Stella tried to size up the tall, dark, beat-up guy standing in front of her, but half his face was in shadow.
Behind him, the faint musky smell of circus animals—elephants, lions, tigers, and horses—and stale popcorn wafted in the open door of her trailer, along with bright, late-morning sunlight.
Ruby, her boss, shut the door, cutting off the smells and the busy background noise of the crew and performers getting ready for the show later that day.
It took Stella’s eyes a second to adjust to the sudden absence of the sunlight and the dimmer interior. When they did, she could see Beat-up Guy better. Despite his damaged state, he wasn’t bad to look at. Well-defined chest and biceps muscles gave shape to a snug, long-sleeved, gray Henley, and he filled out his low-slung, worn jeans with long, sinewy legs that reminded her of a runner or a soccer player.
His hair, brown with definite auburn-red tinges, came to a slight widow’s peak. Cut short on the sides and tousled on top, it stuck up a little, giving him a carefree, playful vibe.
When she met his gaze, he flashed dimples in a greeting that put him firmly in the heartthrob category. The effect would cause the panties of even the most prudish of women to drop.
All except Stella’s. Good thing she’d changed her ways and was resistant to carnal temptations. Guys with devilish twinkles in their grayish-green eyes and trouble written all over them were off-limits. Besides, judging by the cut in his bottom lip, the bruise on his jaw visible through gingery brown stubble, and the way he was holding his ribs, he was just another loser who thought he would run away from his problems and join the circus.
Not that she was one to talk.
She made herself concentrate on Ruby, who stood to his right. Ruby was dwarfed by him, even in her four-inch red wedges. That didn’t mean much, though, since Ruby was only about five feet tall.
“Stella,” said Ruby, possessive hand resting on the small of Beat-up Guy’s back, “this is Ben Ware. I met him in Vegas last night.”
The circus was playing a small town two hours from Las Vegas, and Ruby and some of the others had gone into Sin City yesterday evening for a night out. Ben Ware was apparently the souvenir she’d brought home, even though she was in her forties and had to be at least twenty years older than he was. One thing about Ruby, though: with her long, wavy dark hair, plump boobs, and petite, curvy figure, she had a sex appeal that was timeless. She never went long without someone to warm her bed.
“Ben,” said Ruby, “this is Stella Burberry.” She drew out Stella’s last name the Oklahoma way (which was also how Stella and her family said it), with an emphasis on the “berry,” not the British way, which sounded like Bur-bry. “She’s our HR person,” Ruby continued. “She handles most of the new-employee paperwork and such.”
“Hi,” said Stella, offering her hand. “Nice to meet you.”
He reached out with the arm that wasn’t hugging his ribs. Although the handshake was brief, his hand was warm and strong. “Nice to meet you, too.” Unlike his rather rough appearance, his voice was polished and dark-chocolate smooth, and his bold, interested perusal of her established a direct connection to her insides, making them shift and realign.
Before she realized what she was doing, she was giving him a small, flirtatious smile in return.
But then the memory of paramedics working to save her fifteen-year-old brother beside the backyard pool on a cold December night caused guilt to slam into her. She wiped the smile from her face. Her days of partying with bad boys were over.
She was on the straight and narrow now and had a miracle to earn. Besides, this guy had clearly started something with Ruby. Stella had no business flirting with him, even for a second. And what kind of guy was he, looking at her that way when he’d just spent the night with the woman standing beside him?
Nodding at his split lip, Stella said, “Looks like you might have made some enemies.”
His mouth quirked, bringing out the dimples on each side. “Just a small misunderstanding.” His accent was swanky and polished, too, with well-formed words like a newscaster—much different from her country twang that slipped out every once in a while, despite two and a half years of college that had citified it.
Ruby patted his back, her long red fingernails gleaming in the artificial light of the trailer. “You weren’t really cheating in that poker game, were you, hon?”
“No. I don’t cheat.” He said it sincerely enough, but his injuries told a different story. He’d clearly ticked someone off.
Aiming a pensive frown at him, Ruby said, “You could use some pointers on defending yourself, though.”
