So Over My Headby Jenny B. Jones
Newly single, stalked by a killer, and in desperate need of some chic clown shoes--Bella is one skinny mocha frapp away from total meltdown.
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SO Over MY HeadA Charmed Life Novel
By Jenny B. Jones
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2010 Jenny B. Jones
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIf my love life was the knife toss at a circus, I'd have Luke Sullivan speared to the wall with an apple in his mouth.
"Ladies and gentlemen! The Fritz Family welcomes you to the greatest show on earth!" A man in a top hat stands in the center of a giant tent, his curlicue mustache as delicate as his voice is strong. "Prepare to be amazed. Prepare to be wowed. Allow us to entertain you with sights you've never seen, horses whose feats will astound you, and death-defying acrobatics!"
On this first night open to the public, the crowd stands in a swarm of shouts and applause.
I stay seated and jot down some quick notes for the Truman High Tribune. Or at least that's what I'm pretending to do. In actuality, it's taking all my energy just to be civil.
"I just don't see why you had to invite her."
From his standing position, Luke glances down. "Are we back to that again?"
"You and I are working on the carnival story. Not Ashley." Ashley Timmons, a new girl who joined the newspaper staff last week, has become my least favorite person on the planet. She's not quite as awful as those on the top of that list-namely the handful of people who've tried to do me bodily harm over the last year. But icky nonetheless. Fresh from Kansas City with her brother, Ashley thinks she is to journalism what Edward Cullen is to vampires. She's disgustingly cute, and worst of all, she's Luke's ex-girlfriend. She moved away for two years, but I can tell she's ready to rekindle anything they used to have. It doesn't take a keen reporter's intuition to see that. Just anyone with at least one working eyeball.
"We've hung out with them all week, Luke."
"I haven't seen Kyle in a long time, and he'll be leaving soon for college." Luke searches my face. "I've included you in everything. Have you felt left out?"
"No." I just want her left out. I don't mind the return of his friend Kyle at all. But where Kyle is ... there you'll find his sister. "Tonight isn't about hanging out with your friend, though. He's not even here. You invited Ashley for the paper."
"You've been ticked at me ever since your last article. But it was weak on verbs and lacked your usual creativity." He sits down and trains those intense eyes on mine.
"Yeah, and then you proceeded to show me some piece of writing wonderment your new recruit produced." Ashley came with glowing recommendations from her former journalism teachers. Everyone on our staff thinks she is, like, the greatest thing to writing since the delete key. Everyone but me.
"You know what your problem is, Bella? Number one, you're jealous and insecure-"
"Of her?" I toss my hair and laugh. "Maybe I just don't like the way she's thrown herself at you from the second she stepped into the classroom. I'm not insecure, but I'm also not stupid."
Luke's mouth twitches. "I meant insecure of your writing abilities. But now that you mention it, you probably are jealous of my talking to her. That would fit."
"Fit what?" A band of clowns ride unicycles in the ring, but I don't even bother to watch.
"It would fit with the Bella Kirkwood pattern." He lifts a dark brow. "You are completely distrusting of the entire male species. I guess one couldn't blame you, given your dad's history and your experience with your ex, but I have no desire to get back with an old girlfriend."
"This is outrageous. I do not have trust issues with guys! And you know what else?"
"I'm dying to hear more."
"I think you're enjoying all the attention from Ashley." All Luke and I have done lately is fight. While digging into other people's business might be my spiritual gift, I'm beginning to think arguing comes second.
"Ever since we've been together, you've balked at my every comment in journalism. You can't stand to be criticized-even when it's for your own good. And"-his blue eyes flash-"you're just waiting for me to cheat on you like Hunter. You think I don't see that?"
Hunter would be my ex-boyfriend from Manhattan. This past fall I caught him doing the tongue tango with my former best friend Mia. And then not too long ago I considered getting back with him. He swept me up with this new version of Hunter Penbrook, told me he had started going to church, said all the right things, bought me coffee. It's a little hard to resist a cute guy bearing a mocha latte with extra whip, you know? Luckily, at prom two weeks ago, I saw the light and let that rotten fish off my hook.
"I'm not worried about you cheating on me, Luke. I'm tired of you bossing me around and acting all 'I'm in charge.'"
"I am in charge. I'm the editor."
"Not of our relationship."
"I'm back!" Ashley chooses that very moment to flounce back to her seat. "I got you a cotton candy." She hands the pink confection to Luke. "Bella, I figured you're like most girls and need to watch your weight, so I didn't get you anything. What'd I miss?"
Luke holds me down with his arm. "Don't even think about it," he whispers.
The crowd oohs and ahhhs as the Amazing Alfredo begins juggling two long silver swords. I applaud politely when he pulls a third one out of his hat and tosses it into the air with the rest. I'd hate to think where that sword was really hiding.
