Maddy stared at the tiny man who could have walked from the pages of the Celtic Myth volumes that she used to teach her class. She’d been piecing clues together for the last five years, but now that she had the Leprechaun and gold in her sight, she realized she’d never really believed.
The creature’s bored voice. and raised bushy eyebrows caused her to study him. He either didn’t care about the outcome, or he wanted to hurry her along for another reason. Leprechauns were known for their trickery. She needed time to puzzle it out. “Were you born one of the Wee Folk?”
He looked startled for a moment, then something else, regret or anger passed over his features. “We’re not allowed to tell of our past. As ye found me out, you need to choose.”
She twisted her long black hair into a knot at her nape, feeling the warmth of the morning sun on her bare arms. Her life had always been about her work. At twenty-seven she’d surpassed many in her field, but here she was, with the proof that her theories were correct, and she’d have no one to share her accomplishment. “How much gold is in the pot?”
“Does it really matter?” He moved to the overflowing kettle, which sat atop a mound in the center of the glen. Birds sang sweetly and butterflies wove patterns in the air above his head, but he reached down, hefted a gold coin, then tossed it at her. “More than you’ll ever need.”
Her hand came up, but the coin bounced off the tips of her fingers. Okay, so maybe she didn’t have great hand-eye coordination.
The Leprechaun smirked.
“Who needs to be able to catch?” She turned, then bent to retrieve the coin from the grass. Maybe he would disappear if she didn’t keep him in her sight. When she spun around it was obvious the Leprechaun had been ogling her backside. “Are all the fairy folk this rude?”
She could see it in his eyes, he meant what he said. “Thank you.” Somehow, this little man made her feel more attractive than the hollow compliments of the grad students and professor’s she’d known. “Do you have a name?”
“I’ve not got all day.” In truth, he had nothing but time. Still, her interest in him hurt. It stirred hope, and hope could cut deeper than the keenest blade.
When she simply stared at him with those black-fringed blue eyes he let out a noisy breath. “ Fine, ‘tis Maximilian.”
“Max.” Her low voice caressed his name.” He swallowed. For three hundred years he’d played out this same scenario. For the first hundred, he’d tried seducing the women. It had been humiliating to realize that without his true form, no woman saw beyond the shine of gold. And only a woman who chose him over money could free him from his hell.
“Nowhere, in any of my books, does it say anything about making a choice.” The woman tipped her head and her eyes narrowed. “The gold should be mine because I outwitted you.”
“You didn’t. I let you find me.” He shoved his hands in his pocket. “I always let beautiful women find me. It’s an old habit. One I should break.” Why would a woman chose what he’d become over security?
She tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear. “What happens if I choose you?”
Max’s heart started to pound. He’d never been asked that question before. “Look, Miss..” He held his hands out, palms up, fingers spread. “What is your name?”
“Look, Maddy. I don’t know. It’s never happened.” He took a deep breath, and closed his eyes. “I suspect we’ll be bound in some way.”
“How long what?”
“Have you been doing this job?”
“Nearly three hundred years.”
The expression of pity on her face made him angry. He’d brought this on himself with his arrogance and pride, but he would not let her feel sorry for him. “I don’t need your pity, or your help. You’ll be leaving once you claim your gold.”
“No, I won’t.” She stepped to him and smoothed down one scraggly eyebrow. “I was never in this for the money. I needed to prove that magic exists. And now I know it does.”
He searched her face, and what he saw made hope slam into his chest. She smiled, a smile that warmed her face, her eyes – and his heart.
“I chose you Maximilian. Gold is fleeting. True riches lie in valuing others.”
He felt the change at her words. Mist swirled around him. His limbs stretched and he rolled his broad shoulders. As his vision cleared, he once again wore the dark, blue, velvet waistcoat that had been his on the night he’d unwisely taunted the witch.
Maddy stared at him, and he couldn’t help the smile that turned up the corners of his mouth at her incredulous expression. He bowed, then took her hand and brought it to his lips. “You have freed me.”
A voice filled the glade, and Max recognized the witch who’d put him through such torment. “Well, Max. I still don’t see the appeal, but obviously she’s smitten. Consider the gold my wedding gift.”
Her eyes had gone wide and her voice sounded shaky. “You’re gorgeous!”
“Well, that’s a start.” And he sealed their future with a kiss.