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IshaJohnson,United Kingdom,Professional
Published Date:31-07-2017
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A JOB FROM HELL Ancient Legends Book One JAYDE SCOTTPrologue It’s said people can sense their imminent death. Maybe they hear death’s song in the wind. Or the earth stops turning for a second, mourning those who are yet to pass. I spotted none of the signs when I dragged my tired body through the otherworld, waiting for the winged demon guardians to pick me up and drop me back on the threshold to the world of the living. It was a shiny object, beckoning to me from under a bush, that lured me into the killer’s trap. As I bent down and pushed my arm into the thicket, a sharp pain pierced my skin and teeth cut into my bone. I choked on my breath, my scream barely finding its way out of my throat. Panic rose inside me, followed by a sense of dread. I was trapped. Even if the immortals heard me, they couldn’t help me. Blinded by fear, I pulled and kicked at the snarling creature peering out of the ground, all skin and bones and red, tangled hair. She was female, no doubt, but the way she tore through skin and muscles, slurping my blood, resembled no human being. Somewhere behind me, wings fluttered. “Get the fire demons, Octavius. Turn that thing into burned toast,” someone yelled. In spite of my panic, I smiled as I recognized Cass’s voice inside my head. Fire engulfed us, bathing the semi-darkness in a fiery glow. The creature screeched, but didn’t let go of my aching arm. If not even Cass’s angels and demons could scare it, nothing would. My vision blurred, my strength waning. I could feel my blood pouring out of me in a long, constant flow until I thought I was floating. From the edge of my consciousness, I realized a black, winged demon had appeared by my side. A thick flame scorched my skin. I cried out in pain, the scream hurting my ears. My eyes rolled back in their sockets. The creature hissed, the slurping continued. Something caressed my cheeks, its touch light as a feather. My breath came shallow, and my heart slowed down in my chest. I hung onto consciousness until I realized the stabbing pain was subsiding, so I let myself fall into oblivion, eager to escape. But I gather I’m not making much sense, so I shall start from the beginning. This is how I entered Aidan’s deadly, paranormal world.Chapter 1 The cab came to a screeching halt. I lurched forward in the backseat and dropped the phone I’d been fumbling with in the hope to get through to my brother. “I thought only London had a reputation for bad drivers,” I muttered. “Ye’ll have to get out now,” the driver said. “I’m sorry, what?” I glanced out the window at the dense trees to both sides of the forsaken road, then back at the driver. Surely, this wasn’t where I had asked him to take me? “I said, ye need to get out now, lassie.” I stuffed my cell phone back into my over-spilling handbag and glared at the man’s hooded eyes in the rear-view mirror. “I’m paying you to take me all the way up there.” I pointed up the winding country lane. The driver shrugged. “I’m ‘fraid I can’t, lass. ‘Tis too dark now and I don’t want to be here at this time of day.” I cringed at his Scottish accent. I didn’t understand half of what he said. “It’s only seven.” He shrugged. “‘Tis all dark.” “What’s the deal? Do cab drivers turn into pumpkins once it’s dusk? You should’ve told me at the airport.” The driver averted his gaze. “Ye’re paying me for driving, not answering questions.” Grabbing my handbag I opened the door. No point in arguing with him because it seemed like a lost cause already. A chilly wind ruffled my hair and turned my skin into goose bumps. This was freezing Scotland. Why hadn’t I thought of wearing a coat instead of locking it up with all the other stuff? “Oh, for crying out loud.” I knocked on the driver’s window and waited for him to roll it down. “Are you helping with the luggage or what?” He just stared back at me and shrugged. “What is it then, yes or no?” He turned away, his eyes scanning the forest around us as if he expected someone with an axe to jump out any minute. “I don’t believe this,” I mumbled, opening the car boot and pulling out my suitcase, a big, ugly thing my brother Dallas gave me as a graduation gift. The thick plastic carcass was already heavy as hell. With my clothes and books in there, I could barely lift it. I hurled it up and let it fall to the ground with a loud thud, almost hitting my booted feet. This wasn’t my day. Slamming the door shut, I grabbed the suitcase when the driver rolled down his window. “Ye paying now?” “I don’t know what kind of taxi rip off you’re pulling, but your company sucks.” I opened my handbag and pulled out my wallet. “That’d be thirty,” he said, unfazed. “You said it’d cost me twenty.” He shook his head. “It’s thirty.” Frowning, I retrieved three banknotes. No point in arguing. The sooner I got going, the better. I was already late, and what sort of first impression is that? “You won’t be getting any tip from me,” I said, handing him the money. “Good luck, lass. Ye’ll need it.” “How far from here is it?” “Ten minutes tops,” he said with a sympathetic smile. Unfortunately, his concern didn’t stretch out as far as not dumping me in the middle of nowhere with no map, GPS system, compass, or working phone. I watched the cab turn and speed off in the direction we came from. Dragging my heavy suitcase behind me, I trudged up the narrow street. It was getting dark now. To both sides, tall trees filtered the light cast by the rising moon. No houses as far as I could see. No street