What's TuDawgs, you ask? Only the biggest hot dog vendor in South Carolina.
Available now! Read it free with Kindle Unlimited
Available now! Read it free with Kindle Unlimited
Welcome to TuDawgs. Our county fair booth is now serving one very bad girl, sautéed in scandal and peppered with regrets. We grill her with relentless cops and reporters, top her with a choice, all-beef carnival worker, and slather on the heart-stopping hook-ups. Then we add a generous dollop of old flames and make the stakes mile-high. What’s that? You want a cotton-candy ending for your bad girl? That’ll cost her extra. Don’t say I spilled the secret ingredient, but the carnie’s running a rigged game.
(Story word count: 64,982)
Monday 3:30 p.m.
Inside the cars parked along the street, dark shapes stirred. I yanked the ties tight on my uniform apron. The blare of a horn sent my heart racing. Right on time, my mother’s Buick cruised down the street, blinding me with a flash of sunlight. I blinked to clear the dark spots from my vision. Doors slammed and dread slithered through my veins.
“Send Melody out!”
“She can’t hide forever,” yelled a different voice. “Why won’t she talk to us?”
A third declared, “The longer she stays quiet, the guiltier she looks. We can’t tell her side unless she talks.”
You don’t give a rat’s pink ass about my side. You just want me to open a vein.
And yet, I wanted to talk to them. To talk to anyone. I was drowning under the weight of unsaid words.
The carport door opened. Mom stepped into the kitchen, purse in one hand and keys in the other. She didn’t meet my eyes until she turned the latch.
“Must they park across the driveway?” A veteran trauma nurse, my mother had taken their shouts in stride for a week. Now, her voice trembled.
I balled my hands into fists inside the apron’s deep pockets. “You want me to call the police again? They’ll come tell them to move.” But they wouldn’t leave. These vultures never quite trespassed, which would give me the satisfaction of seeing them in handcuffs. Instead, they loitered in the narrow strip of grass along the road. Thanks to them, we’d learned that piece of our yard didn’t belong to us outright, but was considered an easement. Sort of like a roll of fly paper the city stuck under our windows.
I was sure one interview would get rid of them, but if I gave it, I’d be living in cardboard box. Mom’s rule wasn’t about airing dirty laundry in public. She was against dirt—period. Yet here I was, knee-deep in mud.
“No.” She smoothed the front of her green scrubs and tucked a hair that’d dared to stray behind her ear. When she held out her keys, her voice was steady. “Do you want me to ask Tulane to drive you to work?”
For a week, I’d cowered indoors while she endured their shouted questions twice a day, going to and from work. Even the most insulting question never made her flinch. My father’s big-hearted brother couldn’t keep his mouth shut—which was why she held out the keys. If she’d wanted Uncle Tee to drive me, he’d be here now. “No, thanks. I can’t hide forever.”
Her command punched the oxygen out of my lungs, but I managed not to stumble over my own feet. Yanking the strings at my waist free, she retied the bow. Never going to do anything to suit you, am I? Her shoes squeaked when she took a step back. “All better now. Enjoy your first day at work.”
Is that sarcasm? I wrenched my neck to peer, but I’m no good at reading the expression in her almond-shaped eyes. “A woman’s like a tea bag. You never know how she’ll react till you put her in hot water. Eleanor Roosevelt said that.”
I didn’t care what some dead president’s wife said. I wanted to know what Mom said, but she strode from the room, leaving behind a whiff of antibiotic soap.
I’d signed the papers to sell my condo a week ago. Since the day my uncle helped drag in the last box, the most she’d said was, “I left some coffee in the pot.” By Friday, I figured I’d be lucky to get a text from her. I felt bloated from the weight of unsaid words.
I darted another look out the window. As though sensing I was about to step outside, reporters loitered in the Indian summer sunshine. Their microphones and pens bristled like poison darts.
I lifted my raincoat off the back of a kitchen chair. If they glimpsed Uncle Tulane’s hideous uniform, I might as well hand them a map to my destination. My palms slipped when I gripped the doorknob. I sucked in a deep breath, yanked the door open, and stepped out on the carport. Questions exploded like gunfire. Camera strobes flashed, hurting my eyes.
“There she is! Melody! Niecy!”
Their use of my family nickname tightened my throat. We aren’t friends. Why were their questions never neutral?
“How does it feel to know Francis Tattersall will be doing your time? It’s his time, dammit. I’m innocent.
“Do you have any gifts from the lieutenant governor that the Feds didn’t confiscate?” Well, sure I do. Let me ‘fess up so FBI Special Agent Ed Garrity can run on up here and take those expensive negligees and panties. Haven’t I lost enough?
“Melody, was it your idea to take money from the charity?” No! Francis confessed! Why can’t you just accept that and leave me alone?
“Will you be at Francis’s sentencing this Friday?” Inside every lynch mob, there’s always one hopeless romantic.
“No comment.” I yanked the car door open and slid behind the wheel, slamming the door on their rude shouts. My insides trembled and my hands shook, but I reversed with care. If I ran over one of these assholes, I’d end up in prison after all.
I kept an eye on the rear-view mirror. Three vehicles fell in behind me. I dreaded Friday, when many more would join this rag-tag bunch. I could only hope, after my ex-lover pled guilty in court, they’d chase the next headline and get out of my life.
Then maybe my life could return to normal. Whatever normal is now.
There were no cars ahead of me when I approached the intersection, just an SUV coming from the opposite direction. The light blinked from green to yellow. I stomped the accelerator and swerved around the big Chevy Tahoe trying to turn. Brakes shrieked and the SUV lurched to a halt. I ignored the driver’s upright finger as I roared by. Behind me, horns blared. Imagining the leader of the pack bringing his fists down on his steering wheel, I pressed the accelerator, grinning like a dog that slipped her leash.
It only took a few minutes to arrive at my destination. I parked and scanned the crowded lot. No camera-clutching vultures in sight.
I stepped from the car and slung the raincoat into the back seat. With a final huff, I squared my shoulders. Plodding toward the employee entrance, I eyed the trailers and motor homes used by the carnival people. Every vehicle sported a Florida license plate. What would it be like to live the way they did, in a new town every week?
I’d give a lot to be in a new city, rather than stuck inside a booth at the small-town fair all week. I doubted I’d avoid other distasteful encounters as easily as I’d escaped the reporters.
This place beats prison. The thought didn’t dispel my gloom. Uncle Tee fronted the money for my legal fees. I loved the man to pieces, but he seemed to think I could repay my debt working for him at minimum wage. Every minute I wasn’t working or sleeping, I sent resumes to anywhere I thought might hire me. Living with my mother and working for my uncle was temporary. Very temporary.
The fair wouldn’t open to the public for another fifteen minutes, but mouthwatering scents of popcorn and fried dough already filled the air. The attendant waved me though the employee gate. I admired his red polo with the traveling show’s logo embroidered in gold. At least his boss provided decent uniforms.
I stepped across fresh-cut grass onto the wide strip of asphalt that encircled the fairgrounds. To my left, at the far end of the big field, the Ferris wheel soared above the adult rides. Everywhere I looked, lights blinked. Pop, rock, and rap music dueled for supremacy.
The local food vendors had their own row on the opposite side of the grounds. I cut through the section of kids’ rides, wary of thick power cables snaking across the ground.
