Disclaimers - This is an Uber story. As such, it doesn't actually feature the characters who appear in the syndicated series *Xena: Warrior Princess*, and who are the sole copyright property of *MCA/Universal* and *Renaissance Pictures*, but it was clearly inspired by them. Instead it features *my* characters and *my* totally fictional circus.
This story depicts a love/sexual relationship between two consenting adult women. If you are under 18 years of age or if this type of story is illegal in the state or country in which you live, please do not read it. If depictions of this nature disturb you, you may wish to read something other than this story.
This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of this story may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices.
It was late Wednesday evening when the last trailer finally limped on site. Summer watched anxiously as it eased its way between the other trailers, caravans, and vans to its designated spot, its tyres leaving huge ruts in the turf.
So much for 'Flaming June'. Rain had soaked the work crews as they pulled down the Big Top and loaded the unwieldy poles and sections of canvas onto the long trailer kept specially for the purpose; rain had streamed down her van's windscreen every second of the journey by tortuous, winding B road; and it was *still* raining, the hills surrounding Cheltenham almost invisible through the downpour.
She sighed. At least Cox's Meadow had turned out to be a proper field, she consoled herself, not one of those derelict building sites that were all most councils could seem to spare these days. She wondered who Cox was and what he would have made of the meadow that was rapidly turning into a swamp. For this they were paying £1,000 a week? Tomorrow they'd have to get the boards out - couldn't expect the public to wade through mud .... She rubbed her forehead tiredly.
"Headache, boss?" Pyotr Dyakonov had come up behind her, unheard in the pelting rain.
"Yeah," Summer confessed. "Just the usual 'Will we be ready in time?', 'Will people like us enough to pay to see us?' kind of headache."
"We always are; they always do," said the acrobat complacently.
Summer raised an eyebrow. "I thought Russians were s'posed to be pessimists."
He shrugged. "Things always seem to work out OK when you're around, Boss."
Summer snorted. "Yeah, right."
"It's true," protested Pyotr, stroking his moustache.
"Tell that to Uncle Tommy," she murmured, too low for Pyotr to hear. She turned away and began the tricky process of picking her way carefully between the ruts and puddles towards her caravan.
Alison replaced the telephone receiver and let a broad grin plaster itself over her face. "Tomorrow, I'm going to the circus!"
For a moment she allowed herself to feel the excitement she had felt as a little kid, even hopped up and down a bit, then she sobered. This wasn't for pleasure - well, maybe just a bit. This was her chance to prove she could hack it, to call herself 'freelance journalist' and mean more than the book reviews and column fillers that were the only things on her CV so far.
She paced up and down, hardly seeing the little sitting room, considering what to take with her. Her camera, of course. The article would be nothing without pictures, but she was good at photography - she could probably come up with something colourful and spectacular. Her tape recorder. Some spare batteries ... a pen and notepad, just in case ....
If all went well, she'd be interviewing each of the performers, maybe even the owner of the circus herself. Summer Walsh; what an unusual first name. Alison crossed to the table and rechecked her notes. Yes, it *was* Summer. And not many British circuses were owned by women, according to her research.
Would that make the interview harder? she wondered suddenly. Men were so easy - you just dressed femininely, batted your eyelashes, and simpered. Her Mother had taught her how to flirt with them from an early age ... and then been devastated to learn it had been a waste of time. She sighed, remembering how difficult it had been coming out to her mother, how she had wished that her father had been alive to take her part as he always had.
She shook off the melancholy memory, and her doubts. "I can do this," she told herself. "I *will* do this." After all, all circus owners, regardless of their gender, would welcome a chance of free publicity, wouldn't they?
Alison remembered the circuses of her youth, full of horses, elephants, tigers, and lions .... These days British circuses without animals were the norm - unrelenting pressure from animal rights protestors and the RSPCA had seen to that. She wondered if the show could possibly be as magical without animals ....
Well, tomorrow night she'd see for herself, wouldn't she.
"Out of the question." Summer glared at the man who had barged into her office five minutes earlier, and who, rather disconcertingly, reminded her of an orangutan. (It must be the ginger hair and long arms, she decided.)
"I don't think you quite understand." His earlier affability had vanished.
"What's to understand?" she demanded. "I have all the permits and licenses I need. Why should I want to spend more than I have to?"
So far she had managed to keep a tight rein on her temper, but it was getting increasingly difficult. Especially since she was exhausted from helping the work crews to assemble the tiered seating inside the Big Top.
"For a quiet life," he said. "For oiling the wheels of progress -"
"For greasing your palms, you mean." If he thought the sunglasses and leather jacket made him look cool, thought Summer, he was wrong.
"Call it what you like, Ms Walsh. But I think you'd be very unwise not to -"
"I said 'no'. I meant it."
"I see. That's unfortunate."
Summer stood up, placed her hands firmly on the desk and leaned forward, fixing the man with a feral glare from which, to her satisfaction, he flinched. "You're just running a glorified little protection racket, aren't you? Well, no deal." She bared her teeth at him. "You haven't met Tonio and Marcello yet, have you? They're strongmen, they perform under the stage name Men-o-War. I'm sure, if you met them, you'd understand why."
Her visitor was already backing towards the door, looking anxiously through the glass as though expecting the two strongmen to be waiting outside for him. Which, if she'd known he was coming, they would have been, she thought sourly.
"This is probably the worst decision you've made, lady -"
"What happened to 'Ms Walsh'?"
"- in a long, long time."
As he disappeared, like a rat up a drainpipe, she wondered gloomily if he might not just be right.
Alison halted just inside the tasselled blue-and-white marquee that was the Big Top, and surveyed her surroundings. It would hold about four hundred people, she judged, but it was barely a quarter full. She checked her watch. There was still ten minutes before the performance was scheduled to begin, but she was doubtful the place would fill up.
She tried to get a sense of the kind of people that had come to the circus. Some were parties of adults only, chattering excitedly to one another; some were adults with children, the parents wearing longsuffering looks; and some, like herself, were alone, their wistful expressions indicating a desire to recapture the magical experience of their youth.
Alison suppressed a smile and searched for Block D. Ah, there it was - the far side of the tiered seating, near the ramp that led from the ring to backstage. She eased herself along the row of tip-up seats until she came to the one that matched the A9 on her ticket stub then sat down gratefully.
She made herself as comfortable as possible on the very basic seat then opened the brochure, emblazoned: 'SUMMER'S CIRCUS', that had cost her a pound. As she had feared, it consisted mainly of advertisements for ice-cream and hotdogs - but a loose sheet of A4 itemized tonight's running order.
She closed the brochure and leaned back, squinting first at the apex of the Big Top high above, then at the trapezes, wires and safety ropes a little below it, then at the ring itself - not covered with sawdust, these days, she noted - which was a lot smaller than her childhood memories had led her to expect. Not bad, she decided, feeling pleased with herself - she should be able to see the performers close to as they came up the ramp into the ring. She pulled her camera from her pocket and hung its strap round her neck ready.
A group of welldressed people - businessmen and women and civic dignitaries by the look of them, one overweight man even wore a chain of office round his neck - approached her block and began to take their seats in the front row. A rather striking dark-haired woman was directing them - her scarlet jacket had wide lapels and tails, and she was wearing a matching bow tie.
The woman smiled brilliantly and said, "I hope you enjoy the show." Alison eyed her with interest.
"I'm sure we will, Ms Walsh," said the man with the chain.
So *that* was the mysterious Summer Walsh? Well, well.
As the scarlet-clad woman strode away, Alison found that she was suddenly looking forward to interviewing the circus owner.
Summer made her way backstage. It was chaos ... organized chaos - at least she fervently hoped so.
"Five minutes to the Overture," she yelled. "Everyone okay?"
"Okay, Boss," came the chorus of replies.
She stepped over the pile of baseball bats that looked like wood but weren't. They belonged to Egor and Maks who were due on first after the Overture. As she negotiated the clowns' other props: a foam rubber hatchet, a scrawny looking chicken, and a huge inflatable ball that after the Intermission would be bounced off the audience's heads to screams of fear and delight, her mind returned to the mayor's party.
"Pompous ass," she muttered. He had insisted on complimentary tickets for his wife and colleagues too. "Does he think we're made of money?"
Summer knew the figures all too well. Just to survive, the circus needed three thousand customers a week. Paying customers, like that little blonde who had been sitting just behind the mayor and his cronies. Her thoughts dwelt pleasantly on the woman's interested green eyes for a moment, then she remembered her intention to see how the Ticket Office was getting on.
She was heading for the office wagon at breakneck speed - she had barely ten minutes before she was needed in the ring - when she noticed that a weaselly little pickpocket was working the queue.
With a growl of anger, she somersaulted neatly over the goggling members of the public and launched herself at the man whose hand was about to delve into an unsuspecting customer's coat pocket.
He took one startled look at her and tried to bolt - but by then she had him by the back of his coat collar.
"'Ere, what d'ya think you're - Ulp!" His protest became a strangled squawk as an arm strengthened by years of trapeze work held him effortlessly six inches above the ground.
He struggled briefly then stopped and concentrated on simply breathing.
"You have a choice, sunshine," growled Summer. "You can spend this evening down the nearest police station ... or ..." She lifted him higher and watched him think through the implications.
The thief smiled rather glassily at her. "No harm done, lady," he babbled. "I was just looking after a few things for their owners. Know what I mean?"
She lowered her arm, and saw relief wash over his face as his feet touched the ground again. Then she released her grip on his coat collar and held out her hand meaningfully. "Give."
Reluctantly he reached into deep raincoat pockets and began to pile purses and wallets and wristwatches into Summer's hands. From the Big Top came faint music, the first bars of the Overture, reminding her that time was passing.
"Need a hand, Boss?" Tonio and Marcello had joined the little crowd of bystanders watching the proceedings as though it were part of the evening's entertainment.
She nodded, relieved to see them. "I'm due in the ring. Make sure these -" she pushed the pile of purses and wallets into Tonio's huge fists "- are returned to their rightful owners. Most'll have some kind of ID or photo in them, I expect. The rest - well, you may have to ask members of the audience to check if anything's missing."
She rubbed a hand tiredly across her forehead, annoyed at the extra work the thief had caused. If she reported him to the police, even more time would be lost. No police, then ... unless - Suddenly, she remembered the orangutan who had tried to sell her protection.
"You," she turned back to the thief. "Who are you working for?"
"No-one. I'm strictly freelance."
Summer put on her best scowl and took a threatening step towards him.
"Honest." He raised a shaking hand in defence.
She nodded. "Okay. One other thing."
The still unnerved thief looked expectantly at her.
"If I catch you in my circus ever again, I'll let these two - " she indicated the strong men examining the stolen booty "- tear you to pieces. And have no doubts, they can do it, too." She glared at him. "Do I make myself clear?"
The thief winced. "As crystal."
"Now, get out of my circus."
The thief needed no further urging.
The Overture ended with a flourish (*Also Sprach Zarathustra*, if she wasn't mistaken) and Alison clapped appreciatively. It amused her that such a tiny orchestra - two men, a drumkit, and what looked like a steam powered synthesizer - was capable of generating music with such power and volume. Circus people, she was rapidly learning, were nothing if not resourceful.
The ringmaster had just stridden into the ring - she recognized the dark-haired woman in the scarlet jacket immediately - when Alison became aware that a big man in black sweatshirt and jeans was easing his way along the row of seats towards her. She frowned.
"Excuse me, Miss," he said politely, as he got nearer, easing her fears, "but is this yours?" He was holding out a wallet similar to the one she owned and pointing to a strip of passport photographs ....
Abruptly, she recognized the unflattering snaps she had had taken at the Post Office photo kiosk last week. She gasped and felt for the pocket where she usually kept her wallet. It was empty.
"That's mine. But how did you? I mean - "
The man smiled and handed her the wallet. "Pickpocket was working the Ticket Office queue," he said simply. "The Boss caught him. Persuaded him to return the stolen goods."
There was a subtle emphasis on the 'persuaded' that piqued Alison's interest, as did his accent, which was, she realized, foreign. She checked the contents of the wallet, and was relieved to find that nothing was missing. "'The Boss' ... You mean, Ms Walsh?"
"Yes. Everything there? Sorry to rush you, but I've got several more owners to locate."
"Oh, sorry. Yes, everything's here, but -"
But the man was already turning to go. "Enjoy the show, Miss," he called back to her.
Still feeling rather stunned by this turn of events, Alison turned her attention back to the ring. The attractive ringmaster had disappeared and two short men with unwieldy moustaches and red noses, dressed in appalling yellow-and-black checked suits and bow ties, were starting to hit each other with baseball bats ....
The trouble with seeing the show from the inside, thought Summer, was that, unlike the appreciative audience - who were clapping wildly at every little thing - you were all too aware when things didn't go right.
For example, the music had started off slightly too fast, but Ruud and Jan had quickly corrected that. Then Egor had tripped over one of Maks' big feet but had deftly turned it into an extra piece of ' business'. And Grigori had almost dropped one of his flaming torches, but an extra flourish distracted the audience from his mistake.
The ringmaster sighed. No matter how often and thoroughly they rehearsed, it was always the same. First-performance-in-a-new-town nerves. But as the evening progressed, she could feel the nerves calming, the professionalism of the performers taking over.
But it was time to announce the next act. She strode out into the ring, fixed a smile on her face, and clicked on the microphone.
"And now, for your enjoyment, Summer's Circus presents, all the way from Greece: the *stupendous* Miss Clio."
She gestured extravagantly towards the maroon velvet curtain that hid backstage, and, right on cue, a petite figure in a pale pink leotard appeared and bounded up the ramp to join her.
"Break a leg, Clio," she murmured. Her reward was a dazzling smile.
Summer withdrew, and watched Clio go into her act.
First came the smile and wave to the audience, then the Greek woman reached for her little ladder and began to climb, adjusting her balance constantly so that the unsupported ladder would remain vertical. When she was settled, Andor, her young male assistant, appeared, carrying a pile of cups and saucers, and proceeded to throw them to her one by one. Almost nonchalantly, Clio would catch each cup or saucer and then throw it up so that it landed on the top of her head. Gradually a stack of alternating cups and saucers grew.
Summer had had no doubts at all, when she'd first seen Clio's act, that she was a must for the circus. On paper, catching cups and saucers while balancing on a ladder was a nonstarter, but in real life there was something about the precision and skill displayed by the young Greek woman that made the audience hold its breath.
As Clio caught yet another saucer, and was greeted with wild applause, Summer's thoughts turned inwards.
