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Nora Roberts

  For my sons,

  Life’s a circus.

  Go for it!

  Chapter One

  At the crack of the whip, twelve lions stood on their haunches and pawed the air. On command, they began to leap from pedestal to pedestal in a quick, close-formation, figure-eight pattern. This required split-second timing. With voice and hand commands the trainer kept the tawny, springing bodies moving.

  “Well done, Pandora.”

  At her name and the signal, the muscular lioness leaped to the ground and lay down on her side. One by one the others followed suit, until, snarling and baring their teeth, they stretched across the tanbark. A male was positioned beside each female; at a sharp reproof from the trainer, Merlin ceased nibbling on Ophelia’s ear.

  “Heads up!” They obeyed as the trainer walked briskly in front of them. The whip was tossed aside with a flourish, then, with apparent nonchalance, the trainer reclined lengthwise across the warm bodies. The center cat, a full-maned African, let out a great, echoing bellow. As a reward for his response to the cue, his ear was given a good scratching. The trainer rose from the feline couch, clapped hands and brought the lions to their feet. Then, with a hand signal, each was called by name and sent through the chute and into their cages. One stayed behind, a huge, black-maned cat who, like an ordinary tabby, circled and rubbed up against his trainer’s legs.

  Deftly, a rope was attached to a chain that was hidden under his mane. Then, with swift agility, the trainer mounted the lion’s back. As the door of the big cage opened, lion and rider passed through for a tour of the practice ring. When they reached the back door of the ring barn, Merlin, the obliging lion, was transferred to a wheel cage.

  “Well, Duffy.” Jo turned after the cage was secured. “Are we ready for the road?”

  Duffy was a small, round man with a monk’s fringe of chestnut hair and a face that exploded with ginger freckles. His open smile and Irish blue eyes gave him the look of an aging choirboy. His mind was sharp, shrewd and scrappy. He was the best manager Prescott’s Circus Colossus could have had.

  “Since we open in Ocala tomorrow,” he replied in a raspy voice, “you’d better be ready.” He shifted his fat cigar stump from the right side of his mouth to the left.

  Jo merely smiled, then stretched to loosen muscles grown taut during the thirty minutes in the cage. “My cats are ready, Duffy. It’s been a long winter. They need to get back on the road as much as the rest of us.”

  Duffy frowned. As circumstances had it, he stood only inches higher than his animal trainer. Widely spaced, almond-shaped eyes stared back at him. They were as sharp and green as emeralds, surrounded by thick, inky lashes. At the moment they were fearless and amused, but Duffy had seen them frightened, vulnerable and lost. He shifted his cigar again and took two quick puffs as Jo gave a cage hand instructions.

  He remembered Steve Wilder, Jo’s father. He had been one of the best cat men in the business. Jo was as good with the cats as Wilder had been. In some ways, Duffy acknowledged, even better. But she had the traits of her mother: delicate build; dark, passionate looks. Jolivette Wilder was as slender as her aerialist mother had been, with bold green eyes and straight, raven black hair that fell to just below her waist. Her brows were delicately arched, her nose small and straight, her cheekbones high and elegant, while her mouth was full and soft. Her skin was tawny from the Florida sun; it added to her gypsy-like appearance. Confidence added spark to the beauty.

  Finishing her instructions, Jo tucked her arm through Duffy’s. She had seen that frown before. “Somebody quit?” she asked as they began to walk toward Duffy’s office.


  His monosyllabic reply caused Jo to lift a brow. It was not often Duffy answered any question briefly. Years of experience told her to hold her tongue as they moved across the compound.

  Rehearsals were going on everywhere. Vito the wire walker informally sharpened his act on a cable stretched between two trees. The Mendalsons called out to each other as they tossed their juggling pins high in the air, while the equestrian act led their horses into the ring barn. She saw one of the Stevenson girls walking on stilts. She’d be six now, Jo mused, tossing the hair from her eyes as she watched the young girl’s wavering progress. Jo remembered the year she had been born. It had been that same year that she had been allowed to work the big cage alone. She had been sixteen, and it had been another full year before she had been permitted to work an audience.