lamp. Why the hell did I agree to arrive in the evening? What person in their right mind arranged for a summer temp to find this place at night anyway? Sighing, I quickened my pace; the sound of the suitcase rollers echoing through the eerie silence of the night. Several times I stumbled over stones and almost fell, but I kept walking up the hill. The wind grew colder by the minute. I switched arms. No way would I return to the airport. This job was my only chance to save up enough money for college. Without it, I’d swap marketing classes for lessons in how to prepare the perfect cheeseburger at the local McDonald’s. Ten minutes later, I nearly bumped into what looked like a gate. I peered through the iron bars into the stretching darkness, and frowned. Could this be the McAllister mansion? I hoped so because my toes felt numb from the cold and my arms were on fire. How much longer could I carry this heavy thing Dallas called a suitcase? Blindly, I moved from one iron bar to the next, pushing to find an entrance. On the third try I heard a click and the gate opened. I grabbed my suitcase and pushed my way through quickly. Like on cue, the gate closed behind me. Someone was probably watching behind a security system screen, laughing their pants off at the way I had to drag my luggage like a dead elephant. I raised my chin a notch, straightened my shoulders and trekked up the jagged path, my heels clicking noisily on the cobblestones. The trees grew sparser, the path wider. Sensing someone’s presence, I stopped, frozen to the spot. My heart skipped a beat. I turned, ready to scream as loud as my lungs would allow. “You must be Amber,” a girl said.I exhaled. “You scared the hell out of me. I didn’t hear you. Where did you come from?” The girl moved a step closer and lifted my suitcase in one go, as though it weighed nothing. “The woods,” she said. “Let’s hurry. He’s expecting you.” I gaped after her in awe. The way she ambled away, my suitcase tucked under her arm, she should be on the front cover of Weightlifter Magazine. If hiking in the woods gave one that kind of strength, then I was all for it. I’d hike until I dropped...starting tomorrow. Or maybe the next day, or the one after that. Truth be told, I wasn’t into hiking in the woods at all. Or hiking anywhere, as a matter of fact. Who was I fooling? I was doomed with chubby arms and stumpy legs. We walked up the cobbled path until we reached a huge, gloomy mansion stretching against the black canvas of the night. “How did you get here?” the girl asked, opening a door. “Your splendid taxi service. I’ve no complaints at all.” I shook my head. “The cabbie wouldn’t come anywhere near the house.” “Yeah, the locals are scared of their own shadows. You should’ve called. Someone would’ve picked you up.” “I did, but no one answered.” I followed her in, my hands patting the walls to find my way in the darkness. My foot caught in something thick and soft— maybe a rug—and I toppled forward, biting my tongue to keep back a startled yelp. Why wouldn’t someone just switch on the lights? “Mind your steps,” the girl said. “It’s okay. I’ll just use my bat radar,” I mumbled. The girl made a noise that sounded like a chuckle. Eventually the lights flickered on and I squinted against the sudden brightness. I blinked several times before I peered in her direction: she was about the same age, tall, blonde and strikingly beautiful with flawless pale skin and ocean-blue eyes that shone a tad too bright. Skinny jeans emphasized her shapely legs and narrow waist. A thin top revealed strong arms and shoulders. Dressed in that skimpy outfit I would’ve frozen to death in the woods. I turned away from her, focusing my attention on the interior design. We were standing in a wide hall with a tiled floor, a thick scarlet rug and sparse furniture. It looked like any doctor’s reception area minus the desk, sitting opportunities and white-clad nurses. “I’m Clare. You must be Amber,” the girl said, smiling. Her voice was as smooth as silk, young but not too high-pitched. The tone was posh. The usual rich kid, I mused, the kind of girl everyone admired and envied. “Nice to meet you, Clare,” I said, curling my lips into a smile. Clare turned toward a closed mahogany door and craned her neck. “Aidan might take a little longer. I’ll show you to your room.”I frowned. “Aidan?” Clare cocked a brow. “As in Aidan McAllister. He’s dying to meet you.” “Ah. My new boss. Of course. Is he your father?” Clare shot me an incredulous look. What was she waiting for? Was I supposed to say something? I wasn’t making a good first impression here, was I? I should’ve researched my new boss on the internet, or follow him on Twitter to find out how he liked his bed sheets ironed and what he usually ate for breakfast. After all, this would be my job for the next two months. But I had been too busy missing my ex while letting Dallas fill out my application form. “Aidan’s a friend,” Clare said, eventually. “Come on.” A friend could mean anything, but I didn’t press the issue. There’d be enough time for that later. We climbed up the broad stairs to the first floor. Clare opened a door and let me in. She switched on the light and took a step aside. “Welcome to your new home.” I stopped, scanning my new bedroom. It was spacious, the exact opposite of my former matchbox boarding school room in London. Thick plum-colored curtains covered half of the opposite wall. To my right was a huge, four-poster bed with numerous cushions in the same color as the curtains. The bed was so large it’d never fit into my former bedroom. If this was the Scottish standard I had a feeling