I rolled my eyes and glanced at the large tent’s floor, fixing my best friend, Luke Bishop, with a dark look. “I am not molesting the tiger. Get your head out of the gutter.”
“You’re stroking him like he’s going to make you purr,” Luke countered, hopping onto the brightly lit stage where I stood and swaggering to my side. That’s what he does best: swagger. He knows it, and I know it, too. “You can’t slip your toe into the animal dating pool and think no one is going to notice, Poet. It’s the kind of scandal this place was made for.”
I pursed my lips, the desire to laugh warring with the urge to yank huge hunks of Luke’s blond hair out of his head. He thinks he’s cute, so he says the most outrageous things and then sits back to enjoy how people react. Most of the time he’s pleased, because he’s too handsome – and ridiculously charming when he wants to be – for people to stay angry with him for long. I’m not most people, though.
My name is Poet Parker and I’m a fortune teller. No, you read that right. I tell fortunes for a living for Mystic Caravan Circus, one of the few traveling circuses still in operation in the United States. I’m also one of the group’s business managers, although I prefer telling paying customers their futures to adding up line items on a spreadsheet. Unfortunately, my job isn’t one that lends itself to a lot of multitasking.
“Why would I date a tiger? We both know I’m more partial to dogs than cats,” I shot back, causing Luke to chuckle and the tiger to growl. I shifted my attention to the magnificent animal, which just happened to be wearing a pair of shorts. What? This is the circus, after all. “Suck it up, Seth. We both know you’re not my type.”
Seth tilted his head to the side, giving all appearances that he was a normal tiger hanging out with some humans for the afternoon, and then reared up on his hind legs and shifted into the handsome man I knew lurked beneath the fur. His drawstring shorts rode low on his hips and his chiseled chest was bare so everyone could appreciate the epitome of perfection that was his body. He ran a hand through his dark hair to push it into place – my overzealous petting from a few moments before caused it to stand on end – and winked. “I think we both know I could change your mind if I really wanted to,” he said. “I’m everyone’s type.”
I smirked. I couldn’t help myself. He had killer dimples – and his eight-pack abs weren’t bad either – and yet he still wasn’t my type. “I think you do fine when you stalk the circus grounds at night looking for your next tasty morsel,” I replied. “You’re a one-night man; two if you’re particularly interested or the woman in question has really big boobs, but you’re not a lifer.”
“Is that what you’re looking for?” Seth asked, reaching for the shirt hanging over the prop stool to our right. “I could be a lifer if you gave me the chance, Poet.”
“Don’t listen to him,” Luke scoffed, making a face. “Just like everyone else in this outfit, he wants to get in your pants … or skirt, as the day may have it. When the reality sets in about what a ballbuster you are, things are going to change and he’s going to run for the hills. Then where will we be without our tiger?”
Seth good-naturedly cuffed Luke on the back of the head. “I think Poet could tame my wild ways.”
“I think Poet would get you hot and bothered, and then make you wish you’d never been born when she starts that infernal nagging she does,” Luke countered.
I punched him in the stomach, catching him off guard.
“Oomph! I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, Poet,” Luke said, rubbing his stomach ruefully. “You like things a specific way – your way – and that has benefitted the circus for the past three years. I applaud your work ethic.”
“Thank you,” I said, crossing my arms over my chest. “I like to think I’m a hard worker.”
“You’re also a ballbuster,” Luke said, swiftly jumping out of the way when I lashed out again. “I guess it’s good you’re the love of my life or I would think you’re trying to hurt me.”
Luke’s blue eyes were full of mirth. I knew he wouldn’t trade our friendship for anything – including a regular delivery of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream – but his words still grated. “Just because I want things done a specific way – the right way, not my way, mind you – that doesn’t mean I’m a ballbuster. I’m a very nice woman and a wonderful boss.”
“You’re the best boss ever,” Seth said, winking at me as he slung an arm over my shoulders. “You’re the queen of bosses.”
