Emergency medical technician Jolie Bohannon never expected to see childhood sweetheart Dr. Reece Keightly again. Not since he abandoned her all those years ago Now he's back to close down his family's circusand it feels as if he's tearing down her life all over again!
After everything she's been through Jolie wants nothing more to do with Reece. But after one scorching, passionate tryst it's clear that Jolie will always find Reece completely irresistible! Should she trust him with her heart ?
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For ten years Dr. Reece Keightly had been dreading this night.
He'd known it would come to this. Of course he'd known. It was all on his shouldersthe dynasty, the future of the company and the weight of the past. Two centuries of history all ending with him.
The tenth-generation owner of Keightly Circus was the one who would tear it all down. Nice round number, ten. Like Fate had decreed it. Like he was just filling the role assigned to him. Like it wasn't his fault.
Except it was. That's how they'd see it.
Reece took a step forward, shuffling with the crowded line to the ticket booth. The traditional last annual stop of the circus was always Atlanta due to its proximity to where they summered, but it was also the best crowd. The local, hometown circus returning triumphant from a season on the road, played out the last week near home.
Traditional, like so many other things with his family's circus. Keightly's prided themselves on tradition.
Due to the coverage given to the impending closinglocal television and radio stations had blared the news for weeksthey were enjoying record crowds for the last performances. For Atlantans, parents had been coming with their children for generations. Another tradition that would be violated after this year.
As excited as he was to see the showand he never lost that excitementthe prospect of seeing people he cared for putting their lives in danger built in him a kind of extreme awareness of the world around him. It slowed things down, pulled him out of himself, and amplified every ounce of fear until it became a physical sensation, the taste of cold metal on the back of his tongue and he couldn't swallow past it.
Excited terror. He almost longed for ignorance, to be just one of the crowd, another random person in line who only knew the fantasy. But Reece knew the horror too.
All around him children giggled and chattered happily. Ahead, inside the massive blue tent, the band tuned up, readying to start the show, and every note amplified the dread eating at him. The sawdust awaited him. A tradition he could do without.
Dwelling on the unpleasant details wouldn't help him deal with them better. Shut it down. He just needed to see this show. One last time, make certain he was making the right decision. Not that he had any real doubts, but two hundred years deserved one last think. One last chance for them to change his mind.
Two people away from the ticket counter, he heard the first slow whistles of the calliope wheezing through the lot. Soon the ancient steam-powered contraption blanketed the area in soundcheerful music silenced his chaotic thoughts.
He'd always loved the old calliope, but in the wake of those first warbling notes a surge of homesickness slammed into him. Nostalgia so strong it was like overlapping two realitiesbelonging and alienation, comfort and terror, peace and anger.
He latched on to the last emotion. Anger was better. He could do thisbe angry enough to drown out the rest. But he should at least be honest with himselfhe wanted to be there if for no other reason than to see her perform. He wanted to see them all, but the promise of Jolie Bohannon in the spotlight would see him through.
He just needed to see the show one more time. Everything would be fine.
Purge the sawdust from his blood, and all the rest of it. One last time.
Then he'd take care of everyone. See them settled. And go back to his safe and orderly life. Find a place to build his practice. Buy a home with a foundation beneath it. He could have people relying on him for their healthit's what he'd been raised to dobut not while he had to stand by and watch them put their lives in jeopardy to make people cheer.
Out of the corner of his eye he caught his first glimpse of the steam-powered calliope rolling across the lot. His mother sat at the back, playing the piano-like keyboard that operated the old steam whistles, while Mack Bohannon drove the carriage.
Jolie's family had traveled with Keightly Circus since before the Civil War. They might as well be family for real, and soon there would be a link when his mother married Mack and left Reece as the last Keightly standing.
Not yet ready to be seen, Reece pulled down the brim of his fedora, hunching his shoulders like that would make him stand out less. Keightly men grew tall. Every one well over six feet. But nobody expected him to be here tonight, and he didn't know how they'd react to his presence. He wanted to just be an observer.
He had a right to be angry. Reece harbored no illusions, thoughif this were a movie, he'd be wearing black and twirling a weird mustache in the corner. Only villains closed circuses Even if he was making the right call for the right reasons, something beloved was dying. Making the death of the circus quick rather than letting it limp along on life support was a kindness.
If he wasn't going to take the reins, if he wasn't going to step up as the last Keightly and lead, he had to take care of laying the show to rest. And he would do that. With the respect and honor it deserved.
But first he'd see one last show and say goodbye on his own.
And maybe somewhere along the way he'd find a way of convincing himself he wasn't a monster.
Jolie Bohannon stood at the back of the tent, holding Gordy's leash. The miniature white stallion always had to be held back until it was absolutely time for him to enter the ring. He lived to perform, a feeling she could once have identified with. It was still therein theorybut she had other important responsibilities to handle now. Like making sure the full-sized mounts and the Bohannon Trick-riders didn't accidentally trample Gordy because someone let him off his leash too soon. Calm and orderly, that's how everything and everyone stayed safe.
She listened for the change in the musiceveryone in the circus learned to gauge where the performance was by the musicand adjusted Gordy's flashy silver bridle and the wee matching and no less flashy saddle. His costume.
At the first trumpet, she unclipped his harness and reached for the tent flap, barely getting her hand in before he barreled through the flap and down the causeway. She stepped through in time to see him enter the ring. Darting between the other horses ridden by the Bohannon Trick-riders, he stopped dead center, reared on his back legs to stretch to his tallestfour feet and some changeand whinnied.