  For Jo, there had never been any home but the circus. She had been born during the winter break, had been tucked into her parents’ trailer the following spring to spend her first year and each subsequent one of her life thereafter on the road. She had inherited both her fascination and her flair with animals from her father, her style and grace of movement from her mother. Though she had lost both parents fifteen years before, they continued to influence her. Their legacy to her had been a world of restlessness, a world of fantasies. She had grown up playing with lion cubs, riding elephants, wearing spangles and traveling like a gypsy.

  Jo glanced down at a cluster of daffodils growing by the side of Prescott’s winter office and smiled. She remembered planting them when she had been thirteen and in love with a tumbler. She remembered, too, the man who had stooped beside her, offering advice on bulb planting and broken hearts. As Jo thought of Frank Prescott, her smile grew sad.

  “I still can’t believe he’s gone,” she murmured as she and Duffy moved inside.

  Duffy’s office was sparsely furnished with a wooden desk, metal filing cabinets and two spindly chairs. A collage of posters adorned the walls. They promised the amazing, the astounding, the incredible: elephants that danced, men who flew through the air, beautiful girls who spun by their teeth, raging tigers that rode horseback. Tumblers, clowns, lions, strong men, fat ladies, boys who could balance on their forefingers; they brought the magic of the circus into the drab little room.

  As Jo glanced over at a narrow pine door, Duffy followed her gaze. “I keep expecting him to come busting through there with some crazy new idea,” he mumbled as he began to fiddle with his prize possession, an automatic coffeemaker.

  “Do you?” With a sigh Jo straddled a chair, then rested her chin on its back. “We all miss him. It’s not going to seem the same without him this year.” She looked up suddenly, and her eyes were angry. “He wasn’t an old man, Duffy. Heart attacks should be for old men.” She brooded into space, touched again with the injustice of Frank Prescott’s death.

  He had been barely into his fifties and full of laughter and simple kindness. Jo had loved him and trusted him without reservation. At his death she had grieved for him more acutely than she had for her own parents. In her longest memory he had been the core of her life.

  “It’s been nearly six months,” Duffy said gruffly as he studied her face. When Jo glanced up, he stuck out a mug of coffee.

  “I know.” She took the mug, letting it warm her hands in the chilly March morning. Resolutely, she shook off the mood. Frank would not have wanted to leave sadness behind. Jo studied the coffee, then sipped. It was predictably dreadful. “Rumor has it we’re following last year’s route to the letter. Thirteen states.” Jo smiled, watching Duffy wince over his coffee before he downed it. “Not superstitious, are you?” She grinned, knowing he kept a four-leaf clover in his billfold.

  “Pah!” he said indignantly, coloring under his freckles. He set down his empty cup, then moved around his desk and sat behind it. When he folded his hands on the yellow blotter, Jo knew he was getting down to business. Through the open window she could hear the band rehearsing. “We should be in Ocala by six tomorrow,” he began. Dutifully, Jo nodded. “Should have the tents up before nine.”

  “The parade should be over by ten, and the
matinee will start at two,” Jo finished with a smile. “Duffy, you’re not going to ask me to work the menagerie in the sideshow again, are you?”

  “Should be a good crowd,” he replied, adroitly skirting her question. “Bonzo predicts clear skies.”

  “Bonzo should stick with pratfalls and unicycles.” She watched as Duffy chewed on the stub of a now dead cigar. “Okay,” she said firmly, “let’s have it.”

  “Someone’s going to be joining us in Ocala, at least temporarily.” He pursed his lips as his eyes met Jo’s. His were blue, faded with age. “I don’t know if he’ll finish out the season with us.”

  “Oh, Duffy, not some first of mayer we have to break in this late?” Jo demanded, using the circus term for novice. “What is he, some energetic writer who wants an epic on the vanishing tent circus? He’ll spend a few weeks as a roustabout and swear he knows all there is to know about it.”

  “I don’t think he’ll be working as a roustabout,” Duffy muttered. Striking a match, he coaxed the cigar back to life. Jo frowned, watching the smoke struggle toward the ceiling.

  “It’s a bit late to work in a new act now, isn’t it?”

  “He’s not a performer.” Duffy swore lightly under his breath, then met Jo’s eyes again. “He owns us.”