“Maybe.” He didn’t sound too perturbed that his prowess was being questioned. Wincing a little, he said, “Mind if I sit down?”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” Stella waved her hand at one of the dinette chairs that went with her tiny, built-in dinette table, feeling guilty at her lapse in manners. She should have offered them both a seat long ago. “Be my guest.”
“Oh, of course!” Ruby pulled out a chair for him. “You poor thing. You look like you’re about to drop.”
That was an exaggeration, but his mouth was tight, and he did lower himself into the chair in a slow, gingerly way.
A pang of concern ribboned through Stella, despite her resolve not to fall prey to his charms. “Do you need to see a doctor?”
“No. Just some bruised ribs. No big deal.”
“I asked him that, too,” Ruby said as she sat down in the chair next to his. She rubbed his shoulder in a leisurely, sensual fashion with her fingertip.
Ben stiffened a bit at Ruby’s touch. If the evidence didn’t point in a different direction, Stella might think he wasn’t that into Ruby. But maybe it was just because he was hurt.
“Don’t worry,” Ruby said, her tone suggestive. “I’ll keep an eye on him.”
I bet, thought Stella. An unpleasant feeling tried to burrow itself into her, something a lot like jealousy—which was ridiculous. She’d only known this guy for about two minutes and had no claim to him whatsoever. She pasted a bland smile on her face, determined not to show the unwanted emotion.
“Sweetie,” Ruby said to Stella, “can you get Ben the new-hire paperwork to fill out?”
“Sure.” Stella got the required forms, along with a pen, from the small media cabinet above her trailer’s built-in flatscreen TV. She, like a lot of the other circus employees, lived in a compact fifth-wheel RV, the kind that hooked onto the bed of a big dually pickup truck with a special hitch. The RV doubled as her office.
She set the requested papers in front of Ben on the table and sat across from him and Ruby. Ruby’s flowery perfume dominated the air, but there was the faintest scent of soap and clean man the perfume hadn’t been able to overpower.
Head bent over the paperwork, he scratched his pen across the pages with efficient, confident strokes. Even when he was doing something so mundane, he had the kind of effortless attractiveness that was noticeable—an innate charisma that would draw women to him like bees to a Coke can.
He had nice hands, strongly shaped, elegantly male. His knuckles weren’t scuffed like the rest of him, though, and she wondered why. She’d seen the aftermath of several fights because there wasn’t much entertainment in her hometown of Buck Rub, Oklahoma. High school kids, both males and females—and occasionally even adults—tended to get into scuffles out of boredom and imagined slights of honor. Bruised and skinned knuckles were the norm after one of these. Sometimes even broken hands. Had Ben not tried to defend himself in the fight? Or maybe someone had held him while someone else had punched him?
She found that possibility disturbing—and then reminded herself it was none of her business.
“I’m thinking he can take Pete’s place,” Ruby said.
That jolted Stella from her thoughts. “Why? What’s happened to Pete?”
“He quit last night. Some nightclub owner offered him a job doing light and sound there.”
Stella shook her head, still getting used to the transient nature of the employees she dealt with. They were here today, gone tomorrow. Or here yesterday afternoon, gone last night. “Do you know anything about stage lighting and sound?” she asked Ben.
“No. But I’m a quick learner.”
“It’s not that hard,” said Ruby. “Mark knows how to do it. He can teach him.”
Stella disagreed. “It’s harder than it looks. There’s all the cues you have to know, all the—”
“Don’t worry about it, hon. It’ll be fine.”
Stella was inclined to argue, but the finality in Ruby’s tone told her she’d better not.
While Ben was still filling out the paperwork, Ruby looked around and shook her head. “You live like a monk in here, Stella. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again. You need some decorations to liven the place up. I mean, don’t get me wrong. It’s about the fanciest trailer I’ve ever seen, but you need to put your stamp on it, give it some personality.”
“I’ll do it one of these days,” Stella replied, even though she had no intention of decorating. She wanted to keep things simple and impersonal. She didn’t want anything ornate. Her little home wasn’t exactly a convent cell, but that wasn’t her fault: she’d borrowed it from her grandparents, and beggars can’t be choosers.