I’d get used to it in a heartbeat. “I gather you like it?” Clare said, her voice betraying amusement. I cleared my throat. Like it? Was she kidding? It was breath taking. “It’s beautiful. Thank you.” Clare beamed as though I’d just complimented her on her fashion sense. “I’ll let you unpack then and shall bring up your dinner in half an hour. Of course you can eat in the dining room, but I assume you’re tired and may want some privacy before your first day of work.” “Yes, that’d be great. Thanks.” “Excellent. The TV remote control is on the night table. The bathroom’s in there.” Clare pointed at a door on the other side of the room. “If you need anything, I’m in the library, which is on the ground floor, the second door to the right. You can look around the house if you like, but the second floor is off-limits.” Once Clare closed the door behind her, I walked to the bed and pulled the heavy bedspread aside. The sheet beneath was of a perfect white. I opened my suitcase and threw my clothes haphazardly into the closet near the window, leaving my books and various memorabilia in my suitcase. Neatness wasn’t my strongest point, but what my new boss didn’t know couldn’t hurt him. From all the competition, funny that I should be the lucky one to land such a well-paid job. Whatever Dallas wrote on that application form, I could only hope he hadn’t pretended I was a domestic goddess. That might just mean the end of my placement, and I really needed the money. I walked into the bathroom and reached for the light switch. The bulb flickered to life, revealing walls covered in white tiles with tiny, dark blue flowers. I peeked into the mirror above the washbasin and grimaced at my mousy brown hair that lacked a good cut, my chubby cheeks and big hazel eyes. Many called me pretty, but I knew I would never have that extra something that would make a guy fall in love with me. Cameron hadn’t, or so he said before making it clear he wanted a break. Enough dark thoughts already. Pushing my mental baggage to the back of my mind, I sighed and opened a cabinet. A toothbrush, shower gel, lavender soap and moisturizing lotion occupied the upper shelf. In another cabinet I found white towels and a bathrobe. I stripped off my jeans, red jumper and underwear, and jumped under the shower. The hot water relaxed my aching muscles and washed away the invisible signs of a long day. Wrapped in a towel, I walked back to the bedroom, and sank into the clean scent of recently washed sheets, falling asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. A thud woke me up in the middle of the night. Disoriented, I looked around in the soft light cast by the lamp I had forgotten to switch off. My head felt groggy as I threw a glance at my phone on the bedside table. It was shortly before three a.m. Everything seemed quiet, and yet I couldn’t shake off the feeling that something or someone was in the room, watching me. For a moment I thought I glimpsed pale blue eyes staring at me from the door. I spun around, heart jumping in my throat. No one there. No picture frames on the wall to hide a spy hole either. Shivering, I walked to the window and peeked through the curtains. The moon hid behind thick rain clouds. The room had noticeably cooled down. I returned to my bed, pulling the sheets tighter around my shivering body, when I heard a thud outside my bedroom door. It was an old house and the rain and wind would make the wood creak, the living shapes of furniture simulating the threat of approaching danger, so nothing to worry there. Holding my breath, I listened for more sounds. The house was silent again. My bones felt stiff and tired, but any signs of sleepiness were gone. I slipped into my bathrobe, hesitating in front of the door. Should I really leave the comforting safety of my room and risk waking up my new employer? He might fire me for disturbing his beauty sleep. Oh, sod it. If I didn’t check, I’d morph into an obsessive lunatic for the rest of the night. I crept to the door and opened it in one go, cringing at the squeaking sound of old hinges. The light from the lamp threw dark shadows on the thick rug covering the wooden floor. Mentally preparing myself to face whatever loomed in the shadows, I stepped into the cool corridor. The hall was empty.Chapter 2 It had been a long night of tossing and turning. In the morning, I stretched under the sheets, enjoying the pleasant heat of the room, when I realized it was already after nine. I was supposed to start my first day of work, not sleep in. Darn it. Trust me to lose a job because of some lavender-scented pillows. I threw the sheets aside and rummaged through the closet to find a pair of black jeans and a white shirt. I pulled one out, all crumpled. Smelling the armpits, I grimaced. Why did it reek like I just finished a double shift at McDonald’s? With one arm I retrieved another shirt while brushing my teeth with the other hand, then stopped to take another sniff and scowled again. This one didn’t smell much better, but I had no more time to waste. I put it on and dashed down the stairs to the large kitchen. The sun spilled bright rays through the double glazed windows. I peeked left and right and inhaled, relieved that no one was about. Perfect. If no one waited, then no one would know I was late. Whoever lived here was either still asleep, or they had left already. I snorted to myself. As if. The mansion was situated in the middle of the Highlands—where would they go? The forest extended for miles behind the back of the house. There were only two options: either McAllister worked from home, which wasn’t likely. What with those