TUESDAY TEASER GRACEY AND THE GAMBLER

Addison sat on a bench in the Maritime Park, unaware of the flotsam of people passing her by. Barking sea lions jostled and jockeyed for position on the nearby pier, much like the pedestrians around her. A young man sitting at the adjacent sidewalk café unbuckled his belt, pulled down his pants, and squeezed a hypodermic needle into his left buttock, but even this did little more than tickle her attention.

An elderly woman carrying a leather satchel with a large golden lock sat beside Addison. Kicking off her shoes, the woman let out a sigh, propped an ankle on her knee and massaged her toes.

“I can always tell when it’s about to rain,” she said. “Arthritis. I didn’t use to believe in achy joints predicting the weather, just like I used to think that people claimed to have motion sickness just so they could sit in the front seat.” The woman slid Addison a glance from under her lashes, probably to see if Addison was paying attention.

Addison thought about moving to another bench, but that would take energy and gumption—two things she currently lacked.

“You’re probably too young to have arthritis. How about motion sickness?”

Addison pulled herself out of her funk long enough to glance at the elderly woman. She wore a velvet patchwork skirt, a silk blouse, and a string of pearls around her neck. The sharp sea breeze toyed with her silver curls and had turned her pale cheeks pink. She exuded a friendly curiosity that made Addison want to crawl under the bench and roll into a ball. But because it would be rude to say nothing, she squeezed out a syllable. “No.”

“No what?”

Addison took a deep breath and blew it out through her nose. “No, I don’t get motion sickness.”

“That’s good.” The woman smiled as if Addison had just informed her the Giants had won the World Series. “Then maybe you would like to go whale watching.” She fumbled in her satchel and pulled out two glossy blue and red tickets. “I bought them for myself and my grandson, but circumstances have changed and that’s no longer possible.” She paused. “He’s a lawyer,” she added with more exasperation than pride.

Addison opened her mouth to protest, but couldn’t find the words. The mid-spring sun, so often hidden behind clouds in Northern California, warmed her skin. Not even the weather could offer an excuse. After a moment, she came up with, “Isn’t there someone else you’d like to go with?”

“No. Landon is my only family, other than my sister Erma. No one likes her. And all my friends are dead,” she said this without a trace of sadness. “It’s nature’s way of punishing me for hanging around so long—I had to watch all my friends die.”

Addison’s lips twitched. An hour ago, she hadn’t thought she’d ever smile again, and here she was, chatting with a stranger. “Sure. I’ll go whale watching with you. When is it?”

The woman let out a long sigh. “You’re a lovely girl. I used to look like you once—willowy with long red hair. Now, of course, I’m gray and more Monterey pine than willow. I hope this won’t offend you, but I no longer wish to go.”

“But you look nothing like a Monterey pine. They’re all twisted and weather-beaten.”

“My point.”

“It’s silly to compare yourself to a tree. Why not a cat?”

“I’m allergic.” The woman winked at her. “Would you like to go whale watching or not?”

“Are you sure?” Addison took the proffered tickets and saw they were for tomorrow morning. She had thought to leave before then, but she’d already paid for the vacation rental for the weekend, so she might as well stay. “Would you like me to buy them off you?”

“Not with money.”

“Oh.” Addison’s suspicion hackles rose. She didn’t like making deals with strangers.

“You can tell me a story. I collect stories, you know.”

“Really? So do I!” Addison perked up, but then remembered her sadness. “Or at least I did.”

“Once a writer, always a writer.”

“No…I am a writer, just not a very good one.”

The woman quirked an eyebrow.

“Not a successful one,” Addison amended, thinking of her collection of rejection letters from agents and editors. “And I own a bookstore, so I collect stories there, too. Or I did.”

“What happened?”

“The economy,” a sick anger burned in her belly, “and the ugly tide of self-publishing. I leased out my bookstore last week. Soon it’ll be a massage parlor.”

The woman chuckled.

“I’m glad someone can laugh about it.” Addison tucked a loose curl behind her ear.

“Well, you have to admit, a bookstore and a massage parlor are both in the same business.”

“How’s that?”

“They’re both used to manipulate moods.” The woman gazed at her with watery blue eyes.