It looked like her gamble that the affluent Cheltonians would flock to the circus hadn't paid off - the Ticket Office receipts had confirmed what her squinted glances into the spotlights told her: the Big Top was only half full tonight. What with the appalling weather, the orangutan demanding protection money, the pickpocket ripping off customers, and the question of what would happen when Uncle Tommy discovered his least favourite niece was back on his patch .... She sighed.
A teaspoon landed with a loud clink in the topmost saucer, and the audience went mad. Clio's act was winding down. Almost time to announce the aerialists, thought Summer, rising to her feet ....
The Finale had met with sustained and enthusiastic applause, and the two man band was playing music calculated to get the audience heading for the exits, when Summer went round backstage congratulating the acts and patting people on the shoulders. There had been no major mishaps, and everyone was feeling relieved.
She was looking forward to a shower, a hot meal, and an early night, and was half way to her caravan, when she remembered she had rashly agreed to see a journalist - Alison Carsomething - about a possible article on the Circus.
She groaned, and trudged over the waterlogged ground towards the trailer that housed both the Administration and Ticket offices.
A blonde woman was waiting for her outside the Admin office. She looked vaguely familiar, thought Summer, traipsing up the short flight of steps.
"Ms Car -?" She trailed off.
"Alison Carmichael," said the woman helpfully. "And you must be Summer Walsh." She held out a hand.
Summer grunted, gave the hand a perfunctory shake, then began to unlock the door. "Come in."
She switched on the light, and crossed the office to the battered old desk. The journalist followed her inside, glancing at the dingy interior assessingly. Hmmm, thought Summer, having noticed the camera around her visitor's neck, I don't imagine you want to take a photo of *this* for your article, Ms Carmichael.
She dragged a plastic chair from its place by the wall and indicated it before moving round behind the desk. The journalist sat down. Summer did likewise.
"I really enjoyed the show tonight, Ms Walsh."
After a moment's silence, the blonde woman realized Summer wasn't going to say any more and picked up the conversation. "Um, we spoke on the phone, about the possibility of my doing interviews with you and with your performers."
"So, I was wondering ..." The journalist bit her lip.
Summer glanced at the message pad where she had written details of their telephone conversation and frowned. What had she been thinking? "I don't seem to have made a note of which paper you write for, Ms Carmichael," she said apologetically.
"Oh, well - " A slight flush covered the blonde woman's cheeks. "I'm a freelance, but several publications have expressed an interest in the article -"
Summer realized abruptly that there was no point in continuing this conversation. "Then I'm afraid it would be better if we didn't waste each other's time, Ms Carmichael," she interrupted.
The look on the other woman's face made Summer aware that her bluntness had been misinterpreted as offensiveness.
"By the time you've written it and placed it, probably with a local paper," she explained, "the circus will have moved on. Such publicity will be of no benefit to us." She groaned inwardly, realizing that she had only made things worse.
A red spot now burned in each of the blond woman's cheeks. "But, you said ... on the phone ..." Green eyes flashed with indignation.
Green eyes, thought Summer suddenly. Of course. The row of seats behind the mayor's party. Another headache was lurking behind her eyes. The sooner this was over, the better.
"I've changed my mind," she said, sounding more curt than she'd intended. "If you'll excuse me?" She stood up to indicate the interview was over.
Lips pressed in a grim line, the young woman snatched up her gloves and stalked off.
I could have handled that so much better, thought Summer regretfully as she watched the young woman stomp down the steps outside. She sighed, then switched off the light and locked the office door behind her.
As she walked down the steps herself, she glanced absently at the distant figure walking disconsolately towards the carpark. The rest of the paying audience had gone home, and a single pale green Fiesta remained. One of the carpark floodlights was out. Summer made a mental note to get it replaced, then noticed movement in the shadows. She stopped, her senses on alert. A mugger ... or worse? And Alison Carmichael, her mind on other things, was heading straight for him.
The rush of adrenalin banished her tiredness and incipient headache instantly, and she broke into a run. "Look out," she called, even as she realized that running wasn't going to get her there in time and launched herself into a series of somersaults and flips.
The journalist had halted near her car and was looking back at her, mouth open in amazement. Summer growled as the figure in the shadows chose that moment to attack, and forced herself to move faster, feeling her muscles burn with the effort. The attacker - a man, by his build - had got an arm round the journalist's throat and was tugging her back into the shadows when Summer flipped over his head.
As she landed behind him, he glanced round, and the momentary distraction enabled the blond woman to break his grip round her throat. One punch with all Summer's weight behind it was enough to send him flying, and two kicks, one to the stomach, one to his unshaven jaw, rendered him out for the count.
Summer stooped over the man and checked his pulse. He was still breathing - she wasn't sure if that was a good or bad thing. She straightened, and rubbed her bruised knuckles ruefully, then became aware that the journalist was standing beside her.
"He attacked me!" mumbled the blond, her voice shaky, her breathing uneven. "Oh my God, if you hadn't -" She began to cry.
For moment, Summer stood frozen, then she pulled the sobbing journalist into an awkward hug. There was a moment's startled resistance, then Alison sagged into her embrace.
"It's okay," said Summer. "I've got you." She rubbed a hand soothingly over the other woman's back, encouraging her to cry herself out, her own mind churning. My fault. All my fault. If I hadn't been here ... For Summer had no doubt at all that the attacker was working for the man who had tried to sell her protection that morning.
As the sobs dwindled to sniffs, and the tension in the muscles beneath her hands eased, her thoughts turned to the state of her ringmaster uniform. It hadn't been designed for people to cry on.
"Do you still want to do that article on the circus, Ms Carmichael?" Summer was as surprised by her own words as the journalist appeared to be.
"But you said -" The journalist took a step back, and Summer released her.
Colour had returned to the pale cheeks, and bewilderment, coupled with hope, had replaced the fear in the green eyes.
Summer smiled, partly in relief, and shrugged. "I've changed my mind."
The journalist considered for a moment. "What if you change your mind again?" she asked at last.
A fair question, Summer admitted, since from the journalist's point of view, she'd changed her mind twice already. "I won't," she said firmly. "If you want the interviews you asked for, you can have them."
A moment longer, then a smile split the blond woman's features and she nodded eagerly. "Please."
"Tomorrow, then, 10am," said Summer. "I'll give you a guided tour."
They stared at one another for a long moment, then Summer sighed and glanced down at the still unconscious attacker.
"In the meantime," she said, "I suppose I'd better see about calling the police."
"It was great, Mother. There were clowns, and acrobats, and trapeze artists, and a woman who balanced at the top of a ladder while catching cups and saucers on her head ... Yes, that's what I said ... Um ... it looked like real china from where I was sitting."
Alison could tell her mother wasn't impressed by her enthusiastic description of the circus. Opera was more the older woman's 'thing' - so much more 'adult'. No doubt her mother's opinion of the circus would sink even lower, if that were possible, if she told her about the pickpocket and the attack in the carpark ...
She sighed and changed the subject to her coming interviews, then wished she hadn't.
"You're not still intending to be a journalist, are you, dear?" Her mother's tone was disapproving. "My goodness! I thought that was just a fad."
A fad! thought Alison. In fact, the dream of being a reporter had been with her since she was a child, but it was only recently she had decided to do anything about it. Coming out - to herself and to other people - she realized suddenly, had been the catalyst. It had strengthened her determination to live her own life not let others live it for her.
"No, Mother," she said evenly, "it's not a fad."
"It's not as if you need the money, dear."
Alison sighed. It was true that the Life Assurance from her father's death had left them both more than comfortably well off. But she wanted the satisfaction of paying her own way ... for a change.
"Mother, we've been through this."
"Well, if you *must* occupy yourself, dear, why don't you do some voluntary work? It's so much more ... respectable."
"Mother." Alison had reached the end of her patience, and some sign of it must have travelled down the phone line because her Mother went quiet.
"Well, dear. Perhaps you know best." The tone made it clear her mother thought exactly the opposite. "It's past my bedtime, yours too if you're sensible. So I'll say goodnight."
"Goodnight, Mother." Alison replaced the phone receiver and sighed.
The flat that was her pride and joy, her first taste of independence - she was twenty-seven, for heaven's sake; other people left home at eighteen - suddenly seemed drab and pokey. Perhaps it was the contrast with the Big Top and its colourful performers, not least among them the tall ringmaster ....
Once more Alison heard the distant shout and turned to watch the ringmaster somersaulting towards her across the carpark. Once more she felt disbelief and bewilderment that the woman who had just dashed her hopes so rudely should be following her in such a spectacular way. Then came a jolt of terror as someone wrapped his arm around her throat. Followed by sheer relief, as Summer tackled the attacker and then held Alison close ....
Alison swallowed over a suddenly dry throat, then laughed wryly at herself. What a strange evening it had been! And now here she was feeling gratitude, hero worship, and, if she were being honest, straightforward attraction for a woman who until this evening had been a complete stranger.
Even more ironic, being rescued by a circus owner would have made a *great* story, but Summer was concerned that a mugging might keep paying customers away. Since the policeman who took their statements didn't envisage any further involvement for either Summer or Alison (Alison, though severely shaken, hadn't actually been hurt, and the still groggy attacker had quickly realized it was in his own best interests to confess) Alison had agreed to keep the incident quiet.
Which was probably just as well, she thought sleepily, as the seesaw of raw emotions finally caught up with her. Because then, her mother wouldn't learn of the incident and come rushing over ready to sweep her daughter up and take her back to the claustrophobic home from which she had only just escaped.
Alison had feared the mugging would prey on her mind, but as she got herself ready for bed, she found to her relief and slight embarrassment that her head was full of the music of Strauss and images of clowns and acrobats and a tall, striking ringmaster with blue, blue eyes ....
"It's going to be muddy, I'm afraid." Summer ushered the young journalist out of the admin office and down the metal steps.
"That's all right." Alison smiled back at her. "What's a little mud between friends."
Summer raised an eyebrow but said nothing. They walked across the boggy field towards the Big Top.
"We call this the Back Yard." Summer ducked under the cordon that marked the area as off limits to the public, and began threading her way carefully between stakes and guy wires, generators and storage bins.
Alison hurried to keep up. "So," she said, holding out a small tape-recorder. "What made you decide to own your own circus, Ms Walsh?"
"If we're friends, you'd better call me Summer." The tape recorder, she noted absently, was voice-activated.
"Then you'd better call me Alison ... or Ali."
Summer caught the faint hesitation. "Which would you prefer?"
"Alison ... if you don't mind."
"Alison it is."
Summer held back the tent flap and waited for Alison to duck under it. "We call this the Back Door - it's the performers' entrance." She followed the journalist, her pupils adjusting quickly to the dim lighting of the backstage area.
"Hi, Boss." Egor came somersaulting over and stopped in front of them. "Who's the beautiful towny?"
The little clown's interested gaze was resting on Alison, who blushed. It suited her, thought Summer, suppressing a grin.
"That's what circus people call outsiders," she explained. Then to Egor, "This is Alison Carmichael. She's a local journalist, so be nice - we don't want any bad publicity."
"I thought any publicity was good publicity, Boss." Egor winked at her.
"Yeah, well you thought wrong."
Alison shot her a glance. "You don't have to worry," she said reassuringly. "I really loved the show last night."
"You did?" Summer felt her slight tension ease.
She guided Alison towards the maroon curtain separating backstage from the auditorium, then paused. "I should warn you before we get near the ring," she said, "don't, whatever you do, sit on the edge of it facing out."
Alison stared at her. "Why not?"
Summer shrugged. "It's bad luck."
The journalist leaned forward eagerly. "Oh! So you have your own set of superstitions, like theatre people do?"
"I suppose so. Peacock feathers are bad luck too. And whistling in the dressing room."
Alison's eyes danced and her tone was mock serious. "Okay. No whistling or peacock feathers, and no sitting on the ring's edge facing out. Got it."
Summer started to say something in defence of circus traditions then decided against it. She pulled back the curtain and they walked through.
The Dyakonovs were rehearsing their trapeze act high above the ring, and she stopped to allow Alison to watch. After a long moment, Alison tore her gaze away from the graceful flips and twirls, and Summer gestured towards a row of ringside seats. They covered the distance quickly and sat down.
"I noticed last night that most of the acts in your programme are foreign," said Alison. "Is that coincidence or policy? Or is it simply that Brits don't make good circus performers?"
"Hey! Are you saying I'm no good?" Summer smiled to remove the sting from her words. It was a good question, and she considered her answer. No need to mention that Uncle Tommy had made sure no British performer would work for her anyway, she decided.
"It's a question of cost, actually." Alison glanced at the sound level meter and moved the tape recorder closer to Summer's mouth then her gaze drifted upwards again. Summer smiled. She too felt the magnetic pull of the trapeze.
"When the USSR collapsed," she continued, "so did its circus funding. At their height, they had seventy permanent circuses, you know. That's about fifteen thousand performers."
Alison's startled gaze met hers. "Fifteen *thousand*?"
Summer nodded. "Which means that now the Russians are desperate for work and -" she spread her hands expressively "- very cheap."
"So *that's* why most of your acts are Russian?"
"Mmmm." Now it was Summer's turn to gaze up at the Dyakonov Troupe. Cheslav, she noted absently, was clasping Irisa's ankles in his brawny fists. "Though actually, the circus band is Dutch." Alison chuckled at the mention of the two musicians, and Summer glanced curiously at her. When no explanation was forthcoming, she let it go and continued. "The strong men are Portuguese. And Miss Clio, of course, is Greek. I take it you'd like to meet the company?"
The journalist's obvious enthusiasm pleased Summer. Maybe it was because Alison was a freelance, she thought, and hadn't yet reached the embittered 'just going through the motions' stage.
A faint stomach rumble reached her ears, and she noticed Alison was blushing again.
"Haven't you had any breakfast?"
"Um, yes," admitted Alison. "But it was a couple of hours ago. I wouldn't mind a cup of coffee and a biscuit, if you have them."
Summer rose to her feet. "I'm sure we can rustle up something." She was amused by the look of gratitude that flashed across the blond woman's face.
The trailer that Summer called the 'cook wagon' was hot and fuggy and smelled absolutely wonderful. Coffee and doughnuts, thought Alison, identifying the aromas. Her stomach grumbled more loudly and her mouth began to water.
"It's help yourself in here," instructed the tall woman, busying herself with heating water for two cups of instant coffee. "Just take what you fancy."
While Summer carried their coffees to an empty table, Alison inspected the cardboard box of goodies and chose a large sticky, sugarcoated doughnut. Then she joined Summer and sat down opposite her. She placed the tape recorder on the table between them, and gazed at their spartan surroundings.
