Kiss an Angel(10)

By: Susan Elizabeth Phillips



“Of course not. You’re obviously much too well-adjusted.” She’d meant the remark to be sarcastic, but she didn’t do sarcasm well, and it seemed to go right past him.

She gazed out the window at the hypnotically flat stretch of highway. Off to her right, she saw a dilapidated house with a scraggly tree in the front yard holding a collection of bird feeders made from gourds. The hot air blew over her.

She closed her eyes and tried to pretend that she was inhaling. Until today, she hadn’t realized how addicted she was to nicotine. As soon as things settled down, she’d have to quit. She’d be in a new setting, and she’d make some rules for herself. For example, she wouldn’t ever smoke in the ranch house. If she wanted a cigarette, she’d slip out onto the veranda or lie on a chaise next to the pool.

As she drifted into sleep, she once again found herself praying. Please, God, let there be a veranda. Let there be a pool. . . .

Sometime later, the jolting of the truck awakened her. She jerked upright, opened her eyes, and gave a choked gasp.

“Something wrong?”

“Tell me that’s not what I think it is.” Her finger shook as she pointed toward the moving object on the other side of the dusty windshield.

“It’s pretty hard to confuse an elephant with anything else.”

It was an elephant. A real, live elephant. The beast picked up a clump of hay in its trunk and tossed it on its back. As she gazed into the glare of the late afternoon sun, she prayed that she was still asleep and this was only a bad dream. “We’re stopping here because you want to take me to the circus, right?”

“Not exactly.”

“You want to go to the circus yourself?”

“No”

Her mouth was so dry it was difficult forming the words. “I know you don’t like me, Mr. Markov, but please don’t say you work here.”

“I’m the manager.”

“You manage a circus,” she repeated faintly.

“That’s right.”

Stunned, she sagged back in the seat, but even her naturally optimistic nature couldn’t find a silver lining in this dark cloud.

The sun-parched vacant lot held a red-and-blue striped big top, several smaller tents, and a variety of trucks and trailers. The largest one was painted with red and blue stars, along with the bright red legend quest brothers circus, owen quest, owner. In addition to a number of shackled elephants, she saw a llama, a camel, some large animal cages, and all kinds of disreputable people, including some dirty-looking men, most of whom seemed to be missing their front teeth.

Her father had always been a snob. He loved ancient lineages and royal titles. He boasted of his own descent from one of czarist Russia’s great aristocratic families. The fact that he’d given his only daughter to a man who worked for a circus was the clearest message he could have sent of his feelings for her.

“It’s not exactly Ringling Brothers.”

“I see that,” she replied weakly.

“Quest Brothers is what’s known as a mud show.”

“Why is that?”

His response sounded faintly diabolical. “You’ll find out soon enough.”

He parked the truck in a row with several others, turned off the ignition, and got out. By the time she’d climbed down, he’d taken both their bags out of the back and set off with them.

She tottered awkwardly after him over the uneven ground, her high heels sinking into the sand. Everyone stopped what they were doing and stared at her. Her knee poked through a widening hole in her shredded nylons, the singed gold satin jacket slipped off one shoulder, and her shoe sank into something ominously soft. With a sinking heart, she looked down, only to see that she’d stepped in exactly what she’d feared.

“Mr. Markov!”

Her shriek bore an edge of hysteria, but he didn’t seem to hear. Instead, he kept walking toward a row of house trailers and motor homes. She wiped the sole of her shoe in the sandy soil, filling it with grit in the process. With a strangled exclamation, she set off again.

He approached two vehicles that sat close together. The nearest one was a sleekly modern silver motor home that had a satellite dish on top. Next to it rested a battered and rust-streaked trailer that might have been green in a past life.

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