“I suppose.”

“Is that it?” the woman asked, her gaze growing more intense.

“Is what it?” Addison squirmed beneath the woman’s scrutiny.

“Is your failing bookstore the reason you look like someone drowned your cat and poisoned your dog?”

Addison thought about confessing her mistake to this woman, but she wasn’t ready to admit it, not even to herself.

The woman patted Addison’s cheek with a hand of bones and papery thin skin. “It’s okay to be sad. Here, I have something that will cheer you.” She pushed her satchel toward Addison.

“What’s this?”

“It’s a story. I’ve been carrying it around, wondering what to do with it. I didn’t feel I could leave until I found the right person to take care of it for me, but you are that person. I want you to have it.”

Addison opened up the satchel and peeked inside at the hundreds of typewritten pages. “You don’t think your grandson will want it?”

“No, he only reads nonfiction.” She wrinkled her nose as if she could smell fried liver and onions.

Addison smiled. “Thank you. This is…so kind.”

The woman slipped her feet back into her shoes. “No, thank you. It’s nice to see a story you love reach a happy ending. Now, how about you? You owe me a story.”

“You don’t want to hear my stories.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“Well, why would you? No one else does…”

The woman contemplated her. “Perhaps you’re right. How’s this? In payment for those tickets, you need to make sure that this weekend has a happy ending.”

Addison thought about the disappointing beginning of her weekend and bit her lower lip. “I’m sorry, I’m not sure I can promise that.”

The woman leaned forward to peer into Addison’s face. “Will you try?”

“Huh. Sure. I’ll try.”

The woman pulled herself to her feet. “Goodbye, my dear. Promise me you’ll take good care of my story and write a happy ending for this weekend.”

“I promise,” Addison said, although she had no idea how to do that, or what the woman was asking of her. As the woman tottered away, Addison glanced around and spotted a bookstore. Because she’d learned long ago that her only hope for a happy ending lay between the pages of a novel, she headed for the familiar warmth of a shop full of books.

After buying a blueberry muffin and a cup of tea at the counter, Addison found a plump upholstered chair near the window, pulled out the manuscript, and began to read.

Gracey and the Gambler

By Geneva Leigh

Wanted: A nice, plump, healthy, good-natured looking domestic and affectionate lady to correspond with. Object: matrimony. She must be a believer in God and immortality. She must not be a gadabout or given to scandal, but willing to endeavor to create a happy home.

The Arizona Sentinel, 1875

Poke was playing her song! White-hot anger, as mind-altering as any potion or aphrodisiac, flashed through Gracey. Clarisse, a virginal vision clothed in white lace, opened her mouth to sing, and Gracey grabbed the closest weapon she could find, an occupied wig stand, and headed for the stage.

Clarisse’s high C turned to a squeak and her blond curls bobbed when she saw Gracey flying up the stairs wielding the wooden head.

“That’s my song, you little strumpet!” Gracey took center stage and swung at Clarisse.

The wig hit Clarisse in the face, but she brushed it away as if it were a large, hairy spider. Clarisse straightened her dress and picked up her tune, leaving Poke, the pianist, a few stunned beats behind.

With the wig stand braced in front of her like a battering ram, Gracey charged. Clarisse jumped away, and Gracey landed in the curtains. Clarisse climbed onto the piano bench, jostling Poke, who lifted his hands from the keyboard and flashed Gracey a startled although amused look. Clarisse, balancing beside the pianist, nudged him with her tiny shoe. “Please continue, sir. This audition is not over.”

“Oh, yes it is!” Gracey dropped the wig stand, which bounced around her feet as she lunged for Clarisse.

“Now, Miss Clarisse, you know I can’t let you climb on the piano.” Poke, struggling not to laugh, reached for but missed Clarisse.

Clarisse inched across the lid of the upright piano as Gracey scrambled onto the bench and, using Poke’s shoulder as a toehold, tried to join the music-thieving Clarisse on the top. Poke grabbed Gracey and hauled her to center stage. She kicked Poke’s legs and tried to pry his grip from her waist.

“Can’t you see she’s a complete nutter, Ivan?” Clarisse said from her perch on top of the piano. “We simply cannot have her in the troupe.”

