account contained two pieces of gold, and if she didn’t find a job soon, she’d have to apologize to her father and admit her failure.

She brushed away a tear. “I’ll take the job.”

At least the work was related to the human world. Too bad it was the closest she’d come to traveling and exploring the countries outside the colony. “Thank you for thinking of me,” she added politely, knowing Seamus was trying to help.

“Good.” His touch gentled, and belatedly Aislyn realized how near they stood.

Her heart lurched. Her face heated.

“Come on. We’ll celebrate your new job.” He grabbed one of her hands and tugged her down the leaf-strewn path. Trailing green ferns brushed her skirts as she hastened to keep up with him.

Finally, she noticed they were still heading away from the colony. “Where are we going?” She dug in her heels, coming to an abrupt halt. “Seamus, stop! We can’t go any farther. It’s against the rules.”

He grinned, a devil-may-care grin that turned her insides to mush. “The rules don’t apply to fairy force members.”

Aislyn flinched. Did he have to rub it in? “I’m nothing to do with the fairy force,” she said, her tone dignified and designed to hide every scrap of the hurt hurtling around inside her.

Seamus chuckled. “I’m a member of the fairy force. Last time I looked, I still had my wings. Since you’ve accepted my offer of employment, we can make exceptions this once.”

Aislyn’s mouth rounded to a perfect O. A croak emerged when she tried to speak. Swallowing, she tried again. “Do you mean what I think you mean? You’re escorting me from the colony?”

His smile widened. “I am.” He held out his hand. “If you want to come.”

Was the male crazy? Yes, she wanted to explore outside the colony. Aislyn accepted his hand, and frissons of awareness sprinted up her arm from the point of contact. “Where will we go? What will we see?”

“I thought we’d visit the man at the top of the garden.”

“But…but…” Heat suffused her cheeks, a hue that, no doubt, clashed with the orange warts on her face. “Seamus,” she said in an agony of embarrassment. She’d admitted to spying on the man, but only because he reminded her of Seamus. It was Seamus she loved. The mystery man—well, sometimes Aislyn couldn’t help herself. She had to break out and defy the colony rules. It wasn’t as if her transgressions were enormous, world-altering ones.

She chewed on her bottom lip as rebel debated with sensible. Sensible won the race by a head.

“Wait,” she blurted, yanking at his hand. Breaking petty rules was one thing. Banishment from the colony was another matter entirely.

Chapter 4 coming next week.

The Adventures of Aislyn O’Sullivan – Chapter 2

The Adventures of Aislyn O'Sullivan

Missed the previous chapter?
Read Chapter 1 here.

Chapter 2

“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?”

“No.”

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.

“Yoo-hoo, Seamus!”

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.

No spells.

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.

“Yes, sir.”

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

The Adventures of Aislyn O’Sullivan – Chapter 1

The Adventures of Aislyn O'Sullivan

Chapter One

Duty called.

Seamus Gallagher’s eyes shot open as the sharp instinct settled in his gut. He wrestled his battered body from tangled sheets and crawled out of bed. One glimpse in the mirror elicited a grunt. He’d felt better, but instinct gnawed at him, urging him to speed.

The human side or the fairy colony?

Concentration—heck, any rapid movement—set off pounding vibrations inside his head.

Was it time for Hone’s report, or had Aislyn O’Sullivan pulled another prank and upset the colony board of directors?

Closing his eyes gave the drummer permission to perform a solo complete with a laser-light extravaganza. Next time he’d think twice about a night on the town with Gill.

Biting back a groan, he groped for his cell phone.

No messages.

That decided the matter.

This wasn’t police business.

His guardian duties on the fairy side required attention.

Through bleary eyes, he checked his wristwatch. If he hustled, he’d have time to visit the colony before meeting his partner, Gill, at the Auckland Central police station.

