Elizabeth’s skin tingled, almost as if he were standing right next to her and not five feet away. Even the hairs on her arms were alive, standing amidst the goose bumps. With the benefit of this close proximity, she could catch the details of him: his imposing height; the olive skin; the beguiling wave of dark hair as it brushed his shoulders, having maneuvered out from that ponytail; the piercing silver-blue of his eyes as they fixed on her.
Elizabeth gulped, striving for breath and balance. As she lowered her gaze from his, she couldn’t help spying the long, faded scar that stretched from high cheekbone to strong jawline.
A carny. A forbidden glimmer on the edges of her safe, boring world. If only she had the guts to glance back at him.
Clearly, his hungry stare hadn’t been lost on Spencer. Jealousy got the better of his menacing walk as he moved toward the Ferris wheel man.
“Don’t look at our women like that,” he said.
Holding back a groan, Elizabeth merely shook her head. Testosterone. “Cut it out, Spencer.”
Her platinum-haired friend planted himself in front of the stranger. “Next thing you know, these creeps will be combing our streets and getting you women into trouble.”
“Would you come out of your cave and let the truck through?” At this point, Elizabeth wanted to sock Spencer herself. Civilized people didn’t act this way, especially ones that had been carrying morally superior picket signs only moments ago.
However, the truck driver beat her to it.
With a burst of speed, the shorter man yelled, “You don’t talk to him that way, Buttercup!” and gave Spencer a good shove.
While they wrangled with each other, the picketers swarmed closer to the gates…
…until a crowd of carnies blocked the entrance, buttressing the sides of the Ferris wheel man.
Since the CMB consisted mainly of middle-aged couples, senior citizens and a few church-going under-twenties, they weren’t exactly in fighting shape. But they could sure tongue-lash with the best of them.
As the bitter comments roared around Elizabeth, she caught sight of her mother herding a frightened Abe and Abby together while trying to pull her committee back. In the meantime, the Ferris wheel man shook his head and blew out a deep breath, hands on his jeaned hips.
Then the unthinkable happened.
The committee had vowed not to step foot inside the carnival, but with the force of traded punches, Spencer and the carny stumbled over the line. Right next to the Ferris wheel man.
Everything happened so quickly, Elizabeth didn’t even have time to inhale.
After a particularly solid punch, Spencer held the weakened carny by the collar, then cocked back his fist for another go. That’s when the Ferris wheel man stepped in.
He gripped Spencer by the wrist, stopping the forward arc of his intended punch.
For a split second, no one moved. But then Spencer tugged at his hand, dropped the carny to the ground, and in a flurry of energy, jammed his fist upward, right into the Ferris wheel man’s cheek.
The powerful carny merely kept holding Spencer’s fist, looking only slightly put out by the assault. Even so, Elizabeth saw a slice of blood emerging on his darkened skin. A cut from Spencer’s high-school ring.
“Spencer!” she yelled, rushing over and yanking on his other arm to bring him back to the town side of the line.
He seemed chastised by her schoolteacher tone, by his ridiculous show of violence. When she pushed him farther into the quieted crowd of picketers, he didn’t resist. Her mother leveled a lethal stare at him, then led him away by the button-down sleeve toward the cars, with the twins following behind.
Elizabeth turned her back to all the carnies: the heavily made-up women in their exotic satin costumes, the barkers who manned their games with their white straw hats, the sweating men in grimy T-shirts.
“I can’t believe you all…us all,” she said to the CMB, voice quivering in pent-up shame. “Is this what we’ve come to?”
She whipped around, face to chest with the Ferris wheel man. Her heart caught in her throat as she tilted her gaze upward and he locked eyes with her once again.
Knees turning to liquid, she took a deep breath and gathered her courage, reached up and touched his wound with a sense of wonder. Today’s slight injury was positioned just below the longer scar.
I’m sorry, she thought. So sorry.
Once again, time slowed, floated around them, preserving the electric contact of her innocent caress.
Seconds, hours. The longing of an endless sigh.
Someone in back of her gasped, jarring her out of the moment. She’d gone too far, hadn’t she?
When Elizabeth blinked, the Ferris wheel man did, too. Then he jerked back, a delayed reaction to her unexpected gesture.
She was a townie, a picketing one. What was she doing making overtures to the so-called enemy?
As she searched for an answer, the shock faded from his expression, replaced by that carefree smile she’d first seen when he’d been balancing on the Ferris wheel.
The sexy acknowledgment that she had been staring at him, that she had been interested.
Still, he kept backing up, into the crowd of carnies, their postures wary.
“No need for lectures, Miss,” he said, voice light, as if he tolerated punches to the face every day of his life and had learned to enjoy it. He gave her an easy wink. “You just stay on your side, and we’ll stay on ours.”
He glanced pointedly at her sandaled feet, and without thinking, Elizabeth stepped back, knowing she wasn’t welcome on this patch of territory.
As soon as she got to the line, she felt a hand close over her arm, pulling her back into the committee. Returning her to where she belonged.
It was Cassie Twain. As they walked, they passed the fighting carny—Hudson. He stared at Cassie, his bloodied brow wrinkled. She ignored him and kept moving.
“Uppity, aren’t they?” she asked. “I hope this episode makes them reconsider and pack it up.”
A response stuck in Elizabeth’s throat as the CMB took up chanting again, their message louder than before. They’d been energized by the fight, hadn’t they?
One last time, Elizabeth glanced over her shoulder, finding that the Ferris wheel man was walking backward, watching her, too.
Then he was erased by a surge of his own people as they surrounded him.
The gate slammed shut, telling Elizabeth once and for all that she was locked out.
That night, after the carnival shut down and the midway was left deserted, Carlo Fuentes stood to the rear of the benches surrounding a community bonfire. He was leaning against the manager’s RV office, taking part in the assembly, yet, at the same time, not really taking part in it. Waiting for the crowd to talk itself out, to come to some understanding of what was going on in Blossom County.
The rest of the carnies, some still in costume, some freshly showered for a night of revelry or relaxation, were taking turns chattering, sorting through the consequences of standing up for themselves against the Committee for Moral Behavior. Firelight danced over the red silk of the tents, the aluminum shells of their motor homes. That intoxicating “fair smell”—a mix of animals, deep-fry grease and hay—hung in the warm air.
Home, he thought. The