Gracey wriggled for a better look at Poke’s good-natured face. “I wrote that song. It’s mine. She stole it!”

“I didn’t steal it. Besides, how can one steal a song?” Clarisse asked. “I simply heard it, learned it—”

“Through the paper-thin walls while I wrote it. Do you want to know what I heard through the walls?” Gracey smacked her lips, making kissing noises. “If you get a spot in the troupe, we will all know why!”

Clarisse gasped in outrage, and Ivan, the director, laughed from his place in the dark auditorium.

“I got my position in the troupe because of my gifts and talent!” Clarisse said.

So, Clarisse already had a role. Little wonder. “And your willingness to share your…gifts and talents.” Gracey wiggled, but Poke wouldn’t let her go.

“Would you like to sing, Miss Ryan?” Ivan’s disembodied voice spoke from the theater seats. Because of the dark house and the flickering gas lights lining the stage, Gracey couldn’t see Ivan and wished she could. She longed to read his expression.

Poke didn’t seem in the least perturbed about holding her. Of course, he was built like an ox. He was not solely the troupe’s accompanist but also the “man at large” responsible for assembling and disassembling the heavy settings.

“Set her down,” Ivan said. “Let’s hear her.”

Clarisse put her balled fists on her hips. “I think we have heard quite enough from her!”

Poke chuckled and set Gracey down. Gracey flashed Clarisse a warning glance. Gracey worried that Clarisse might stomp the piano keys or kick at Poke, who was settling onto his bench, acting as if having a blond tart atop his piano was de rigueur.

“You wrote this song?” Ivan said. “Then let’s hear it.”

“Ivan,” Clarisse’s tone turned silky soft, reminding Gracey of Clarisse’s many “private auditions,” when Ivan had undoubtedly seen and heard more than a song…or two.

“I’ve heard you, Clarisse. I know what you can do,” Ivan said, confirming Gracey’s suspicions that Clarisse had only gone through the formality of the audition for the prime purpose of discouraging Gracey from joining the traveling troupe and escaping dreary Seattle.

Poke played the opening bars while Gracey stared into the lights. Blood pounded in her head and zinged through her veins. Every nerve tingled, and goosebumps rose on her arms. The Rose Arbor Traveling Troupe was her ticket back to New York City, and she wasn’t about to let a trollop like Clarisse steal it from her.

Gracey came in right on cue, her voice steelier than her spine and almost as strong as her resolve.

***

“Quite the show you put on tonight,” a voice sounded from the center of her dressing room and sent the sensation of crawling worms down Gracey’s back. She took a deep breath and threw a robe over her chemise. Boris Kidrick, a heavy drinker, tobacco chewer, and black licorice sucker, carried his own unique odor—a stink Gracey easily recognized and did her best to avoid. She wondered when he had come in        because she hadn’t heard the door over the clatter of the dancers and the tinkling piano rising through the floorboards. Gracey poked her head over the screen to see Boris leering at her.

“I try to entertain.” She kept her voice light. Her earlier outburst had left her tired and drained. She didn’t want another sparring match.

Her glance fell on the fire tools beside the mantel. She considered caning Boris and finishing him off. She’d be doing the world a favor, and then the world would be in her debt. She really would like to be in a position to call in favors, instead of the awkward, semi-clothed position in which she currently found herself.

“And I could use a little entertainment.” He licked his lips. “How much for a private show?”

The door flew open, and Matilda breezed in, but she stopped short when she spotted Boris standing bull-like amid the overflowing costume trunks and crates of props. Matilda took a step toward the screen, as if to protect Gracey, and glared at Boris.

“Mr. Kidrick, you must know men aren’t allowed in the dressing room!” Matilda crossed her arms and drew herself up to her impressive full height, towering over the squatty man.

Boris chuckled. “I now own this room and that fancy stage you’re so fond of parading on.”

Surprise replaced Matilda’s haughty expression, and Boris rubbed his hands together. “Didn’t know that, did ya?” He chuckled at Matilda’s sagging shoulders. “Good things are coming my way,” he said, an unpleasant glint in his eye. “We will be having that show I mentioned. If not tonight—then soon. Maybe on this stage or maybe someplace quieter. You may not know it yet, but when I bought this theater, I bought you too.”