He meandered out his back door into the wild jungle he called a garden. The fresh air revived him, and he charged down a narrow pathway leading into the tangle of overgrown ferns, trees, and shrubs. The gravel crunched beneath his boots as he skirted the puddles created by last night’s rainstorm. Already, the sun shone brightly, and steam drifted off the mounds of fallen leaves beside the path.

When he neared the portal, caution had him pausing. A glance over his shoulder reassured him he was alone, apart from the chatty fantail flitting through the treetops.

Seamus muttered an incantation in the old Celtic language from Mother Ireland. In the emptiness before him, a shimmering portal formed—the doorway to Glenveagh, the fairy village beyond.

Hell’s teeth, his eyes hurt when he focused on the damn thing.

Seamus fumbled in his pocket for sunglasses and slapped them on as he stepped through the fiery blue-white light. Melodic Gaelic tripped off his tongue, interspersed with heartfelt groans. While displacement was standard, nausea and starbursts of white-hot pain through his body were not. Seamus clapped his hand over his forehead and gritted his teeth as he shrank to the size of a Jim Beam bottle.

God’s balls, alcohol was the devil. Deep breaths. In. Out. Gradually his insides realigned, and, feeling marginally better, he clicked his fingers in a rapid staccato code. Seconds later, the portal vanished.

Seamus followed the winding path leading to Glenveagh. The forest gave way to meadows edged by fuchsia hedgerows. Cottages studded the landscape, growing denser when he neared the village proper. He strode down the cobblestone road into the business center. In the square, young fairlings played tag, racing about with shrieks of laughter. Seamus halted to avoid a collision with a blond youngster intent on escape.

A few feet away, fairy women gossiped while examining potatoes and squeezing melons at Marion’s market stall. Seamus smothered a grin because Marion stood poised to pounce. They’d better watch out since she’d attacked customers caught fondling her produce.

At the far end of the square, a group of males huddled in vehement discussion. A spurt of curiosity snared him and, while he pondered possibilities, every shop and civic building in the square altered color. The pristine whitewash walls changed to a sunny buttercup yellow. Voices rose in a heated debate. Seconds later, the yellow buildings transformed into an eye-popping hot pink that made him glad of his sunglasses.

He suppressed a smirk at the cry of outrage. Ever since the O’Brien clan had returned from Ireland, marveling at the colored cottages, the idea of beautification and the resulting squabbles had spread like a smallpox epidemic. The board would face a fight if they wanted to stick with dull white buildings.

Seamus checked the familiar faces in the square, searching for Aislyn. He’d promised her brother he’d monitor her, so he was…

Hell’s teeth! Who was he trying to kid? His entire body hummed with the urgent need to see her—a mistake since she spelled trouble.

With limited time available, he rubbed the Guardian’s silver amulet circling his right biceps and summoned Aislyn’s likeness to his mind. Almost instantly, he materialized on the far side of the village near the stockyards. Rory was talking to someone inside the chute. A frantic neigh rent the air. Timber creaked. Clouds of dust rose from the chute.

Seamus scanned the arena and frowned. Aislyn wasn’t here. The amulet had failed. Again. Gary, his assistant, kept telling him to send it to the French colony for repair.

It was for the best, anyway.

Aislyn unsettled him.

She made him crave the impossible.

A cynical snort escaped. Two hundred years ago, after a war of magical proportions decimated the fairy colonies, the clans signed a treaty. There would be no magic for financial gain. The clans could no longer manufacture riches with magic. Each territory must earn their way with trade. He sighed.

His path was set.

The New Zealand colony’s finances were a mess. The Guardian must marry money and, since he was it, that made him the official sacrifice—the chump marrying for money.

The first obstacle.

Then there was good old Dad and his shenanigans. The jet-setting lifestyle his father had maintained during his term of Guardianship had sucked the colony dry. The cat attacks and the six fairy deaths on the Northern boundary were a direct result of his father’s skimping on security to fuel his entertainment fund. Obligation compelled Seamus to make restitution for his father’s sins.

Face it, Aislyn’s an unattainable dream.

And he was a bloody fool since the Guardian role belonged to him, whether he wanted it or not.