"So, this is where you all eat?"
Summer took a sip of coffee than nodded. "We can connect the wagon up to the mains water and power supplies. Not all sites provide access though, so then we have to make do with Calor gas and bottled water."
"I expect you've got moving between sites down to a fine art?" While she waited for an answer, Alison picked up her doughnut and took a bite. Brilliant red jam squirted down her chin and across the table. Fortunately, it didn't reach the ringmaster.
"Oh!" Alison's cheeks felt hot with embarrassment, but Summer just chuckled and reached for a paper napkin.
"I'm always doing that," she said consolingly. "Here."
"Thanks." Alison took the napkin and wiped her chin with it. "Um." Her mind had gone blank and the confusion must have shown on her face.
Summer took pity on her. "To answer your question .... Yes, after you've been on the road for a while - and this circus has been touring for years now - you get to know the drill." She took another gulp of coffee. "Circus people are pretty tough. Everyone helps with the build-up and pull-down."
"But the circus can't always run smoothly," prompted Alison.
"No. We've had our share of accidents, and some of our vehicles are aging - they're always breaking down. Fortunately, Grigori is a top notch mechanic as well as a juggler. What else?" Summer looked thoughtful for a moment. "Well, two years ago, a generator caught fire - we were lucky it didn't burn down the Big Top. And last year we had a blowdown ... that's when a storm blows the Big Top down."
Alison would have whistled but remembered their earlier talk of superstition and thought better of it. "That must have set you back a bit."
"Yes. Luckily we got it back up double quick - only missed one matinee. We can't afford to miss many performances."
Alison finished off her doughnut and wiped her hands on the napkin. "You're that close to the line?"
For a moment she thought the other woman wasn't going to answer, then Summer tapped the tape recorder pointedly and said, "Off the record?"
"Oh, okay." Alison pressed the pause button.
"Things are pretty tight at the moment. If they don't get better soon ..." The ringmaster's gaze was suddenly bleak.
"Can't you put up ticket prices?"
"We're already as high as we can go without putting audiences off." Summer shrugged. "Trouble is, we've got so much to compete with these days - TV, video, cinema ... football. People just aren't as keen as they used to be on circuses. Especially circuses without animals." She grimaced. "It's a no win situation. If we use animals - we get attacked by the animal rights protestors; if we don't use them - the audiences stay away."
Alison frowned. "That's not fair."
"No, it isn't." Summer sighed.
The journalist suddenly remembered the tape recorder and pointed at it. Summer nodded, and she resumed recording.
"So why do you do it?" asked Alison.
"Own your own circus. Keep on touring."
"It's in the blood," said Summer simply. "And," she gave Alison a wry smile, "I don't know how to do anything else."
As if regretting her sudden candour, the ringmaster looked away. "Have you had enough?" She indicated the empty plate.
"Oh, yes. That was great, thanks."
"Good. Because we've got quite a few introductions to get through, not to mention photographs."
Alison stood up at once. "Point me at 'em," she said brightly, pleased when the remark earned her a laugh from Summer.
The dark woman led the way out of the cook wagon.
Summer managed to prise Ruud and Jan Dekker away from their instruments and get them to talk to Alison. At first wary, the brothers soon opened up under the journalist's genial questioning, revealing a sheepish passion for Country and Western music that was news to Summer. Tonio and Marcello were glad to take a break from rehearsing, and were soon posing and flexing their rippling muscles while a suitably awed Alison took photographs. And Egor and Maks abandoned their discussion - heated, as always - of ways to improve their act and were only too happy to educate Alison in the intricacies and history of clown makeup.
Summer found watching Alison work relaxing, and she was letting the good natured banter flow over her, when Pyotr came running up, breathless.
"It's Cheslav," he said, without preamble. "He's sprained his wrist."
"What's wrong?" Alison had come over to see what the aerialist's gloomy expression and Summer's unguarded exclamation were about.
"One of the catchers has sprained his wrist," explained Summer.
"A trapeze artist who catches," she said absently. Pyotr was looking expectantly at her. "The routine's the same?"
He nodded. "We added a few frills, but the basic moves are unchanged."
"Okay. Give me five minutes."
Summer regarded a bewildered Alison. "You'll have to look after yourself for the next hour, I'm afraid. Is that going to be a problem?"
"Uh, no. But ... um, Summer, what are you going to be doing?"
"Taking Cheslav's place."
Alison's eyes widened. "Up on the trapeze? But I thought you were the ringmaster."
"I have many skills," said Summer nonchalantly.
When Summer reappeared in the ring - Alison had persuaded the disbelieving ringmaster that watching her rehearse would not bore her - her long black hair was tied back into a neat plait. And she was no longer wearing a sweatshirt and jeans but had changed into a sky-blue leotard that left little to the imagination.
Alison swallowed convulsively, sure her eyeballs must be popping out on stalks.
Summer crossed to a ladder at the edge of the ring, and plunged her hands into a small canvas bag hanging prominently from one rung. She shook off the excess of something white and dusty - chalk? wondered Alison - then swarmed up the ladder at a speed that startled the watching journalist.
The three huge men and two tiny women who made up the Dyakonov Troupe shouted a welcome as the ringmaster joined them on the complex network of wires, ropes, and trapezes that crisscrossed the upper recesses of the Big Top.
As Summer and the acrobats - or 'aerialists', as Summer had called them - talked and gestured, Alison noticed anxiously that there wasn't a safety net..
"Don't worry," said a voice in her ear. "The Boss knows what she's doing."
She turned to find Ruud standing next to her.
"And the safety guys are very experienced," he added.
He pointed to two burly men who Alison had seen around but had yet to meet. They were standing patiently by the side of the ring, gripping ropes that disappeared skyward, looking up. She vaguely remembered them doing the same thing last night.
Alison smiled gratefully at him. "It's very short notice. Does Summer do this often?"
"Often enough." He shrugged. "It's that old 'The show must go on' mentality."
"Do performers often get hurt or fall sick?"
Ruud shook his head. "Fortunately not. Circus people are tough. But it does happen, on occasion. And then, if it's an individual act that's out of commission, we substitute another act. Egor and Maks, for example, can do a nifty knife throwing act, if required, and Tonio and Marcello can also juggle."
Alison listened interestedly, but her gaze was still fixed on Summer.
"It's only the big troupes that cause problems," continued Ruud. "Cancelling them leaves a huge hole in the schedule, and the audiences don't like it. Fortunately, Summer's an experienced aerialist."
Summer was now strapping herself into a safety harness. The ringmaster seemed perfectly relaxed and at home in her lofty environment. She glanced down at the men holding the ropes and called, "Everything okay, safety?"
They gave her a thumbs up sign.
Summer nodded then began a series of stretching exercises. Then she leaped onto a trapeze and began pumping her legs to set it swinging. All except one of The Dyakonovs swung into action too - the man with the bandaged wrist must be Cheslav, thought Alison.
Alison vividly remembered the routine from last night's performance. It had been spectacular. The petite female acrobats had seemed to throw themselves so far out into space she'd been convinced they'd crash into the audience below. Of course they had all been snatched safely out of the air by their burly menfolk, and the safety ropes meant there had been no danger in reality. Still, it was very different watching someone you knew and liked risking their life up there ....
Abruptly, Summer let go of the trapeze ropes and slid backward, until her knees were hooked over the bar. Then she slid back even further, entwining her legs round the ropes, until she was held upside-down by her ankles alone.
Alison's heart thumped loudly.
One of the tiny women - Irisa, was that her name? - swarmed out onto another trapeze and began swinging. She too, ended up suspended by her ankles. After a few swings, Irisa let go and soared out into space towards Summer.
Surely they had mistimed it, thought Alison, her heart racing as Irisa did a complicated triple somersault. Surely Irisa's arc was going to miss Summer's by several feet? But Summer's trapeze continued its rhythmic swinging, its occupant apparently unconcerned. And then, somehow - Alison couldn't quite work out how - the ringmaster's hands were clasped firmly round Irisa's ankles, and she was flipping the small woman over so that she held her wrists instead.
"I'm sorry," said Alison faintly. "I don't think I can watch any more of this."
"It's all right, you know. They're perfectly safe," said Ruud.
"Even so ..." Surprised at the strength of her fear, Alison fled into the gloomy morning sunlight.
After a moment she became aware that Ruud had followed her out. "Summer said when you got bored, I was to introduce you to the rest of the acts," he explained.
Bored! Alison nodded numbly. "That ... " she managed on the second attempt. "That would be good."
"Ruud tells me you couldn't stay and watch me rehearse." Summer wiped a towel over her sweaty face and contemplated taking a quick shower.
Alison blushed. "No. Sorry. I wanted to, but I was afraid you'd fall, or drop someone."
Summer couldn't decide whether the remark showed concern for her safety or doubt in her abilities. She kept her expression neutral. "So, anyway," she said, "I was going to offer you a complimentary ticket for the matinee, so you could see me perform with the Dyakonovs. Bad idea?"
Alison turned to her and put a hand on her arm. "It's a lovely idea, Summer. Thank you. But -" She stopped, her cheeks reddening.
My, but she blushes a lot! thought Summer. "You've made other plans?"
"I have to write this article, and get the photographs developed. You said yourself, by the time I 'place' this, the circus will be ready to move on. So I'd better get on with it."
It was Summer's turn to feel embarrassed.
"In fact," continued Alison, forestalling Summer's apology for her earlier rudeness, "I was wondering if you could let me have the circus's itinerary, because I may be able to place the piece with a regional paper that covers one of the towns you're playing, drum up some trade for you before you get there."
Summer blinked at her. "You'd do that?"
Alison looked surprised Summer needed to ask. "Of course."
There was a moment's silence, and Summer suddenly found herself not wanting to lose touch with the young journalist. "Why don't you come back tomorrow," she said impulsively. "I'm doing something that you might be able to use in your article."
"A couple of schools are coming." Summer felt suddenly shy. "It's something I've started doing recently on Saturday mornings - educational visits for children. We show them behind the scenes, the safety props etc, then they meet the acts -"
Alison laughed. "So you've been giving me the kiddy's educational tour?"
Summer considered for a moment. "I suppose I have!" She grinned, then became serious again. "Actually, it's also a sprat to catch a mackerel. Pester power, you know?"
"Get the kids on your side and they'll pester their parents to let them come to a show?"
"Sneaky." Alison grinned.
"Yeah. ... So, are you interested?" Summer found she was holding her breath.
"Sounds like a plan," said Alison.
Alison called in at a local photo lab that had given her professional results in the past and dropped off the five rolls of 35mm film she had exposed, then went back to her flat.
For the next few hours, she listened to audiocassettes and made notes for her article. The contrast between Summer's rich tones and the mangled English of some of the circus performers made Alison smile. This whole circus thing was so *different* - no wonder some people ran off to join. Or maybe it wasn't the circus that so intrigued her, she told herself wryly, maybe it was the circus owner!
As she listened to the tapes, she realized that Summer had been tightlipped about herself, preferring instead to discuss circuses in England and Russia or to praise other members of the company. She found herself wanting to know more about the dark haired woman. An old family friend worked for the local newspaper and had access to their archives. That would be as good a place as any to start, she supposed. She flipped through her address book, noted Harold Robinson's phone number, and dialled. Half an hour later, she was standing by his desk.
"How far back do you want to go, Ali?" Harry looked enquiringly up at her.
She bit her lip at the hated diminutive. "I don't know. Isn't there some kind of cross-reference we can use?"
"We're not fully computerized yet," he explained. "We've only got indexes for the last five years. Before that, it's good old index cards ..."
"Oh." She thought for a moment. "Well, five years should be enough, I suppose. See what you can find on 'Summer's Circus'."
Obediently, Harry typed in the words, and seconds later a couple of reference numbers appeared. "You're in luck."
"Try that one," said Alison, pointing to the most recent reference.
It proved to be a small item, its gist being that Summer's Circus was now planning to forego animal acts entirely. It mentioned its owner only in passing, but the mention was a relevant and startling one - it referred to Summer Walsh's 'previous convictions for animal cruelty'. Alison wrinkled her nose in consternation. Cruelty?
"What about that other reference?" she prompted Harold.
He tapped some more keys and soon Alison was shakily reading that Summer Walsh ('who gave her name in court as Summer Blake' she saw in surprise) had been convicted of 12 counts of causing unnecessary suffering to three elephants and six horses and fined £5000 costs.
As she stared at the grainy black-and-white photo of a younger Summer Walsh, the features hard and uncaring (or it could just be the angle and light, she acknowledged), Alison felt sick. She could only wonder why the magistrate hadn't also banned Summer permanently from using animals in her circus.
Perhaps everything Summer had told her, everything she had seen so far, had been an act, a ploy to get sympathetic publicity for an ailing circus. After all, what did she really know about the woman? Fact - Summer had retrieved her wallet from a pickpocket and saved her from a mugging; but maybe it had been as much self interest as heroism - think of the bad publicity if news of either event got out.
The thought that Summer had conned her was unbearable. Some journalist *I* am! thought Alison miserably. I should have done my research *before* I went to the circus.
"Seen enough?" asked Harold, breaking her reverie.
"More than enough," she said bitterly. "Thanks, Harold. I owe you one."
Saturday was another overcast day, and Summer wasn't looking forward to guiding yelling schoolchildren round the site, but for some reason, she felt cheerful. Some reason! She knew very well why she was looking forward to today.
Humming a jaunty tune, Summer pulled on her ringmaster's outfit - had to give the kids a good show, after all - and strode to the cook wagon. Two cups of coffee and a doughnut later - the memory of Alison's little doughnut mishap brought a smile to her lips - she was ready for anything.
Four coaches rolled up ten minutes late - a good start, since school parties were sometimes *hours* adrift of schedule. While Egor and Maks entertained the little horrors, she waited eagerly for Alison to arrive, but as the minutes passed and there was no sign of the journalist, her high spirits began to drop.
Oh well, she thought, as Egor cast her an imploring glance - time to get this show on the road.
An hour passed, and there was still no sign of Alison. During the break for toilets and refreshments, while the children were treated to a toffee apple or candy floss - a cue for raised voices and complaints - Summer ran to her office to check her answerphone. No messages. She frowned. Surely the young journalist would have told her if she'd changed her mind or had to cancel for some reason. Something must have happened.
She was halfway back to the Big Top when a green Fiesta - Alison drove such a car, she remembered with relief - turned into the public carpark.
Summer's high spirits returned and she jogged towards the car. By the time she reached it, the driver's door was open, and a very grumpy looking Alison was getting out.
"Hey, Alison," said Summer, smiling. "What kept you? I was worried."