  For a moment Jo said nothing. She sat unmoving, as Duffy had seen her from time to time when she trained a young cat. “No!” She rose suddenly, shaking her head. “Not him. Not now. Why does he have to come? What does he want here?”

  “It’s his circus,” Duffy reminded her. His voice was both rough and sympathetic.

  “It’ll never be his circus,” Jo retorted passionately. Her eyes lit and glowed with a temper she rarely let have sway. “It’s Frank’s circus.”

  “Frank’s dead,” Duffy stated in a quiet, final tone. “Now the circus belongs to his son.”

  “Son?” Jo countered. She lifted her fingers to press them against her temple. Slowly, she moved to the window. Outside, the sun was pouring over the heads of troupers. She watched the members of the trapeze act, in thick robes worn over their tights, head toward the ring barn. The chatter of mixed languages was so familiar she failed to notice it. She placed her palms on the window sill and with a little sigh, steadied her temper. “What sort of son is it who never bothers to visit his father? In thirty years he never came to see Frank. He never wrote. He didn’t even come to the funeral.” Jo swallowed the tears of anger that rose to her throat and thickened her voice. “Why should he come now?”

  “You’ve got to learn that life’s a two-sided coin, kiddo,” Duffy said briskly. “You weren’t even alive thirty years ago. You don’t know why Frank’s wife up and left him or why the boy never visited.”

  “He’s not a boy, Duffy, he’s a man.” Jo turned back, and he saw that she again had herself under control. “He’s thirty-one, thirty-two years old now, a very successful attorney with a fancy Chicago office. He’s very wealthy, did you know?” A small smile played on her lips but failed to reach her eyes. “And not just from court cases and legal fees; there’s quite a lot of money on his mother’s side. Nice, quiet, old money. I can’t understand what a rich city lawyer would want with a tent circus.”

  Duffy shrugged his broad, round shoulders. “Could be he wants a tax shelter. Could be he wants to ride an elephant. Could be anything. He might want to take inventory and sell us off, piece by piece.”

  “Oh, Duffy, no!” Emotion flew back into Jo’s face. “He couldn’t do that.”

  “The heck he couldn’t,” Duffy muttered as he stubbed out his cigar. “He can do as he pleases. If he wants to liquidate, he liquidates.”

  “But we have contracts through October. . . .”

  “You’re too smart for that, Jo.” Duffy frowned, scratching his rim of hair. “He can buy them off or let them play through. He’s a lawyer. He can figure the way out of a contract if he wants to. He can wait till August when we start to negotiate again and let them all lapse.” Seeing Jo’s distress, he backpedaled. “Listen, kiddo, I didn’t say he was going to sell, I said he could.”

  Jo ran a hand through her hair. “There must be something we can do.”

  “We can show a profit by the end of the season,” Duffy said wryly. “We can show the new owner what we have to offer. I think it’s important that he sees we’re not just a mud show but a profitable three-ring circus with class acts. He should see what Frank built, how he lived, what he wanted to do. I think,” Duffy added, watching Jo’s face, “that you should be in charge of his education.”

  “Me?” Jo was too incredulous to be angry. “Why? You’re better qualified in the public relations department than I am. I train lions, not lawyers.” She could not keep the hint of scorn from her voice.

  “You were closer to Frank than anyone. And there isn’t anyone here who knows this circus better than you.” Again he frowned. “And you’ve got brains. Never thought much use would come of all those fancy books you read, but maybe I was wrong.”

  “Duffy.” Her lips curved into a smile. “Just because I like to read Shakespeare doesn’t mean I can deal with Keane Prescott. Even thinking about him makes me furious. How will I act when I meet him face to face?”

  “Well.” Duffy shrugged before he pursed his lips. “If you don’t think you can handle it . . .”

  “I didn’t say I couldn’t handle it,” Jo muttered.

  “Of course, if you’re afraid . . .”

  “I’m not afraid of anything, and I’m certainly not afraid of some Chicago lawyer who doesn’t know sawdust from tanbark.” Sticking her hands in her pockets, she paced the length of the small room. “If Keane Prescott, attorney-at-law, wants to spend his summer with the circus, I’ll do my best to make it a memorable one.”

  “Nicely,” Duffy cautioned as Jo moved to the door.