Lulling music from the carousel drew me. Metal gates surrounded the ride, but one section stood ajar. I’d ridden this same carousel as a baby, on my father’s lap. When I became a toddler, Dad stood by my side, holding me so I didn’t fall. I felt so grown up when I turned six and he let me ride alone, watching from outside the gates. The merry-go-round had always been our special treat. Every year until I left for college, I had a standing date to ride the carousel with Dad.
The only man worth my heart. I blinked back sudden tears, but sensed I’d need to hold onto the good feeling the memory brought, to balance the bad ones ahead. Everyone in a small town comes to the fair. After all the front-page photos of me in handcuffs, I had no friends left. Not here, not anywhere. Livestock and flowers wouldn’t be the only things getting judged here this week. I borrowed the barker’s voice, blaring from a nearby loudspeaker and changed his words. Come one, come all. See Niecy Anderson, former high school valedictorian, now a blue ribbon bimbo!
Why couldn’t Uncle Tee send me to one of the stands out by the highway?
I almost turned back, but the urge to touch one of the pretty ponies tempted me. I scanned the immediate area, but saw no one nearby. I squeezed through the narrow opening and hurried up the ramp. Palming the nose of the first horse I reached, I admired the bright colors, flaring nostrils, and flowing mane.
Something moved above me. I tipped my head back. Dark boots dangled through an open section overhead. The painted ceiling was covered in bulbs, but none burned—a detail I’d missed until they blinked on, nearly blinding me.
“Working now!” a male voice boomed. I jumped. I hadn’t noticed the elderly man seated on a stool beside the center of the ride, but since his attention was on the spot above my head, I looked back to the open hatch.
The boots hung in mid-air for a second, then denim-clad legs appeared. I was about to turn away when a muscled abdomen slid into view. Muscles played peek-a-boo through the unfastened front of a denim jacket. The trail of light hair down the center of his body darkened as it disappeared into the waistband of his jeans. My knees wobbled.
Golden hair dusted the corded forearm that came down next. Thanks to the ripped-out sleeves, I had a view of bulging muscles all the way to his shoulder. I spied a flash of indigo ink, but I didn’t get a good look at the tattoo on the back of his arm. Before I could blink, he gripped the brass pole and landed astride the horse I was petting.
Our gazes locked. The stranger’s eyes were two shades darker than the Carolina sky at his back. The thrill of attraction zinged through me, even though my cheeks went hot because he caught me stroking a wooden horse.
“Wanna ride?” His smile was slow and self-assured. I’d swear the carousel began to move, but the ticket booth behind him stayed firmly over his shoulder. I blinked twice, wondering what caused the dizzying sensation.
The way he lowered his eyes to my breasts suggested he wasn’t talking about riding the carousel. His inspection continued, sweeping over my hips and down my thighs, then returning to my face in a leisurely manner.
Tempting. My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth, but warning bells sounded in my head. The devil danced in his eyes. The problem was—my problem had always been—that something inside me hummed the tune.
Remember where the last bad boy got me. Vertical steel bars flashed in my head. I mentally repeated my vow. No more men who make their own rules. Everything about this man said he was a rebel.
“N-no. I’d better get to work.” I ached to touch his hair, just to see if those longish locks felt as soft as they looked. I curled my fingers into my palm. Aware I was staring, I dropped my gaze to his leg instead. His strong-looking hand, tinged with grease, rested on his thigh. Everywhere I looked, his bare skin taunted me. White threads strained over his knees and torn strings curled at the edges of the holes. The strong urge to wrap those threads around my fingers jolted through me. Instead, I clasped my throat, perhaps hoping to throttle this insane attraction before it took root. Or to keep from saying, Hell yes, I want a ride.
“I’ll see you later, then. Niecy.”
I jerked my head up. Until the reporters got hold of it, my nickname was just another label I responded to. I wanted to hear him say it again, not to be vain, but to revel in the way his tongue caressed the word. He had the dulcet tones of a radio announcer, but fast on the heels of the pleasure I felt from hearing his voice, a flame of anger lit in my gut because he knew my name.
Thanks to hundreds of slanted stories since my arrest, my name was the punch line to a thousand dirty jokes. Melody “Niecy” Alexander, the lieutenant governor’s slut. Or as one FBI agent described me, a second-rate Monica Lewinsky with delusions of grandeur. Supervisory Special FBI Agent Edward Garrity, wherever you are, I hope your little pee-pee falls off.
I dropped my hand. My fingers grazed the hard plastic rectangle pinned to my chest. Relief washed the stiffness from my spine. This stranger knew my name because I was wearing the hot dog stand’s uniform. And a name tag.
I remembered all those Florida license plates. Who knew where the carnival had been for the last three months? Maybe he hadn’t seen my face on the news. When the sordid tale first broke, the story hit the wire services, but only for a day or two. Inside the state, the scandal still got play in the news, but….
My attention was drawn to his hands again. He slid his palms beneath his thighs and tucked his chin to his chest. Muscles in his forearms and shoulders bulged when he straightened his elbows. I gasped as he lifted off the carved saddle and rolled his torso over like a gymnast. He lowered his legs straight out to the side, then slowly raised them until his heels clicked together over his head. The bottom of his jacket fell to his armpits, revealing a sculpted back.
Whatever he’s doing, he’s damn fine. He used the sole of one boot to snap the dangling door closed. With the toe of the other, he swiveled a tiny catch to secure the panel.
I gripped the pole and tried to close my mouth, feeling my folds moisten. A small throb began in my clit. No. No! Hell, no. Walk away.
He posed for a moment, stretched to his full length. The muscles in his arms flexed once, twice, and suddenly, he flipped into the air. Twisting like an Olympic diver, he landed in front of me with a smirk. The carousel platform shuddered, driving vibrations through the soles of my feet and up my legs to tingle inside my core.
His self-satisfied expression said he knew what I felt and he’d wanted me to feel it. He winked. My tummy performed a bad imitation of his maneuver. The heat in his eyes could melt butter. “Wanna hear a secret?”
Fool that I was, wanted to hear anything he had to say. “Sure.”
“You’ve been looking for me all your life.”
The bad girl in my head cooed. And here you are. I almost pinched myself. Why, why does my heartbeat change around guys like this—and only change for guys like this? Just once, when I jumped, why couldn’t I land on the right side of wrong? He probably used that line every week. Or he’d read about me in the news and thought he knew me.
Damned if he’d get the last word. I was sick of being silent. “Wanna hear a fact?”
I moved closer. He smelled like cheap soap. “Your ego’s impressive. However,”—I lowered my eyes and swept my gaze across the bulge in the front of his jeans before looking up again—“I bet nothing else measures up.”
His amused eyes lit up like wide-open gas jets. “I’ll let you get back to me on that. First impressions can be deceiving.”
My pulse galloped while he studied my face. The skin beneath my lip gloss tingled when he eyed my lips. He leaned forward and his breath caressed my cheeks. My breath froze in my lungs.
The tension was unbearable, waiting for him to kiss me. In those scant seconds, all kinds of images flashed through my mind, each one involving his body covering mine.
Then he spun, shattering the spell.
Stunned and confused, I watched him weave through the frozen steeds, grabbing each rigid pole he passed. His fist slid down each one just enough for me to know the gesture was a taunt. The tattooed letters on the back of his arms were easy to read from a distance. It took a second for my brain to register what they spelled.
Puzzled, I looked at his left arm.
Trash Carnie? His job is picking up trash?
No, fool. Read from left to right. Carnie Trash. “Yep, I really know how to pick ‘em.”
“Damn showoff.” The old guy barked with laughter and raised a gnarled middle finger.