Like a distant relative, the Fritz Family Carnival comes to Truman, Oklahoma, every April and sets up camp on land that, I'm told, goes way back in the Fritz genealogy. They stay at least a month-working on additional routines, training new employees, giving the local elementary teachers a nice afternoon field trip-and don't leave until they can ride out bigger and better than the year before. And while that might be odd, it's nothing compared to the fact that I'm sitting on the bleachers between my boyfriend and a girl who has been openly flirting with him. That chick needs to learn some boundaries.
"Bella, Luke said you might need some help with your article."
He holds up a hand. "I just thought it would be interesting to get our three perspectives. Bella will still handle the interviews."
"It's been so great to work with you again, Luke." Ashley's smile could charm the shirt off Robert Pattinson. "Just like old times, huh?" Her eyes gaze into his. Like I'm not even there. "Kyle's really enjoyed hanging out. Too bad he had a study session tonight."
Luke leans close, his mouth poised near my ear. "Just because we're dating doesn't mean I'm going to slack off on your writing. You're still a staff member. And you know I do not boss you around any other time. I have been nothing but respectful to you." He returns his attention to the ring. "Did you write down the fat lady's stats?"
"Of course I did." I scribble something illegible on my paper. No, I didn't get her stats. I'm too busy fighting.
"She's seven hundred and twenty-nine pounds, in case you missed it," Ashley chirps.
"Thanks." Lord, help me be kind to this girl.
"You always act like I can't handle the writing assignments," I whisper for Luke's ears only. "I think I have more than proven I can. Not only can I write, but I can crank out some award-winning articles while crime solving."
After I moved to Truman, I accidentally became the Nancy Drew of Oklahoma. Now that I'm known for my mystery solving skills, friends and strangers want me to help them out. Just last week I tracked down a stolen iPhone and did a little spying for a suspicious girl who thought her boyfriend Buster was cheating. It's true he hadn't been going to football practice like he said; I found him at Margie Peacock's School of Ballet, lined up on the bar doing pirouettes and high kicks. I hear he makes a heck of a swan in Margie's recital.
"I'm not doubting your writing skills." Luke claps as the magician leaves, and Betty the Bearded Lady bows before starting her performance.
I'm transfixed by the hair on her face, and it suddenly makes me feel a whole lot less self-conscious about the fact that I didn't shave my legs last night. The audience claps in time to the spirited music as the woman's collie jumps through her hula hoop, then dances to the beat on its hind legs.
I shoot a pointed look at his old flame. "Let's talk about this later."
Ashley reaches around me and puts her hand on Luke's knee. "I forgot-I have my latest assignment on my laptop in the car. You told me to spice up my verbs, and I revised it. I wanted you to look at it." She returns to clapping for the Bearded Lady.
"Yes, Luke. She wants you to check out her spicy verbs."
"At least she takes constructive criticism well." His voice is just loud enough for me to hear.
"That girl wants you back. Period."
"I'm not Hunter. And I'm not your dad."
"I have to go interview Betty the Bearded Lady." And I stomp down the bleachers to find her trailer outside. When I glance back, Ashley has scooted down.
And taken my place.
Chapter TwoThe April night air smells of animals, popcorn, and a hint of rain. I feel like a storm is brewing in my head. Luke is such an egotistical jerk sometimes. Is he really so blind he can't see what Ashley's up to?
"Betty?" I knock on the trailer that has the Bearded Lady's face painted on the side. Speaking of gross. If I had a face full of fur I don't believe I'd be going on the road with it. Maybe I should give her the number of a good waxer in Manhattan.
The door swings open and bangs into the metal trailer. "Yeah?"
"Um ..." Focus on the eyes. Not on the whiskers. "I'm Bella Kirkwood. I contacted the owner of the circus about interviewing some of you guys. I'm doing a piece for the-"
"Get in here, you." She pulls me up the short steps and hugs me to her ample bosom. "I haven't been interviewed since 1995, when I accidentally set my face on fire after I had to fill in as the human cannonball." She closes the door and points to a seat. Her collie stands at attention beside her.
Her living quarters are small and dim, but clean. As I take a seat on a gingham cushion at her table, I get a sniff of Pine-Sol and discount store candles.
"Would you like something to eat?" Betty opens a small fridge and extracts a pie that is topped with about two feet of meringue. "I tend to bake on the road. The rest of the crew practices, but it's not like my tricks take much work. Old Peg never fails, do you, girl?" She makes kissy noises toward the dog and places the pie on the table.
As she slices into her creation, I think about hygiene and stray hairs. But this is pie, and I don't want to be rude. I need info for the article, after all.
Betty reaches behind her to grab two forks, and I allow myself to really look at her.
And it's just as bad as I thought.
But beneath the hairy face are kind eyes that twinkle and make me feel instantly welcome. A mouth permanently poised in a smile.
I take my first bite and savor the flavor on my tongue. The woman can bake like a dream.
Pulling out my notebook, I get down to business. "I understand the carnival comes to Truman every year."
"Yes. We normally don't set up the midway while we're here, but Red wanted to. Seems like a waste of money to me, but he doesn't seem concerned with that." She purses her lips. "Pointless."