“He’s only saying that because you sign his paycheck,” Luke interjected.
I sighed. I love the Mystic Caravan Circus – and all the crazies who travel with it – but the immature behavior is enough to give me pause on bad days. This was apparently gearing up to be a bad day. “I think we can all agree that I’m the most lovable person here and leave it at that,” I said, pasting a smile on my face. “If you don’t think I’m the most lovable person here, Luke, then you can make your own breakfast tomorrow.”
Luke frowned. He was many things: a shape-shifting wolf, a talented ringmaster and an occasional tightrope walker when the mood struck. He was also a menace in the kitchen. He gave up fixing anything but cold cereal years ago in favor of my delectable omelets. I was hitting below the belt. “You already know you’re my favorite person in the world,” he said. “I’ve been in love with you since I met you nine years ago. I think you’re the most lovable person in the world.”
“You’re still going to fix me breakfast every morning, right?”
I sighed. Luke was incorrigible. He also was my best source for laughter and the one person I knew would always be there in a crisis. “I will continue to make you breakfast as long as you continue to grovel.”
“Sold.” Luke brightened considerably. “Are you ready to do your final walk-through before tonight’s show?”
As business manager, it was my job to make sure everything was in place before the big show hit the big top before performances. As part of my duties I walked through the entire circus before an evening show to make sure things were how they should be – and no matter what Luke says, making sure things are how they’re supposed to be is not the same as molding the circus into my personal playground. Now – thanks to Luke and Seth – I was behind. I shook myself out of my reverie.
“You’re right,” I said. “I need to get moving. I still have the boardwalk to check and Max wants to see me before the gates open.”
Luke furrowed his brow. “Max? You’re not in trouble, are you?”
Maxwell Anderson was the real boss of Mystic Caravan Circus. He started the group thirty-five years ago and it’s still going strong, so he must have done something right when he launched this little endeavor. While he’d ceded the day-to-day operations to me, he remains the driving force behind all of the important decisions. When the hard choices have to be made, Max is the man who makes them – after listening to my opinion, of course.
“No,” I replied, shaking my head. “He said he had something he wanted to talk to me about, though. I’m not sure what it is. He didn’t sound upset, so don’t worry.”
Because Mystic Caravan is one of the few operations left in the circus game, most of the employees live under an ominous cloud, worrying that someday Max would fold the tent, leaving them without work. When you’re dealing with circus performers, you’re dealing with talented individuals. You’re also dealing with people who perform in niches. Those niches aren’t universally available in the “real world.” You might be able to convince a human resources rep to give you a shot on the loading dock if you’re the “World’s Strongest Man,” but good luck if you’ve spent twenty-five years as “Derek, the Dog-Faced Boy.”
“I didn’t say I was worried,” Luke scoffed.
“Okay.” I threw up my hands in surrender. “I need to get going. Are you coming with me or are you going to stay here and worry?” As well as he knew me, I like to think I know Luke better. Once he got wind that Max wanted to meet with me, there was no way he would let me conduct my rounds alone.
“I’ll come with you,” Luke said, causing me to bite my lip to keep from smiling. “I don’t want you to be lonely.”
“You’re a good friend, Luke.”
Luke slipped his arm around my shoulders and led me out of the tent. “I’m the best friend in the world. You should never forget that.”
“I’m thinking of having T-shirts made up,” I teased.
“Make sure they’re made from organic cotton,” Luke said. “You know I don’t like it when my clothing scratches me. It makes me angry, and no one likes me when I’m angry.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
IT TOOK me almost an hour to complete my rounds and when I had to stop in the midway to break up a fight between Gilly Schilling and Cal West – it seems the proprietress of the ring toss game and the owner of the Bushel Basket Toss were having a lover’s spat that spilled over for public consumption – I found myself in a time crunch. Max was expecting me and I was already five minutes late. He was not a fan of tardiness.