Loyalty and promises.

Responsibility.

Duty.

No matter what, the colony came first in his life—before any physical attraction to a woman.

Seamus was the only one with experience on the human side, familiarity the colony needed to survive into the next century.

Yeah, duty and responsibility sucked.

Pushing aside his futile yearnings, Seamus stepped up to the wooden railings, slid off his sunglasses, and settled in to watch the show.

 

Aislyn glanced at Rory as he peered through the sturdy wooden gate.

“Are you ready, lass?” His wrinkled face bore concern, although he’d stopped trying to talk her out of the ride.

Inside the chute, Aislyn gave a clipped nod. She clamped a black cap on her head and waited, her stomach jitterbugging with nerves.

“On the count of three, lass. One.”

A shuddering breath filled her lungs.

“Two.”

She tightened her grip on the reins, wrapped her slim legs around the streamlined body quivering with fury beneath her, and leaned back in the saddle.

“Three!”

The gate shot open with a protesting creak. Muscles bunched beneath Oher, and a bad-tempered neigh exploded from the brumby as the creature sprang from the chute. Aislyn’s body jerked. She ignored the protesting shake of taut muscles and clung like a leech, determined to emerge the winner in this battle of wills.

She had to win—she just had to.

The brumby skewed to the left, bucked and twisted mid-air. One jolting buck merged into another. Aislyn’s entire body jarred with each powerful surge. Her head snapped back. Her teeth rattled. She could do this. Eight seconds wasn’t long.

The brief lapse in concentration proved the edge her opponent required. Aislyn sailed over the brumby’s head, landing in the dusty arena with a bone-crunching thump.

Aislyn sucked for breath. Rat’s tails! Failure when the honeyed taste of success hovered so near. Close enough to touch. She tried a tentative movement. A jagged shaft of pain shot up her leg, radiating outward. She gasped as every bone in her body protested the abuse. The thump of running feet beat in unison with her head.

“Aislyn, sweetheart. Are you all right?”

A stupid, idiotic question. With her hearing fuzzy from the fall, she didn’t recognize the strong brogue. Probably Rory rushing to her aid and about to tell her she was a fool to attempt to ride one of the Aussie brumbies.
Was she okay? Of course, she wasn’t!

She’d failed to last the required eight seconds.

“Aislyn.” Gentle hands probed her body, leaving tingling warmth in their wake. They turned her over, and she bit back a moan of protest. “Aislyn!” The voice took on a stern tone, while hands grasped her shoulders.

“Stop squeeze…squeezing me.” Her eyelids fluttered open.

“How many fingers?”

She focused and gasped at the harsh visage swimming into view. Midnight black hair and gray eyes the color of the Tasman Sea on a stormy day. She sighed, convinced she was dreaming. “Seamus?”

“Hell’s teeth, Aislyn. What were you thinking?” Seamus pushed the words between clenched teeth while his fists tightened on her shoulders. She winced at the flash of pain. “You could’ve been killed.”

Well, she’d wanted his attention but not like this. Aislyn groaned and pushed his hands away so she could rise to a sitting position.

“Why?” His gray eyes glinted diamond-hard in an unforgiving face.

A fiery blush heated her face and spread downward to her chest. Rats. Why did he have to arrive home right now? All the most embarrassing moments in her life occurred in front of Seamus.

“Are you going to answer me?”

The way he loomed over her made her vulnerable. Not a good look for a recruit.

Avoiding his gaze, she gritted her teeth and pushed to her feet with a wobble. Masculine hands shot out to steady her, and she shrugged them off. “I don’t need your help.” And I can’t think when you touch me.

“You need a keeper.”

She tried to meet Seamus’s gaze—she really did, but managed scant seconds of his mesmerizing glare before her attention shot to her dusty black boots. She sighed, acutely aware of his athletic physique and the way he towered over her by a good eight inches. He wasn’t handsome or pretty, more rugged and masculine. Solid and confident. A reassuring male to have around and the one she lusted…

Two rats and a mouse! She’d thought she had this crush thing beat.