He winked at Gracey, who ducked behind the screen and tightened the belt on her robe. She waited for the sound of the door closing before she peeked out.

“He’s gone.” Matilda crossed the room, dropping clothing on her way to the dressing table. She sat before the mirror and rubbed her face with cream, leaving her stage makeup in runny smears. In the harsh light, she looked all of her forty years plus some.

“I didn’t know Mr. Taylor had sold the theater,” Gracey said, settling down on the bench beside the older woman.

Matilda shrugged and frowned. “I heard Kidrick came into some money.”

“Any chance he’ll lose it—and the theater?” Gracey’s glance met Matilda’s in the glass.

“It’s inevitable. But until then, we have to live with him.” Matilda scrubbed at her worn and tired face. Once she had been beautiful. Under the stage lights, she still moved like royalty. But here, in the quiet dressing room, after a long night of trying to carry a loveliness she could no longer claim, Matilda appeared faded beside Gracey’s pink skin and blue eyes. Gracey, feeling apologetic for her youth, twisted her hair into a long, thick braid.

Matilda patted Gracey’s hand. “Don’t worry, pet, you’ll be on your way to New York long before we get a new lock for the dressing room door.”

“Why do men like Boris consider actress synonymous with harlot?”

Matilda twitched a boney shoulder.

“King David liked to sing and dance. No one thought he was immoral.” Gracey’s voice faltered. “Until Bathsheba came out on the roof… Maybe he’s not the best example—but he did sing and dance.”

Matilda laughed. “There are plenty of noble and worthy performers.”

“Tell that to my father, my mother, my grandmother and my cousins.” Gracey swallowed. “Tell that to men like Boris.”

“Your father and mother—although they might not have meant to—have hurt you far worse than the likes of Boris Kidrick.”

Gracey had learned a lot from Matilda since she had joined the Rose Arbor troupe, but that particular lesson she had learned months earlier when her parents had shipped her to her grandmother’s ranch seven long, bumpy, jaw-jarring and teeth-rattling miles from Godforsaken Seattle. Had they really expected her to stay on a ranch surrounded by acres of pastures of horses, cattle and cow pies? Did they really think she would learn to behave like her hick grandmother and shovel out stables?

As if reading her mind, Matilda said, “I don’t know why you’re so anxious to return to their company.”

Gracey leaned against her friend. “I don’t want to go to New York to see my parents!”

Matilda’s lips curved into a smile. “You want to be on the New York stage.”

“Of course!”

“Do you imagine that you will sing and dance right beneath your family’s nose and they will never notice?”

“I am an actress—and a wizard with makeup and design. They will never recognize me.” She straightened her spine and pride tinged her voice. “I’ve been right under my grandmother’s nose for weeks, and she hasn’t found me!”

“Not for want of trying.” Matilda lifted an eyebrow. “Your family has already summoned a posse to look for you.”

“Here. But they won’t think to look in their own backyard!”

Skepticism clouded Matilda’s expression. “If they are as influential and prominent as you say—”

Gracey lifted her chin. “No one can stop a shooting star.”

Matilda smiled and wiped off her face cream. “Laws, child, have you no fear of heights?”

Addison

Addison put down the manuscript. It was silly…but compelling. The opening advertisement made her ill. So many women through so many generations saw marriage as the end-all. Her mother had taught her, “A man is not a financial plan.” And yet, Addison had still fallen for it. It was like she was programmed to see a man as an answer to her problems. When would she finally grasp that a man wasn’t the answer, but, in her case, the problem?

Addison braced her shoulders. She had to solve her own problems now. But a tricky little voice in the back of her head whispered that even after Paul’s death she still wasn’t standing on her own financial feet. The life insurance policy would always eclipse anything she could ever hope to earn at the bookshop. It had been tempting to continue on at the store, watching it lose money every month, but common sense and Mr. Patel had prevailed. She had tried to make a go of a business, and she’d failed. Just like she’d failed her marriage. Even if she hadn’t known it.

She glanced around the Books and Bun Bookshop. What made this place successful? Who says it is? the voice in her head asked. All the people? But how many are actually buying anything?