Luke struggled to keep up with me as I scampered across the open circus landscape. This was our last night in St. Louis, and while I wouldn’t miss Missouri’s summer humidity, I was a fan of the parcel we’d been camped on for the past week. I was going to miss the open field where we erected the carnival and the way the woods bordered the eastern boundary behind our trailers. Still, you don’t join the circus if you want to put down roots. The circus is for roamers, and I have a wandering heart.
Max was in his trailer when I entered. Luke was irritated at being left outside, but he wasn’t invited to this little pow wow. I thought it was going to be just Max and me, some new planned promotion about to be dumped in my lap. There was another man sitting on the couch when I entered, though, and he took my breath away.
Luke likes to joke about me dating in the animal pool, and the truth is I often prefer animals to people. I have limited tolerance for bull, and when you deal with the public as much as I do that’s a very dangerous proposition
The man on the couch jumped to his feet as I entered. His black hair was shorn close, highlighting the steep ridges of his cheekbones. His blue eyes were clear and friendly when they landed on me and I could tell me was taking stock of me as well.
I’m of Romani descent, although those lines are so faded they border on lost now. My hair is long and dark, almost to my waist, and my eyes are a bright teal – most of the time. I’ll explain more about that later, though.
As a fortune teller, I’m expected to play a part. On days when I’m not performing I prefer dressing down in cargo pants and tank tops, slipping into my comfortable flip flops and tennis shoes rather than tottering about in high heels. On performance days, though, I wear ankle-length skirts and billowing white tunics, sashes cinched at my waist and scarves tying back my ebony hair so I can see someone’s future without constantly pushing flyaway strands from my face. I embody the cliché – and I’m fine with it if the customers buy the role. Who I pretend to be during a performance is not who I am. That’s a line I straddle comfortably. It is those who can’t who wash out. You can tell straightaway when someone belongs with a circus troupe. The man I was staring at now didn’t look as if he belonged within a thousand feet of a circus. He looked as if he should be smiling back at me from the pages of a hipster catalog or sipping lattes with a willowy blonde as they pushed a tiny dog around in a stroller. What? I have attitude and I make snap judgments about people. It comes from sizing up those who plunk down twenty-five dollars to have their fortunes told.
“You’re late,” Max said, lifting a challenging eyebrow as I struggled to catch my breath.
“Five minutes,” I protested, making a face. “Cal and Gilly were fighting and I had to put an end to it before we start letting people in. I can’t make them fight on your schedule.”
Max rolled his eyes. “What were they fighting about now?”
“Gilly says Cal has been hitting on Raven and she’s sick of it.”
“What does Cal say?”
“He says he has a lazy eye and he can’t always control which way it looks,” I replied. “He doesn’t deny it might occasionally leer in Raven’s direction, but he says it’s involuntary.”
Max snorted. “Well, that’s just … typical.” He climbed out of his chair and moved to the center of the trailer. “I’m going to forgive you this time.”
I don’t know who he thought he was kidding. He forgives me every time. My parents are long dead – a car accident claimed them two weeks before my sixteenth birthday – and Max is the closest thing I have to a parent. He often looked at me as the daughter he never had – or wanted – but he puts up with my antics. “Thank you,” I said, opting to refrain from an argument in front of the stranger.
“I called you here because I want to introduce you to our new head of security,” Max said, smiling congenially as his gaze bounced between the stranger and me. “Poet Parker, I would like you to meet Kade Denton. When it comes to security decisions, he’s technically your new boss.”
“It’s nice to meet you,” I said, extending my hand. “I … wait, what did you just say?”
Amanda Lee is a sports reporter and internet editor for The Macomb Daily. An avid entertainment enthusiast, Lee will give her take on books, movies, music, television, technology, games, sports and even soap operas.
Lee is also the author of 11 books in three different series – including the Avery Shaw mysteries, Wicked Witches of the Midwest and Covenant College series. A fourth series about the everyday strife associated with being a grim reaper, will hit shelves later this summer.