“Why, Aislyn?”

“I have to prove I can ride,” she said. “I want to join the fairy force.” Since I can’t have you.

“What?” His eyes turned to molten steel. A vein twitched in his clenched jaw. Seamus stalked closer, and she fought to stand her ground.

“You’re always yelling at me.” Aislyn scowled at him. Quick, shallow breaths partially blocked his appealing citrus scent. Frustration at his attitude made her tense like a mythical cat primed to pounce. Seamus had no right to boss her around.

“The fairy force doesn’t accept female recruits.”

“Says who?” His smug tone infuriated her so much she whipped a small black book from her trouser pocket and slapped it against his chest. “Where in the rule book does it say that? Show me.”

Aislyn placed her hands on her hips and gave a triumphant smile. He couldn’t. She’d spent every waking hour of the last month poring through the same black book, checking the fine print. No way did she intend to knock herself out training to suffer a check on the brink of success because of a stupid rule she’d missed.

Seamus glanced at the book before placing it on a nearby railing. “You don’t have a hope. When the board of directors stops laughing, they’ll screw up your application form and send you away with a pat on the head. Hell, even if it’s not against the rules, nothing will come of your scheming because you’re not strong enough to complete the final training.”

“I’m smart. That’s half the battle won.”

His dark brows rose, and he snorted. “You forgot, stubborn.”

Aislyn conceded, knowing the accusation was nothing less than the truth.

“Why do you want to leave the safety of the fairy colony? It’s dangerous outside for fairy females.”

Why? He should try stepping into the shoes of a female fairy, restricted to Glenveagh, and never allowed to leave because of stupid cats. Huh! She’d bet the creatures were an urban legend invented by males to keep their female counterparts under control. She remained silent. Only to herself did she admit the truth.

There were two things she wanted from life—Seamus Gallagher and the fairy force. And since Seamus treated her like a younger sibling, she intended to concentrate on joining the fairy force—even if she had to make fairy history to do it.

 

“Well?” Seamus stared at the copper-hair sprite standing in front of him, defiant to the last. Her obstinate expression made him want to shake her silly or at least put her over his knee and spank some sense into her. The thought sent a jolt straight to his cock, and he glared. This was her fault.

“I imagine for the same reasons you joined.” Her face flushed with indignation. “I want to experience the human world. Explore Auckland and compare the city to our colony. Do good deeds, fight destructive crime. I don’t like needlework. The other females can sew to their heart’s content. Why do I need to learn to sew a straight line?”

She needed sense spanked into her delectable… Appalled, he put a brake on his thoughts. “Tell me again. The truth this time.”

“I’ve told you the truth.” Aislyn’s chin shot up, and she inhaled, thrusting her stunning curves into prominence.
Seamus averted his gaze. Beads of sweat formed on his forehead. The enticing vision remained imprinted in his mind, so he started silently counting backward from one hundred.

“You—you’re an MCP.”

Her sky-blue gaze struck like a bolt of lightning, stabbing right to his heart. His counting ground to an abrupt halt. “MCP?”

She gnawed on her bottom lip, and he realized he was staring. Ninety. Eighty-nine. Eighty-eight.

“Male chauvinist pig.”

“Male…that’s a human term. Where did you hear it? Have you been spying on the human who lives at the top of the garden? Have you been spying on the Guardian?”

Given the right atmospheric conditions, fairies could see through the colony walls, but humans couldn’t observe them.

“No!”

“Aislyn.”

Guilty color flooded her face and crept down her neck. Seamus grinned, starting to enjoy her predicament. Aislyn had been spying on him, not that she knew he was the guardian. He’d made the board agree on secrecy before he’d accepted the position. There was enough to worry about without fairy paparazzi dogging his heels, attempting to establish if he took after his fickle, womanizing father.

One dainty foot traced a pattern in the dusty arena. “I was passing.”

