And as their gazes connected, he didn’t look away, either.
It was as if he were the center of a steel sun, the beams flaring outward from his body, a world orbiting around him. Her world.
She dropped her hat. Everything crystallized, almost as if time had stopped, capturing the committee’s chanting in one long syllable. Reducing her body to a melting buzz of awareness.
Was this what poets talked about in all of her old college textbooks? Was this some kind of Shakespearean moment that existed only on stage and in the minds of fools and dreamers?
Surprise, excitement, even complete terror—that’s what was pumping through her right now.
Heavens, she couldn’t even smile at him, could only stand there and gape at his rugged beauty.
He raised his hand very slowly to his forehead, gave her a jaunty salute. A softer smile.
In the back of her mind, reality creeped in.
Crooks and robbers, sleaze and scum,
Go on back where you came from!
It seemed like the CMB had doubled their efforts. Elizabeth blinked, adrenaline and a dose of good old-fashioned shyness forcing her to break eye contact with the carny and to focus on the CMB. They’d spotted the shirtless man and had halted their picket line to face him, jabbing their signs in the air to emphasize their message.
Dizzy from the intensity of the odd exchange, Elizabeth bent down to pick up her hat, shook it free of dirt, plopped it back on her head and turned around to go…where? Back to picketing?
Anywhere that would stop her hands from shaking, her heart from fluttering.
But a truckload of new arrivals thankfully redirected her attention. Replacement picketers, scheduled to take the next shift. Good. Making nice with the carnies wasn’t something a girl like her did. A Dupres. An upstanding member of the community.
Cassie and Fred Twain, her mother’s most stalwart associates and friends, walked toward the picket line, their two young children running ahead of them to greet Bitsy, who was their frequent babysitter.
Cassie was a real-estate agent and attorney, a mousy woman sporting bobbed hair and a discount-catalog shorts ensemble. Burly Fred, with his prematurely graying strands and watery eyes, looked as resigned as ever. A banker at Strong Bank and Trust, he fit the part—overworked and slightly henpecked.
As Bitsy scooped the kids into a hug, she glowed with happiness, ecstatic to greet towheaded Abe and Abby no matter the time or day.
Though Elizabeth always looked forward to seeing her former first-grade students, she also knew this was no place for the Twain twins.
Setting her sign down, she made a beeline over to them. Her mother kissed the giggling children and encouraged them to return to their parents before Elizabeth got there.
“I know, Elizabeth.” Her mother’s hand was cool as it rested on Elizabeth’s bare, sunscreen-covered arm. “But Cassie and Fred are our next shift leaders.”
“Cassie and Fred are exposing their children to a lot of ugliness. I’m being exposed to it, too, and it’s not my idea of a relaxing summer vacation, if you know what I mean.”
Bitsy sighed, no doubt because she and Elizabeth had discussed this over home-cooked lunches and dinners a hundred times before. “I’ll take care of Abe and Abby, bring them home with me right now. Would that make you feel better?”
“Yes, it would.” Jeez, she hated arguing with her mom. Whenever they did—which was too often—Elizabeth felt a sense of disloyalty. Her mother always got that sad, betrayed glaze to her eyes as she reminded Elizabeth of what had happened to her father. About the Swindle. About the bad elements of this world and what good people needed to do to make their homes safe again.
Knowing how the rest of this conversation would go, Elizabeth braced herself. “The CMB has made its point here. Why don’t we concentrate on something more worthwhile, like the folks in the next county who had property damaged in the tornado? Two days have gone by and they still need help.”
“We’ve seen to getting our neighbors food and shelter.” Her mother’s voice was so calm, the soft lilt of a true believer. “I’m fairly certain that the only thing that needs repairing is your attitude.”
Here they went again. Her mother’s eyes were starting to tear over. Even if her father had died a year and a half ago, the anguish was still too fresh, still too hurtful to them both. After all, Bitsy Dupres was battling “evil”—the sort that had killed her Carlton. At least, in her mind.
Frustrated by the trap she found herself in, Elizabeth couldn’t help sneaking a peek at the Ferris wheel, just to escape her mom’s disappointment. The carny was gone, the wheel isolated and cold.
It’s just a ride now, she thought. Not another world I can fantasize about.
Wanting to cool off the tension between her and her mom, Elizabeth walked back toward the gates, intending to finish her soda in peace and separate herself from this whole mess, from her own pain at losing a father so young, from losing a mother to a cause that was spinning more out of control by the month.
It was her mom’s voice. Startled, she stopped in her tracks. The squeal of brakes pulled Elizabeth out of her thoughts and into a dervish of dust.
Her heart punching her ribs, she faced an equipment truck that had been headed for the entrance. The driver’s door flew open and a squat carny dressed in ratty, grease-stained clothing and a cowboy hat tumbled out. He darted toward her.
Aside from a decent impression of a heart attack, she thought everything was in order. “Sure, I—”
“What were you thinkin’, walking out in front of me like that? I could’ve—”
Spencer Cahill, who’d gone back to picketing since his earlier chat with Elizabeth, stepped in front of the rattled guy. “Back off.”
The former star linebacker of Sam Houston High School got into the carny’s space, tossing his picket sign by the wayside and narrowing his eyes.
The carny, though shorter by about a mile, didn’t seem to take kindly to Spencer’s bullying. He got right back in the other man’s face.
“Are you gonna be the one to back me off, Buttercup?”
Ooo, not a nickname Spencer would enjoy. Elizabeth moved forward to insert herself between the two men. “Listen, no one got hurt. Spencer, let him drive through.”
When he glanced at her, Elizabeth wanted to cringe at his bullheadedness. She’d known that Spencer had taken a hankering to her since their junior year of high school, but aside from an awkward let’s-go-as-friends senior prom date, she’d made it clear that they were as platonic as platonic can be.
“It” just wasn’t there. That spark. That…whatever she’d felt while staring at the Ferris wheel man.
“Miss.” The carny had taken off his hat, a sign of courtesy. “If you don’t mind me sayin’ so, I appreciate your willingness to referee this here problem, but I don’t take kindly to being ordered around by a sign-carryin’ townie boy.”
“Boy…?” Spencer’s neck reddened, the color slipping upward until he looked likely to have steam whistle out his ears. “Who’s the boy?”
They were bellying up to each other again. By now, the other picketers had ventured closer, beginning to hurl insults at the carny. Both his and Spencer’s neck veins were taut, and neither was giving ground.
Until a deep, half-amused voice sounded from across