One by one, the other horses in the ring bowed to him, the little king. The little clown to end the act, the segment of the horse act that reached out to the children and in the audience, drew them in, and got their minds away from the scary excitement of moments before. Jolie smiled. Gordy could still make her smile.
The show was almost over. One more act and then the finale.
She stepped back outside, listening and watching the bustle of the crew getting ready to change the ring for the next act.
Watching the show was a little too much for her right now. She never let her emotions get out of control. Never. But with the circus closing down for good, emotions she'd long ago buried seemed closer to the surface. The last thing she needed was for something to set her off. Watching the show, getting sentimental and weepy over the last performances? Would interfere with her job. Everyone had a job to do and they'd do it with or without her, but she had to hold up her end. That meant right now she had to stand here and wait while Gordy played the fool and the crew changed the set, but she didn't have to watch the well-oiled machine.
The music stopped suddenly, snapping Jolie's attention back to the present. In a well-oiled machine, the music never stopped for no reason.
A cold feeling crept up over the back of her head. That emotion could never be buried or ignored. But fear could be used.
Cries had barely begun rising from the crowd before Jolie was inside the tent, running toward the ring. There she found her family off their mounts, surrounding something.
Where was Gordy?
She burrowed through and found him lying on his side, all playfulness gone. He thrashed about, repeatedly trying and failing to rise. She didn't have to look hard to see that his front left leg was injured. Not again.
Three of her cousins stepped in to try and get him to his feet, but he bit at them.
'Get out of the way. Call a vet. We need a vet.' Her order was loud enough to be heard above the din. Gordy was her responsibility. Her job But more than that, she loved him. He depended on her to take care of him.
Grabbing her phone from her pocket, she thrust it at her uncle as she moved past, holding on to her calm. Gordy needed orderliness and calm from her. 'Whoa, Gordy. It's okay. Whoa '
He was just scared and in pain. She squatted at his side and, despite his thrashing, got the straps circling his belly unbuckled and the spangled saddle off. Freeing him from the extra weight didn't help him rise on his own, and she needed to see him on his feet.
He wouldn't bite her. He'd never bitten her.
Taking a breath, she leaned in, arms surging for his chest and belly to try and help the small stallion to his feet.
'Jolie, his leg is broken.' She heard a deep man's voice, winded but loud. Someone who'd been running too, familiar and unfamiliar even if he said her name. Too busy to question it further, she tried again to lift Gordy. So heavy. Jolie adjusted her arms and tried harder, straining to get the tiny stallion off the ground without putting any pressure on that leg.
He got on his knees, but she wasn't strong enough to get him all the way up. The position put pressure put on his leg and her favorite friend peeled his lips back and bit into her forearm. The shock of the bite hit her almost as sharply as the pain radiating up her arm.
She must have hurt him because it wasn't a quick bite. His jaw clenched and ground slightly, like he was holding back something intent on hurting him. He held on, and so did Jolie.
Someone stepped to the other side of the horse and put his arms around Gordy's middle. 'On three.' She gritted her teeth, counted, and the excessively large man lifted with her.
This time Gordy's back legs came under him and they got him to his feet, or least to the three good ones. She needed to see him standing, assess how bad the break was. It occurred to her that she should be more freaked out about this.
Veterinary medicine had come a long way since the days when a broken leg had been a death sentence for a horse, but Gordy may as well be living in the Wild West. He had a history of leg problems. Jolie remembered what they'd gone through the last time and what Gordy had gone through. Someone would make that terrible suggestion. Someone would say they should put him down She needed to keep that from happening.
She also really needed him to stop biting. A few deep breaths and she'd be able to control the pain, but it'd be easier if he'd let go. Having her screaming at him would freak the tiny horse out and he was already afraid.
'Let go now,' the man said, pulling her attention back to him over Gordy's pristine white back. She expected to see a vet, or maybe someone who had traveled with the circus in the past.
Ten years had changed his face. Broadened it. Made it more angular. But she knew those eyesthe boy she'd known ten years ago. The boy she'd loved.
Reece wasn't supposed to be there yet. And he probably wasn't supposed to be looking like he was about to throw up.
'I can't let go.' Jolie grunted. Speaking took effort. Suddenly everything took effort. Controlling the pain. Controlling her voice. Breathing. 'He's got me.' And letting go might just mean that he fell again, hurt himself worse, and maybe his teeth would take her flesh with him.
As much as Jolie might normally appreciate the value of distraction to help her control wayward emotions, Reece was the wrong kind of distraction. He just added a new dimension of badness to the waves racing up her arm. She didn't want him there. He wasn't supposed to come until they were all on the farm, where she'd have room to avoid him. He'd stayed gone for ten years so why in the world would he come to see the show now?
Because she didn't want it. But here he was, helping with Gordy and being gigantic. Good lord, he was big.
She could use that to help Gordy.
Get the horse and the show back on their feet.
The throng of people gathered around, children in the audience pressed against the raised outside of the ring, getting as close as they could The weight of all their emotions pressed into her.
It had to be their emotions she was feeling. She'd mastered her own emotions several years ago, and maintained proper distance from anything hairy, she reminded herself. And she'd regain control of them as soon as she got Gordy out of there and Reece the hell away from her.
First things first. 'We have to get him out of here.' She needed out of there too.
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A great read, i loved i, a must read