“That’s a bit out of your way.” This sounded promising. Damn. Eighty-seven. Eighty-six. Don’t say it. “Fancy him, do you?” Dammit, stop fishing, Gallagher. Eighty-five. Eighty-four.

“Yes. No! All right,” Aislyn admitted.

This was Duncan’s baby sibling. Eighty-three. Hades, he needed to pick a candidate for his first lady and announce the betrothal before he committed a supreme act of stupidity. Even imagining the possibilities was foolish.

Aislyn O’Sullivan was out of bounds. Eighty-two. Eighty-one. Eighty. Do not pursue this conversation. “And if you were a member of the fairy force, you could travel between the human and fairy worlds. You could meet your human on equal terms.”

“Yes,” she said in a small voice. “Now, you know my pitiful secrets.” She averted her face, but not before he witnessed the renewed flush on her cheeks.

Tenderness twisted inside him, and he reached out to grasp her chin, forcing her to meet his gaze. “The fairy force is hard work.” He wasn’t so old he didn’t remember the exhausting training, both mental and physical. “Fairy force work isn’t glamorous. The human world isn’t much different from our colony. We have the same facilities here, the same problems. Why would you want to leave?”

“You don’t understand. Everyone expects me to follow the feminine arts, but I’m bored rigid. I want this, Seamus.”

“Ah, Aislyn.” Despite thoughts of self-preservation, he pulled her into a loose embrace and smoothed his hand over her unruly mop of hair. In the bright New Zealand sunshine, the curls shone like shiny Irish pennies. They were soft and springy to his touch and smelled like fresh juicy apricots. She cuddled closer, giving a soft sigh. Seamus cursed. He wished he wasn’t attracted to her. She made him want things he couldn’t have, not if the colony was to survive into the next millennium.

He stepped back, putting a safer distance between them before cupping her face with one hand. “Have you any idea what you’re letting yourself in for? The odds are against your success, even if you persuade the board to let you try out for the recruits.”

 

Aislyn smiled. His earnest words were cute. He was intent, so sincere. In fact, he looked very similar to the human who lived at the top of the garden. A small gasp escaped. Was that why she watched the human whenever the opportunity arose? Was it because he looked like Seamus? Not that she’d managed a good look at him. The veil separating fairy from human-made everything hazy.

“What?” A smile lurked in his eyes.

Some might call the glint a mischievous twinkle. She knew better. Seamus considered her an annoying younger sibling in need of protection while she loved him. She railed at the injustice while her heart sank at the enormity of her problem.

“Nothing.”

Seamus was a lost cause. He’d never consider her in a romantic light. That’s why she’d set her sights on the force, despite carrying cat-attracting pheromones.

Every female fairy carried the pheromones. Frankly, Aislyn couldn’t see the problem. According to rumor, a cat was a huge, hairy beast with fangs and smelly breath. The stories were pure exaggeration. They must be. She’d questioned several fairy force members when they returned to the colony on leave. They avoided straight answers, but cats must be smaller in stature than humans.

“I’ll help you,” he said without warning. “Duncan would want me to help you.”

Her brother.

Again.

Aislyn tried to read him and failed. She had no idea what went on in that mind of his. Suspicion made her question.

“You’re not joking? Making fun of me?”

Seamus clutched his chest and raised his gaze to the sky. “She wounds me.”

“Fool,” she snapped, trying not to stare at the rippling muscles under his pale blue shirt.

“I’m offering to help you train.”

“Why? You don’t approve.”

“Think of it as a favor to my best friend’s baby sister.”

Aislyn deflated inside like one of her manual attempts at baking a soufflé. Verbal proof. He looked on her as a sister. Despite her hurt, she decided to accept his offer and make him suffer for the unknowing damage he’d inflicted.

“Okay.” She thrust out her hand to seal the bargain, steeling herself against the shiver of pleasure she knew would follow his touch. “So,” she said. “Where and when do we start?”

* * * * *

Hell in a handbasket.