Addison sank back in the club chair and took note of her fellow bookstore patrons. The elderly man with his glasses perched on the end of his nose had a pile of historical novels on the ottoman in front of him. In the children’s section, a mother with a toddler on her lap flipped through a picture book. Two chairs over, a nail-biting woman sat lost in a romance. Dozens of people were parked at the tables, hiding behind laptops. She couldn’t see the checkout counter from where she sat and, of course, she had no way of knowing the store’s financials, but if no one was actually buying anything, the store had to be suffering.

It was just like the self-publishing tidal wave. If everyone was going to give away books, how would any book business survive?

“Addison? What are you doing here?”

James.

Too late to hide. She smiled up into his blue eyes. How could she have been so mistaken? Had she completely misread him? Had all those lunches and long conversations been nothing more than a pleasant way to spend the time?

“Checking out the competition?” he asked.

She swallowed. “A bookstore in Shell Falls could hardly compete with a shop in Frisco.” Especially if the Shell Falls shop closed its doors.

“That’s true.” He nodded. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised to find you in here. But why didn’t you tell me you were coming to San Francisco?”

Not knowing what to say, she gave him a weak shrug. She’d wanted to surprise him. But he’d been the one to surprise her when she’d spotted him kissing that blonde on the pier. The girl looked like a teenager with an incredibly poor sense of color coordination—bumble-bee stockings, a red and white striped mini-skirt, a purple hoodie.

“You’re a long way from home.” She heard the questions in his tone, but she didn’t feel the need to provide any answers.

Cary Grant handsome, James usually caused her to melt whenever he came into her shop, but now when she looked at him, she couldn’t help seeing the Barbie hanging on his arm. Even if the blonde wasn’t there physically, in Addison’s head, she was.

“Even bookstore owners need a vacation,” she told him.

“How long are you in town?”

She had thought about leaving as soon as she’d seen him and Barbie-Bimbo in action, but now she decided she wasn’t going to let him run her off like a dog with a tail between her legs. “I’m here for the weekend.”

Trying to mask his surprise, he glanced at his watch. “That’s great. I have a commitment tonight.”

I bet you do, she thought.

“But how about tomorrow? Are you available?”

“No. I have plans.” It gave her a little surge of power to say that, and like candy sprinkles on top of a cupcake, the disappointed look on his face only added to her pleasure.

“Sunday then?”

“I’m sorry, James,” Addison said, picking up the manuscript.

“Well, I can see you’re busy,” he said. “Maybe we can meet up next time I’m in Shell Falls?”

“Mmm,” she murmured. She started reading and refused to watch him walk away.

CHRISTIAN

Christian Roberts sat at the gaming table, coins on his left side and a flask on his right. A pair of kings, accompanied by a six, a four and a whatchamacallit, swam in and out of his vision. He tried holding the cards a little further away and willed his eyes to focus on the whatchamacallit. Was it a queen—or that other card that he couldn’t remember the name of—or was it another king? He hoped it was another king. He held his cards away from his chest but after half a second he slapped them face down on the table. He didn’t trust his friends not to look—not even his partner.

And he was pretty sure these men weren’t even friends. Not really. They tolerated him because he had a steady stream of gold…and whiskey…and he liked a good game. A game with kings. He didn’t mind the whatchamacallits, not when they came in pairs. One by its lonesome couldn’t do much. He picked up his hand and tried to steady his gaze while a mammoth man pounded on the piano.

Christian threw the musician a frustrated glance. Maybe he could focus on the game if that brute would stop filling the room with that awful sound. He looked at the men sharing his table, trying to read them. No one else seemed to mind the racket coming from the corner.

“You in?” Percy, on his left, asked.

He was definitely inside because the piano was inside. Never really ever seen a piano outside—unless it was on its way from one place to another. And yep, there were bottles lining shelves behind the bar. A wooden floor. A stamped brass ceiling. Four walls. Definitely inside. He nodded.

“Well?” Reynolds, on his right, prompted.

Aw. The game. He was supposed to ante up. What did that mean? Funny expression, sounded like “auntie up.” Christian tried to imagine how his Aunt Mable would respond if someone tried to ante up her. He snorted. His attention flicked over the men surrounding him, all looking so grim and serious. He doubted any of them even had an aunt.