Despite the loud music all around, I heard Mr. Showoff’s return laugh. Sunlight turned his hair to pure gold when he jumped off the ride. Without a word, he swung over the surrounding gates with the same gymnasts’ ease. He was easy to follow through the milling workers. He was a head taller than most. When he disappeared behind a row of tents, I turned to meet the old guy’s snaggle-toothed grin.
I whirled and hurried down the ramp, swiping a hand across my chin in case I’d drooled.
The TuDawgs trailer wasn’t hard to find. It was the largest concession stand in the row of local food vendors. Four windows stood open, ready for business. Glass shakers filled with vinegar sparkled in the sun on the ledges in front of each opening. Bright nylon flags jutted from the roof, whispering in the soft breeze. Judging from the aroma, hot dogs already lined the grill. The steady thump, thump, thump told me someone was cutting potatoes for fries.
The door at the end of the trailer stood open. As I approached, Molly Harper squealed. She looked so much like her sister—my deceased Aunt Kate—that I wondered how Tulane managed to work around her. In the seven years since my favorite aunt passed away, Uncle Tee had never even had a date.
At least he could get one. Bet it’s seven years before anyone has the guts to ask me out again. Except for carnie trash, of course. Bet he’d—
“Niecy Alexander! When I heard you were assigned to my crew, I told Tulane, this week’s gonna be like old times.”
Who wouldn’t love getting busted back to the job they had in high school? Back then, I’d begged to work the fair booth so I could ogle boys.
“Yeah, it sure is.” I looked down on the pretense of mounting the set of wrought iron stairs parked over the trailer hitch, unable to share her enthusiasm. “What do you want me to do?” I stepped inside, stopping to wash up at the sink.
“Oh, I’m putting your pretty face on a window.” When I whirled in dismay, slinging water off my hands, she threw her arms around me and kissed me on the cheek. I couldn’t recall the last time I’d seen Molly, but her carroty curls showed no sign of silver. Can’t buy that color in a box.
Envy pierced me. I’d counted four gray hairs just this morning.
“No, no. Let me cook,” I protested. The last job I wanted was taking orders. I didn’t want to face people any more than I wanted special treatment. I wanted to fly under the radar while I did my time at TuDawgs.
“Please, Molly, let me do the fries or toast buns.” If he was around, only her husband was allowed to cook the hot dogs. And where Molly went, David wasn’t far behind.
“Not a chance.” She shoved a pencil behind my ear, slapped a pad into my hand, and grabbed a tray filled with salt and pepper shakers. Squeezing past me, she scurried down the stairs. I considered leaning out of the window to argue. She stopped three feet away, setting shakers on the picnic tables under the canopy to the left, but it’s a waste of time to argue with this redhead. I turned. Sure enough, Molly’s husband waved a pair of stainless tongs from the far end of the booth.
“David.” I waggled my fingers.
David Harper used the tongs to point to the other people in the booth, rattling off names. “James is on fries and onions. Noah’s my relief on the grill, when he’s not making slaw and toasting buns, or anything else y’all need. Mary and Bonnie are working the windows with you and Molly.”
The foursome looked so young that, if not for the stench of hot grease, I was sure the place would reek of acne medicine. My twenty-sixth birthday loomed. I felt every day of fifty.
I heard a voice that suddenly made me feel a lot younger. “You open yet?”
Mr. Showoff stood at the window, smiling. How’d he find me? My tummy pinged off my shoes, then returned to its usual spot. Of course. This rip-off of a vintage Candy Striper uniform was better than GPS. And the idiotic TuDawgs’ logo was embroidered on the sleeve.
Carnie trash. It wasn’t his taste in tattoos that made me nervous. It was my attraction to them. But he was a paying customer, so I smiled. “What’s your pleasure?”
“Two hot dogs. Slaw and mustard. Fries. And sweet tea.” While I scribbled the order, he added, “And I need to know what time you get a break, Niecy.”
I could almost feel his tongue sliding over my name. I clipped the order to the spinning reel, trying not to smile. “We don’t take breaks.”
“Wow, no break? Someone oughta tell the union.” Rather than return his smile, I looked away.
“This is South Carolina. No unions. It’s a right-to-work state.” Too bad the only place I had the right to work was this hot dog stand.
“These dogs are all beef, right?” he asked. Since the information was on the sign, I didn’t think a response was warranted.
“Of course they are. Made from USDA Choice Grade A beef.” Salt from the big container in Molly’s right hand flowed over the top of the shaker in her left. I scowled at her rude tone, but she was too busy glaring at Carnie to notice. “No breaks till after seven, mister. Don’t you need to get to work? Place your order and move along.”
Molly and I might be distant relatives, thanks to Uncle Tee’s marriage, but she sure as hell wasn’t my mother. I disliked her talking like he was something stuck to her shoe. People used the same tone to me lately. Her attitude made me reconsider my vow to stay away from this guy.
He’s a seven-day wonder, not a long-term commitment. All his flash will fizzle by the time the lights and rides come down. But… he’s the safest bad boy I’ll ever meet. One who’s leaving town on Sunday.
He pulled out his wallet. The long chain dangling from the corner tinkled. I had nothing to do until a customer arrived. Not looking at him was too damn hard. Besides, everywhere else I looked, I met the eyes of a gawking teenager. Very aware David had turned from the grill at his wife’s sharp words, I spun back to the window and gave the stranger a warm smile.
“What’s your name?”
His eyes crinkled at the corners. “I’ll tell you at seven-oh-one.”
I tried to provoke an answer. “I think I’m just gonna call you Carnie.”
“Works for me.” He laughed, drawing a huff from Molly. Looking over his shoulder, I met her gaze. She drew a finger across her throat. Worse, I knew he saw her gesture reflected in the trailer’s shiny siding.
People drifted off the asphalt, forming a line behind him. A young mother studied the menu boards over the windows. A little boy I judged to be perhaps three barged into Carnie’s leg and threw his arms around the limb to keep from falling. His older sister grabbed the boy’s arm and pulled him away.
“Thop it, Avery! Watcth where you’re going.”
Carnie squatted and smiled at the tots. “Have y’all ridden the carousel yet?”
“No, mithter.” Spying the gap where the little girl’s front teeth used to be, I grinned. Her hair was dark, but her curls were loose, like my mother’s. Her pigtails scraped her shoulders when she shook her head. “But we’re going there next.” Punching her brother on the shoulder, she rolled her eyes and scowled. “He tharted crying like a baby in the parking loth. Wanths a thupid hot dog, when we could be ridin’ the rides.”
The boy scowled from beneath long, brown-sugar curls tipped with vanilla cream. Carnie stroked a thumb across the spot on the little boy’s arm where his sister struck him. “I have a big sister who tortured me, too.” The child drew back a fist, which Carnie easily caught. “Hey now, big guy. Can’t hit a girl. There’s a rule ‘bout that.”
I spun the wheel to send his order to the prep crew, then turned my attention back to the pair of beautiful, biracial children.
The boy swung his foot, kicking straw onto the girl’s shoes, but he didn’t speak. His huge eyes matched my favorite gray cashmere sweater. His tears left silvered trails on his chubby cheeks. He was so adorable, I wanted to squeeze him.
Carnie pointed to the kid’s shoes. “Spiderman, huh? I’m a Batman fan myself. Here ya go.” He pulled a double row of red tickets out of his back pocket. After separating them, he handed one row to each child. “Carousel ride’s on me.” The boy’s scowl turned into a delighted smile, revealing a gorgeous pair of dimples.