That about summed up the day. Seamus shouldered open his front door and stood aside to let his partner enter.
First Aislyn then Hone—not a day to record for prosperity.

Gill stormed down the passage and turned into the living room. Seamus followed.

“Hone is dead? You saw his body yourself?” Total disbelief covered Gill’s face.

“Yeah.” Seamus stalked the length of his living room and back, ignoring the magnificent view of Auckland city and the harbor beyond. His mouth compressed. “What was left of him.” No one should have to die that way. Dammit, he was responsible. He should’ve taken more care, instructed Hone to take extra precautions.

He whirled to a halt and glanced at his partner and friend, MacGillicuddy. One look told him Gill felt the same burning need for revenge.

Maximillan was going down.

Gill straightened from his slouch and jerked his head toward his fridge in the adjacent room. “Drink?”

“Is the Pope Catholic?” Seamus displayed a flash of teeth in the hope it might pass as a grin. He shrugged off his jacket and flopped down on the nearest chair, thrusting his feet out in a comfortable sprawl. Inside, his gut churned with guilt, self-recrimination, and a hundred other emotions he failed to control.

Gill thrust an ice-cold can at him and dropped into the shabby blue chair opposite.

Seamus bit back his frustration and tugged on the ring-pull. A soft hiss escaped as the can opened. He closed his eyes, tipped back his head, and drank, savoring the crisp taste of hops as the beer slid down his parched throat. A few more beers, and he might even relax. On feeling the weight of a stare, his eyes popped open.

Gill studied him intently. “Do we have anyone in place at Maximillan’s?”

Bloodlust glittered in Gill’s pale blue eyes. Seamus knew the same fierce emotions reflected in his own gaze. “No, but, thanks to Hone, at least we have more info.”

“Hone’s dead because of a scavenger hunt, for God’s sake.” Gill leaped to his feet and paced. With his blond hair sticking up in wayward tufts, scruffy undercover clothes, and his fierce expression, he resembled a demented street person. “Maximillan is stark raving mad if he thinks we’ll let him get away with Hone’s murder and decimating New Zealand’s wildlife all in the name of a friggin’ game. You’ve seen the list?”

“Yeah.” Seamus had seen the scavenger hunt list. The idea that an eccentric millionaire thought he had the right to take whatever he pleased because he possessed big bucks and political clout made him sick. Maximillan’s day would come. Of that, Seamus was confident. Maximillan would make a mistake. So far, the man was wily as a weasel, too crafty to walk into their traps.

Gill whirled about after another lap of pacing. “How the hell do the fools expect the competitors to bag a kakapo chick?” Disgust made his top lip curl. “Smuggling a tuatara and a kiwi egg out of the country is bad enough. Have we notified the conservation departments in Australia and Brazil?”

“Talked to the Aussies half an hour ago. I left a message for the Brazilian contingent. Diego’s gonna ring me.”

“What’s the plan? We’re not overloaded with manpower.”

Seamus shot to his feet, desperate to soothe his agitation with motion. “Another beer?”

“Yeah, but I need to get going soon. Are you sure you don’t want to come? Rachel has a twin sister.”

Seamus grabbed another two cans and handed one to Gill. Although a night on the town sounded frivolous, he knew it was Gill’s way of coping with Hone’s death. Seamus understood the need to push aside the unspeakable, even if escape was for a mere night. “Another time. I have things to do.” Like working out how to deal with Aislyn.

Gill’s brows rose. “The mystery woman again.”

“There is no woman.” A vision of Aislyn with her vivid copper curls danced through his mind. He thrust it away.

“Argue all you like. I don’t believe you. One day you’re gonna break down and tell me.”

Seamus coughed and spluttered when a chug of beer went down the wrong way. He gasped for breath and wiped a dribble of beer from his chin. Gill might be his best friend on the human side, but if he told him the truth, the man would start running and never look back. Some facts were better kept secret. He shrugged, doing nothing to confirm or deny.