"The engine was playing up," said Alison, her tone cold.
The frosty reception left Summer off balance. Her smile disappeared. "Um ..." she said uncertainly, "why don't you let me get Grigori to have a look."
"That's not necessary." Alison barely looked at her. "I'll call a garage." She slammed the car door shut and began to walk towards the Big Top.
Summer jogged to keep up. "Are you OK?"
"I nearly rang to cancel," said Alison, "but we agreed ...."
Summer didn't know what to make of her companion. She had supposed it was the car trouble making her ratty, or PMS even, but the young woman was acting sullen, almost resentful.
"Have I done something wrong?" she blurted out, amazed at how much Alison's displeasure stung.
For a moment she thought the blonde woman wasn't going to answer.
"I don't like being used."
"What?" Summer tried to make sense of the remark. It was the journalist who had approached the circus, not the other way around. "And just how am *I* using *you*?" she demanded.
Alison ignored her question. "But then I guess, after that animal cruelty conviction, you need all the good publicity you can get."
Summer sucked in her breath sharply. "That was five years ago," she managed. "I don't use animals any more."
"And that makes it all right?" Alison stopped walking and glared at her. Two red spots now burned in her cheeks. "In my book," her voice dropped several notes, "people who abuse animals are the lowest of the low."
Alison's contempt struck Summer an almost physical blow. She turned away quickly, raising her emotional shields. In my book too, she thought. Unexpectedly, a hand on her arm halted her.
Summer turned back to the journalist, debating whether to continue what was obviously a lost cause. "Why was I convicted?" she asked at last. "Because I deserved to be."
Alison's brows drew together. "But why?"
Summer realized what Alison was actually asking. "You mean why hurt the animals?"
Alison nodded. "What harm did the elephants and horses do you?"
Summer was now completely confused. "None, of course. Mobray was a brute, plain and simple. Given the choice of stick or carrot, he preferred the stick."
It was Alison's turn to look confused. "Mobray?"
"My animal trainer."
Summer really wasn't in the mood for this. "Is there an echo in here?" she asked irritably. "Look, it was my fault, okay? I should've kept a closer eye on Mobray but I had other things on my mind at the time. I messed up and my animals paid the price - I'm not proud of that. Is that what you wanted to hear? Well, now you have."
She shrugged off the hand that still rested on her arm and stalked off, only to stop abruptly as the journalist circled in front of her. The warmth, she noticed in confusion, had returned to Alison's green eyes.
"Of course," said the journalist, panting slightly, "you were prosecuted because it was your circus ... your name on the animal license."
All at once it dawned on Summer that Alison had believed she personally had been cruel to the animals. She stifled a pang of disappointment. After all, she should be used to people assuming the worst about her by now, shouldn't she?
"Look, Alison," she said quietly. "I wasn't trying to hide anything, honestly. I didn't mention the conviction before because it didn't seem relevant to your article. I'm ... I'm sorry if you're disappointed in me." She took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. "Now, I have a business to run, and party of schoolkids waiting for me -"
Alison stepped to one side and slipped an arm companionably through Summer's. "Then we'd better get on with it, hadn't we."
'We'. If the mercurial journalist was prepared to forget the misunderstanding, then so was Summer. The only thing that mattered, she realized, was that Alison was smiling at her again, the green gaze warming her belly, and easing the headache behind her eyes. "Okay," she said. "Let's go."
As they neared the big blue-and-white marquee, Summer spotted Grigori and paused, remembering something. "Hey, Grig. I've got a job for you."
The juggler put aside the props he was painting and sprinted across to join them.
"My friend's car," Summer pointed at the distant Fiesta. "Looks like her engine is playing up. Check it out and see if you can fix it, will you?"
"Sure thing, Boss. I'll get my tools." He jogged away.
"You didn't have to do that." Alison smiled up at her. "I would have called a garage."
Summer shrugged. "I know .... Now, did I mention that about two million kids are waiting for me?"
"I'm knackered! And I was only *watching*. You must be exhausted." Alison gazed sympathetically at Summer who was sprawled in a chair in the cook wagon, drinking coffee as if it were the elixir of life.
"You get used to them," said Summer, coming up for air. "Most kids mean well, it's just they get overexcited. A firm hand, the odd threat - " Blue eyes twinkled. "That's all you need."
"Yeah, right." Alison yawned. It was late afternoon and she had things to do, an article to write, transparencies to collect ... but she really didn't want to leave. It was an odd feeling, she decided. But there was just something so *right* about being with Summer.
Don't get used to it, her mind warned her. The circus is only here for another eight days, and then she'll be gone. And life would be drab again, she thought, her heart sinking.
"Penny for your thoughts." Summer's voice jarred her out of her reverie.
"Oh, they're not worth a penny," said Alison. She eyed Summer uncertainly. "Um, I was just wondering ..." God, this was so embarrassing.
Alison looked at her hands while she gathered her courage. "Well, uh, since you won't be here in Cheltenham that long, and you probably don't know much about the place ...." She stuttered to a halt and glanced fearfully at Summer, expecting ... what? A look of irritation, impatience even. Certainly not the gleam of pleasure in the eyes, the smile on the lips.
"Why, Alison. Are you offering to show me the sights?"
She felt a slow burn begin deep in her belly at the ambiguousness of Summer's words. She exhaled and gathered her scattered wits.
"I'd be glad to show you around, Summer, when you get some time off." A thought struck her. "You *do* get time off, don't you?"
Summer grinned at her. "Funny you should mention it. The local council won't let us perform on Sundays, so tomorrow I've got the whole day free."
"Tomorrow it is, then."
Summer stared at the Regency style house with the blue plaque on the wall. Its massive wooden door was locked, and a printed sign said 'closed'.
"Never mind," she told her blonde companion. At least today the sun was shining, and the temperature looked set to climb to something approaching the norm for a British June. She tilted her head towards the sunshine appreciatively.
"But it *can't* be closed!" Alison consulted her tourist's guide yet again. "I don't believe this," she wailed. "Why is everywhere closed on Sundays?"
It was time to come clean, decided Summer. "Why don't we just head for Pittville Park? We could take it easy, get an ice-cream ... "
Alison froze, then her expression changed to one of embarrassed understanding. "You've been here before, haven't you. Oh bugger! Why didn't you *say* something, Summer?"
"I thought if I did, you'd withdraw the invitation," admitted Summer. "And I really wanted to spend some time with you." She dropped her gaze and examined her hands. "Was that -" she looked back up, "- presumptuous of me?"
The young journalist was looking slightly stunned. "Uh, no," she said, after a moment. Then she smiled. "Me too."
Summer found she could breathe again. "Okay." She took the guide book from unresisting fingers and slipped it into her jacket pocket. "Pittville Park it is, then." She placed a hand on Alison's elbow and was pleased when her companion made no attempt to remove it.
"It's not much, but I like it." Alison stepped through the front door into her small living room. Summer followed, hard on her heels.
"Nice," said the ringmaster, looking at their surroundings.
Alison hung her jacket on the coat stand, then waited for Summer to remove hers. "Compared to a caravan, you'd think anything was nice!"
"Hey!" But Summer's tone held only mock offence. She handed Alison her wellworn leather jacket.
"Make yourself at home, Summer."
Alison went through to the tiny kitchen, got out two mugs and the jar of instant coffee, and filled the electric kettle with water from the cold tap. As she waited for it to boil, she wondered, slightly anxiously, what Summer was really making of her flat. She was glad she'd tidied it before leaving for their rendezvous that morning.
The day had passed in a warm haze of sunshine and inconsequential talk. After a lunch of hamburger and raspberry-ripple ice-cream, they had gone for a lazy stroll by the boating lake. She laughed at herself, trying to remember when she had last felt this good. Certainly not last Sunday, which she had spent doing market research, poring through the ridiculously bulky newspapers and colour supplements, looking for ideas for future articles. If anyone had told her then that she'd be spending the day with the tall, dark and attractive woman in the other room ....
The kettle clicked off, and she poured boiling water onto the granules, added milk, and carried the mugs back into the sitting room.
Summer was standing by the crammed bookcase. She closed and replaced the book she had been examining. "You certainly like to read."
Alison smiled. "What can I say? I'm a bookworm." She indicated the brimming mugs. "Milk, no sugar, right?"
"Right." Summer moved round to the settee and sat down, crossing her long legs.
Alison looked at the two mugs. Hmmm, *X Files* or *Xena*? She held out the *Xena* mug to Summer, and their fingers brushed - their first touch, skin on skin.
"Careful!" Summer's hand shot out to steady a mug that was suddenly threatening to send coffee flying everywhere. "You OK?"
"Fine. Sorry." Alison tried to get her breath back. She placed the *Xena* mug on a coaster on the coffee table in front of Summer and took a seat next to her, aware that Summer was watching her closely, a guarded look on her face. Had she felt it too? she wondered. Oh God, what if she didn't feel the same way?
The ringmaster picked up her mug and took a sip. "I'll finish this, then go," she said.
"No, don't." The words were out before Alison could stop them. "Uh, I mean - " Her words dried up as something in Summer's gaze changed, and she put down the mug, reached out a hand and gently stroked Alison's cheek.
"It's all right," she murmured. "I know what you mean."
This time the sensation of skin on skin was more of a tingle than a shock, decided Alison. Then Summer's long fingers moved lower, tracing the outline of Alison's mouth, and she forgot how to breath. Her eyelids fluttered closed.
The hand left her mouth and cupped her chin, gently lifting it. She opened her eyes and gazed into blue eyes that were now only inches from her own.
"If you don't want to do this," said Summer - Alison dreamily watched the lips moving, barely aware of what they were saying - "all you have to do is tell me."
The lips moved closer.
"You can always say 'no' ...."
Alison felt no urge to say anything at all, in fact felt incapable of speech. All she could think of was how those lips would feel. Then they were pressing warmly against hers, softly at first, then more firmly.
Alison wrapped her hands in long black hair and leaned into the kiss. "Uh -" The sound came unbidden from somewhere in the back of her throat.
The delicious sensation stopped. "Do you want me to stop?" asked Summer, her breath warm on Alison's mouth, her tone uncertain.
"Good." The words were a soft growl.
The muffled sound of a phone ringing pulled Summer from the kiss.
"Let it ring," ordered Alison.
Obediently, Summer searched for her partner's tongue again, but the muffled ringing continued. It was coming from her jacket pocket, she realized.
With a groan, she broke the kiss again. Alison looked reproachfully at her. "It might be important," she apologized, rising from their tangled position on the settee and crossing to the coat stand. She retrieved the cell phone from her jacket pocket.
"Walsh. This had better be good."
She recognized the voice immediately. "Grig. What's up?"
"It's your Uncle Tommy, Boss. He's here and he wants to talk to you." Grigori's voice dropped to a whisper. "And he's *not* happy."
She should have known this would happen, thought Summer tiredly. "Put him on." She was aware of Alison's impatient gaze.
A mumble of voices came over the phone, then Grigori resumed. "He says - pardon my French! - to get your arse over here. He's not gonna talk to you over the damn phone."
Summer held onto her temper with difficulty. "Tell him it's not convenient. He'll have to wait."
Another mumble of voices, then Grigori was back on the line. "He says if you don't get over here pronto, he's going to close us down."
"And he could do it too, Boss. He's got a pull-down crew with him."
"He so much as touches my property, he'll be spitting teeth for a week."
Aware that Alison was looking anxiously at her, she took a deep calming breath before resuming. "Okay, Grig. Tell him I'll be there in twenty minutes. I've got to walk from the other side of town." She rang off and stuffed the phone back in the pocket.
"What's wrong?" Alison had risen from the settee.
"I have to go," said Summer. "It seems my Uncle Tommy has turned up and is making threats."
Alison frowned. "Why would he do that?"
Summer shrugged, unwilling to go into detail. "You'd have to ask him." She pulled on her jacket. Alison came up beside her and laid a hand on her arm.
"Is it serious?"
Summer laughed humourlessly. "Yes, unfortunately. He's very big in circus circles." She could see her young friend had no idea what she was talking about. "Ever heard of Tommy Blake?"
Alison's brows drew together. "The name's vaguely familiar. Don't know why, though .... And your real surname's Blake too, isn't it?"
So she had found out that much. Summer's opinion of the young woman rose another notch. Then Alison's eyes went wide with recognition.
"Oh, you're one of *those* Blakes?"
Summer felt a quiet pride. "Yep. The oldest circus family in Britain."
"Then why on earth don't you use your real name, Summer? Surely it would help boost your audiences."
"Because I promised I wouldn't." It wasn't quite the whole truth, she thought sadly ... that Uncle Tommy was ashamed of her, of the damage she might do to the family reputation. But she didn't want to go into that with this young woman, not yet at least. She glanced at her watch. "I've really got to get going."
"Oh, okay." Alison gazed at her uncertainly.
Summer gave in to the look in the green eyes. "C'mere." She pulled the young journalist into a hug then released her reluctantly. "Guess I'll see you tomorrow." She opened the front door and set off down the stairs.
"Summer, wait." Alison took the stairs three at a time, afraid the other woman was already out of earshot.
"Hey! What's your hurry?" Strong arms steadied her as she barrelled into Summer who was waiting for her on the front doorstep.
"Let me give you a lift back to the circus," panted Alison.
"It's not necessary. I can easily -"
"I know it's not *necessary*," said Alison. "I want to." She saw the moment's hesitation followed by acceptance cross Summer's face.
"That'd be great."
Alison took Summer's arm and propelled her over the gravel that separated the crescent shaped block of Regency flats from the road and doubled as car parking space. "So," she teased, "will I get to meet this Uncle of yours?"
Summer's face darkened. "I don't know that that's a good idea."
Alison's good humour vanished and she halted. "Are you ashamed of me?"
Summer's eyebrow shot up. "You know I'm not."
A bemused Alison guided Summer to her Fiesta.. "What, then?" She pointed her key fob and pressed. The car's lights flashed and there was a loud clunk as its doors unlocked. She opened the driver's door and climbed in.
While Summer got in, Alison concentrated on doing up her seatbelt.
It was a moment before the ringmaster spoke. "It's more like my uncle is ashamed of *me*," she said quietly.
Alison paused in the act of turning the ignition key. "I'm sorry?"
"No, *he's* sorry," said Summer wryly. "Sorry I was ever born."
The engine caught, and Alison released the handbrake and drove out into Lansdown Crescent. "Because of the cruelty conviction?" It was the only thing she could come up with. "But surely he knows that was Mobray's fault not yours ...."