Okay, Carnie was adorable, too. If we had a child, he’d look just like that little boy.
The mother looked down from the menu board, stuffed a cell phone into her pocket, and grabbed the little girl’s hand. The girl still clutched her brother’s hand, so the kids tumbled against the young woman like dominos. She narrowed her eyes at Carnie, who got to his feet and sauntered toward the tent. Despite his tan, the tattoos were bold. I figured the mother deciphered their message when she pulled the kids to her opposite side, out of his line of sight.
Why label himself like that?
He took a seat on the end of a picnic bench to wait for his food. I felt his eyes on me as the mother placed her order. I darted a look in his direction. The shadow of hurt in his eyes… was that real, or an effect of stepping under the tent?
His fries took three minutes to cook. The entire time, I kept expecting the woman to thank him, but she merely snatched the tickets from the children and scolded them for talking to strangers.
Bitch. True generosity is rare.
On second thought, maybe he handed out tickets to entice folks to spend more money. So what? I couldn’t help but admire his gesture.
I leaned out the window. “You want these to go, or—” Our gazes connected again. Maybe the heat from the grill made me feel warm, but I had an inkling my hot flash was due to watching him get to his feet. His jacket fell open.
“Gotta get to work, unfortunately. Bag ‘em for me, pretty lady.” I jerked my eyes to his face, just in time to see him grin because he’d caught me looking at his chest. Again.
When he grabbed the white paper sack I handed out the window, his hand curled around mine. Electricity danced up my arm. When our eyes met again, I got a second jolt. With a tractor-trailer load of generators cranking out voltage all over the fairgrounds, electricity must spill out. Yeah, escaped electricity. That had to be what caused the tingle in my arm.
“See you at seven.” He stuffed a five from his change into the tip jar. With a final smile, he turned and jogged away.
No more bad boys. No. No. No.
“Hey, lady, you gonna take my order, or what?” someone demanded. I darted a guilty look at Molly, then jerked my attention to the line of customers.
Monday 6:50 p.m.
“You looking forward to the reunion?” Molly shoved two loaded hot dogs into ruffled cardboard sleeves, then poked them into a small paper bag already stuffed to capacity.
Like I’d look forward to the clap. “Sure.” I had to survive this week before I could worry about anything else. Sweat trickled down both sides of my face. My bra had grown teeth an hour ago and my new shoes pinched my toes.
I stuck a pair of twenties into the register and snagged a five and two ones. Scooping out three quarters, I nudged the drawer closed with my hip, shook my head, and forked the change through the window. Molly slapped the bag into my hand and I gave it to the customer. Delighted to have no one else waiting, I blew out a deep breath, turned my back on the window, and fell against the counter.
My stomach rumbled. After three hours of slinging hot dogs, they held little appeal. I straightened and grabbed a pair of tongs. Wrenching the lid off the two-gallon jar of pickles on my windowsill, I pulled out the biggest dill I could find. I bit into the end, relishing the sting of vinegar flooding my mouth.
My uncle seemed hell-bent on sticking me places I didn’t want to be. Tulane had two nephews, but between our family and his wife’s, he boasted eight nieces. Most would have kids by now, I supposed. Would my cousins try to pry the gory details of my sordid past out of me? I’d blown off the reunion for the last seven years. I’d rather eat shoe polish, but was in no position to defy my mother’s request that I go with her.
I slid the pickle to the ruffled end of the tray. I didn’t want to think about the recent past or my immediate future, so instead, I thought about the summer I turned eleven. I’d been obsessed with two things. Dill pickles and Elvis Presley. My mama swore my skin would turn green from my diet. Dad said my ears would rot off if I didn’t listen to Marvin Gaye instead of Elvis. Uncle Tulane brought a two-gallon jar of pickles by the house every week. Before long, I learned to suck the juice out before I ate them, like he did.
Indulging in that childhood pleasure now meant I couldn’t answer Molly, so I stuck the pickle into my mouth. Okay, so I did it to taunt the ogling teenager peeking around Molly, too. His face went red and he turned back to his task. Molly raised a brow, making me think the little smart-ass might be one of her relatives. She watched me for a few moments, then tipped her head toward the window. Expecting another customer, I turned, forgetting my hollowed cheeks.
“Am I early?” Carnie’s brows went up. I nearly strangled on pickle juice. “Or just in time?” The naughty gleam in his eyes made my cheeks hot—again. Seriously, I hadn’t blushed over a guy since my freshman year in high school. What’s wrong with me?
“Get rid of him,” Molly whispered. “I know what you’ve been through, but you can do better, Niecy.”
I swallowed the juice and dropped the pickle into the waste bin. “Thirty minutes?” My tone made it clear I wasn’t asking. Disappointment flashed in her eyes. I didn’t care. I answered to her about serving hot dogs, nothing else. I handed her a twenty from my pocket. “Got an extra roll of quarters?”
“Thirty minutes,” Molly decreed, slapping the change into my palm. To my horror, she turned to lean out her window. Fearing what she might say, I dumped the coins into my apron pocket and skipped a step on the stairs, anxious to get Carnie away from my opinionated aunt.
The toe of my rubber-soled shoe caught on the middle stair. I grabbed for a railing and my fists clamped on thin air. Carnie jumped forward as I cartwheeled my arms. My torso collided with his and I felt that odd jolt again.
“Well, aren’t you just the knight in shining armor?” I snapped, unnerved by my response to his touch, not to mention the way my feet dangled. “First you fix the carousel. Now you save me from landing on my nose.”
“Been fixing that carousel since I was fifteen. Besides, it’s a cute nose.” He pressed his lips to the body part in question before sitting me on my feet. I went warm and soft inside. “Be a shame to let it get squished.” He sniffed. “Mmm, you smell good.”
I rolled my eyes. “I smell like roasted meat. What other miracles have you performed while I was stuck in that trailer?”
“No miracles, just doing my job. Where to?” Rather than press his physical advantage, he took a half-step back. Or maybe he felt those daggers from Molly’s eyes in his back.
I turned left with no real plan other than to duck behind the trailer and put some distance between me and the family business. I was so rattled by my near-fall and rescue that I plowed into a large woman. She turned. I mumbled, “Excuse me.”
“Well, well, Niecy Anderson. Come home to rob some local kids, have you?”
I blinked. My heart pounded when I recognized Candy Flannigan. She’d been head cheerleader in high school and first-class bitch. My head rang with all the times she’d mocked the awkward bookworm I’d been back then. Though she’d gained fifty pounds, her attitude seemed the same.
But mine had changed a lot.
“Such a cute dress,” I exclaimed, pointing to her red-and-white checkered shift. “Kinda like a walking picnic table. Where’d you get that? Please, please say it comes smaller than plus sizes.”
I knew my jibe struck pay dirt because her pale cheeks turned red under her clown-like, too-pink blush.
“Cuter than what you’re wearing.” She scowled and snapped. “Didn’t you work at the same hot dog place back in high school? I’m shocked anyone would let you near a cash register these days.” She whirled and sauntered toward the Ferris wheel, wide ass swinging like a corner whore’s.
Clenching my fists, I turned in the opposite direction. By the time I stepped onto the asphalt walkway, Carnie was nowhere to be seen. Humiliated and seething with outrage, I decided he’d ditched me due to the brief cat-fight. Probably for the best. Now that she knew I was here, Candy would be back and she’d bring reinforcements. Exactly what I’d been dreading. I drew a deep breath and let it out slowly.