A grin twitched at Gill’s mouth. Seamus stiffened. He didn’t trust that look.

“Man, keep your secrets.” Gill sipped his beer. “She’s married,” he said without warning, his tone flat, betraying disappointment.

“She’s not married.”

“Ah! So it is a woman.” Gill’s triumph made Seamus want to put a kink in his friend’s impressive Roman nose.

“Think what you like. Truth is, I don’t feel like going out on the town tonight. Not after last night.”

Gill sobered. “What are we going to do about Maximillan?”

“I’m going to pull a few favors. Try to arrange more police to take in the slack. At least with the list, we have a better idea of the areas they’ll hit. Most of the endangered birds are safe on the offshore islands, but Maximillan’s resort in the Hauraki Gulf is the ideal base for competitors. That’s our main problem.”

“Since it’s right next to Little Barrier Island. Yeah, I know. That’s why we need someone inside the resort or better yet working on Maximillan’s estate.”

Seamus scowled. “Who? Neither of us can go. Maximillan knows our faces.”

“How about one of the recruits?”

Seamus didn’t like the idea. The recruits were keen but inexperienced, and this situation was too bloody dangerous. The empty can in his right hand crumpled as he sought an alternative. “I don’t know. I’ll give the situation some thought.”

Gill grunted. “We need a woman.”

Seamus knew Gill meant a woman undercover on the island, but amusement sparked, anyway. “It always comes down to a woman with you.”

“Nothing better to keep you warm at night,” Gill agreed with a grin. “And on that note, I’d better leave. Don’t want to keep the lady waiting. See you tomorrow.”

“Early,” Seamus warned. “Don’t get too comfortable with all that warmth.”

Gill fired his empty can at the bin and whooped at the noisy clang of success. “A dedicated bachelor, that’s me. You’re the one with the dark, dangerous secrets. Later.”

Gill’s footsteps echoed in the passage as he headed for the front door. Seconds later, his friend’s Ford started with a throaty rumble.

His mouth twisted as he replayed Gill’s words. Secrets. His friend knew Seamus Gallagher, police detective. He didn’t have a clue about Seamus’s double role as Guardian in charge of the fairy colony. Yeah, he possessed dark secrets. Dangerous secrets and it was a damn juggling act trying to keep the balls in play. He hoped like hell he didn’t take a wrong step and suffer a concussion in the fallout.

He headed off for a shower, and ten minutes later, dropped into a leather recliner in his den. Despite the cold water, his blood still ran hot.

Aislyn’s fault.

He rubbed his hands over his face and cursed softly. Talk about a big mouth. The instant he’d spoken, he’d known he should turn and walk—hell—sprint in the opposite direction. Instead, he’d offered to help her train when he needed to concentrate on avenging Hone’s death and stopping Maximillan.

His fists clenched while he contemplated his stupidity. Too late to take back his offer now. He’d given his word. The future loomed full of cold showers and long sleepless nights filled with fantasies that wouldn’t quit—of copper curls, firm breasts, trim thighs…curves in all the right places.

Bloody hell. He should’ve taken up Gill on his offer of a night on the town.

Then he laughed, the hard edge holding not a trace of humor. He stood to pour a glass of Jameson’s and stared into the amber liquid, deep in thought.

The names of the successful applicants would be announced at the Witches and Goblin’s ball in one month. Working with Aislyn until then would be like staring temptation in the face and daring it on.

Masochist.

He dragged out a file, intending to bury himself in work instead of fixating on Aislyn O’Sullivan. This surge of lust for her was a temporary blip. It would pass, and life would go on. Police work had filled his life for a decade, his Guardian duties two years. Guilt pricked him. He should decide on a wife and announce his betrothal, yet he hesitated, and his remorse grew.

Purposely pushing Aislyn to the back of his mind, he shuffled through the papers in his manila file until he found the scavenger hunt list. According to intelligence Hone had supplied, each of the twenty competitors put up half a million American dollars to enter with the winner taking out a cool ten million in prize money. The challenge attracted the competitors most, not the prize package.