“What’s so funny?” Kidrick demanded.

Percy and Reynolds were good chaps, if poor poker players, but he despised Kidrick. A pity Percy and Reynolds didn’t have Kidrick’s business sense and card savvy. Why should a louse like Kidrick own half the town and win at cards? Christian imagined Aunt Mable anteing up Kidrick with a wooden spoon. He chuckled low and deep.

“Idiotic French,” Kidrick muttered.

“I say now—” Bad form cussing his nationality. Well, his mother’s nationality. His eyes welled as he thought of his mother. He blinked away his tears because, while he wasn’t sure whether the brutes at his table had aunts, he was very sure they never cried. At least not over a pair of kings. Or a trio of kings. He still couldn’t tell, but he did push in his entire pile of coins.

“You sure, Roberts?” Percy lifted an eyebrow.

Christian shrugged. “What have I got to lose? Kidrick here has already won the theater.” He laid his cards down. From the reaction, he guessed it was a trio of kings. Percy stood so suddenly his chair fell over. Kidrick brought his fist down on the table, making all the coins jump.

Christian smiled as he scooped the pot into his bag, then stood and swagger-staggered toward the door.

“Hey! Roberts,” Reynolds called after him. “You can’t leave.”

“Get back here.” Kidrick pushed after Christian and grabbed him by the elbow.

Christian looked at Kidrick’s hand and then at his face. Kidrick cocked back his arm for a punch that would land in Christian’s gut if he didn’t block it. Christian grabbed Kidrick around the neck and held him in midair, considering what to do with him, before tossing him out into the street. Kidrick landed in the arms of a well-built man who also didn’t desire his company. Within seconds Kidrick and the well-built man were throwing punches.

Still inside the bar, Christian watched the fistfight and felt a smidgeon of remorse. He had started it, but dem if he’d back up Kidrick. His gaze went to the stars shining through the window. He had to get away from the tavern’s smoke and stench. He paused at the open door. But first—

Christian raised a hand, which stopped the calls of his poker-mates. He heard their collective sigh as he turned to face the room, followed by their groans as Christian sat at the piano, bumping hips with the brute at the keyboard.

“’Scuse me,” Christian mumbled.

The pianist reluctantly relinquished his seat as Christian poised his fingers over the keyboard and began Dickson’s “Land of Long Ago.”

For a moment the laughter hushed and it seemed as if only music filled the night as the piano cast a spell over the crowded, smoke-filled room.

Christian stopped playing as abruptly as he had begun and pushed away from the instrument and out the door, stepping over the inert Kidrick on his way to anywhere else.

***

Gracey literally danced when she heard the news. Her feet skipped, her toes pointed, and her knees wanted to drop to the ground in worshipful thanksgiving.

“You won’t regret this!” she promised Ivan, stopping mid-dance to hug him.

The craggy-faced man smiled while the blond beauty behind him mouthed, “Oh, yes, he will.”

Gracey wasn’t about to let Clarisse piddle in her pot of pure happiness. She had an all-expense paid ticket out of Seattle. Her family would never think to follow the Rose Arbor troupe across the country. Think of all the cities she would see! On her way here, she had traveled by rail accompanied by the stiff, self-righteous cousin who never let her leave the confines of the sleeper car. But the troupe would go from city to city and perform on the very best stages!

“Not so fast!” Ivan warned. “You have to prove you can do this.” He handed her a sheaf of music. “Come up with a dance.”

Gracey studied the music, noting the eighth notes and basic time signature. Because she was familiar with the popular ballad and its message, she knew choreographing a dance would be fairly simple. Behind Ivan, Clarisse smirked, making Gracey wonder what sort of dance Clarisse had used for her audition.

“I want to see it tomorrow morning,” Ivan warned.

“I’ll be ready.” Gracey wasn’t worried, but she would need to practice, preferably with Poke, and absolutely far from Clarisse’s spying eyes. Gracey couldn’t let that woman sabotage this opportunity. She would need to come up with the dance on her own and then practice with Poke’s accompaniment once…or maybe twice.

