Carlo’s laugh had a ring of disbelief to it. “Me? In Blossom?”
“I saw you. And I sensed hard times following your visit.”
He shook his head. Visions from the past—a small-town jailhouse and a joke of a trial—assaulted him. “You know I’m not stupid enough to cross over. Never again.”
“Tell me that later in the week.”
His idiot of a heart gave a leap as he imagined golden hair and warm blue eyes.
Did this have something to do with the townie? He wasn’t going to follow some woman, even this one, anywhere outside. Not for anything.
“Don’t say I didn’t tell you so.” With that, Cherry opened the gate, then crossed over.
Carlo watched her leave, knowing she was going to visit her fiancé, Jason Strong.
Knowing that, for her, town wasn’t off-limits anymore.
The sun rose, arced its way over Blossom, then set once again, leaving a keenly frustrated Elizabeth in its wake.
All last night, all day she’d thought about him. The look. The touch.
The thrill of reveling under just one more magic gaze from a man who was perilously out of her league.
She couldn’t help it. Even though Elizabeth had spent the past couple of weeks judging youth contests at the fair, she was out of excuses to be inside of the fairgrounds now. But tonight, she created a thousand more and went there again. Putting on her favorite flowered sundress, she drove to the festivities alone, hoping no one would recognize her car parked behind a massive oak in the dirt lot.
By the time she paid for a ticket and walked past the main gates, she’d convinced even herself that she was justified in being here.
I’m just going to check out the prize horses and goats, she told herself. I’ll use my observations to formulate a good lesson plan at the end of vacation when I’m back in the classroom. Horses go “neeeigh.” Goats go “eeeeeh.” Excellent first-grader stuff.
Yup, that’s all she was doing. Research. Her mother would even understand—as long as Elizabeth stayed inside the fair itself.
And didn’t go to the carnival.
Yet just before closing, she found herself in the shadows of it. She stood near the flaps of the belly dancing tent on the midway, watching scantily clad twins undulate their bellies in front of wide-eyed men.
Research, she told herself, peeking around every few seconds and hoping to catch one, yes, one more glimpse of the Ferris wheel man.
She was such a lost cause.
But all she saw were clots of teenagers eating cotton candy and heading for the Scrambler. Out-of-towners who’d traveled from the surrounding dry counties in order to enjoy the very wet Blossom County Fair’s beer garden.
This was ridiculous, sneaking around, playing out an impossible crush that barely existed. She shouldn’t be here.
Before she left, she couldn’t resist one more glance at the dancers. The sinuous music slid around her senses, and she wondered what it’d be like to move that way around a man, tempting him, inviting him to see underneath her sheer facade of schoolteacher primness.
Would the Ferris wheel man watch her as he had yesterday, with intense yearning? A hint of something more? Something Elizabeth had never experienced in her sheltered life.
When a deep, familiar voice spoke from the nearby darkness, Elizabeth almost jumped, her hand to her stuttering heart.
“Picket line’s due south of here,” he said.
The unscarred half of his face was lit by light from the tent, so Elizabeth could see he was grinning, probably amused that she was too shy to step foot into the show.
She realized she was beaming right back at him, so happy that he’d found her.
Did that mean he’d been looking?
What should she say to him? Her mind whirred with the need to invent something that wouldn’t make her sound like she’d come here just to see him.
“How’s the cut?” she blurted. “You know. The one on your face?”
You know, she mocked herself, wanting to smack her head. The one you got when Spencer clobbered you? The one next to that long scar that absolutely screams “scary but exciting”?
Graceful it was not, but the question lured him farther into the light. He stood before her, smelling of musk and something as exotic as the dancing inside that tent. Tall. Very, very tall. And…oh, really gorgeous in a rough way. His smile enchanted the tar out of her.
He lightly gestured to the cut Spencer had given him. It was barely there now. “I’m a quick healer. Did you come here just to check up on me?”
“Because I thought your group wasn’t allowed to visit. I should think it would go against your philosophy of despising us.”
“You’d think.” Elizabeth nodded, trying to make her words as slow and careful as possible. Of course, she was running the chance that he would believe she was dim, but it was better than bursting out with her true feelings. “Or you could argue that if I don’t visit the carnival, I don’t really have an idea of what we’re protesting. Now I know what I’m up against.”
So, clearly she had a great reason for being here.
Boy, she was so bad at this strangers-in-the-night talk. She’d never been this electrified around a guy before. It was terrifying, making her think she had no say over herself, that she would start bouncing off solid objects any moment because she was so keyed up.
No wonder she’d never been with a man before. Curse of the virgin.
He still seemed highly entertained by her, his silver-blue eyes flashing with mirth.
Oh, somebody save her.
“Well,” she said, just to kill the silence between them. The carnival music seemed much too loud, provoking more anxiety. “Glad to see you’re recovering.”
He just laughed, glanced at the ground, then right back up at her from underneath his brows, acknowledging how much of a struggle she was having here.
“I don’t know your name,” he said softly.
Elizabeth willed herself to talk, but she couldn’t.
Holding out his hand, he rescued her. “Carlo Fuentes.”
She looked at it like he’d offered her a sizzling firecracker that would take her fingers right off. And, when she reached out to clasp his grip, that’s sure what it felt like.
She swallowed. “Elizabeth Dupres.”
They didn’t shake on it, merely allowed the contact to linger. His skin was calloused, foreign against the pampered softness of her own.
They held each other so long that the handshake ceased to mean anything. Or maybe it meant too much now.
Embarrassed by the intimacy of such a simple gesture, she removed her hand and crossed her arms over her chest. Such a dork.
“And what’s your boyfriend’s name?” he asked. “You know, the one who took the cheap shot at me yesterday?”
She couldn’t deny that. “Spencer Cahill. But he’s not…my boyfriend.”
“He’s just got too many hormones rampaging around that superhero body of his. You were the most convenient way to spend them.”