"It is an unusual setup you guys have. My stepdad says you always spend early spring here in Truman."
"Yep. It's a tradition started by the original Mr. Fritz. We travel through Florida in the winter, then take some time off in April and May to regroup and learn new tricks. It's not always a profitable approach, but this carnival's always been about quality and uniqueness. So it works."
"How long have you been living the circus life?" I ask.
She blots her own mouth, and I can't help but stare at her face again. "About twenty-five years. I'm the oldest one in the show. High school wasn't exactly a good time for me, and I dropped out at sixteen and thought my life was over. Then Old Man Fritz saw me at one of his shows and asked me if I'd like to be a star." Betty chuckles at the memory. "I told him I would indeed like to be a star. I worked for him, then when he retired, I worked for his son." Betty's eyes lose some of their gleam. "Then when Junior Fritz and his wife, Shelly, were tragically killed last year, I stayed on to work for Red Fritz."
"Junior's older brother." I had done my research.
"Yes. He has custody of Junior Fritz's daughter, but she stays with me in my trailer. I'm kind of the carnival mom." She smiles and grabs a picture off the counter. "Cherry is twelve, soon to be thirteen. I took over homeschooling her when her parents died." Betty shakes her head. "That kid means the world to me. I would do anything to protect her."
"I'm sure it can be dangerous sometimes on the road."
Betty laughs, but her eyes dim. "Sometimes it doesn't matter where you go-the trouble seems to pack up and move with you. But nothing's going to happen to Cherry." She settles the frame back in its place. "Not on ol' Betty's watch."
I quickly scribble down her words and try to get her back on track. "Tell me about life with the carnival. Is it just like one big family here?"
Betty absently strokes her dog's ear, sending Peg's dog tags to clanking. "Family? There are some of us who are mighty close. But others"-her hand stills-"you'd rather have as far away from you as possible."
"But I've been watching the show. You guys seem to be having such a good time-like it's one big party."
"Trust me, kid. In the carnival life, things are not always what they seem."
Before I can prod further, a knock on the door has Betty standing.
The ringmaster and owner, Red Fritz, pops his head in. "Three minutes 'til the second act. Get a move on."
"I know what time it is." Betty fluffs her hair, turning her back on the man. "I'm doing two appearances in the program tonight, so I have to scoot. Why don't you come back after the show, Miss Kirkwood, and we'll finish this conversation?"
"I think that time would be better spent minding your own business and coming up with a new routine for the dog here. People are getting bored with all that stupid stuff you do," Red says.
"My dog is a crowd pleaser, and you know it."
Red Fritz narrows his eyes. "If your fuzzy face isn't out there on time, it's coming out of your pay. Again." With a parting glance at me, he slams the trailer door.
When Betty turns around, the smile is back in place. "Forget him. Now, let's walk back together, shall we? I have a great story about a clown mishap I can share as we go."
A flash of blonde in the distance catches my attention as I stand in the doorway. "I'll catch up with you later, Betty. I need to check out something in the parking lot."
My feet press into the gravel path, and as Ashley's car becomes more visible, so does its owner. My stomach drops like the floor in the gravity barrel out on the midway.
Under the streetlights, I watch my nemesis wrap her arms around Luke and seal her mouth to his. His hands move to her wrists.
"Working on a new story?" I cross my arms over my chest and feel the fire beneath my skin.
"Bella!" Luke shoves Ashley away. "I-I didn't-"
"Know I was standing here? Obviously."
He steps toward me. "It's not what you think. I wasn't kissing her. I-"
"It's my fault," Ashley purrs. "We got to talking about old times, and I got carried away. Don't blame Luke."
Yeah, she looks real contrite.
Humiliation and hurt battle in my head. "Forget it. I have work to do." I walk away as fast as my shaking legs will move.
"Wait." Luke runs to catch up. His hand clasps my arm. "Bella, hold up."
I round on the boy, my eyes flashing. "And you said it was all in my head-that she wasn't chasing you. Now is my idea so crazy?"
"Ashley didn't mean it."
I blink. "You're taking up for her?"
"No, I-" He sets his jaw and stares at the ground. "This is what you've been waiting for, isn't it? You've just been waiting for me to screw up-like all the other guys in your life."
"Don't turn this on me, Luke. You're the one who had your lips plastered to a girl who is not your girlfriend."
"I was pushing her away."
"I can't work with her. I won't work with her. I want Ashley off the newspaper staff."
He reaches out again, but drops his hand. "You know I can't do that."
"Then we're through. It's her or me."
"There's no choice here." His voice snaps with electricity. "Ashley's not going to do anything like that again. I'll make sure of it. But she stays on the paper. I can't fire someone for attempted kissing." He steps so close I can't help but breathe in his earthy cologne. "You know I would never cheat on you." (Continues...)
Excerpted from SO Over MY Head by Jenny B. Jones Copyright © 2010 by Jenny B. Jones. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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