Ben paused from his paperwork, his gaze taking in the newness of the surroundings, the granite counters and plush leather furniture, and then came to a stop on her. She got the feeling he was making comparisons, wondering why her trailer shouted money and luxury while her appearance said, well, something else.
She wished she was wearing something other than the boxy, plain white T-shirt, baggy jeans, and black flip-flops she’d gotten from Walmart. Although why she was uncomfortable all of a sudden, she didn’t know. She shouldn’t care about impressing him.
He was making her antsy, though, like he knew about That Night—which was crazy. He couldn’t possibly know anything about her. She supposed Ruby could have told him, but Ruby had all but shouted from the rooftops that she and Ben had been doing other things last night besides talking.
Wanting to put a halt to his appraisal, Stella said, “I need to make a copy of your driver’s license.”
With a nod, he leaned to one side and retrieved a plain, stainless-steel money clip from his back jeans pocket. Inside it, a Nevada driver’s license was secured on top of several folded bills. He separated the license and handed it to her.
It took her a few minutes to make the copy, since she had to pull out the little copier/printer she kept in the storage compartment under her platform bed and get it going. By the time she was done, Ben’s completed forms were waiting for her on the table.
She gave him back his license, realizing after she’d handed it over that she’d hardly looked at it. She sat down and began to look over the top page of the paperwork, stopping at his full name: Benedict Ezechiel Ware. “Your name’s Benedict?”
“Really? As in Arnold?”
“No. As in the eggs.”
She allowed the hint of a smile. “Heard those a few times?”
She scanned farther down the page and noticed he’d left the field for his Social Security number blank. “You didn’t fill in your Social Security number. We need it for tax purposes.” She offered him the form so he could write it in, but he didn’t take it.
He tapped his pen in a rapid rhythm on the tabletop. “That could be a problem. I don’t have it memorized, and I lost my card.”
“You’ll need to get it. We run things on the up and up. Contrary to what everyone believes, the circus doesn’t take in every miscreant who’s running away from something. At least, ours doesn’t.”
Okay. White lie. Ruby was such a softy that they occasionally took in downtrodden guys of questionable background, desperate for a job, who would work for the meager pay the circus could afford to pay its low-level crewmen and animal caregivers. And, yes, they paid them in cash under the table. But this Ben guy didn’t need to know that. Anyway, it was a practice Stella didn’t approve of and hoped to get Ruby to stop before the IRS came calling.
“I’m not running away from anything,” Ben said, looking her in the eye.
“Great. Then it shouldn’t be a problem for you to get proper documentation, right?”
Before he could reply, Ruby waved a hand in dismissal. “We’ll worry about all that Social Security stuff later.”
“But it’s kind of important,” said Stella, giving her boss a pointed stare.
Ruby returned the stare and spoke with just as much intensity. “Later. Honey.”
Stella sighed. “Fine.” Schooling her expression into a professional mask, she told Ben, “It appears you’re hired. Welcome to the Wiley Tucker Circus, Mr. Ware.”
“Just call me Ben.”
It was better if she didn’t. First names were more intimate, and she wanted to keep him at arm’s length—preferably several arms’ lengths.
Ruby stood, grabbed Ben’s hand, and tugged on it. “Come on, hon. I’ll show you around. You don’t have an RV sitting around somewhere by any chance, do you?”
“No.” He grimaced and moved like an old man as he rose from the chair.
Ruby, who was still tugging on him and seemed to have forgotten he was hurt, said, “I’ll get you set up in the sleeper trailer. You can stay with me if you want, of course, but you can at least store your gear there since space is tight in my place.” Ruby opened the door, dragging Ben with her, a combo of Ruby’s perfume and a spicier scent from Ben trailing after them.
Ah. So Ben was getting special treatment. It wouldn’t endear him to the guys he would have to work with, but he was lucky he wouldn’t have to stay in the bunkhouse. It was a large trailer with rows of bunk beds stacked three high, made especially for sleeping circus or carnival crews—although God help anyone who made the mistake of calling the circus a carnival. There was no greater insult to anyone who worked on a circus.