“We leave in a couple of days,” Ivan told her. “You can bring one trunk.”

“I wouldn’t care if I could only bring dancing shoes!”

“That would be interesting,” Ivan said.

“We’re not that kind of show,” Clarisse said, coming behind Ivan and laying a hand on his shoulder. “I told you—she’s not star material.”

“We’re taking a chance on you,” Ivan told Gracey, ignoring Clarisse. “It’s going to be a lot of hard work and a lot of travel. You will, no doubt, find the troupe demanding and challenging. That’s why I want to see if you can come up with an original dance overnight.”

“I love challenges!” Gracey flashed Ivan a smile. She pushed through the backstage door and found herself in an alley. She needed to practice far from Clarisse…some spacious, private place where Clarisse would never look. Her gaze landed on the outhouses and the clearing beyond them. She wrinkled her nose as she drew closer to the small but smelly clearing, far from windows and prying eyes.

***

Christian exited the outhouse and caught a sudden chill. A skin-pricking sensation said he wasn’t alone. Animals. Possibly a red fox, raccoon, skunk, opossum. He tightened his grip on his bag of gold, wondering if Kidrick had followed.

“Hey-ho?” he called out. Night birds answered. Something skittered in a nearby thicket, and a twig snapped. He watched moonlight flicker through the boughs of a pine tree then heard footfalls.

What was dancing in the moonlight? A fairy? Her dark hair had come loose and swirled around her spinning shoulders. Such a creature belonged deep in the woods, or in a valley of wildflowers, or on a gilded throne—she did not belong in a dusty clearing behind the privy with alley cats for an audience. Her dance-warmed skin glowed beneath the stars, and her body moved to no music that he could hear. Unable to stop himself, he stepped closer, as if drawn by a magnet.

“Mon dieu. Qu’est-ce que tu es?”

Startled, she stopped and stared at him. “You’re French.”

Christian shook his head. “No, I am drunk.”

She studied him as if assessing his potential danger.

Christian tried to look harmless, which wasn’t difficult, because he was basically harmless.

Except when he was angry.

And he had left Kidrick for dead in the street. Christian twisted his lips and decided Kidrick didn’t count.

“Do you always speak French when drunk?”

Christian shrugged. He was better with questions when he was sober. “I asked my question first.”

“Well, it was a silly question—anyone can see what I am.”

He stepped closer and peered at her. With all that dark hair and her dark red lips, she looked like his mother. “Are you French?”

“No. Are you?”

“Partly.” He paused. “Don’t let me stop you.” He waved a hand at her. “Carry on.”

She scowled. “I’m not going to dance if you’re going to watch.”

“Why not?” He motioned toward the theater. “I assume you came from the playhouse, where you presumably dance for hundreds on the stage, so why would you not dance for one, here?”

Her arms dangled. “I no longer feel like dancing. You killed my mood.” She jabbed a finger in his face. “But I’m not going to let you spoil my happiness!”

“I would be devastated if you did.” He tilted his head to one side, smiling. “Do you always dance when you are happy?”

“Of course not. Although I haven’t been this happy for a long time, so it’s hard to know.”

“Why are you so happy?” An unpleasant thought occurred to him. “Are you in love?”

She shook her head.

“Good. I’m glad. Love can make you do regrettable things.”

“Have you been in love?”

Christian didn’t want to talk about love. He wanted to watch this girl dance. “Will you dance for me?”

“Absolutely not.”

“Will you dance with me?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“I’m very rich.”

She laughed, and the noise delighted him. He didn’t want her to stop, but after a few moments, she did.

“Why should that matter?” she asked.

He shrugged. “Demmed if I know, but it usually seems to. Will you dance with me?” he asked again.

She shook her head.

“Can I walk you home?”

“Yes,” she said, smiling up at him. She took his hand and led him the ten yards to the theater’s back door.

“You live here?”

She dropped his hand and pointed to the sky. “On the third floor.”

“Why are you so happy?”

She took a deep breath and told him of her plans to join the Rose Arbor Traveling Troupe.

“That’s not happy; that’s sad.”

“Why would you say that?”

“Because this might be the only chance I’ll ever have to do this,” he said, taking her in his arms and kissing her.

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