She waited for the pedestrian crossing lights to turn green then turned into Montpellier Terrace. Summer fiddled with her fingers and stared silently out of the window at the open air tennis courts which were busy with fair weather players.
"The cruelty case has nothing to do with it," said the dark haired woman at last.
This was like pulling teeth! thought Alison, trying not to grind her own molars. "What, then?"
A sigh greeted her question. "I'd rather not talk about it."
"Oh, okay." Alison tried not to feel hurt as she drove past the hospital, turned left into the Old Bath Road then right into the circus's public carpark. It was empty apart from two vans with the logos 'Blake Family Circus' emblazoned on the sides.
"We're here," she said unnecessarily.
Alison watched Summer unbuckle her seatbelt and get out, her expression grim, her shoulders slightly hunched.
"Want some moral support?"
The ringmaster paused and gave her a warm glance. "No." She squared her shoulders. "I have to do this on my own .... But thanks for the offer."
Alison nodded. As Summer prepared to walk away, she found herself needing to know where things stood between the two of them.
"Summer. Wait. Are you coming back ... afterwards?" she asked clumsily. "To my place, I mean."
Summer looked back at her, one eyebrow raised. "Why, Ms Carmichael. Is that an indecent proposal?"
Alison felt her cheeks flush a fiery red. I am so *bad* at this, she thought, wincing.
"Sorry ...." Summer's gaze was part amusement, part sympathy. "Um, I don't think that's a good idea, Alison," she said gently. "Much as I'd like to. This thing with my Uncle ...." The tall woman shrugged. "I've no idea how long it'll take. And it's Miss Clio's birthday party tonight ... the others will be expecting me."
"Oh." Alison tried not to let her disappointment show. "I understand."
Summer chewed her lip, her expression suddenly thoughtful. "Hey. Why don't you come to the party with me?"
Alison felt her breath catch. "But surely - it's a private party, isn't it? Won't the others mind?"
Summer shook her head. "They like you."
"Like me?" Alison found the thought surprising.
"They've got good taste, huh?" Summer's smile sent a feeling of heat straight to Alison's groin.
"Besides, rumour has it - " the ringmaster stooped and lowered her voice conspiratorially, "- I'm still the boss around here, so who's going to argue with my choice of party guest?"
"Well ... if you put it like that." Alison examined her fingernails and waited for her blush to fade. "So," she said, softly. "What time shall I turn up?"
"Make it about nine," said Summer. "I'll see you then."
Alison watched the tall woman take a deep breath, straighten her shoulders, and walk away.
He was waiting for her in the Big Top, looking, as always, as if he owned the place. His hair was slightly thinner on top, but otherwise, he looked exactly the same. Summer walked towards him.
"Uncle Tommy." She kept her tone neutral. "You wanted to talk to me in person. Here I am."
"Well, if it isn't my favourite niece." His scowl belied his words. "I thought I told you not to bring your flea-bitten outfit to these parts."
She shrugged. "A gig's a gig, Uncle. And we needed the money."
"So I've heard. In fact, I'm surprised you've lasted as long as you have, girl." He eyed her appraisingly. "You're as stubborn as Jack was."
The mention of her father caught her off guard, and she turned away, fighting for control.
She noticed a group of muscle-men waiting in the wings, being eyed warily by members of her own circus, and turned to face her Uncle again. "Why do you want to close me down?"
"I'd've thought that was obvious." His tone was scornful. "You're much too careless to run a circus, Summer. People could get hurt."
"I have all the relevant safety certificates."
"Paperwork." He waved a hand dismissively. "So it says you passed the inspections with flying colours? So what? We both know the evidence points to the contrary."
His words stung. "That was ten *years* ago, Uncle!"
"Yesterday, as far as I'm concerned."
"Don't you think if I could go back and change things I *would*?" She found herself reaching instinctively towards him.
His gaze locked with hers. "And that makes it all right, does it?" His voice was soft, but the bunched hands, knuckles white, betrayed his real feelings.
"Of course not." She dropped her hand. She should have known any appeal to him was useless. "But what's done is done." To her annoyance, her voice trembled.
He turned away from her, as though he couldn't bear the sight of her.
When he signalled to his crew, and brought them running, Summer braced herself for the worst. There was no way she could stop her Uncle's bully boys if he told them to pull down the Big Top.
"Mr Blake?" Their leader was deferential, his voice surprisingly cultured.
But to her surprise, Uncle Tommy's growl, when it came, was addressed to her. "When you leave Cheltenham, Summer, don't come back."
"I can't promise that, Uncle."
He shrugged. "Then next time, I'll close you down and shred your Big Top."
Without a backward glance, he marched out of the marquee. The members of his pull-down crew followed him.
Loud pop music echoed round a streamer-festooned Big Top. In the ring, now transformed into a heaving dance floor, Miss Clio and Andor were dancing happily with the Dyakonovs, while in another part of the marquee, a laughing Grigori was trying to teach Russian dance steps to Ruud and Jan - a hopeless task by the look of it.
Alison gazed at the crates of wine, beer, Russian vodka, and, for the birthday girl, ouzo, stacked in an aisle. Already they were half empty. Circus people *really* liked to party, she thought ruefully.
She turned to regard the older woman standing next to her, and for the tenth time that night wished Summer had thought to mention that the party was casual dress. Alison's off-the-shoulder dress and high heels made her feel distinctly overdressed compared to Summer's silk shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots. Not that Summer had anything but admiring comments to make, and it had taken the ringmaster some time before she could shift her gaze from Alison's cleavage.
Alison frowned. On the surface, Summer seemed to be enjoying herself, but there was an air of tension, almost desperation about her. Not to mention the fact that she was drinking too much.
"Want to tell me about it?" asked Alison.
Summer gave her a fuddled glance, then shook her head. "It's party time, Alison. We're here to have fun." Summer shoved a bottle of wine at her, then shrugged when Alison declined it. "Eat, drink, and be merry." Her voice was slightly slurred.
Alison completed the quotation mentally. 'For tomorrow we die.' What was going on here? If Summer had a problem, getting drunk wouldn't help solve it. She found herself torn between hugging Summer and shaking some kind of sense into her.
"I'm going to dance," she said instead. "You coming?"
Summer shook her head and gestured at the dance floor with her glass, sloshing wine everywhere in the process. "Watch out for Maks - he has big feet."
Alison stomped off and eased her way into the ring.
Egor noticed her, smiled, and motioned for her to join him. She did, glancing around her to see what kind of dancing the others were doing and realizing, gratefully, that, for all their acrobatic skills, when it came to dancing, some of the circus people were worse than she was.
"Enjoying the party?" asked Egor, shouting to make himself heard above the din.
"Not much." Alison glanced significantly at the dark haired figure now sitting alone in one of the stands. As she watched, Summer refilled her glass and took another gulp. "What happened with her uncle?"
Egor followed her glance, then shrugged. "Family spat, by the look of things," he shouted. "He threatened to close her down, but she got him to back off. God knows how." Abruptly he grabbed Alison, twirled her around twice, then grinned at her.
"So why isn't she happy about it?" she shouted, when she had got her breath back.
"Who, the big, bad boss?" Maks had waltzed up to join them.
Alison smiled hello at him, then nodded.
"'Fraid she doesn't confide in us," shouted the little clown, whose dancing reminded Alison of a drunken gorilla. " It's that big tough 'I don't need anyone' attitude she cultivates. Sometimes, it's a pain."
"Tell me about it," muttered Alison darkly.
Summer woke to a throbbing headache and a taste in her mouth she didn't want to even *think* about.
Oh God! She sat up and waited for the room to stop spinning.
"Here," said a familiar voice.
Something appeared in front of her nose, and Summer stared at the object for several seconds before she realized it was a mug. She pulled it towards her and took a sip. Mmmm, coffee. She took a more substantial gulp then registered that someone was still holding the mug. She tracked the arm to its owner.
Warm green eyes regarded her, and soft lips quirked as they tried to suppress a grin. "You don't look so hot," said Alison.
"I don't feel so hot," admitted Summer croakily. She took full possession of the mug, and while she drank, gazed blearily around her. Someone must have brought her back to her caravan, and removed her boots but not the rest of her clothes, she noted absently.
She wondered dimly what Alison was doing here at this hour of the morning - it *was* morning, she decided, because daylight was peeping under the blinds. Then she noticed one of her pillows and a rumpled blanket lying on the floor beside her bed, and - a beat later - realized that Alison was still wearing her party dress, though now it looked distinctly the worse for wear.
"Our first night together," said Alison.
Summer almost choked on her coffee. "What?" The expression in the journalist's green eyes was indecipherable. "You mean ... Uh ... we didn't, did we?" Embarrassed, she rubbed a hand across her forehead. "I don't remember!"
Alison grinned at her. "Had you going there, didn't I? No. We didn't. You were too drunk."
Relief was followed by shame. "I'm sorry, Alison."
"Inviting you to the party and then ignoring you."
Alison shrugged. "Not the first time that's happened. Probably won't be the last." Her gaze was compassionate. "Look, I understand. It was that business with your Uncle, wasn't it?"
Summer put down the now empty mug and struggled to her feet. "I don't -"
"I know, I know. You don't want to talk about it." There was an edge to Alison's voice. "But someday you're going to have to, Summer. If you deal with things by drinking, trouble is the problem is still there when you sober up. And in the meantime you've turned into a pathetic old drunk that nobody wants to be around."
Summer was startled by such bluntness.
"And I really don't want that to happen to you."
The concern on Alison's face brought a lump to Summer's throat. When was the last time someone had looked at her like that?
"Neither do I," she said quietly.
Once she was satisfied Summer was functioning on all cylinders again, Alison left her phone number with the ringmaster and went home. There she showered, changed into her favourite shirt and jeans, and spent the rest of the morning working on her article.
It had grown into a substantial piece, full of circus history and amusing anecdotes, enhanced by numerous colour slides of the performers in rehearsal and performance. Alison was so pleased with it, her sights rose considerably. The article would be perfect for a weekend colour supplement, she decided, as she researched contact details for the national newspapers and began phoning editors.
It was Monday, and the newspaper editors were rushed off their feet, but several expressed a cautious interest, and she soon found herself faxing them an excerpt. By three-thirty in the afternoon, she had a commission from the *Weekend* editor of *The Guardian*, in writing.
She couldn't wait to tell Summer the good news, which had her literally dancing around her flat chanting, "I'm a journalist, a *proper* journalist." for five minutes.
When, half an hour later, the phone in her flat rang, she thought it might be the *Weekend* editor requesting a minor alteration, but she recognized the voice immediately.
"Miss Alison. I hate to bother you like this -"
Alison could hear the beginning of *Also Sprach Zarathustra* in the background. The Monday matinee must be about to start, she realized.
"- but we're rushed off our feet here, and I need someone to pick up the Boss."
Alison was confused. "Summer isn't there?"
"No, she had to go to Casualty."
"What?" Alison felt herself beginning to panic. "Did she fall? Is she badly hurt? What -"
"It's not serious," interrupted Egor. "A lighting rig came loose during rehearsals. Summer was in the ring when it fell. It struck her a glancing blow."
"I don't believe this! How can you be so calm about it?"
A mumble of voices. "Look, I've got to go. Will you pick her up? She's at the Cheltenham General. I know it's not far, but she might not be fit to walk."
"Oh .... Oh, sure. You can count on me."
"That's why I rang you." And with that, Egor rang off.
This really wasn't her day, thought Summer. Hell, it wasn't her *year*! And if her reflexes had been any slower, she wouldn't be sitting in Casualty, she'd be lying in the Hospital morgue.
Once again she tried to remember the events leading up to her accident. She had been in the ring helping Grigori rehearse an alteration to his juggling act, only vaguely aware of activity in the upper recesses of the Big Top. Someone had been standing next to the heavy lighting rig a few moments before it fell. At the time, she had assumed it was one of the work crew - now she wasn't so sure ....
Glumly, she eyed a young man being led away by a nurse. A bloodstained bandage wrapped his head, and he was leaving a trail of glistening red spots on the linoleum. Hospitals! thought Summer. She hated them.
She rubbed her eyes with her good hand. It could have been worse, she supposed - it could have been her right arm that was out of action. At least it was only a fracture. And the pain had eased considerably since the nurse had put on the plaster cast ....
The familiar voice made her look up in confusion. "Alison!"
"Egor asked me to pick you up."
Summer glanced at her watch. The matinee, of course. She supposed Grigori would be taking over as ringmaster tonight. "What a mess," she muttered.
"You're telling me." Alison took the grey plastic chair beside her and patted her comfortingly on the thigh. "Are you always this accident prone?"
The choice of words sent a pang through Summer, but she said nothing. Her expression, however, must have given something away.
"You're in pain!" Alison's voice was concerned. "Haven't they given you any painkillers?"
Summer sighed. "Yeah." She dug in her jeans pocket and pulled out the prescription slip. "I'm s'posed to get this filled. The nurse said there's a pharmacy in the basement somewhere. I was just getting up the energy to go and look for it when you arrived."
"Come on then." Alison rose and held out a hand.
"I'm not an invalid," said Summer, ignoring the hand and standing easily unaided. "It's my arm, not my leg."
"My, aren't we grouchy."
Summer suppressed a grin. Already she felt better for Alison's company. "My, aren't we bossy."
"Just protecting my investment."
Summer quirked an eyebrow. "Investment?"
"I've sold the article about you and your circus," explained the journalist. "To the *Guardian Weekend*." Alison beamed at her.
"Really?" Summer blinked, impressed..
They left Casualty, relieved to get away from the walking wounded, and followed the signs to the Hospital Pharmacy along a maze of corridors and down a flight of stairs. They joined the queue of people waiting for prescriptions to be filled.
"My first major sale," continued Alison.
Summer smiled at her friend's obvious pleasure. "You deserve it," she said.
Alison blushed and looked away.
Summer leaned towards her. "I mean it," she murmured in Alison's ear.
"I know," came the breathy reply.
Summer was still thinking about that exchange when her turn came. It took only moments for the pharmacist to give her a small pack of powerful painkillers, then she and Alison were making their way back through the rabbit warren of corridors and out to where Alison's car was parked.
"Seems like you're always driving me places," growled Summer, as she accepted help buckling the seat belt - the cast made it difficult - and Alison started the engine.
"Twice!" Alison glanced at her curiously. "Does it bother you?" She drove out of the hospital carpark.
Summer thought about that. "A bit," she admitted. "It makes me feel like a burden."
"Well it makes *me* feel useful," said Alison firmly. "Needed. That's a first for me, you know. Besides," she added, "we all have to lean on people occasionally ... Even you."