high trees and probably no Internet connection. Or he drove to the nearest city, Inverness, which was two hours away. I chuckled, feeling enlightened because everything suddenly made sense. The name rang familiar, as though I somehow knew him without ever meeting him. I figured McAllister had to be a semi-famous writer—old, afraid of company, preferring solitude—because no one else would choose to live in this forsaken area. I opened a few kitchen cabinets. The steel pots and pants gleamed in the morning light. The cooking utensils in our family never looked this polished. I peeked inside the drawers, marveling at the pristineness of this place. Why did I take this job? As much as it pained me to acknowledge, I knew nothing about housekeeping. Dallas said it’d be easy money so I could save enough to pay my bills, the yearly travel card and purchase books in my first year of college. The student loan covered my college fees already, but I gathered a part-time job would be unavoidable if I also wanted to eat. The money made from this summer job was supposed to help me survive until I found one that wouldn’t collide with my classes. Prepare breakfast, cook dinner, keep the house tidy, and wash some clothes. How hard could it be? But peering around, I realized this didn’t look like any house I had ever entered. It was too tidy and clean, as though someone had already finished their work for the day. Used to this standard, McAllister probably expected me to scrub like five housekeepers. With most of the summer temping positions gone, it was too late to change my mind now, but I made a mental note not to believe my brother ever again. No boss around, no work. I shrugged and went about making myself a cup of tea, then took a seat near the window. For a while I just sat there, watching the woods behind the house, admiring the dark green of the dense thickets stretching out as far as I could see. I felt the call of the woods, urging me to take a nice, long walk to stretch my legs and inhale the clean air I would never smell in London. I sighed with pleasure. What a beautiful, big house. Okay, given my experience from last night it was a bit spooky, but this was Scotland after all. You simply don’t buy a house without one or two resident ghosts. Besides, I gathered I had been imagining things because last night when I finally plucked up the courage to open the door, the floor was empty. The point was, with no one around I could almost pretend I wasn’t just an employee. I took another sip of my herbal tea when I heard a voice behind me. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Startled, I jumped, spilling some of the mug’s content onto the floor. Slowly, I turned to stare at a woman’s dowdy face. She was short, almost as short as me, with wiry grey hair tied at the back of her nape, blue eyes and a welcoming smile. I liked her instantly. “I was just taking a minute to admire the view,” I said, pressing a clammy palm against my racing heart. The woman’s eyes creased as her smile widened. “No worries, dear. Take your time. I remember my first day here. I did the same thing. Couldn’t resist the view.” She put her large basket on the kitchen counter and took a seat at the nearby dining table. “I’m telling you, it’s getting harder by the day to carry those things. You must be Amber. Thank goodness, Aidan’s employed a housekeeper. I’m Greta.” I nodded. “Nice to meet you.” Greta jumped to her stubby feet and started rummaging in her basket. “I’ve brought some eggs and bacon to make you a nice breakfast. There’s hardly anything to eat in this house. Aidan’s always away, never eating in. Most of the time, I have to throw away what I cook.” She opened one of the cupboards and pulled out a large saucepan, then placed it on the stove and retrieved a bowl to blend the eggs. “Do you need help?” I asked, standing. “No, you sit, dear. You must be tired from the long journey.” Greta tossed several stripes of ham into the hot pan and turned to me. “Where did you say you came from?” “London.” “Ah.” Greta nodded knowingly. “Such a big place and so far away. Been there a few times.” She shook her head. “Didn’t like it one bit.”“I can see why.” “Aidan said you’d be staying for the summer?” Greta shot me an inquiring look. When I nodded, she laughed heartily. “I thought I’d be staying for a few months, but ended taking care of this house for the past five years now.” She placed a plate in front of me and went about scrubbing the saucepan. “Thank you,” I said, a little shy. The aroma of eggs and bacon made my stomach rumble. I dug in. The bacon was crisp, but not dry. The eggs were still moist. My usual McDonald’s breakfast never tasted this good. How the hell was I going to prepare something this delicious for McAllister? I almost choked on my food at the thought. Damn Dallas said McAllister would be easily pleased with a bit of toast, butter and jam. Trust my brother to mess up my future job prospects because of a bad reference. “How’s the bacon, dear?” Greta inquired from the kitchen sink. I forced my mouth into a smile. “All’s great, thank you. I just realized I need to give my brother a call.” And kill him. Greta patted the saucepan dry and put it away. The kitchen looked as sparkly clean as before. I made a mental note to remember to wash the dishes rather than let them soak in soapy water overnight, which was my usual procedure. “So you have family nearby? How lovely,” Greta said. “Just a brother. Dallas. He moved to Inverness a few weeks ago.” I finished my breakfast, dropped the plate into the sink and looked around for washing up liquid. “Leave it, dear. We have a