She needed something to wash away the taste of this demonstration. Ever since the fair had opened, tempers had gone up degree by degree, day by day. The chants were getting uglier, more degrading.
Sighing, she glanced toward the carnival itself. Beyond the gates, a different world bloomed. A waiting garden of color consisting of steel-fortified rides, the striped tents of the midway, the looming specter of the Funhouse in the distance. Above it all reigned the Ferris wheel, silent in its majesty. A man wearing faded jeans, work boots and no shirt started to climb it, most likely doing a safety check. With his back to her, his browned skin shone in the sun, emphasizing every line of sinew and muscle. His collar-length black hair, held back in a low ponytail that kept losing strands with every aggressive movement, hid his face from Elizabeth.
She’d seen him around before, but hadn’t gotten a good look at his features. Intrigued, she watched the carny while absently reaching into the cooler and plucking out an icy bottle of grape soda. Knowing it was too early for sugary drinks, she opened it anyway, sipped, then held the chilly glass against her face, half hoping the gesture would hide her from the picketing.
Mmmm, what a fine specimen of man, she thought, her heart skipping every time the carny moved to a higher position on the wheel, powerful arms bunching and straining.
Feeling watched, Elizabeth bristled, glancing away from him and toward her mother.
Bitsy Dupres, head of the Committee for Moral Behavior.
Even in the increasing heat of morning, she looked fresh and perfect, her blond hair held back in a classy chignon, her slim figure garbed in a pressed linen summer skirt-suit with pearls.
Elizabeth conjured her sweetest smile. Just taking a break, Mom.
She wished it could be for the rest of the year. Or maybe just for these last two weeks of the fair.
Fondly, her mother smiled back, then returned to her self-appointed job as spiritual guardian of Blossom, Texas. Like the conductor of a symphony, she led the picketing townsfolk, conviction in every beat of their chant.
Something wicked this way comes,
Carnies, vagrants, cheaters, bums!
Without a doubt, Elizabeth was here for her mom more than anything else. And, truth to tell, she did want what was best for the citizens—especially the children—of Blossom, too. Being a first-grade teacher forced a bit of protectiveness into her soul. She could understand how her own mother and all these other concerned members felt about keeping their town safe from outsiders.
She just wished they all could exercise a little more mercy. There was no need to call them “bums,” for Heaven’s sake.
A picketer left the line to join her. Spencer Cahill, son of the local Dairy Dream owner, the platinum-haired, blue-eyed dreamboat on every matchmaking mama’s wish list.
“Mind grabbing me a soda, too?” he asked, his cheeks flushed pink.
Elizabeth felt like telling him that, the last time she’d looked, he had two hands perfectly good for picking up a bottle. Maybe her expression said it for her.
Spencer laughed. “Picketing makes you cranky, Bets.”
“I outgrew that name when we graduated from high school,” Elizabeth said sweetly. Any woman who’d reached the age of twenty-three deserved a more dignified moniker.
Besides, “Bets” was one step away from “Bitsy.” And contrary to popular belief, Elizabeth wasn’t a version of her mom. As much as they loved each other, as much as their golden hair and dark blue eyes reflected each other, they were different.
That’s what she told herself, anyway.
“And,” added Elizabeth, encouraged by her wonderfully liberating train of thought, “I’m not cranky. I’m just…”
She took a sip, wondering how much to say to Spencer. Oh, what the hey. “Why are we even out here?”
“Because these carny creeps are trouble.”
“Who’s more trouble?” she asked, casting a surreptitious glance toward the Ferris wheel man again. He was making his way to the center of the structure. “The carnival workers or the good citizens of Blossom? Seems like we’ve stirred up more trouble than these strangers could even think of doing.”
Not that her mother enjoyed hearing this when Elizabeth brought it up. Spencer didn’t seem to like it, either.
“See, now, that’s what the committee was afraid of. When those other carnies came to town, two years ago, they messed with everyone’s minds just as surely as it’s happening now. Only, back then, it was the Swindle.”
Ah, yes, thought Elizabeth, running another gaze over the brawny carny as he tested the cars on the Ferris wheel. The Swindle.
It had started when, during a previous fair, a gypsy fortune-teller predicted that certain townsfolk would see great wealth soon. Shortly thereafter, when the fair and its contracted carnival had left town, a salesman had moseyed into Blossom, schilling real-estate stock. Many of the people who had been privy to the fortune-teller’s good news had trustingly bought into the deal…and lost a lot of money.
Turns out, the stock had been phony. Elizabeth knew this better than most people because her family had been one of the victims—not that anyone except their financial consultants knew. Her father, may the optimistic family man rest in peace, had wanted to pay off Elizabeth’s college loans in one fell swoop while setting him and Bitsy up for life. Not that they’d been bad off in the first place, but with Carlton Dupres, keeping his wife happy meant everything. Oddly enough, Bitsy had never demanded this much of him, but he’d squandered their savings anyway in the hopes of keeping up their appearances as the social leaders of Blossom.
At any rate, just before Elizabeth’s father died, the fair board decided to ban another carnival from attaching itself to the annual fair in the future. Consequently, last year’s event had been a financial disaster, and the town suffered from this miscalculation even now.
It was around the time of the ban that Bitsy started the Committee for Moral Behavior—CMB for short. A group that led the fight against unsavory enemies of the town, like the criminals that had pulled the Swindle.
“Spencer,” she said, tearing her eyes away from the Ferris wheel worker, from the fantasy of something beautiful and exciting finding its way into Blossom, “we learned our lesson from the Swindle. There’s no reason to overreact now. The carnies have been here all month, and they’re not going to be forced out.”
“What about the vandalism that’s been happening since they came into town?”
Sure, some CMB members had reported stolen lawn ornaments this summer, but that had been due more to bored teenagers than carnies. More troubling, though, had been the rumors of serious sabotage within the carnival itself. This wasn’t so easily explained.
But instead of arguing, Elizabeth set her still-full bottle on the sign-in table and wandered to the front gates, her yardstick sign propped on her shoulder. She greeted the deputies as the shadow of the Ferris wheel covered her, lending her a break from all the heat, the hatred. A breeze whipped her white sundress around her legs and she removed her hat, freeing her long hair from its confines and allowing it to tumble down her back. She fanned herself with the brim, once again locking her gaze on the wheel.
With a start, she saw that the shirtless carny had positioned himself near the top, balancing there while holding on with one hand. Elizabeth’s breath caught in her chest.
Was he some kind of crazy daredevil?
As if sensing her question, he swung himself outward while still holding on, moving toward the next car in line for the safety check. A white