Too much money to know better.

Boredom was a hell of a thing.

Seamus ran his finger down the list. Fifteen items, all rare and challenging to attain, and they came from far-flung corners of the world. Fury built within him, burning his gut, fueling his determination to capture Maximillan.

Kakapo chicks. They were an endangered species, so scarce there were eighty-six in existence. Damn if he’d let Maximillan and his mates take what they wanted without a fight.

The persistent ring of the colony cell phone jerked Seamus to the present. “Gallagher.”

An Irish brogue blasted down the line. “Dammit, what do you mean by encouraging the O’Sullivan lass? You might be Guardian, but you should’ve consulted the rest of the board first.”

Seamus frowned. A rattled Murphy. “What’s happened?”

“The O’Sullivan lass applied to join the fairy force. When Moira McKenzie refused her application, the lass turned her into a white rat.”

Seamus’s lips twitched when he pictured the board’s office assistant in white fur and whiskers. Hell’s teeth, what was he going to do with Aislyn O’Sullivan? “I thought there was an ordinance against the use of magic on the board premises?”

“Yes, well.” Murphy spluttered, sounding like a gobbling turkey. “If the fairy force recruits were chosen on sheer ingenuity, the O’Sullivan lass would be a shoo-in. She accosted Moira in the Dunlewy deli. Only the owners, Max and Hilda, witnessed the debacle. Thank goodness!”

“No problem then.”

“I haven’t got to the good bit,” Murphy said. “The rat…ah…Moira ran up Hilda’s skirt, Hilda tripped and fell over the dessert trolley. The sweets went flying, and Hilda sacked the O’Sullivan lass. Aislyn O’Sullivan is trouble. Moira is blaming me.”

“Murphy, if you must dip your wick—”

“That’s none of your business!” Murphy made the crazed gobbling sound again.

Seamus bit back a grin. The affair between Murphy and Moira was an open secret.

“Boy, this is your fault. You encouraged the lass. We can’t have females joining the fairy force. It’s unthinkable. If we let her join, the womenfolk will push for more. We can’t allow it. If we let one female out of the colony, they’ll all want to go.” Murphy’s voice rose with each successive sentence. “Next thing we know, they’ll want females on the board!”

“Would that be a bad thing?” Seamus heard Murphy’s sharp intake of breath and waited for the inevitable gobbling.

“Women on the… Are you mad?”

Seamus grinned, unsurprised at the older male’s reaction. “The doctor passed me on my last medical. I’m quite sane.”

“Then why are you encouraging the O’Sullivan fairy?” Murphy roared.

Seamus held his mobile away from his ear. “I tried to talk her out of applying, but she’s adamant. She wants to try out for the next intake of recruits.”

“It’s against the rules,” Murphy said.

Seamus glanced over at the black rulebook sitting on the corner of his desk. He’d read the thing from cover to cover after talking to Aislyn. “There’s nothing in the rules to prevent a female from applying.”

“Nothing?” Murphy demanded in a hoarse voice.

“I checked. Murphy, you’re panicking over nothing. She has to make the cut first.”

“You mean—? Ah, I’m with you. We’ll make sure she doesn’t make the cut. Now I know why we voted you Guardian.”

“Coerced and blackmailed, you mean. And no, that’s not what I meant,” Seamus snapped, incensed on Aislyn’s behalf.
“We have to take care of our reaction. The fairy press will scrutinize everything we do, and the other colonies around the world will run the news because it’s a good fairy interest story. Consider the facts. Making the cut is difficult, even for a male. You know how high the drop out rate is during hell week.”

“So you’re saying let the O’Sullivan lass compete and give it her best shot?”

“Legally, we can’t stop her applying, but physically I don’t think she’s capable.”

“Then why are you training her?”

“I want to keep an eye on developments.” Seamus worked to keep the bite from his voice. If he repeated this often enough, maybe even he’d come to believe his own excuses.

Chapter 2 coming next week.