A lot of the circus crewmen who slept in the bunkhouse were animal caregivers. Some of them didn’t bother with showers too often, and stale elephant poop was not a particularly fragrant odor. There was also no privacy, only one itsy-bitsy bathroom, and the mattresses were not much thicker than the ones that came with fold-up cots.
Ruby stepped down onto the asphalt of the parking lot where the RVs were parked, but Ben turned toward Stella, stopping on the second metal step that led up to her door. “I’ll be sure to get that Social Security number as soon as I can.” His expression was earnest, a small crease appearing between his brows, but it was almost too hangdog. He was laying it on too thick, making her feel like he was humoring her.
For some reason, it didn’t make her dislike him. There was something about him that was hard not to like. But it didn’t make her trust him, either. “I’ll hold you to that, Mr. Ware.”
“You really should call me Ben.”
She gave him her bland smile again. “Have a nice day.”
His brows did a single lift at the same time his mouth curved—his dimples made the expression more jovial than he probably meant for it to be—and then he was yanked the rest of the way down by Ruby. His final wince before the door slammed shut made Stella feel a pang of sympathy for him. Ruby was a good person, and Stella owed her a lot, but sometimes she could be a little self-centered.
As Stella was reading through the rest of Ben’s paperwork, it occurred to her the initials of his first and middle names were “B. E.” Combined with his last name, they spelled “B. E. Ware.”
Weird. Seemed like his mother wouldn’t have wanted her kid’s initials to spell “beware.”
Then again, maybe it was a message from the cosmos Stella would do well to heed.
* * *
Ben’s ribs felt like they’d been hit by a Mack truck, which wasn’t far from the truth, since the guy who’d punched him in the gut last night had been a giant. It didn’t help that Ruby was dragging him away from Stella’s, stretching his arm out in front of him. It hurt his ribs to lift his arms. So he dug in his heels and said, “Hang on, sweetheart. You’re killing me.”
Ruby stopped and turned to him, a question in her expression.
“It’s the pulling on my arm. Hurts the ribs.”
“Oh, my God,” she said, immediately letting go. “I’m so sorry. I totally forgot.” She took a step toward him and put a light hand on his back instead. “Come on. Let’s get you to my bed.”
If she meant for more of what they’d done last night, he was game. But then he breathed. His ribs hadn’t hindered him too much last night, but he’d still been jacked up on adrenaline and anger from the fight. Ruby was a wild woman in the sack, though, and he didn’t think he could do the Fifty Shadesthing again today.
He could do rough and enjoy it if that’s what a lady wanted, but he preferred tenderness. Tenderness was safe, more controlled, and he was all about not losing control.
Oddly enough, thoughts of Stella invaded his head in that moment, and the initial attraction he’d felt when he’d first met her rocked him again. It hadn’t just been him. She had flirted with him, too. Although it had been fleeting, he would bet his left nut he hadn’t imagined it. It was also another reason he wasn’t that excited about being with Ruby again.
Stella was the opposite of most women he encountered. Instead of using clothing and makeup to improve her looks, he got the feeling she did everything she could to downplay them.
She didn’t quite succeed. Her smile, rare though it was, gave her away. And there was no hiding that glossy black hair, those big dark eyes, the plumpness of her pouty lips—lips that made him notwant to think about control. Which was why he should stay away from her.
She was probably too young for him anyway. On the way to meet her, Ruby had told him Stella was best friends with Ruby’s daughter Christine. Ruby didn’t seem that old herself, so he didn’t think she would have a daughter that could be too long out of high school. He had enough problems without getting involved with jailbait.
Besides, Ruby was more his speed, a more mature woman looking for a bit of fun with no strings attached. She also had a place for him to crash and had offered him a job, a chance to get away from Las Vegas and all its pitfalls.
It was pure luck she’d walked into the Flamingo just as the poker game he’d been in on had gone sour. That was the danger of playing with amateurs. They thought you cheated when you didn’t. Of course, some might argue someone with his expertise was hustling the amateurs, but hey. He was no saint—not even close—and a guy had to eat.
The giant and a couple of the other players had gotten in several good punches before security was able to stop the melee.