Summer registered the knowing glance that came her way, not sure how to take it. "Even me?"
"Sometimes pride is good, but sometimes it just gets in the way ... keeps people away."
Alison turned the car into the Old Bath Road then into Cox's Meadow. The public carpark was full, so Summer directed her to where the circus vehicles were parked. At last, Alison turned off the engine.
"I don't want that," said Summer, in the sudden silence.
Alison glanced at her, "Don't want what?"
She took a deep breath and wondered what she was getting into. "To keep you away."
Her reward was a dazzling smile.
Alison filled a glass from one of the bottles of spring water Summer kept in her caravan and gave it to Summer.
"Thanks." The ringmaster pressed two of the painkilling tablets from the foil strip and popped them into her mouth. She swilled them down with the water, grimacing at the taste.
Alison read the instructions on the packet. "Says here they'll take about twenty minutes to kick in. How are you feeling?"
Summer's eyes looked bloodshot. The party last night, thought Alison, and now this. She pointed to the bed. "Get some rest."
"But it's still early."
She ignored the mutinous look until the ringmaster grumpily did as she was told. Alison suppressed a grin as Summer pointedly tried and failed to make herself comfortable.
"You're just a big baby," she told her, receiving a raised eyebrow in return. "Here, let me." She propped a pillow behind Summer's back. "Better?" Summer nodded.
Alison debated with herself for a moment then let her need to be close to Summer override her reserve. She squeezed onto the bed alongside the startled Summer.
After a moment, Summer obeyed. Alison lost no time in snuggled up to the other woman. Tense muscles met her touch but quickly relaxed.
"So glad I could make you comfortable, Miss Carmichael." Summer's voice was amused.
Alison snuggled closer, pulling Summer's right arm round her shoulders. She felt Summer shift slightly, not objecting but simply adjusting to the new position. It felt good.
"Nice," said Alison.
Summer snorted softly. "The week I've had and she says it's 'nice'!"
Alison's breathing slowed, and Summer's slowed to match.
As they lay there, letting the exertions of the past hour drain away, the sound of music floated over from the Big Top. Alison recognized the accompaniment to the Dyakonov Troupe's aerial act.
A thought struck her. "Is Cheslav's wrist better?"
"Mmmm, thank God."
"And someone else is ringmaster?"
"Grigori." Summer's voice was sleepy.
The painkillers must be kicking in, thought Alison, relieved. "So everything's under control," she prompted.
"Mmmm, guess so." The arm that had been holding Alison tightly was now relaxed.
"So you don't have to worry about anything. Go to sleep," whispered Alison.
This time there was no reply, only the sound of gentle, steady breathing..
Alison smiled to herself. She knew she should really leave Summer to rest, and go home ... but it wouldn't hurt if she kept Summer company a bit longer, would it? After all, she was where she wanted to be, with the person she wanted to be with. What would it hurt if she closed her eyes too?
Only for a minute, mind you ....
Sometime during the night, Summer became aware that she was awake and her left arm was aching badly. When she tried to move it into a more comfortable position, its unnatural weight reminded her that it was encased in plaster. She groaned, as memory returned. The warm presence wrapped around her stirred.
"What the - " It was Alison's voice. "Oh!"
Summer blinked, startled and pleased that the journalist had stayed with her.
Then the warmth disappeared abruptly, and Summer groaned again
"It's all right," came the journalist's voice from the near darkness. "I'm just getting you some more painkillers. The others will have worn off by now."
Moments later, a dark presence loomed over Summer. "Open wide."
Summer felt two pills press against her tongue, followed by the coolness of glass against her lips. Gratefully, she gulped a mouthful of water and swallowed, then shuddered at the bitter taste of the tablets.
"Yes." Her voice was croaky from sleep.
The mattress sagged, and the welcome warmth returned as the other woman resumed her place next to Summer and pulled up the duvet over them both.
Summer couldn't resist the urge to immerse her face in the long blonde hair placed so conveniently by her shoulder, inhaling the pleasant scent of herbal shampoo.
"Go back to sleep," whispered Alison.
If Summer concentrated on the woman beside her she found she could ignore the ache in her arm. With a contented sigh, she let herself drift off ....
"Well, you *can't* go back to work, Summer. So what else are you going to do?"
They had been eating breakfast in the cook wagon - Alison had had to chop up Summer's bacon for her, much to the ringmaster's disgust - and were discussing their plans for the day.
"I don't know, but I'm sure I can come up with something." Summer gave her plaster cast a dirty look.
"You don't need to come up with something. I already have." The something in question was a visit to Alison's mother's house in the Cotswolds. "Besides, " she continued persuasively, "I've met your people, so it's time you met mine."
"My people?" Summer raised an eyebrow.
"Egor and Maks, Tonio and Marcello, Miss Clio ...." Alison counted off the names on her fingers.
Summer sighed. "Look, Alison. I know you mean well. But I don't think 'your people' are going to take kindly to your hanging out with a beat-up old circus performer, do you?"
"You think I'm ashamed of you?" Alison was disconcerted. Didn't Summer realize she was taking her to meet Mother so early in their relationship because Alison was *proud* of her, so proud she couldn't wait to show Summer off?
"Well, I'm not much to write home about, am I?" said Summer. "You're Ladies College material, I'm 'school of life' educated."
Alison felt her indignation growing. "And what does *that* have to do with anything?"
Summer looked at her. "Well, um ..." her voice trailed off.
"Exactly. Look, Summer, it's not far and the scenery's nice. And it might take your mind off your arm for a bit." It was time for the clincher. "Besides, I've already told Mother we're coming, and she's all set to meet you. First, though, we'd better pop back to my place. I need some fresh clothes. Spending the night here means that at the moment I don't quite meet my mother's exacting standards!" She grabbed Summer's good arm and pulled her across the circus carpark towards her car.
Summer sighed and let herself be led. "You're not driving me *again*, are you?"
"Yes." Alison stopped, placed her hands on her hips, and raised an eyebrow. "You got a problem with that?"
"Um, no," said a chastened Summer.
"And how long have you worked for the circus, Summer?" asked Alison's mother.
Summer shot the young journalist sitting beside her on the settee a quick glance. From her expression, Alison was trying hard not to laugh. "As long as I can remember, Mrs Carmichael," said Summer politely. She sipped her tea with lemon and wished it were something stronger.
"Summer doesn't just work there, Mother," protested Alison, "she *owns* it."
"Really?" Veronica Carmichael didn't look impressed "And how long have you owned it, dear?"
Summer did a quick calculation. She'd been eighteen when she joined Fred Brennan's outfit, and it had been another five years before the old curmudgeon had decided to retire and she had managed to scrape up enough cash to buy the circus off him. "Six years, give or take," she said.
"She's one of the Blakes," said Alison proudly. "You know - the Blake Family Circus?"
Mrs Carmichael looked none the wiser. She flicked an imaginary piece of lint off her turquoise wool skirt.
Alison's mother may have shared her daughter's blonde hair and green eyes, thought Summer, but there the similarity stopped. It wasn't just the salon-cut hairstyle, the designer suit, or the softening jawline that no amount of immaculate makeup could disguise. While Alison was prepared to venture out into the big bad world and grapple with its diversity, her mother plainly wasn't. Summer marvelled at Alison's courage in 'coming out' to this ultra conservative woman.
"Hey." Alison looked thoughtful. "I went to the circus when I was a child. You don't suppose it was the Blake Family Circus, do you, Mother?"
"I'm afraid I have no idea, Ali. It was your father's idea to take you. I didn't go."
"Oh." The journalist sounded disappointed.
Knowing that the elegant coffee table would hide the gesture, Summer squeezed Alison's hand. "You wouldn't have recognized me, anyway," she said. "I was probably in clown costume."
"They didn't make you perform as a child?" Veronica Carmichael looked horrified. "There are rules against that, surely!"
"No. They didn't *make* me perform. I *wanted* to." And what I want right now, thought Summer, is to get out of here.
Alison laughed. "I can just imagine you as a tiny tot, Summer, pestering your parents to let you take part in the circus."
The atmosphere lightened perceptibly and Summer shot her friend a grateful look. "Well," she said, grinning, "it wasn't *quite* like that. Of course, when my brother -" She bit off the sentence but it was too late.
"Your *brother*?" Alison blinked at her. "Summer, I didn't know you have a brother."
Summer looked down at her hands. "He died," she said tonelessly. She reached for her plate and picked up the barely touched slice of fruitcake. "Lovely cake, Mrs Carmichael. Did you make it yourself?"
Alison frowned at her lame attempt to change the conversation.
"I'm so glad you like it, dear." Mrs Carmichael seemed unaware of the sudden tension. "And your parents, Summer," she continued blithely. "Are they still alive?"
Summer's appetite vanished and she put down the plate. She had known this was a bad idea. "No," she said. "They're both dead."
The elegant sitting room, crowded which expensive pieces of furniture and fragile china figurines, had become claustrophobic. She glanced at Alison beseechingly.
Alison took one look at her and stood up. "I'm sorry, Mother, but we have to go." She glanced at her watch. "I should have told you. Summer has a hospital appointment in half an hour. We mustn't be late."
A feeling of relief washed over Summer. "That's right." She stood up too, and held out her good hand for a farewell shake. "It's been a pleasure meeting you."
Mrs Carmichael looked surprised by their sudden departure. "Oh. Well, it was nice to meet you too, Summer. It's not often my daughter brings friends of her to visit me. I can't imagine why that should be the case ...."
The words faded as Summer followed Alison swiftly out into the hallway and then onto the gravelled drive where the Fiesta waited. Summer opened the passenger door and climbed in, relaxing with a great sigh of relief.
As Alison slid into the driver's seat and reached for her safety belt, Summer became aware of the other woman's gaze on her.
"Is your arm bothering you?"
"No. Guess I just wasn't -" Summer searched for words, "- in the mood for meeting people. Sorry."
Silently, Alison started the engine and backed the car out of her mother's driveway. Mrs Carmichael was standing in the doorway by now and waving at them, a smile on her face. Alison waved back, then drove off along the winding Cotswold lane.
"No, *I'm* sorry," said Alison after a while. "It was a bad idea. I might have known Mother would start nosing into your private life. It's a habit of hers."
Summer continued to gaze silently at the lush scenery flashing by.
"But maybe," continued Alison, "if you'd told me about your brother, about your parents ...." The sentence hung between them.
Summer felt very tired all of a sudden, and her arm ached. "It's all right," she said dully. "No harm done."
A few more miles of road went by and they had reached the outskirts of Cheltenham when Summer became aware, from the nervous glances and licking of lips, that Alison was working up the courage to ask her something. She braced herself.
"So," said Alison, turning the car into the road leading to the circus site. "Your brother. What was his name?"
But Summer's attention was focussed on something ahead of them - a cloud of black smoke billowing up into the sky.
Realization hit her like a blow. "Aw, shit!" she breathed.
"What is it?" Alison peered anxiously through the windscreen.
"What *was* it, you mean," said Summer bleakly. "It *was* the Big Top."
Even before Alison had braked to a stop, Summer was opening the passenger door and climbing out. She watched the tall ringmaster lope towards the three fire engines parked beside what had once been the Big Top. The actual firefighting was over, it seemed, and yellow-helmeted figures were rolling up fire hoses and stowing them tidily away.
Alison turned off the engine, and got out. She strode across to join Summer, now talking earnestly to a man in a white helmet who appeared to be in charge of the fire crews. She was half way there when a familiar voice made her pause.
"Hey, there." Grigori was hastening to intercept her. She waited for him, then they continued on together.
"We wondered where you two had got to," he panted. "For a while, we were worried the Boss was inside." He gestured at the smouldering ruin.
"Is it as bad as it looks?" asked Alison, her heart sinking.
He nodded. "Afraid so. What survived the fire got pretty well ruined by the water."
They drew near to Summer just as she turned from the fire chief to survey the damage. Her eyes, Alison noticed with anxiety, were the bleakest she had seen them.
"Hey." She squeezed Summer's arm gently, earning herself a fleeting smile. "You're insured, right?"
"Right," agreed Summer. "But we'll still have to cancel the rest of the tour - there's no way we can get this mess sorted out in time." She glanced wryly at Alison. "I seem to have messed up your prospects too. Without a circus to back it up, your article's not going to stand much of a chance."
"Forget about that." Alison was upset Summer could think that her first priority at such a time. "It doesn't matter."
Summer turned to face her and gripped her tightly on the bicep. "But it *does*, Alison. Don't you see? You depended on me and I let you down." She released her grip and turned away, looking suddenly tired. "Story of my life." She rubbed a hand across her forehead.
"Don't say that." Alison was angry now. "You have *not* let me down, Summer. Unless you planned this." She was aware she now had Summer's undivided attention. "So you planned this, then," she continued aggressively. "An insurance fraud."
"Of course not!" Summer looked shocked by the suggestion. "Even *with* the insurance, we'll be lucky if we come out of this ahead."
Alison nodded meaningfully. "So how is this *your* fault, then?" She glared at Summer. "God, don't you realize how *arrogant* you're being?"
Summer's mouth opened and closed, but nothing came out. In other circumstances, thought Alison, it could have been funny. Then the ringmaster's shoulders slumped in defeat, and she sighed. The sound erased all of Alison's anger.
"Look, Summer," she said gently. "You did your best. That's all anyone can do."
"Tell that to Uncle Tommy!"
Alison stored the remark away for later consideration. By now the last of the fire engines was reversing its way over boggy ground, leaving huge ruts behind. The other members of the circus had gathered nearby and were talking among themselves, eyeing Summer and Alison thoughtfully.
"Just salvage what you can, Summer. Everyone'll help out. *I'll* help out if you tell me what to do." That earned her another weary smile from Summer. "We'll do what we have to to get through this," said Alison confidently.
She turned to the eavesdropping performers. "Won't we?"
"You bet," came the chorus. "Just tell us what to do, Boss."
Alison watched as Summer seemed to drag herself back from somewhere very dark and far away, saw the inhalation of breath, and the way the tall woman's shoulders straightened. She breathed a sigh of relief.
"That's it, Tiger," she whispered, receiving a startled look from blue eyes. "Go get 'em."
Summer took up a position in front of the others. "I'm not going to lie to you," she told them, her words initially hesitant but gradually gaining in conviction. "We've had a severe setback. But it's not the end of the world. We can get through this. We *will* get through this. First, though, we've got a lot of work to do."
Alison listened proudly as Summer began to outline what needed to be done.
"I don't know what I'd have done without you," said Summer.
"Glad I could help." Green eyes crinkled at her.