Someone grabbed my hand. I despised the flood of relief I felt when I met Carnie’s eyes, and not Candy’s.
“Slow down, will ya? People say that kind of thing all the time. Like the only reason we bust our asses to set up the carnival is to make a good spot to pick pockets.” I didn’t respond, except to snatch my hand away. I regretted the gesture immediately, but I wasn’t going to reach for him.
I slapped the pockets of my apron, causing my change to jingle. “The Fat Albert game. Or the coin-pusher. Or the dime toss.”
His laughter soothed my ruffled feathers. “Gotta love a woman who knows what she likes.” He planted his feet. I kept walking, but he grabbed my arm and spun me. “Takes more than half an hour to win a prize from the coin pusher.”
“Is that insider info?” He just grinned.
The game boasted a squeegee-like apparatus that moved back and forth over a flat surface covered with quarters. Small toys, shot glasses, and ashtrays, all crammed with quarters, rested atop the coins. Sometimes there’d be a folded five—or even a fifty—tucked into the small prizes. The object of the game was to drop a quarter through a slot so the coin would fall onto the open space left by the blade when it pulled back. When the blade came forward again, it pushed the new quarter against the others. With a bit of luck, more would fall over the front edge and drop as winnings. The catch was, most of the time, the quarters fell off the sides. Those were claimed by the game operator.
I’d been twelve the year my dad first let me play the coin-push game. After I’d played about ten quarters and the prize I wanted still poised on the edge, I complained.
This game is rigged, Daddy!
Not exactly, sweetheart. If the coins didn’t slide off the sides, then everyone would win. The fun is in beating the game, even though the odds are in favor of the game operator. It’s not a way to make easy money. It’s entertainment. And a small test of character.
To see how much you’ll risk for the reward.
Carnie pointed in the opposite direction. The bittersweet memory of my father dissolved. “The dime toss is this way.”
“So is Candy Flannigan.”
“The rude woman?” He took my hand again. The little massage he gave my fingers helped me dial back my anger.
“Yep.” I pointed toward the front gate, praying he didn’t ask about my issue with Candy. “Fat Albert is that way. Let’s do that one.”
I’m no fan of rats, but I made an exception for the Fat Albert game. The big tent had counters all the way around, painted with colorful squares. People bet by placing quarters on any square. The guy running the booth waited until all bets were down, then he dropped a white rat onto a table-sized wheel divided into pie shapes. The color of each wedge corresponded to those on the squares. Along the outermost edge of the wheel, holes about the size of an orange allowed the rat to dive through, but until he heard the bell ring, he’d just run around the edge. Under each hole sat tin cups. When the rat heard the bell, he’d jump into the closest hole, getting a snack from the cup as his reward, and in the process, choose the winner.
Every year I could recall, the Fat Albert game had the primo spot, just inside the front gate. I tried again to take a step in that direction. Carnie didn’t budge. With a sigh, I turned back.
His pout was so cute I wanted to nibble his lip. “You’re gonna to let her cheat me out of the chance to show off my dime-tossing skills?”
I kept forgetting, he probably had no idea what Candy meant. The fair traveled the entire Eastern Seaboard. For all I knew, he hadn’t read a newspaper in weeks, much less one from this state. Maybe he thought Candy referred to something connected to the hot dog stand, because she’d mentioned my uniform.
I blew out a deep breath. “Okay. Dime toss it is. My mama could use some new bake ware.” As an excuse to touch him, I squeezed his bicep. The muscle didn’t give. “I guess you’re strong enough to tote all my winnings.” I batted my eyelashes.
We turned in the direction Candy had taken, strolling past carnival booths. Exhortations to toss darts at balloons, or squirt water into the mouth of a clown, or throw a softball at milk bottles came from every booth we passed.
Huge stuffed animals covered the walls in each booth, making a vibrant palette, but I kept a sharp eye out for Candy’s ugly dress. At least mine—also ugly—was a job requirement and not a statement of taste.
I started to ask what his job was, but he spoke before I could. “So, you think you’re good at tossing dimes, huh?”
I nodded emphatically. “I’ll have you know, I won so many glasses the year I was seventeen, my mama’s still drinking out of ‘em.” I rubbed a finger over the scar that bisected my eyebrow, and got hammered by another memory.
I’d been with the wrong guy that day, too. Tim Caudle, my date, almost killed me. We kept running into his friends and he’d take sips from their smuggled bottle of booze. I wanted to, but knew if my mom found out, she’d make Dad ground me until Christmas.
Halfway home, Tim managed to get his hand down my shirt. He let the car drift and we slammed into a tree. Although my dad was darker-skinned than Uncle Tee, he’d been a whiter shade of pale—to borrow a line from the blaring music—when he arrived at the scene to take me home. About then, a deputy smelled liquor on Tim’s breath, and tested him. My dad jumped to the logical conclusion, saving me the real explanation. The reason we wrecked had little to do with the booze, but everything to do with Candy.
My mother made me scrub every ceramic tile in the house with bleach and a toothbrush because I hadn’t called home for a ride when I realized Tim was drunk. I bore the punishment rather than explain what really happened.
“We’ll see who’s best.” Lost in my thoughts, it took me a second to remember we were talking about pitching dimes. He let go of my hand and draped his arm around my shoulders. When I glanced at his face, he squeezed my upper arm. “Just checking to be sure you’re strong enough to carry all my winnings.” His eyes went round in fake innocence.
I supposed he couldn’t let any grass grow under his feet since he had to seduce a new woman every week. I relaxed. To hell with Molly. To hell with Candy and her minions. I was ready for some fun. Being seduced was fun.
We soon reached the double-length booth. Cheap glassware glittered under hot lights. Glasses, baking dishes, clear plates, coffee cups, and ash trays were stacked so the easy-to-land tosses would net something small or garish. The more desirable items perched on rotating platforms. Squinting, I studied the wares.
The booth attendant approached. I handed over eight quarters and got back twenty-five dimes. “Uh, you miscounted.” I handed five coins back, raising my voice to be heard over the guy calling bingo in the next tent.
“Nah, you’re good,” the young man assured me, darting a look at Carnie from under raised brows. He curled my fingers over the coins. “Keep ‘em. Call it a customer loyalty bonus.”
Carnie snorted and glared at the teenager. “Yeah, right.” Was he jealous? The kid couldn’t be twenty.
I spied a red casserole dish with a clear glass lid. There were several more scattered throughout the display, in various sizes. I pointed to one about three inches square, atop of one of the rotating stands. The small ones would be the hardest to win, since it’d be easier for the dime to slide off the miniscule surface. The dishes were perfect to hold leftovers when my mother cooked for one—after I found a way to move out.
“Aim for those.” I pointed.
Carnie huffed. “You say that like my mama doesn’t need new drinking glasses.”
His aggrieved look made me burst out laughing. He was easy to be around. God, did I ever need someone easy to be around.
“Okay, but if I stick this dime, you’re kissing me.” He waved the coin under my nose.
“And if you miss?”
“I kiss you.”
I threw my dime. “You must know a lot of dumb women.” The coin skidded across the bottom of the upended dish and fell off the other side.
The attendant yelled, “Winner! Winner!” He reached into the display and turned, sitting a striped tea glass in front of me. I slid the tumbler in front of Carnie.
“Looks like you’re not going home to mama empty-handed after all.” I took aim again, breathing deep and trying to calm down, so I could take a little off my throw. The dime struck the same spot as before and began to skid. I grabbed Carnie’s arm, jumping up and down. “Stop. C’mon, stop!”