dishwasher.” Greta opened a cupboard door to reveal a large dishwasher smelling of lemons. I placed my plate on an empty tray. “If you’ll excuse me. I should get started on the housework.” “Of course. I’d better dash too.” Greta picked up her basked and made a beeline for the hall. “One last thing. Just a word of advice, stay away from Aidan’s friends.” The old woman inched closer whispering, “Most of the time, it’s only him, Aidan’s brother and the blonde girl. But I’ve seen the others hovering outside the gates, glaring at me when I pass.” She made a disparaging gesture with her hand. “I keep telling him they’re strange.” I stared at her, utterly terrified. The job advertisement didn’t mention visitors. For how many people was I supposed to cook? “How many people are we talking about?” “Ah, the housework,” Greta said, ignoring my question. “You should start with the washing. God knows what Aidan does with his shirts. They’re always so dirty from the woods. If you need anything, you know where to find me.” With a wave of her hand, she walked down the narrow, paved path behind the house. I stared after her for a while. What was that all about? I hadn’t seen anybody the evening before, but now I remembered the noises that woke me up. Could there have been other people in the house and Clare hadn’t told me? Come to think of it, I was just an employee. No one had to tell me anything. Shrugging, I went in search of the laundry room. Ten minutes later, I found it in the basement next to a locked door marked DO NOT ENTER. The laundry pile on the floor next to the washing machine stood almost as high as the ceiling. I kicked the pile and lowered to pick up a white shirt, my lips curling in disgust at the large brownish stains on the front. Either McAllister was into rolling in the mud, or he just enjoyed making my life a living hell because I sure had no idea how to get the dirt out of his clothes. My phone vibrated in my pocket, startling me. Strange to have reception in the basement, but not in a bedroom. A smile stretched across my lips as I peered at the caller ID. Dallas dressed in diapers—he called it his Cupid outfit—at the last Halloween party after a glass too many. “Hey, sis. How’s life?” “I should be barking mad at you for sending me to this forsaken part of the world. Do you have any idea what you got me into? I can’t cook, or clean, or do anything around a house, and you know it.” “You’ll be all right. You weren’t that bad at home.” Dallas paused. “Come to think of it, you were. But that’s not the point. Don’t worry about it, just listen.” I sighed. Of course he wouldn’t show any sympathy. My brother couldn’t care less about my job because he didn’t like any kind of work. Part-time job or placement, he had never been one to stay in the same job for more than three weeks. “What do you want, Dallas?” “I can’t talk over the phone. Let’s just meet and I’ll tell you everything.” “It’s my first day. I can’t take off already.” Dallas snorted. “I wasn’t expecting you to. I’ll be there in half an hour.” “But—” I couldn’t have guests over already. Was I even allowed to have visitors? Dallas cut me off. “And keep me some of your boss’s glorious lunch, won’t you? I’m starving.” “No, you can’t pop over just like that,” I said, but my brother had already hung up on me. No need to worry. McAllister was away, so he’d never know. My thoughts returning to Dallas’s strange phone call, I started to sort through the pile, throwing all the whites into the washing automat. What did Dallas want? He never visited unless he needed a favor. Getting me a job was the biggest surprise ever, like he really cared to help me after my family realized my chances of affording college were slim. He even helped me lie to Mum and Dad about my job duties. But my brother never did anything for anyone unless he had something to gain. I switched on the washing automat and returned to the kitchen to prepare lunch in case McAllister turned up. The sudden noise of heavy footsteps jerked me out of my thoughts. I turned in time to see my brother’s grinning face in the doorway. “You said half an hour,” I scolded. He plopped into a chair and heaved his booted feet on the kitchen table, dried mud raining down on the polished surface. “I was in the vicinity.” “Of course you were,” I muttered under my breath. In spite of my annoyance, I was glad to see him. Being all alone made me a little sentimental. “Not bad.” He pointed at the white kitchen furniture with its black marble counter. “What do you want, Dallas?” He peered at me from under thick, dark lashes, his golden skin flushing. “What makes you think I want something? Maybe I’m just here to check on my little sister, you know, make sure she’s okay and all.” “Don’t call me that. You’re only a few months older.” I shook my head. “Just spit it out.” “Okay.” He breathed in and put down his legs. “There’s something you need to do for me.” I rolled my eyes. There it was. “No, listen. It’s not just for me,” Dallas continued. “It’s the answer to all of our problems. You could go to college without worrying about money, and we could help Mum and Dad pay off their mortgage, and Dad wouldn’t have to work in that horrid supermarket because he’s too old and can’t find a job in marketing.” “I’m not robbing a bank.” “Neither am I.” Dallas inched nearer, his eyes darting left and right as he started to whisper, “In my new job as an environmentalist officer—” “You’re a what?” I burst into a fit of laughter. He couldn’t be serious. Until a year ago, Dallas thought recycling meant giving away plastic bottles to people who couldn’t afford their own. “You’re so