Summer let the young journalist help her out of the sweatshirt that had been the only thing loose enough to fit over her cast. She moved to the little sink for a cursory wash and teeth brushing.
"Can I borrow a T-shirt?" asked Alison, who had turned her back the moment Summer stripped off, a move that Summer found oddly endearing.
"Be my guest. It'll be a bit big on you, though."
"I like them like that."
Summer heard the sound of clothing drawers being opened and closed, then a small satisfied exclamation. She towelled herself dry then reached for her own nighty, pulling it awkwardly over her head until hands helped her.
The blonde woman had by now discarded her jumper and jeans and was wearing only a large T shirt bearing the slogan: 'Trapeze Artists do it Upside-Down'. Summer eyed Alison appreciatively. Hmmm, nice legs.
The Big Top clean-up operation had lasted until lack of light made it impossible to continue, then the circus performers had tucked into fish-and-chips from a nearby chippy, and retired to a well-earned bed. But Alison had seemed reluctant to leave, so Summer had suggested she spend another night in her caravan.
Summer had been pleasantly surprised by the blonde woman's eager acceptance of her offer. She had thought Alison would have had more than enough of both her and the circus by now; apparently she was wrong.
Their third night together, she realized wryly, and they still hadn't got beyond kissing.
"Penny for your thoughts." Alison had stopped removing her makeup and was regarding her curiously.
"As you would say: 'They're not worth a penny.'"
"I'm feeling rich."
Summer smiled at Alison. "I was thinking that when I originally imagined spending the night with you, I had something quite -" she searched for the words, "- different in mind."
"Yeah." Summer raised a knowing eyebrow.
"Oh!" Alison's cheeks flushed a becoming shade of pink. After a moment she returned to her face cleansing routine.
Summer climbed into bed, glad to relax after the hectic day, and waited patiently for Alison to finish. Eventually, the young woman switched off the light, and Summer felt a warm body slide into the bed next to hers. She eased her arm round Alison's shoulders, and was immediately aware of the tension in the blonde woman's muscles.
"Hey," she said, feeling slightly hurt. "You don't have to worry. I'm too tired to do anything anyway." She started to withdraw her arm.
"It's not that," said Alison quickly. To Summer's relief, she snuggled closer and pulled the arm firmly around her.
"What is it, then?" Abruptly Summer realized what the tenseness in her companion's body signified. "This?"
In spite of the darkness, she found Alison's mouth easily and pressed a gentle kiss on it.
"Mmmm," agreed Alison, deepening the kiss and probing Summer's mouth with her tongue.
Reluctantly, Summer broke the kiss
"Aw, no," complained Alison. "You can't stop now."
Summer tried to stifle a huge yawn but couldn't. "Sorry." She yawned again. "Oh, God!"
"You're exhausted." Alison's voice was contrite.
"Yes. It's just caught up with me, I guess." Sleepily, Summer cuddled the blonde woman to her. "Can we continue this another time?"
"I'll make it up to you."
"Just see that you do," came the grumpy reply.
It was still dark when Alison found herself awake again, her face pressed into a warm shoulder surrounded by a tangle of long black hair, an arm circling her waist. She sighed contentedly.
"You all right?" The low voice startled her.
"Sorry. Didn't realize you were awake ..." She shifted slightly then yawned. "I'm fine, more than fine, in fact." The arm around her squeezed briefly. "What time is it?"
"Still early. There's no hurry to get up, though. No Big Top, no show, remember?"
"It's not all bad news then," joked Alison.
Unexpectedly, Summer chuckled, the sound vibrating through Alison's body. "How d'you make that out?"
"Well," said Alison complacently, "it gives us more snuggling time."
The chuckle came again. "Is that what this is?"
Alison rolled over and snaked an arm around Summer's waist, carefully to avoid the plaster cast, before hugging her. "Uh huh."
The move had brought her face to face with Summer, and suddenly Alison was very wide awake. "Morning!" she said rather breathlessly.
"Morning." Summer leaned forward and kissed her, a deep, lingering kiss that threatened to sent Alison's heart into overdrive.
"Ugh!" she managed, when Summer pulled back at last. "You're not stopping there again are you? You're not going to tell me you should be somewhere else, doing something else instead?"
"Nope." Summer turned her attention to Alison's ear. "Nowhere else to go, no-one else to do."
Alison thought Summer could perhaps have phrased that better, but decided not to distract the ringmaster from her current activity which was sending jolts of pleasure through her entire nervous system. Something hard dug into her -
"Hey, mind my cast!"
"Sorry," mumbled Alison. "You OK?"
"Never better. Besides," Summer moved her attentions to Alison's neck, "I promised I'd make up for last night, and I always keep my promises."
She was going to have one hell of a hickey later, thought Alison absently, then forgot all about even that as Summer's mouth moved further south ....
When Summer and Alison finally made it to the cook wagon, it was nearly 10 am. As they entered the room, fuggy with the smell of coffee and fried bacon, Summer was aware of the looks and sniggers coming their way from the other occupants. She put on her best shit-eating grin, and stared right back. Beside her, Alison tensed and then relaxed.
"S'okay," Summer reassured her. "They'll get used to it."
"Mmmm," said Alison. "Well, I could."
"Get used to doing what we've been doing." She smiled at Summer.
"You liked that, huh?"
Alison's smile broadened.
Summer pressed her mouth to Alison's ear. "I could tell."
An embarrassed flush spread over the blonde woman's cheeks, and Summer suppressed her own grin.
"Breakfast," she reminded her companion. "You hungry?"
While Summer busied herself boiling water for coffee and putting slices of bread in the toaster - the cast making her movements clumsy - Alison investigated the food provided by the circus cook.
"Um, maybe we'd better stick to toast and coffee," she said, eyeing the contents of the metal containers by the serving hatch.
"Come on. Your stomach has been complaining for the past half hour." Summer joined Alison and saw the unappetizing choice: cold scrambled eggs, lukewarm sausages, congealed baked beans .... She pulled a face. "I see what you mean!"
The toaster chose that moment to signal their toast was ready. Summer piled the hot slices on a tray, added plates, cutlery, a pack of butter and a jar of orange marmalade, and started for an empty table. "Can you bring the coffees?" she called over her shoulder.
Alison grabbed the mugs and followed her. Summer didn't object when Alison, unasked, grabbed a knife and started buttering her toast for her.
The next few minutes were spent eating and drinking. "So what are you going to be doing today," asked Alison.
"Paperwork." Summer groaned aloud at the thought.
She nodded. "Got to send in a claim form as soon as possible. Insurance companies take forever." She sighed. "They'll probably want to send a loss adjuster round ... to get the claim as low as they can. By the time they've finished, we'll be lucky to cover the Big Top let alone the lost revenue from all the cancelled performances."
Alison began to butter her fourth slice of toast. "Well, what else can you do?"
Summer had been considering her options while lying waiting for the blonde woman to wake. "I could put this place up for sale," she said
Alison's eyes widened. "'This place'? You mean the circus?" She put down the unfinished slice of toast and pushed her plate away.
"You would seriously consider selling this place?" Alison frowned. "But I thought it meant something to you."
"It does," said Summer quietly, seeing the disappointment in the green eyes and wondering if Alison understood just how *much* it meant. But she was also acutely aware that people depended on her for their livelihoods, and as far as they were concerned, a circus under new management was better than no circus at all.
Still, no need to go into that yet. "Let's see how the claim pans out first, Alison. Deal?"
"Um, not that I mind having you around, Alison, but shouldn't you be doing interviews, writing articles, or something?"
Summer's question roused Alison from her reverie. While the ringmaster worked quietly at her desk, Alison had been gazing out of the Admin Office window and considering Summer's predicament ... considering, more specifically, Tommy Blake.
She turned to regard Summer. "Actually, I'll probably be busy this afternoon. Victim Support are sending someone round to see me at two o'clock."
Summer frowned. "Are you having flashbacks? You never said anything."
"I'm fine, Summer. Don't worry." Alison gave her a reassuring smile. "It's just routine, something they do after all assaults."
The frown eased and Summer returned to her paperwork, absently chewing the end of the pencil she was using for her calculations.
"And later on, I might do an interview," added Alison.
"Oh? Who with?" Summer looked up again.
Alison wondered whether to let Summer in on her idea then decided against it. Better, if her plan to talk to Tommy Blake didn't come off, to say nothing. She tapped her nose and smiled.
Summer grunted in annoyance and resumed her calculations. Alison's thoughts returned to the problem of the circus.
"Selling the circus isn't just a recent idea you've had, is it?"
"No." Summer looked up. "I've been thinking about it for a while."
Alison pursed her lips. "Because you were losing money?"
"It's not just about that." Summer rubbed a hand across her forehead in a gesture Alison was beginning to recognize. "But some days it just seems to be ... too hard. You know?"
"Because of your Uncle Tommy?"
"Among other things." Summer bent her head again, her body language signalling that the topic was closed.
Alison gazed at the dark curtain of hair hiding her lover's face. "You really don't like talking about personal stuff, do you?"
The knuckles of Summer's hand turned white but she said nothing.
Alison realized she was getting into dangerous territory, presuming on their burgeoning relationship, but she couldn't stop now. "You're not alone, Summer," she said quietly. "You don't have to carry this all by yourself."
The pencil snapped, the sharp crack making Alison jump.
"Don't I?" Summer's head came up and blue eyes glared at Alison. "What the hell do you know about it anyway?"
It was a challenge and Alison accepted it as such. "And whose fault is that ... when you won't talk to me?" She rose and crossed to the desk in one stride. She stuck her face in Summer's, held the other woman's chin so she couldn't look away. "Why don't you ever talk about your brother? Why don't you ever mention your parents? What's all this stuff between you and your Uncle?"
Summer pulled away from her, standing up and half turning away, and for a long moment Alison was afraid she'd gone too far.
"Isn't it obvious?" ground out the ringmaster eventually. "I don't talk about that stuff because it hurts."
Her expression seemed to shift between anger, pain, and ... was that fear? A single tear trickled down one cheek and she brushed it away impatiently then glared at Alison. "There, is that what you were after? Happy now?"
It would have been easy to give in to indignation, but Alison hung onto her temper. "No, I'm *not* happy!" She felt her way carefully. "Why would I be happy that the woman I love is suffering?"
To her relief, the quiet words seemed to drain the anger from Summer's face, leaving behind only sadness and weariness. Alison eased behind the desk and took the taller woman in a comforting embrace.
"You can tell me," she soothed, feeling the back muscles tense at her touch and then slowly relax. "Don't you know that? You can tell me anything, no matter how bad it seems."
And after what seemed like the longest few minutes of Alison's life, after more soothing words and caresses and murmured protestations of love and support, Summer began to talk.
"His name was Robert, but I called him Robbie. Whatever I learned - clowning, juggling, somersaults, wire-walking - he wanted to do it too." Summer laughed disparagingly at herself. "He idolized me."
She glanced at Alison, took comfort from the warm green gaze, from the arm encircling her waist. "Dad said he was too little, but that didn't stop Robbie. He did it anyway."
Alison nodded. "He was younger than you?"
"Three years." Summer found herself smiling at a mental picture of the young boy who had dogged her every step. She hadn't thought of her brother that way for a long time.
A gentle squeeze brought her back to the present. "Anyway," she took a breath, "as we grew up, it became clear we both had what it takes to be aerialists."
Summer smiled at the blonde woman's attempt to understand. "Yes. And strength, agility, a sense of timing ...." She shrugged. "It's partly good genes, I suppose. Partly all that training we did with our parents."
"They were aerialists too?"
"Among other things." Summer's gaze turned inward again. "We started out as a foursome: The Blake Family Troupe. Uncle Tommy looked after safety for us." She fiddled absently with a thumbnail until a smaller hand stopped her.
"Then I turned sixteen, and decided I was fed up of being part of my parents' troupe." Summer sighed. "Teenagers, you know. That independence thing."
"I wanted to make a name for myself. Robbie did too. So we became a double act: 'Summer and Robbie, the Flying Blakes'. We were young, attractive ...." She laughed. "Heck, we were great." She glanced at Alison to see if she understood.
"I wish I'd seen you then." Alison's eyes gleamed. "You must've been really something."
"We were." Summer dropped her gaze. "And then I got cocky, and after that I got careless."
Alison remained silent, so Summer screwed up her courage and continued.
"I'd taken over the maintenance of our rigging from Uncle Tommy," she explained. "And one night ...." She sucked in her breath as the vivid images from her nightmares assailed her.
"One night?" prompted Alison gently.
"Oh. Yeah. Sorry." She blew out a breath. "Anyway. We mistimed the catch. Robbie reached me before I was ready for him. I couldn't get a proper grip, missed his left hand completely." Summer shifted slightly and felt Alison draw closer in response. "Normally it would've been no big deal. He would've let go, and the safety line would have held him. Only this time, it didn't."
"The harness he was wearing was faulty. I'd been meaning to replace it, but I forgot."
She remembered as if it were yesterday the struggle for a better grip on his right hand where their interlocked fingers were taking all his weight. But it was no good, she had felt his fingers slowly but surely slipping from hers.
"I told him to let go." She tried to keep her voice steady, though the horror and guilt that would always be with her was making her feel sick.
Once again she saw her brother release his grip and drop backwards, his smile turning to a look of terror as the harness parted company with the safety line. Once more she heard his shout, "Summer!" and watched him plummet out of control ....
"He fell thirty feet into the ring."
"Oh my God!" Alison's words were barely audible.
"He did as I told him to... and he broke his neck." Misery threatened to overwhelm Summer and she struggled to contain it.
For a moment neither woman spoke. "How awful for you," said Alison at last.
Summer blinked at the journalist. "For *me*? Don't you understand, Alison? I killed my own brother!"
"It was an accident."
A memory of Uncle Tommy remonstrating with her parents, his voice loud in spite of all attempts to hush him, came back to her: "This should never have happened. What Summer did ... or rather failed to do ... was inexcusable."
"'It was inexcusable'," she repeated softly.
"Summer!" Alison's sharp tone brought her back to the present. "You can't go on thinking that. It was an *accident*."
She accepted the squeeze that accompanied those words gratefully. They sat in companionable silence for a few minutes, then Alison said softly, "So that's why you and your Uncle don't see eye to eye?"
Summer sighed heavily. "You never give up, do you, Alison? You'll make one hell of a journalist."
"No, I don't. And don't try to change the subject."
Summer considered for a moment. "No," she said eventually. "That wasn't what put me and Uncle Tommy at odds. My parents patched things up between us." She paused and glanced at Alison. "They had a lot on their plates, just then. A son dead. A daughter hospitalized."