  “Duffy,” she paused and gave him an innocent smile. “You know what a gentle touch I have.” To prove it, Jo slammed the door behind her.


  Dawn was hovering over the horizon as the circus caravan drew up in a large, grassy field. Colors were just a promise in a pale gray sky. In the distance was grove upon grove of orange trees. As Jo stepped from the cab of her truck, the fragrance met her. It’s a perfect day, she decided, then took a long, greedy breath. To her, there was no more beautiful sight than dawn struggling to life.

  The air was vaguely chilly. She zipped up her gray sweat jacket as she watched the rest of the circus troupe pouring out of their trucks and cars and trailers. The morning quiet was soon shattered by voices. Work began immediately. As the Big Top canvas was being unrolled out of the spool truck, Jo went to see how her lions had fared the fifty-mile journey.

  Three handlers unloaded the traveling cages. Buck had been with Jo the longest. He had worked for her father, and during the interim between his death and Jo’s professional debut, he had worked up a small act with four male lions. His shyness had made his retirement from performing a relief. To Buck, two people were a crowd. He stood six-feet-four, and his build was powerful enough for him to pad the sideshow from time to time as Hercules the Strong Man. He had an impressive head of wild blond hair and a full, curling beard. His hands were wide, with thick, strong fingers, but Jo remembered their gentleness when the two of them had delivered a lioness of a pair of cubs.

  Pete’s small frame seemed puny beside Buck’s. He was of indeterminable age. Jo guessed between forty and fifty, but she was never certain. He was a quiet man with skin like polished mahogany and a rich, low-pitched voice. He had come to Jo five years before, asking for a job. She had never asked where he had come from, and he had never told her. He wore a fielder’s cap and was never seen without a wad of gum moving gently in his teeth. He read Jo’s books and was the undisputed king of the poker table.

  Gerry was nineteen and eager. He was nearly six feet and still carried the lankiness of his youth. His mother sewed, and his father was a souvenir salesman, or a candy butcher, as circus jargon had it. Working the big
cage was Gerry’s dream, and because it had been hers, Jo had finally agreed to tutor him.

  “How are my babies?” she demanded as she approached. At each cage she paused and soothed a nervous cat, calling each by name until they had settled. “They’ve traveled well. Hamlet’s still edgy, but it’s his first year on the road.”

  “He’s a mean one,” Buck muttered, watching Jo move from cage to cage.

  “Yes, I know,” she replied absently. “He’s smart, too.” She had twisted her hair into one thick braid and now tossed it to her back. “Look, here come some towners.” A few cars and a smattering of bikes drew into the field.

  These were the people from the outlying towns who wanted to see a Big Top raised, who wanted to see the circus, if only for a moment, from the other side. Some would watch while others would lend a hand with tent poles, stretching canvas and rigging. They would earn a show pass and an unforgettable experience.

  “Keep them clear of the cages,” Jo ordered, nodding to Pete before she moved toward the still flaccid canvas. Buck lumbered beside her.

  The field was alive with ropes and wire and people. Six elephants were harnessed but idle, with their handlers standing by the stake line. As workers pulled on guy ropes, the dusky brown canvas billowed up like a giant mushroom.

  The poles were positioned—side, quarter, center—while the canvas muffled the sounds of scrambling workers. In the east the sun was rising fast, streaking the sky with pink. There were shouted instructions from the head canvas man, laughter from adventuresome boys and an occasional oath. As the quarter poles were driven into the sag of canvas, Jo signaled Maggie, the large African elephant. Obligingly, Maggie lowered her trunk. Jo stepped nimbly into the u, then scrambled onto the wide, gray back.

  The sun grew higher by the second, shooting the first streams of light onto the field. The scent of orange blossoms mingled with the odor of leather harnesses. Jo had watched the canvas rise under a lightening sky countless times. Each time it was special, and the first raising each season was the most special of all. Maggie lifted her head and trumpeted as if pleased to be around for another season. With a laugh Jo reached back and swatted her rough, wrinkled rump. She felt free and fresh and incredibly alive. If there were a moment, she thought suddenly, that I could capture and bottle, it would be this one. Then, when I’m very old, I could take it out and feel young again. Smiling, she glanced down at the people swarming below her.