unbelievably rude. I beat a lot of competition to get that job.” He glared at me. “Now, are you going to let me finish, or not?” I motioned with my hand, suppressing the laughter in my throat. “Go on then.” He shot me an irritated look before continuing, “I was walking around the forest, checking for damage to the trees, when I came across a hut. It was locked so I peered through the window and then saw something reflecting the light.” Pausing, he stared at me, wide-eyed, as if I just needed to switch on the light bulb over my head to understand what he was talking about. “And? Get on with it,” I said, impatiently. “The floor was covered in soil, but—” he took a deep breath “—the stones were large enough to see. Diamonds, rubies and the likes, hundreds of them, as big as the palm of your hand. I’m telling you, we’ll be rich soon.”Chapter 3 I crossed my arms over my chest, my mind unwilling to believe my brother’s sordid proposition. “So you’re telling me you want us to break into a house and rob it.” “No You’re not getting it.” Dallas shook his head vehemently. “I didn’t say it was a house. It’s a hut, hidden in the woods. Whoever’s keeping their stuff there is probably a little shady. After all, any normal person with nothing to hide would just lock it all in a safe, wouldn’t they?” “Great. You want me to steal from the local thug. What a delightful way to die.” I turned to face him with a smile. He couldn’t be serious. “Tell me you’re joking.” “No one’s going to die, because no one will know it was us.” His hazel eyes sparkled as he regarded me. I could feel the layers of doubt peeling away slowly. He squeezed my hand. “Come on, sis.” “What you’re asking of me is just crazy. I never figured I’d be a jewel thief when I grew up.” I sighed. “All right. I’ll think about it. So what happens if this heist turns into a disaster? I swear I’m not going to be caught dead in one of those hideous orange jumpers for twenty years.” “I thought orange was your color.” “Dallas” I punched his shoulder. “Come on. Do you think I’d let that happen to my baby sister? You know I got your back.” Laughing, he grabbed me in a hug. “We could talk about this all day, but there’s not much time, Amber. Who knows how long they’ll keep the stash hidden.” He threw me that dimpled smile that always made me give in. “What’s the plan then? I’m sure you have some ridiculous scheme cooked up already.” I regarded him intently. If the jewels existed, Dallas wouldn’t do something as stupid as stealing, even though pilfering from some thugs wasn’t like taking away someone’s life savings. Mum would be so proud of him. Not. “You bet.” Dallas moved away a few inches, draping his arm around my shoulders as he whispered, “Friday night. You wait until everyone’s asleep, then squeeze out and meet me down the road. Make sure you wear black and I’ll dig up the rest.” “You don’t even know how to pick a lock.” I felt laughter bubbling up again. Probably just hysteria at the outlook of burglary. Cameron had broken up with me because I wasn’t as posh as his private school friends. It mortified him to be seen with me, particularly after I gained a few pounds when most of my friends were losing their baby fat. Soon I could add dishonesty to the long list of character traits that kept him from taking our dating to the next level. “I’ll look it up on Wikipedia. Now do we have a deal?” Dallas held out his hand. I grabbed it, shaking my head. Like usual, he was all talk, or so I hoped. “Wikipedia? How reassuring. Why are you even waiting until Friday?” I asked. “Aren’t you worried the stones will be gone by then?” “Think about it. Everyone’s out, partying, on a Friday.” His reasoning made no sense, but I wasn’t going to argue. Anything could happen in five days. I knew he’d change his mind. “Just do me a favor and don’t get the stuff on eBay,” I said. He winked. “You know I can’t resist a bargain.” After Dallas left, I gave up on preparing lunch and went about finishing the household chores, fluffing up the cushions on the sofa and watering the flowers, then looked around. What do housekeepers do in a sparkling house? Would my boss notice if I didn’t polish the already gleaming floors? Most likely not, which was good because scrubbing wasn’t my favorite pastime. I grabbed the feather duster and waved it over the furniture, then hung the clothes on the line to dry. Bored, I glanced at my watch. Dinner wouldn’t be served before six, so I had a few hours to inspect the back garden. As I strolled around the bushes and trees, I inhaled the sweet smell of honeysuckle that stretched up the brown brick wall to the windowsills on the second floor. The drapes were drawn, the glass shimmered almost black in the bright sun. I wrapped my thick cardigan around my shoulders to fend off the cold wind, and turned my attention to the narrow path leading into the forest. The pale cobblestones, scrubbed from years of heavy rain, looked clean and polished. In the distance was a tall mesh fence obscured by trimmed rosebushes, already wilted. What was the fence for? McAllister obviously wasn’t keen on trespassers. I snorted. As if anyone would find their way to this part of the country without the latest in satnavs and a good hound dog. It was late afternoon when I returned to the kitchen to cook dinner. The freezer was filled to the brim. I prepared a vegetable stir-fry with pasta—one of the few things I knew how to cook—and made a mental note to look up a few recipes on the Internet. That is, if McAllister had an Internet connection. By six the sky had turned a dark shade of grey, but my new boss had yet to arrive. I sat at the kitchen