"You were hospitalized?"
Summer rubbed her nose, embarrassed. "Um, yes. I was pretty down. It took me a while to recover, to get my confidence back enough to go on the trapeze."
Alison's glance was shrewd. "Sounds like shock and depression."
Summer shrugged. "So the doctor said. I was pretty much a zombie for a while. Of course, the medication they gave me didn't exactly help."
"Oh God, Summer. I'm so sorry."
"Yeah, well." She shrugged. "Eventually I got wise, stopped taking the stuff, took back control. I thought things could only get better." She laughed harshly. "How wrong I was."
"That was a tough year for my parents, and ... well, Dad started drinking." She glanced at Alison. "I didn't know. He kept it well hidden, you know."
"Well, one night, Dad was driving Mum home from a party.... He was too drunk to drive, really. You can guess the rest. There was a car smash - they hit a tree; my parents were killed outright. No-one else was involved, luckily." She examined her hands, and noticed with embarrassment that they were trembling. She clasped them together. "God knows what I'd have done if anyone else had been hurt."
As she had feared, talking about that terrible time had opened up the wounds, but as she struggled to hold in her grief, she felt a finger under her chin.
"Look at me, Summer."
Unable to disobey, she gazed into the green eyes and felt her fragile barriers start to crumble. This wouldn't do! She began to panic.
But Alison hugged her tightly, undermining all her efforts at control, saying soothingly, "Let it out," and rubbing her back.
Abruptly, Summer's barriers gave way. And as they fell, so did her tears. And she found, to her complete surprise, that it wasn't so terrible to let go, in fact it felt good to release the pain she had kept inside for all these years, to cry at last the tears she had been too numb to shed for Robbie and her parents ....
"So," said Alison a little later, when Summer was all cried out. "Uncle Tommy blames you. For your parents' deaths too?"
Summer finished blowing her nose and nodded. "If Robbie hadn't died, and I hadn't gone under, my father wouldn't have started drinking ...." She trailed off.
"Your uncle sounds like a very unforgiving man," said Alison.
Summer considered. "That's one way of looking at it, I suppose. But you must remember, he lost his nephew, then his brother and his sister-in-law, all in the space of a year."
"And you lost your brother and both your parents," said Alison. "Neither of you had it easy."
"No," agreed Summer. "Not easy."
"So isn't it time that you and your uncle put all this behind you and moved on?"
Summer sighed. "If only we could."
Though Alison had kept the visit from Victim Support brief and hogged the fast lane of the motorway for most of the way, it was nearly 4.30pm by the time she turned off the M5 and began threading her way through the streets of Bristol. She hoped fervently that Tommy Blake's circus matinee wasn't in full swing when she arrived.
Much to her relief, dayglow-orange 'This Way to the Circus' posters were prominently displayed at most road junctions - Uncle Tommy obviously believed in advertising - and the derelict building land that was his circus's current site (a phone enquiry to his Head Office had proved informative) soon came into view. What's more, the empty public carpark indicated that the matinee had yet to start.
Blake's Circus was much bigger than Summer's, noted Alison, parking the Fiesta and making her way towards the Back Door of the massive white marquee. A little man in clown makeup intercepted her and directed her to the office, where Tommy Blake was expecting her.
"Miss Carmichael." He greeted her with an easy smile and a firm handshake. "Please, take a seat." He gestured to a chair.
"Mr Blake." Summer's uncle must have been quite a looker once, thought Alison, but time had thickened his waistline and greyed his dark hair and dapper moustache.
She sat down and took out her tape recorder, glancing surreptitiously at her surroundings, noting the ringmaster's outfit - white tails and trousers, a gold-coloured cummerbund and top hat - hanging from a coathanger.
"What can I do for you?" he prompted.
"I'm glad you agreed to talk to me," she said. "I'm here about Summer's Circus."
The warmth leached from his gaze immediately. "I see. If you'd explained that on the phone, I could have saved you the trip. Summer's Circus has nothing to do with me."
Alison ploughed on. "Are you aware that there was a fire in Summer's Big Top yesterday and that your niece may be forced to put her Circus on the market as a result?
For a moment, she thought he wasn't going to answer, then he blinked and she knew she had him; his eyes, she noticed absently, were the same vivid blue as her lover's.
"I'd heard about the fire," he admitted. "She's thinking of selling?" His gaze was thoughtful. "Well, it's about time."
Alison felt a sudden dislike for the man. "Do you hate her that much, Mr Blake?"
His face hardened. "My relationship with my niece is none of your concern." She could tell that he was hanging on to politeness by the merest thread. "Now if you wouldn't mind ...." He stood up. "I'm a busy man."
Alison didn't budge. "When it comes to the woman I love," she said evenly, "*everything* is my concern. Especially the fact that you've done nothing to help her cope with all the grief and loneliness she's had to carry for the past ten years. In fact you've made it worse."
Blake sat down again with an audible thump.
She pressed her advantage. "Wouldn't your brother have wanted you to help your niece rather than instigate a vendetta against her?"
He was staring at her as though she'd grown two heads. "You leave Jack out of this ...."
Alison realized, belatedly, that he was looking rather pale. "Are you all right?"
He gestured weakly towards the grey metal filing cabinet standing against one wall. Puzzled, she crossed to it and opened the top drawer. Inside was a bottle of Scotch and some glasses.
She poured him a largish whisky, which he accepted gratefully, and resumed her seat. As he took a huge gulp, then another, she was relieved to see the colour returning to his cheeks.
Wouldn't do to give my lover's uncle a heart attack, she thought wryly.
His first words when he got his breath back were a surprise. "You love Summer?"
"Yes," she said firmly. "And I hope she feels the same about me. You got a problem with that?"
Blake laughed ... actually laughed. "No .... By God, girl! You remind me of Moira when I first met her."
Alison chewed her lower lip. "Is that a good thing?"
He snorted. "We've been married for thirty years."
"Oh!" She tried not to smile, and also not to get distracted from her purpose. "Look, Mr Blake. I'm really concerned about Summer. She's had a rough time lately."
He frowned. "You said vendetta." His tone was suddenly defensive. "It's not. What I'm doing is for her own good. She's not cut out to run a circus. You must see that."
"I see nothing of the kind. Neither do the people that work for her. Talk to them, Mr Carmichael. Ask them whether they think she's fit to run a circus or not." She raised a hand to stop his objections. "And before you say anything, I know about the cruelty conviction. She'd be the first to admit she made a mistake in not keeping a closer eye on her trainer. But we all make mistakes. What's important is that she's not the person she was when Robbie died. She's older now, wiser. Losing those you love does that to people, you know."
He sighed. "I know."
"If you could only start over, get to know the Summer *I* know. She needs your help, Mr Blake, not your opposition. Don't you think that's what her father would have wanted from you too?"
"You fight dirty, Miss Carmichael."
"Call me Alison," she said. "And yes, I fight dirty. When it comes to Summer, I'll fight any way I have to."
"So, Ms Walsh. It seems you had a little accident, eh? Don't say I didn't warn you."
Summer's visitor gazed meaningfully at her cast ... or would have, she imagined, if his sunglasses hadn't spoiled the effect.
"Get out of here before I call the police," she growled. She wondered what the prison term for murder was these days. It would almost be worth it, just to see this penny ante racketeer put out of business.
"Now, now." He wagged a finger reproachfully at her. "I understand there's a little matter of an insurance claim. You wouldn't want someone to tell your insurance company about those breaches in safety, would you?"
She glared at him. "What breaches? We've kept scrupulously to every regulation and you know it."
"Lady, you know it, and I know it, but the merest suggestion would mean a thorough investigation which would mean delays you can't afford -"
Her heart began to pound as rage pumped adrenaline into her system. If the little shit messed up the insurance claim, if she was forced to sell the circus ....
The door to Summer's office burst open and Uncle Tommy and two of his bully boys came in.
I do *not* need this, thought Summer, before belatedly registering the blonde haired woman who accompanied them. "Alison!"
The journalist smiled reassuringly at her. "It's OK," she mouthed.
Summer took a deep breath and hoped her lover's optimism was justified.
"Peter Reilly. I might have known." Uncle Tommy was staring at Summer's ginger-haired visitor as though he had a bad smell under his nose.
"Mr ... Mr Blake." Reilly's voice had gone up an octave.
"I suppose you're behind these 'accidents' that have been plaguing my niece's circus? The loose lighting rig, the fire in the Big Top ...." Uncle Tommy glared at Reilly.
Summer blinked, bemused by her Uncle's uncharacteristic defence of her.
"I had no idea you were taking a personal interest in this Circus, Mr Blake," stammered the by now sweating Reilly. "I assure you, if I had -"
"Thanks, Uncle Tommy, but I can handle this," said Summer. Her Uncle frowned briefly, then shrugged and stood back.
Summer advanced on the racketeer. "Listen, you little weasel," she dropped her voice to a feral snarl, enjoying the terror that appeared in his eyes. "Trying to blackmail me is one thing, but maiming me or those close to me -" she glanced at Alison, "- is something I take personally. And when I take things personally, I tend to -" she flexed her hands meaningfully, "- take things into my own hands."
She was dimly aware of Tommy's appreciative glance. It almost threw her, having his approval after all these years.
"I assure you, Ms Walsh," Reilly ran a finger round the inside of his collar, "we would never have ... intentionally, that is ...."
Summer restrained an urge to hit him and simply stared down at him in disgust. "Now GET OUT, and don't come back," she shouted.
He jumped like a startled deer, then bolted for the door, stopping in consternation when the men in front of it refused to budge. At a nod from Tommy, his men stood back, and Reilly practically fell through the door in his eagerness to get out.
"Good riddance," muttered Uncle Tommy.
Summer felt a soft touch on her arm. She looked round into warm and understanding eyes, and, as if by magic, the rage drained away.
"Hi," she said softly.
"Hi yourself," said Alison.
Summer threaded Alison's arm through hers and turned to face her uncle. "I didn't expect to see you here," she said bluntly.
"I didn't expect to *be* here." He glanced ruefully at Alison. "But you have a very persuasive girlfriend."
Allison's cheeks went pink.
"*This* was your interview?" queried Summer.
The blond woman nodded sheepishly.
"We need to talk, Summer," continued Uncle Tommy. "Don't we?"
She blinked uncertainly at him. "Talk?"
"Yes. For one thing, I hear you're thinking of putting this place on the market."
"Let me guess." Summer glanced at Alison, who pretended nonchalance. "A little bird told you."
"A very loyal and loving little bird," agreed her Uncle.
Summer grinned with astonished pleasure, and watched Alison examine her hands intently.
"So," said her Uncle, taking charge as always, "while my men make themselves useful," the men blinked at his words and turned to go, "let's get started, shall we?"
For a moment Summer remained motionless.
"That is, of course," said Uncle Tommy, an uncharacteristic look of uncertainty crossing his face, "if it's all right with you?"
Summer let out the breath she been unconsciously holding.
"Sure," she told him. "It's very all right with me."
Time passed slowly for Alison, as she waited in the ringmaster's caravan for Summer to finish her discussions with her Uncle.
She tried to amuse herself, but the only fiction on Summer's tiny bookshelf seemed to be trashy detective novels and thrillers, and she wasn't in the mood for those. In the end, she was forced to skim through some tattered books on circus history. Fortunately, they proved quite interesting - especially when Alison realized that the erratic crayonings on the pages of one book were by the five-year-old Summer.
The caravan door opened, and Summer stepped in. Alison glanced at her watch and put down the book. Then she peered at her lover's face. "Whatever you and your Uncle have been discussing for the past three hours, you seem pretty happy about it."
Summer grinned at her. "I am." She leaned down and gave Alison a passionate kiss. "Thank you."
"Whoa!" said Alison breathlessly. "Remind me to make you happy more often."
"I mean it, Alison," said Summer, her gaze suddenly serious. "Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I'd have lost everything if it wasn't for you."
Alison patted her on the arm. "It's nice of you to say so, but I'm sure you'd have got through it somehow."
"Maybe." Summer sat down next to her and placed a warm hand on her thigh.
"So," an embarrassed Alison changed the subject. "I'm betting he made you an offer for the circus. Am I right?"
"Partly." Summer's grin returned, and Alison found herself grinning too. "He wants to become an equal partner. A silent partner. Put money in and leave me to run the show."
"Yeah, wow." Summer looked like a child who had been given the keys to the sweetshop - delighted, and still in shock. "He said that's what Dad would have wanted." She turned to Alison. "And he's putting the word out so I'm no longer blacklisted. I can hire British acts if I want to." Her gaze turned thoughtful. "There's this really original acrobat act I saw when I was in London last year -"
"Hold on a minute, Tiger!"
Summer gave her a crooked smile. "That's the second time you've called me that," she said. "I like it." Her gaze turned mock thoughtful. "Perhaps I should find you a nickname too ... how does 'bunnykins' sound?"
Alison manfully declined to take the bait. "Of course, you'll have to buy a new Big Top first," she said.
"A minor obstacle," said Summer loftily. "Besides, with the great publicity that will undoubtedly result from your article," she glanced slyly at Alison, "audiences are bound to improve."
This new playful side of Summer delighted Alison. "Hmmm," she said, "What if *I* decide to blacklist you?"
Summer grinned wickedly and began to nibble Alison's earlobe. "What ..." nibble, "happened to that stuff about ..." nibble, "making me happy?"
The pleasurable sensation made it almost impossible for Alison to think and breathe at the same time. "Urk!" she managed.
"And it'll make me very happy ..." nibble, "if you visit my circus regularly from now on ..." nibble, "say, once a day ... or, even better, once a night."
The nibbling stopped and Alison registered the fact that Summer was regarding her anxiously. The lighthearted comment, she realized, was more serious that it seemed.
She inhaled, then let out the breath, surprised to find that the most important decision she'd ever had to make was also the easiest.
"Just try and stop me." She stroked the other woman's cheek gently and gazed into her blue eyes ... and tried not to think about how she was going to break this news to her Mother!
The frown lines smoothed from Summer's face and she grinned broadly. "'Course, all those circus tickets will prove very expensive ... And I can't have you going short. Will a Backstage Pass do?"
Alison hugged her lover firmly. "Of course," she said. "But only if it's valid for life."
A big thank you to my beta readers Catherine C and Midgit (who said that, if she were writing this Uber, "Poor old Ali would have had the s**t beaten out of her when the guy attacked her in the car park. The big top would have burnt down on a busload of schoolkids. And they would have made Summer's caravan rock off its wheels." <LOL>)
My thanks also to Catherine Cook for help with information about Policing in the UK.