Ben had taken the punches and done nothing to fight back. He never did. Too dangerous, too much risk.
Having seen the whole thing, Ruby had offered to “nurse” his wounds, and he couldn’t see any reason to say no.
So now here he was, walking with her back to her trailer, hopefully for some R and R. Before they could get there, though, a stocky Latino-looking guy walked up to them, determination in his steps. “Miss Ruby,” he said in a strong, clipped accent, “I need you to talk to Christine.”
Ruby arched a dark brow at the guy’s commanding manner, and some of his bluster faded.
“Por favor, señorita,” he added in Spanish, looking down at the pavement in contrition.
“Perch,” she said, a hint of exasperation in her tone, “whatever is going on with you and Christine, it’s none of my business.”
His gaze lifted to her face, imploring. “But you are her mother. She will listen to you.”
Ruby huffed. “First of all, that girl hasn’t listened to me since she was five. Second of all, you cheated on her. I’m not feeling very sympathetic to your plight right now.”
Whoever this Perch guy was, if he were in a competition for who could do the most pitiful, remorseful expression, he would win an Academy Award. The Oscar for Saddest Face.
“Please,” Perch said. “I made the biggest mistake of my life. I love her. I have to get her back.”
“I’m sorry, hon.” Ruby shook her head. “I can’t help you.”
She held up a hand. “No buts. You’re on your own with this one. Now, if you’ll excuse us, we need to get to my trailer.”
For the first time, Perch’s attention went to Ben, and he didn’t look too impressed by what he saw.
Ben didn’t take it personally. He wasn’t too impressed by Perch, either.
“Perch,” said Ruby, “this is Ben Ware. He’s going to be the new light and sound guy. Then she gestured toward Perch. “Ben, this is Heriberto Perchez, but we all call him Perch. He and his brothers do a motorcycle act.”
“Nice to meet you.” Ben held out a hand.
Perch just stared at him a moment before going back to Ruby. “If you could just get her to talk to me—”
“Nope.” Again Ruby put up a hand. “Like I said, you’re on your own.” She jerked her chin toward her trailer and told Ben, “Let’s go,” then started walking before Perch could say anything else.
Not knowing what else to do, Ben gave Perch a commiserating lift of his brows and followed her.
By the time they got to her trailer, Ben was ready to crash. It wasn’t just the beating he’d taken. He hadn’t gotten a whole lot of sleep last night, either. Although he wanted to keep his jeans on, he let Ruby help him take off his shirt. She clucked over the developing bruises on his torso, then propped up some pillows behind him so he could watch TV in her bed.
“Those bruises look pretty nasty, honey,” she said. “You sure I can’t get you some Tylenol or Advil?”
That was the last thing he needed. He and painkillers didn’t mix, even over-the-counter ones—well, except for what he took for the headaches, and he only resorted to that when his head was about to split open. “No, thanks. I’m fine.”
She looked like she wanted to argue.
“Really,” he said. “I’m fine.”
She patted his hand. “All right. I’ve got work I need to do, but I’ll come check on you later.”
“Okay. Don’t worry about me.”
She smiled and kissed him on the lips, and her voice went sultry. “Maybe I can kiss all your booboos when I get back.”
He forced a smile. “Sounds good.”
With that, she squeezed his hand and left. He let out a sore breath and relaxed into the pillows, then realized the remote was on a narrow shelf underneath the TV, which was mounted on the opposite wall. He would have to get up to retrieve it, and the thought made him wince. Moving again was beyond him right now.
He stared at the remote, knowing he shouldn’t do it. He was among strangers. He shouldn’t use his abilities ever, not even when no one was around. Someone might be watching he wasn’t aware of. Plus, it made him lax. He might slip up in public if he made a habit of using his abilities in private. How many times had that been drilled—sometimes beaten—into him by his fanatical mother and Professor Michael?
But no one was around now. He’d heard the door to the trailer shut. Ruby was definitely gone, and it was clear no one was looking in the windows.
Screw it. It wouldn’t hurt just this one time. Without further thought, he reached out, and the remote floated across the room to him and landed in his palm.