table, my hands fidgeting with the hem of my shirt, unsure what to do. I took a large gulp of water to soothe the dry cave of my mouth. I hadn’t been so nervous since my first date with Cameron. It wasn’t like me at all. Eventually I heard the soft click of the entrance door. I jumped from my seat, holding my breath. Should I meet him in the hall, or wait? I had no idea. What did people do in movies? I dried my clammy hands on my jeans and opened the kitchen door, bumping into a tall, dark -haired guy. He reached out his hands to steady me. “You okay?” I peered up into pale blue eyes framed by black lashes. He was stunning, tall and broad with high cheekbones, clad in ripped jeans and a white shirt similar to the ones piled high in the basement, a leather jacket draped over his arm. Wearing my flat shoes, I barely reached his chin. The thought of laundry brought me back to reality. I’d been employed to wash the clothes, not stare at some guy, no matter how hot he was. Clearing my throat, I pulled away and smiled. “You must be Mr. McAllister’s son.” My statement sounded more like a question. The guy cocked a brow, amused. “Actually, I’m Aidan, your employer. You must be Amber.” “Right.” I nodded, wide-eyed. How could he be my employer when he wasn’t much older than me? “I inherited the place,” Aidan clarified as though reading my thoughts. Another rich kid like Cameron. I would never be good enough for him. The pang hit me somewhere in the pit of my stomach. I ignored it because I needed this job. “So sorry to hear.” He frowned. “Huh?” “Your parents. I mean—” I stopped, realizing I wasn’t making much sense. His intense, blue gaze made me nervous, but I was a professional housekeeper and wouldn’t develop a crush on my new employer. Not least because Clare and he couldn’t be related, so there was only one option left. They were dating. “Is that dinner?” Inching forward, he peered inside the huge saucepan, then took a sniff. The corners of his mouth curled downward. If he didn’t like what he saw he didn’t comment on it. “I usually eat in my study. Unless I have guests over, in which case it’s the library.” I nodded, remembering the huge oak table I forgot to polish. “I’ll bring it up. Do you go to school? Or college?” The words snaked their way out of my mouth before I could stop them. Was there even a college in Inverness? Even so, it wasn’t my business. Apparently, Aidan thought the same because he didn’t bother to answer my question. He focused on me for a long second, staring through those eyes that seemed to look right through me. “I don’t know if Clare told you no employee’s allowed on the second floor.” I nodded and retrieved a plate from the cupboard. With shaking fingers I filled it with stir-fry, dropping some on the tiled floor, and held it out to him. On the sparkling china the noodles looked like giant worms swimming in brown, gooey mud. “Thanks.” He took the plate and sniffed, then turned to the door, his pale face flushed. I hurried to open the door for him. “Can I get you a drink?” “I’ll get one later, thank you,” he said over his shoulder. “Well, then, I hope you’ll like it,” I called after him when something dawned on me. In movies servants always bring plates on trays. Why didn’t I think of that? I sunk into my chair and covered my burning face with my palms whispering, “Stupid, stupid, stupid.” Aidan probably already regretted employing me. I had never felt so mortified in my entire life. There I was, meeting the hottest guy ever and I cooked him my soggy stir-fry. It wasn’t even Chinese; just one of those twenty-minute women’s magazine miracle recipes supposed to save time and impress any date, including the prospective mother-in-law. Well, it didn’t seem to impress Aidan. I could only hope he wasn’t bowed over the toilet seat now, emptying the last remnants of a glorious yet light lunch, which he bought in some fancy restaurant. “Are you all right?” I lifted my head to peer at Clare standing in the doorway. She was wearing a short, black dress, tight in all the right places, her hair tied back in a strict bun. Her pale skin combined with a scarlet red lipstick made her seem fragile and alluring at the same time. Her eyes shifted from the stir-fry on the floor to me and then back to the stir-fry, her face betraying no emotion. “I’m all right,” I whispered, straightening in my seat. Clare inched closer and stopped near the door to the back garden, her eyes focused on the darkness beyond. “It must’ve been a long first day. How did you find it?” “It’s very quiet here,” I said. “You’ll get used to it.” She turned and sniffed the air. Her gaze glazed over as though she was in deep thought. “This reminds me, you’re not expected to work past five and certainly not to cook dinner. Aidan eats out most nights.” “Sure.” The job ad specified cooking. Aidan must’ve said something. I blushed, mortified. It was his problem if he didn’t like my food. No more cooking for me then. “Great. I need to get going.” After Clare left, I forced down some food, cleaned the kitchen and returned to my room, thankful for a bit of privacy. I soaked in the large tub, enjoying the hot water, but as much as my body relaxed, my mind wouldn’t stop leaping from Cameron to Aidan and back to Cameron, the image of my ex quickly fading from memory. I got out of the tub, wrapped a large towel around me and placed Cameron’s photo on the bedside table. With my evening routine finished, I climbed between the sheets and switched off the lights. I had been asleep for barely an hour when something woke me up. Sitting up in the darkness, I strained to listen. Something moved outside