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Maybe there was hope for rain, she thought, at the sound of a second thunderclap.
The tent's entrance opening was suddenly filled with the form of a tall man who stood outlined against the flare of lightning. Calliope stifled a scream. This man looked like the very devil himself. No. Not the devil. More like a savage black panther.
A panther with dark blue eyes.
"Brian?" She blinked several times, wondering if he really stood there, wondering if the man in high leather boots, tight cavalry pants, and bare chest was really Brian O'Connor. Perhaps the pending storm played tricks on her mind and memory. "Brian, is it truly you and not some ghost?" To her surprise, the caged animals began to spin, and the menagerie tent turned as gray as an elephant's hide.
Alarmed, Brian watched Calliope's face lose every stitch of color. She pitched forward but caught herself in time, leaning on the broom as if it were a crutch.
"You're wetter than Pachydermal," he teased, tossing a valise and his dusty shirt toward the hay-strewn corner. "And wouldn't Sean be vexed if he saw his wee daughter washing a prodigious elephant? What would he say about your cobwebby chemise tucked into a pair of me old tatter'd breeches?"
"Nothing. Papa wouldn't care one whit."
Calliope replied so loftily, Brian knew her defiant statement was a fib. She dropped the broom and swiped at her untidy hair with a muddy hand, leaving a daub across her forehead.
She said, "Panama wears less when she does an arabesque on Pachydermal's trunk. I'm always holding my breath, waiting for her boobies to fall out during the opening spec."
"Panama still performs?"
"Not really, Brian. All she does is ride and posture."
"When I left, she was a trapeze artist."
Calliope snorted. "I would never call her an artist. She could swing, but she lacked grace. Now she's become top-heavy, like a ship with billowed sails."
"Why does Sean keep her?"
"We can't lose Duncan. Panama married him. Bobby Duncan, the Kid Show strong man. Remember?"
Brian nodded as he pictured Bobby Duncan. Well structured with cast-iron muscles, every bit of common sense Duncan's head lacked was stored inside his powerful arms and shoulders.
Had Panama's marriage changed her? Or did she still spread her legs for everyone from Kid Show to clown? Talented Panama! She might lack grace under the Big Top, but she performed well beneath the wagons.
Hunkering down, Brian plunged a dipper into a bucket of clear water and sipped, cooling his parched throat.
"Are you planning to kiss me hello, Mr. O'Connor?" Calliope tossed her waist-length hair. "It is the best of greetings, for I have no braids to tug."
"I miss your braids, Calico Cat. You look different."
"I look older. I am older."
"Truly, puss?" Rising, Brian leaned against a tent pole. "I see a dirty-faced urchin."
"Dash it all! You sound like Papa."
"How is Sean?"
"Fine." She raised her chin. "He's wondrous fine."
"What's wrong, lass?"
"What's wrong, Calliope?"
"Why should you care? You abandoned me."
"It wasn't you I abandoned. It was the circus."
"It's the same thing." She hesitated then said, "If you must know, Papa drinks."
"Sean is Irish."
"You're Irish. Do you drink lots, Brian? Do you get guyed-out every night?"
"I've had myself a few nips too many." Today, for example. He had fortified himself well, fearful Calliope would condemn him with her large cat eyes. Because he had abandoned her. He had left after Angelique's burial. He had just turned twenty-one, and the woman he loved... worshipped... He had lost his angel, so he escaped. The youth fled. Sean's child could not.
Child? Calliope spoke true when she said she'd grown older. Older and beautiful, with a fey Irish quality. Nothing fey about the quality of her breasts straining the lacy confines of her chemise. His old boyish trousers looked absurd. Except when she turned, showing a saucy rump. Except where they hitched up between her thighs.
"Liquor makes you forget," he said. "Sean drinks to forget Angelique."
"No, Brian. Papa drinks to remember." She kicked the wash bucket with one bare foot. "Where did you go when you left the circus?"
"What did you do?"
"I fought with bloody sabers and bloody guns."
"But the war between North and South is over."
"I fought a different war, puss, a daft war. I fought Indians."
"Are you back forever?" she blurted.
"There's no such thing as forever."
"The circus is forever."
"Nothing is forever. Haven't you learned that yet?"
"The circus is forever," she insisted. "Have you returned home?"
"Home? No. Yes. I suppose I have." He glanced at the lions. "I see Leo and Duchess recognize my scent, even after all this time."
"You raised them from cubs, Brian. You raised me from a cub too. We had no secrets. Sometimes we played clowns. Together we rode Pachydermal's howdah during parades, and you always threatened to push me from my high perch. We were such good friends. Can we be friends again?"
"Does Sean have a place for me? Is there a position? I won't play roustabout or vendor."
She nodded toward the cages. "We need a cat tamer. The man we have now begs to retire. You can be his assistant tomorrow night. The lions recollect your scent, but our tigers are new. Bengals cannot be trusted when they perform with lions."
"Do the lions and tigers share the ring?" he asked, quirking an eyebrow.
"Yes. It's what makes our show unique. Do you want the position? Cat tamer?"
Cat eyes. Calico Cat. Child of Angelique. No, not a child anymore. "Yes," he said. "I'll find Sean straightaway."
"Don't bother. I run the circus."
He bristled. "I'll not take orders from a lass."
"Then leave again and be damned!"
She doesn't mean it. He gazed at her wee hands curved into fists. He admired her mouth, now set in a pretty pout. The tent's nebulous illumination could not diminish the reddish-gold glints in her brown hair. Her eyes kept changing from gray to green to gray again. Her lovely chin tilted higher than a proper colleen's chin should tilt. Stubborn. Prideful. Just like Angelique.
"Sheathe your claws, puss; I'll stay." He glanced through the open tent flap. Lightning silhouetted the backyard. An Opener leaned against the Red Wagon. Soon he'd talk the crowd into buying tickets. One vendor, a Bugman, stopped to converse, holding his basket of chameleons.
Calliope was a chameleon, Brian thought as he thrust his hand inside his trouser pocket. Lord, she could change her moods as easily as her eyes flip-flopped between gray and green, as easily as a chameleon changed color.
His fingers found an object amid his coins and pocketknife, and he withdrew a crumpled piece of paper. "Happy birthday, Calico Cat."
"Golly Jehossafrat! How could you remember?"
"How could I forget? Didn't I help the stork deliver you?"
"The Bearded Lady delivered me."
"But I spanked you awake."
"If you ever try that again, I'll spank you back." Accepting his gift, she smoothed the paper until she found a gold chain and a tiny horse charm. "Oh, my goodness. It's lovely, Brian. Thank you. I shall keep it forever, even though you say nothing is forever. Will you attach its clasp, please?"
"Of course." He linked the chain, removed his fumbling fingers from her nape, then said, "I've got another gift for you, puss. Turn around."
She made an about-face in time to catch a gush of cold water. "Stop it, Brian!"
"Wash down the elephant," he chanted, sloshing more water.
"I'm not an elephant. Aren't you the confused, boy-o?"
"It's time for Calico Cat's Saturday bath."
"Saturday was yesterday." She held up her hands. "No more shenanigans. I'm cold."
"Are you not shamed for the fibbing, lass? 'Tis hotter than the devil's front parlor."