The leading edge hung over the side, but the coin stayed on the dish.
“We got us another winner!” the young carnival worker cried. He lifted the tablecloth and grabbed an identical dish from a big box underneath. After popping the lid on top, he placed my prize on the railing in front of me.
“I think you’re a ringer,” Carnie said, poking me in the rib. “Tell the truth. You throw dimes for a living.”
“No, but I used to rake them in.” He raised a brow and I regretted bring up the topic. No sense getting depressed. “I’m two for two… and you?” I faked a grin, overwhelmed by a surge of longing for my former position as fundraising director for a children’s charity.
He dragged his dime along the side of his jaw. Think about that nice, square jaw. Not Deuce Tattersall or the job he cost me.
“For the record, I prefer intelligent women.” Carnie’s coin struck the side of the dish I’d hit. He laughed when the dime bounced off and landed on the white table covering. “Looks like you get a kiss.”
Why not? I lifted my chin as he moved close. His body blocked out the hustle and bustle around us. The rock and roll rhythm blaring from the nearby rides pounded through me. He moved one hand to the small of my back, pulling me against him. But he took his sweet time lowering his head.
There’s a place between being manhandled and being handled by a man that turns my will to water. Carnie made himself at home in that spot.
He didn’t try to take more than I offered. No tongue forced itself into my mouth. His lips were firm, yet soft. I enjoyed the way his hands felt on my body. His warmth was welcome in the crisp, evening air. This is nice.
When Carnie raised his head, he stared into my eyes for a long moment, then leaned in again. This time, he brushed his lips back and forth over mine. The soft friction generated a tingle that lingered on my lips long after he pulled away and sailed his dime through the air.
Very nice. I couldn’t keep staring, so I looked for an easier dish to aim for. His coin struck the side of the dish but ricocheted onto the ground. “Oh, look. You get another kiss.”
He turned toward me. My heart skipped a beat when his lips touched mine. I expected another chaste kiss, but he teased his way inside my mouth. I forgot about the stupid dishes. I forgot my vow to give up bad boys. I forgot I was only with him to piss Molly off. All I could think was how good he tasted and how damn well he kissed.
Stroke for stroke, I responded eagerly, exploring him and letting him explore me. I slid my hands underneath the denim jacket, enjoying the way his muscles felt against my palms.
“Hey, Brass. You gonna pitch a dime or pitch a tent?” The young attendant snickered.
What kind of name is Brass? Insider joke, no doubt about his balls. Nobody named their kid Brass. I decided to stick with Carnie.
Carnie broke away with a growl. Wordlessly, he tossed his entire handful of dimes over his shoulder and put his hand at the small of my back again, pulling me closer. Pressed to his chest, my nipples began to throb. The sensation echoed between my thighs.
“Damn, brother. You trying to break me?” Glass clinked behind us when the attendant moved his winnings to the wide rail at Carnie’s back. Paper rattled, but I was lost in the man.
“Hey, lady. Isn’t this you?”
I broke away and stared in horror at the crumpled newspaper the young man held up. My face stared back, schooled into the mask I wore walking into the Columbia FBI office with my hands locked into steel cuffs.
The bold headline screamed. Lt. Governor’s Mistress Set Free in Children’s Charity Scam Case.
Set free. Not “exonerated,” but set free, like little elves worked some magical spell to conceal my guilt. No one conceals guilt from the FBI. Those bastards ripped my life apart until they knew which brand of tampons I prefer. No, their investigation was more intense than that. They knew which coupons I’d clipped for those tampons were expired. Hope you burn when you pee, Agent Garrity.
Carnie turned and stared at the photo. Anger sent prickles of heat over my chest and up my neck.
“Not your best angle.” He snatched the page from the young man’s hand, crumpling it in his fist. He bounced the wadded paper off the attendant’s chest. “Make her a box. We’ll pick it up later in the week,” he ordered. “And your job is picking up dimes, Dylan. You don’t ask personal questions.”
I whirled and strode through the crowd, anxious to put as many people between me and Carnie as possible. What was I thinking? This wasn’t the time or place to let down my guard.
Tuesday 12:15 a.m.
“That man’s back.” Molly raised a soapy hand, pointing through the trailer door. “Get rid of him, Niecy. He’s bad news.”
“Molly.” David’s tone held a warning. “She’s a grown woman.”
I kept scrubbing countertops. Every bone in my body ached from standing for eight hours. With all the condiments splattered on my apron, I looked like I’d had my ass kicked in a paintball fight. Exhausted though I was, I couldn’t resist looking at him. If I hadn’t kissed him, I could blow him off, but it felt like we had unfinished business.
His face lit up when our gazes connected. Did he have low standards or a reputation so bad that hanging out with the state’s biggest pariah was no big deal?
Duh. A bad boy wouldn’t give a damn.
“Go on, get out of here so I can mop.” David squeezed my shoulders. “You be careful, now, okay?”
I untied my apron strings and folded the fabric, but stuffed the pinafore under my arm. I had to wash the uniform before the fairgrounds opened again. At the top of the stairs, I paused. Carnie sat on a picnic bench, facing away from the table. He leaned back, propping his elbows on the table’s edge. His mile-long legs sprawled in the straw. From the tilt of his head, I thought he studied the logo painted on the trailer through lowered lashes.
The cartoonish hot dog always made me cringe.
But I laughed, thinking the same thing I always thought whenever I saw that dancing weenie. Laughing felt strange, but at the same time, it made some of my exhaustion go away, so I did it again. Carnie turned his head and gave me a lazy smile, but raised his brows.
I explained what I found so funny. “That hot dog needs a van and a raincoat.”
I gestured to the design my uncle sketched on a napkin thirty years ago, the day he bought his first vending cart. “See how the wiener curls at the bottom and sticks up over the bun? All he needs is a van and a raincoat and he could be a proper perv.”
Barking with laughter, he got to his feet. “Guess women have better radar for that kind of thing. You have a way with words and one hell of an imagination. I’m gonna see the TuDawgs’ wiener dude as Paulie the Perv from now on.” He held out a hand and I slid mine inside. I forgot how badly my feet hurt when the electricity of attraction raced up my arm.
Lights winked out all over the large field. The roaring generators coughed and quieted. For the first time in hours, a cool breeze wafted over my skin. The dewy air was fragrant with popcorn, funnel cakes, and cotton candy.
Falling in with the late-night stragglers moving toward the front gates, we passed darkened booths run by the Lion’s Club, the Rotary Club, and the Kiwanis Club. Those places closed a couple of hours ago, causing long lines at my window. Uncle Tee made us stay open till closing because he competed with the community service clubs to see who could raise the most for charity during the week of the fair.
I huffed with disappointment when we reached the shuttered Fat Albert booth. Carnie steered me left. Ahead, the carousel lights glowed, creating a fairy-tale island in the surrounding darkness.
“I bought us a private ride.” He lifted my hand and pressed a kiss to my knuckles. “One ride. Then, I’m putting you in your car. You’re gorgeous, but you still look like a woman who needs a big glass of wine, a hot bath, and her pillow.” Regret tinged his voice. “I can’t offer a hot bath. Just a cramped shower.”
Us. Most men worked harder to avoid saying “us” than they did to avoid sexually-transmitted diseases. Exhaustion made my steps drag, but another bit of my soul revived as we climbed the low ramp. Carnie had a romantic streak… or a damn good routine. Either way, I took feminine pleasure in his words.
