But he didn’t dare. Even if his body was furnacing out of control, he wouldn’t touch an outsider. Getting closer wasn’t any different from stepping into town limits, and he knew what that would get him.
Still, he could tell that Elizabeth was one of those “good girls,” a bright-eyed debutante who toyed with the idea of a carny who earned his pay through sweat and “manly” work. What she didn’t realize yet was that he was only a guy who’d been glorified by cut-rate B movies and romantic fantasies spun from the minds of bored women. He encountered Elizabeths at every stop.
But he usually did a much better job of resisting them.
He’d been overseeing ride operations when he had seen her loitering near this tent. One more flirty encounter would do no harm, he’d told himself.
But that’s not what his body was telling him. Even the useless lump of coal in his chest was chiming in with warnings of heat and danger.
“You’ll be picketing again tomorrow?” he asked, needing to get to safer ground, to remove himself a little.
“I’m not out there every day.”
She frowned, but the expression was so fleeting Carlo barely caught it.
“Just out of curiosity, can I ask why you do it?”
“Why I’m picketing? Well…It’s complicated.”
“For us carnies, yeah. Your CMB does make things complicated.” He grinned again, letting her know he could care less about the group.
Another of her frowns twisted at his gut, making his stomach go slightly off balance.
A ride on a roller coaster, he thought.
“The CMB isn’t all bad,” she said, sounding so wistful that Carlo wanted to touch her, to absorb some of that purity he’d lost years ago.
She continued. “They’re genuinely concerned about the quality of life in Blossom. When crime started inching into our lives, they decided to take a stand.”
He didn’t comment on how she was using the word “they” over and over. It was more telling than any explanation.
“Do you really think carnies are at the root of all the town’s problems?” he asked. “Are we that awful?”
She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, almost drawing his attention away from the slow gaze she ran down his body, from head to foot.
Warmth washed over him, a hunger so powerful that he almost fell to his knees in front of her.
Had she done that on purpose?
No. Based on her nonreaction, she hadn’t been aware of what he’d usually term a “get on over here, big boy” glance.
“You’re not all bad,” she said softly, her words barely covering the carnival tunes, the tent music. “It’s just that the Swindle…”
“I’m aware of it.” The comment came out gruffer than he’d intended.
He was still recovering from her unknowing come-on.
She straightened up and peered inside the tent again, probably to avoid the tension between them. “At any rate, you don’t seem too evil.” When she looked back at him, hope brimmed over in her gaze. “Are you?”
Carlo could only chuff at that. If only she knew.
He moved away a few feet, the expectation in her eyes digging into him. “Go home, Elizabeth, before someone on your committee catches you here.”
“It was nice meeting you, even for just a night.” He started to walk away.
The sound of her voice wrapping around his name halted him. He imagined her gentle, cupped hands holding his essence, sheltering him like a nest cradling a wounded eagle.
When he didn’t answer, she spoke again.
She sounded so forlorn. It was all he could do to stop himself from turning back around and dragging her against his body to show her how bad he really could be.
Yet, instead of looking at her again, he resumed his pace, telling himself that his memories of a woman in a flowered sundress standing in the light of a carnival tent would be enough.
One sleepless night later, he admitted to himself that it wasn’t.
When Elizabeth returned to her cottage, which was in the backyard of the Dupres’s mini-mansion, she couldn’t resist standing in front of her long, time-clouded, gilded mirror.
While running her hands along the sides of her dress, she tried to move her stomach like she’d seen the belly dancers do. Waves of taut flesh, sand dunes in the wind.
She practiced for fifteen minutes then, resigned to the fact that she came off more like someone who’d eaten a bad meal than an exotic sexpot, she went to bed.
Tucked in with fantasies of Carlo Fuentes.
Carlo. Fuentes. Carlo Fuentes. Elizabeth Fue—
Oh, nice regression into fifth grade, she thought, turning over and finally getting to sleep.
The next morning she was spared having to picket. The CMB had enough members to cover rotating shifts every third day, so she spent her time preparing decorations for her classroom. School had let out only recently, but she was already excited about her next batch of children. Maybe she could even visit the fair’s craft show to secure some colorful, interesting objects for her students’ room.
Wonderful idea. Yes. More fair research!
Then she recalled how Carlo had told her to go home, as if he’d gotten tired of her infatuation already.
So much for adoration at first sight.
However, later that day, destiny intervened in the guise of a phone call.
Spencer Cahill wanted to know if she would hang out at the Dairy Dream with a “bunch of us.” Though she met her friends regularly there, this time she managed to talk him and a few others into entering the line-dancing competition that would be held this evening instead. Might as well take advantage of the fair while it was here, she said to them on the phone, thoroughly justifying the inspired idea.
She hated to take advantage of their willingness, but she had to get back there. Had to revel in these new feelings.
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