my door. Then I heard the faintest giggle and a loud thud, and feet shuffling away. Maybe Aidan had guests over, or he and Clare were fooling around. They made a stunning couple, I had to admit that. Wrapping my covers around me, I closed my eyes, but I lay awake for most of the night, not quite able to shake off the image of Aidan McAllister’s muscular arms wrapped around a giggling Clare. I was still in love with Cameron, so the sudden jealousy made absolutely no sense.Chapter 4 For the next two days I saw and heard no one. The house was so quiet, it felt as though I lived alone. My new boss—I cringed at the prospect of calling someone my own age that—clearly liked to keep his distance and I appreciated it. No need to speak to him at all if he didn’t want to. But I wanted to. I wanted him to notice me so much that I even applied makeup and put more effort into the household chores. I hadn’t thought about Cameron in a day, setting a new record. To claim it had nothing to do with Aidan would be a lie. “I’m being silly,” I muttered to myself as I inspected myself in the mirror for the umpteenth time. The blue skinny jeans looked really good on me, making my legs seem so much longer. Shame Aidan wouldn’t be in the woods to watch me break into the hut dressed in my best outfit. On Friday, the house was deserted as usual. No voices, no slamming doors, no sign of anyone living here whatsoever. I left through the back, leaving the kitchen door unlocked. No one bothered to lock it anyway. As much as McAllister liked his privacy, he didn’t seem too concerned about the possibility of burglary. Dallas’s car was parked down the street. I hoped his loud muffler wouldn’t draw anyone’s attention, but then again who would hear it in the middle of nowhere? I jumped onto the passenger seat, pushing a black backpack aside. “You’re late,” Dallas said. I glared at him. “You said to wait until everyone’s asleep. That’s exactly what I did.” Irritated, I peered inside the backpack. “What’s with the compass?” Dallas started the car and sped off. “I couldn’t get my hands on a pair of night vision goggles, so I figured a compass was the next best thing.” “You don’t know where we’re going?” I turned to face him, flabbergasted. “Of course I do.” He hesitated for a moment before adding, “Sort of.” “Great. What better way to spend a Friday night than with my half-wit brother, trekking through the freezing Highlands, looking for a shed to break into? You’ve really topped yourself this time.” He shot me a glare. “You only get thirty per cent since you keep insulting me. I know the way.” I held up the compass. “Sure you do.” “Hey, that’s for peace of mind. Do you have any idea how dark it’s going to be in those woods?” “What did I get myself into?” I sighed. Expecting him to change his mind and give up on his grand plan made me the bigger idiot out of the two of us. “Twenty per cent,” Dallas said. “Gee, why am I not doing it for free? I don’t mind scrubbing toilets for the rest of my life.”We drove in silence for half an hour before Dallas cleared his throat and resumed a conversation, still scowling. “How’s the job?” I shrugged. “Okay. I’ve done worse.” Dallas smiled and steered the car onto a narrow path, then killed the engine. “You definitely have. I remember when you glued tattoos all over yourself in the hope to get the receptionist job at a tattoo parlor.” “I looked ridiculous.” I returned the smile. “Shame they realized my body art was fake.” He gave my hand a quick squeeze. “This is our chance, Amber. We’ll make it.” With a groan, I buttoned up my coat and exited the warmth of the car. The inclining track was narrow, surrounded by tall trees. The moon hung low in the sky, casting a soft glow on my brother’s face. A cold wind whipped my hair against my skin. Dallas pulled out the compass, threw the backpack over his shoulder, switched on the flashlight and locked the car. I looked at him with raised eyebrows. “Come on.” He motioned me to follow and set off up the winding trail. “Are you sure this is safe? You’re not going to get us lost, are you?” I poked him in the back, but he didn’t reply. I could only hope his lack of reassurance originated from deep concentration rather than from an inability to dispel my fears. The air grew colder with every wearying pace I made. Dallas marched in silence, but I didn’t fail to notice the hesitation in his steps every now and then. The trail wound upward, climbing into complete darkness. The stars in the sky looked like pale, gleaming dots too far away to cast any light through the thick canopy above our head. Although the ground was frozen and bare of twigs, I stumbled more than once. By the time Dallas stopped to consult his compass yet again, my thighs ached and I felt blisters forming on my feet. I could hear my own panting and decided it was time to join the gym. Plopping down on the chilly ground, I remembered I wore my favorite jeans and jumped up. “So, how’s that compass thing working for you? How long until we get there?” I asked. “What are you, five? It’s not far from here.” Dallas resumed his walk. I took a deep breath and followed. There was something in the air. I could feel an eerie vibe as though the air trembled. Twigs snapped, a soft humming carried over from the trees. I stopped dead in my tracks whispering, “Dallas? Do you hear that?” My brother threw an irritated glance over his shoulder. “What now? No break.” A soft whistle echoed in the distance. “I think someone’s following us.” I peered behind me, noticing a blue streak of light flashing through the black night.

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