I wasn’t sure what I’d expected from this guy. Not respect and certainly not concern. Fake or not, I’d take it.
“Pick your pony.” We climbed the ramp and strolled along the circular platform. I paused beside a dappled white steed on the outer ring. He wore metallic armor, like a medieval war horse. A garland of flowers rested on his shoulders.
“The lead horse. Good choice.” He gave my hand a squeeze.
“Lead horse?” I frowned at the wooden figure. “How can you say one leads? They run in a circle.”
“Every carousel has a lead horse. It’s tradition.” He ran his hand over the horse’s mane. “See? This one’s a bit bigger than the rest and he’s dressed for war. His paint’s applied with more care and his colors are more vibrant.”
Someone behind me chuckled.
I whirled toward the unexpected sound. The old man still perched on the same stool where I’d seen him at three-thirty. He lifted a hand. “You want the whole she-bang, Brass?”
“You can have this ride any way you want it, Niecy.” Carnie slid his thumb across my knuckles. His breath stirred my hair. The small sensation pricked my scalp and sent tingles through me. “The carousel plays several tunes.”
I was beginning to feel irrationally princess-like. “Can it run in the dark? With no music?” Why am I whispering? “This place is so loud when the fair’s open. A quiet ride would be nice.”
“I second that.” He turned toward the old man. “The lady wants the no-frills ride, Pops. Go on. Get out of here. I’ll shut ‘er down.” The ride attendant slid off the stool. He flipped some switches on the panel at his side and the lights went dark, section by section. Carnie tugged my apron from under my arm and tossed it on the bench inside a stationary swan boat as the ride began to turn.
I put my foot on the iron peg and gripped the pole.
“Hang on. I have a plan. Let me go first.” He climbed onto the pony, then shifted so he sat behind the carved saddle. He took my hand and placed it on his thigh. Leaning down, he cupped his palm. “Put your left foot on the peg and your right foot in my hand.” I stared, trying to figure out the point to his request. “I want you facing me,” he added.
My eyes went wide and my mouth fell open. His eyes twinkled with a challenge, revealed by the lone security light on the corner of the big exhibit hall nearby.
“You’d rather ride with your back to me?”
Stop being a damn fool. His way would be more fun. “Okay. Hang on a second.” I toed off the hated, sensible shoes.
“Give me your left hand.” He extended his other palm. I let go of the pole and grabbed his wrist in a death-lock. Holding my breath, I placed my bare foot in his hand, trying not to imagine landing in an ignominious heap on the other side of the horse.
But if I made it, this should be a ride to remember.
I wouldn’t have gotten high marks from any competent gymnastics judge, but I completed the maneuver. Now my thighs rested atop his and my butt nestled in the saddle. My back pressed against the brass pole. My sex wasn’t quite pressed to the bulge in his jeans, but I was very aware that less than an inch separated us. The hem of my uniform slid up, baring my thighs. The look in his eyes made my stomach lurch. I forgot my aching muscles.
“You kids have fun.” The old man made a spry leap onto the platform and crossed to the ramp.
“Goodnight, Pops.” With a wave, the carousel attendant shuffled toward the employee gate.
Carnie slid his thumbs over my cheekbones, then eased his fingers into my hair, bracketing my ears. He stared into my eyes for a long moment before tugging me forward.
“Mmm. Been looking forward to this for hours.” Exhaustion fled when his lips touched mine. I closed my eyes and reveled in his soft, skillful strokes. I couldn’t stop touching him. I explored every nook and plane of his arms, then moved my hands beneath his jacket. His nipples turned to hard beads beneath my circling palms.
It was easy to imagine the horse’s movements were his hips, rising and falling between my thighs. More concerned with hanging on than with modesty, I wrapped my legs around his waist and rested my heels on the horse’s rump.
He groaned and nipped my lower lip when I raked my nails over the small points. Arousal surged inside me. What is so exciting about dragging those sounds from a man? Not just any man, but the ones like this guy, who give off a vibe that the world has to take them on their terms? Their groans were grudging, as though they disliked even that small loss of control. Wresting one free was such a buzz.
I don’t know how long we kissed. We kissed until we had to breathe. We parted long enough to inhale and stare into each other’s eyes, then kissed again. He kissed exactly the way I like, with tender, teasing strokes that swelled to fierce thrusts of passion, then ebbed to tenderness again.
“What’s your favorite color?” he asked during one break.
“Lavender. Come back. My lips are lonely.” I leaned forward again. My words flowed over his lips and into his mouth and I liked the sound. “What’s yours?”
He pulled back. “Until today, red. But I think whiskey’s my favorite color now.”
I laughed. “Whiskey’s a color?”
“Yeah. The color of your eyes.” He kissed me again, a dominant surge that left me dizzy and grateful I’d had the forethought to lock myself to him.
On Carnie’s silent ride, I had no embarrassing past. My concerns about the future melted like cotton candy when his tongue stroked mine. I cared only about his touches and what they did to my body. He moved his hands from my face. Cool air caressed my back, inciting goose bumps when he lowered the zipper at my nape. With one brush of his hands, my uniform slid off my shoulders to catch on my elbows. I returned the favor, pulling the jacket down his arms. The garment’s copper snaps clinked on the deck below when he shook it off.
He moved his lips to my throat. Heat raced across my chest—a delicious foil to the chilly pole at my back—when he trailed kisses down my neck. He smoothed his lips over the rounded flesh above my bra, over and over, as though he tried to memorize the curves. Want surged in my nipples, matching music that wasn’t playing anywhere but in my head. Dum dum de dum, dum dum de dum, dum dum dum.
His cock thickened against my mound. A throb resounded between my thighs and I grew wet. He made no move to lower the bra cups. A slow seduction for a slow ride. The idea delighted me. Frenzied sex has it’s time and place, but his easy pace made me think he wanted to prove he wasn’t the guy Molly thought.
He’d picked me up. I didn’t know his name. But rather than rush me out of fear I’d change my mind, this man had the maturity and confidence to seduce me nice and slow. Just the thought turned my nipples to lead.
I slid my fingers through his hair, enjoying the silky strands. The steed rose and fell tirelessly, adding a layer of eroticism to our exploration of each other’s bodies. Carnie moved his lips to my shoulder. I pressed mine to his neck, reveling in his close shave.
His nips and kisses left damp places to chill in the night air once he moved to the next spot. He raked his nails down my bare back, catching on the band of my bra. I arched against him. My nipples pressed his chest. I thrilled to the sensation of my lacy bra chafing the sensitive peaks while I imagined how they’d feel against his skin. His cock hardened, filling the small space between us. The pressure on my clit felt delicious. I leaned into him, prompting him to slide his hands over my back and press me to his chest. Then he moved his hands to my butt.
He leaned back and tugged me against his cock, staring into my eyes at the moment of that intimate touch. There was vulnerability in his expression, a question—Do you want this—mingled with desire. I inhaled but not a drop of the cool, fragrant air touched the fire inside me.
When the horse fell, he lifted me. The slick fabric of my panties slid over his thick denim fly. When the horse fell, he lowered me. Heat from his shaft penetrated his jeans and my underwear grew wet. But the most erotic touch was the stroke of his gaze over my face.
I waited for him to palm my breasts or push my underwear aside. Any minute now, he’d suggest we go to his trailer. I couldn’t fathom how to have sex on this horse. He lowered me to the saddle and moved his hands. The bad girl in my head cried, No, come back.
I felt his fingers on my zipper again. He tugged the fastener to my nape. He wrenched his head back, panting for air. “Time to go.”
I examined his face through eyes drugged with desire. His jaw worked and I followed the motion as he licked the taste of my skin off his lips.
“Yes. Okay.” I unlocked my ankles and dropped my legs.
He slid off the back of the horse and bent. My body protested the loss of his warmth, but he captured my ankle with one palm. He scooped up my shoe with the other, wiggling it over my toes. He retrieved my other shoe and knelt at my feet.
“Throw your leg over.” I obeyed. He guided the shoe on, then looked up. Holding my gaze, he brushed my skirt up. Leaning in, he pressed his lips to one knee, then the other. The horse lifted me. He waited.
His next kiss was above the knee, as close to my inner thigh as possible. The next time I came down, his kiss was higher still. Now his chest pressed my legs and his fingers dug into my knees, urging my thighs apart. Hot, soft skin against hot, soft skin produced an unreasonable amount of chill bumps. My nipples hurt and I was so wet, one of us needed to touch me.
A deep groan rippled through his chest, sending vibrations into my knees. From this angle, the mellow bulbs turned his shoulders and thighs to sculpture. Sliding his palms up my outer thighs, he moved his lips ever closer to my core. My clit tingled with anticipation as his breath scorched the vee of silk covering my mound, but the horse whisked me away. He lifted his head with a dare in his eyes.
“Let go. Lean back.”
I had to either trust him, or make an excuse—and making an excuse would spoil the magical ride. His chest pinned my legs, so I doubted I’d fall. Heart hammering, I relaxed, inch by inch, until I arched over the horse. A pole behind my head supported the roof. I wrapped my fists around it. The lights overhead became streaks, forcing me to close my eyes. My horse’s pace changed from a trot to a gallop—at least in my mind—when he slid his palms under my bottom.
Finally, just before I thought I’d have to beg, the horse came down and he pressed his lips to the tiny nub. The slight touch of his tongue seared me, making me gasp. I cried out when he sucked the silk into his mouth, because I knew he tasted my essence. He groaned and I absorbed the tiny vibrations into my core. Then the horse rose again, breaking our connection.
“You have me harder than a diamond-cutter’s tool. Jesus, you taste good.” When the steed fell again, I had the crazy notion he balanced my entire body on the tip of his tongue. Tiny strikes of electric sensation sizzled inside my channel. I measured time by those moments when his tongue met my clit. Touch. Dum dum de dum. Lift. Dum dum de dum. Touch. Dum dum dum. Lift.
Arousal spiraled inside me. If only the horse would stop moving. And yet, anticipating that next touch made each brief connection more intense. I forgot my concerns about safety in and began to worry for my sanity.
Frustration and hope coiled inside me when he stood. Easing his hands under my arms, he dragged me off the horse. I clung to his shoulders, waiting for my head to stop spinning. I wanted this, but an incontinent voice piped up inside my head, reminding me I didn’t have the breathing room for another mistake.
I’m on birth control. He’ll have condoms. What else was there to worry about? I wound my arms around his neck, needing one more kiss to be sure of my decision.
The kiss was pure domination. Oh, yeah, I’m sure. He broke off, chest heaving. “Ready to go?”
“Ready,” I panted.
He snagged his jacket off the platform. To my disappointment, he slid his arms into the holes, then turned to retrieve my apron. Tucking the garment under his arm, he jumped off the platform and moved to the control panel. The ride slowed. By the time he was at my side again, the carousel had almost stopped revolving but inside, I still spun. He took my hand and led me down the ramp.
The old man waited at the employee gate, to my surprise. “Thanks, Pops.”
“Sure thing.” The old man chuckled, snapping a padlock through two ends of chain. “Hope you kids had a good time.”
I smiled at the stranger. “Best carousel ride of my life. Thank you.”
“The quality of your ride depends on the stallion you pick.” The old man made an outrageous, open-mouthed wink. Two years ago, I’d have died of embarrassment at the comment. Tonight, I laughed. In fact, I’d laughed more tonight than I had in months. The brisk air made me tuck close to Carnie’s side. He put his arm around me and we strolled across the gravel lot.
Most of the campers and trailers crowding the parking area had lights on inside. Some had curtains drawn, but most were open. Large tents covered tables filled with workers chatting and relaxing. Several people occupied folding chairs around an open fire in a huge barrel. Aluminum cans and beer bottles gleamed in the flickering light. The pungent aroma of grilling meat blotted out sweeter scents from the fairgrounds.
Someone called, “Come on over, Brass!” but Carnie kept walking.
“Still think it shoulda been the steeds.” A different voice piped up.
“Nah, that sucks,” the first voice retorted. “I liked the comets, though.
“No. Cyclones.” A third voice joined the debate. “I really thought that one had a chance.”
“What are they talking about?” I asked. Carnie kept going, towing me past the rowdy group.
He raked his hair back from his face. “Isn’t there a new MLB franchise in town? They held a contest to choose the team name. Winner got choice of cash or season tickets. Those guys stuffed the ballot box, I think.”
“Ah. Everyone’s trying to figure out how to get a piece of that.” Uncle Tulane was on a mission to get his hot dog stands in the new stadium. The Oakland ownership group sold their franchise to a group of local investors, because their city refused to fund a new stadium.
Francis worked to get a referendum on last November’s ballot, and the stadium was going up on a site downtown. I hadn’t heard much about the team since my arrest, since that would involve opening a newspaper or turning on a television. Carnie slid his hand along my arm. “You like baseball?”
“My dad liked baseball. I used to watch the Atlanta team with him.” He’d already seen the newspaper photo, so I blurted, “News about the new team pushed me off the front page several times, so I’m a lifelong fan.”
His silent laugh came out in a huff. “That’s almost funny.”
I cut him a puzzled glance when we passed the last row of trailers.
“I guess that’s your car.” He pointed to my mother’s dew-covered Regal, alone near the street. “Where are your keys?”
I blinked. He was sending me home? “In my apron.”
He unrolled the hated pinafore and patted the pockets. “Gotta get you outta here. Otherwise, my vow to let you get some rest is going up in flames.” He pulled the key fob out and pressed the remote, then turned to face me. “I could still be lovin’ on you come sunrise, no problem.” The locks made a loud thump as they sprang open. I wasn’t sure if the sound or his words set my heart racing, but my chest ached from the rapid beat.
He raked his hand through his hair again. “Get some sleep, pretty lady.” Then his hands were on my waist and he dragged my body against his, taking my mouth in a heated kiss I returned with ardor.
It was odd, the way my curves fit into his hollows. I’ve kissed my share of men but never noticed that any of their bodies fit to mine so well. My head was still whirling when he pulled free with a groan. This sound didn’t fill me with triumph. Reaching for the handle, he yanked the door open. The small dome light flared, blinding me.
“Tomorrow, Niecy. I’ll see you tomorrow. Good night.” He thrust me away and gestured to the seat. “Be sure to fasten your seat belt. And lock your doors.”
I huffed to cover my confusion. “You sound like my mother.” Sliding behind the wheel, I looked up, wishing he’d ask me to stay. He was being a gentleman and that made me want to be less than a lady.
“Drive carefully.” He slammed the door, turned, and strode across the gravel lot.
I locked myself in and cranked the engine. By the time I flipped on my headlights, he was gone. I was only waiting for the defroster to clear the windshield. Yeah, right. I let the wipers run for a bit, to get rid of the condensation. He didn’t come back.