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Through the Looking Glass

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Year:
1990
Publisher:
Loveswept
Language:
english
Series:
Once Upon a Time...
File:
EPUB, 168 KB
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The Juridical Unconscious: Trials and Traumas in the Twentieth Century

سال:
2002
زبان:
english
فائل:
PDF, 16.62 MB
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Contents

Synopsis

Prologue

One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

Seven

Eight

Nine

Epilogue





Synopsis




The Man In Her Mirror...



He was a financial wizard, a driven rogue with a Midas touch, but Gideon Hughes had no interest in keeping the run-down Wonderland carnival he'd inherited-until an enchantress with spun-silver hair presented him with a puzzle he had just had to solve! Maggie Durant intrigued him, unnerved him--and made him yearn to storm the fortress of her mystery. But he found it almost impossible to conduct a courtship in the midst of clowns, gypsies, and magicians, even when the angelic siren who knew his secrets announced she was in love with him! Maggie hoped it was only chemistry between them, but the brave man who'd entered her sanctuary was destiny's knight. Gideon had always played by his rules, but in Maggie's world he had to feel his way. Would she show him the real woman who'd love him forever, instead of the shimmering reflection she made in his eyes?





Prologue




"Am I disturbing you, child?" The lovely feminine voice that issued from the telephone receiver held an abstracted tone, but it couldn't obscure the more resonant notes of a strong and forceful personality. Her voice had a mysterious quality that Maggie had never been able to put her finger on.

"No, Aunt Julia. I'm alone." Aunt Julia never wanted to intrude on Maggie's personal life and never asked probing questions, but seemed to take it for granted that her infrequent calls probably interrupted athletic bouts of youthful sex. Especially since she tended to call very late at night.

Maggie pushed herself up on an elbow and rubbed her eyes blearily before peering at her bedside clock. Par for the course: It was two A.M. "Alone? At your age? Really, Maggie, you—well, never mind. It's your own business, certainly, and with all the risks you young people have to contend with these days, I suppose you're wise to be selective."

Politely, Maggie said, "That is true. I just wish ; you'd get it through your head that I don't have a line of hopeful lovers waiting outside my door. I told you when I was ten that I was going to wait for Mr. Right, and I haven't changed my mind. Silly of me to be an idealist, I realize, but there it is."

"You haven't found him yet I take it?"

"Hardly. There are a number of misters running around out there, but not one of them has been right for me. Did you call to check on the progress of my love life?"

"You know better. I'd never intrude."

Maggie laughed softly. "Sure. You also never mind the time zones. It's two A.M. here, Aunt Julia."

"I'm sorry, child. But I'm afraid I have bad news."

Sitting up in bed, Maggie said, "Not Uncle Cyrus?"

"Oh, no. It's your cousin Merlin."

Maggie remembered this particular cousin, though it had been years since she'd seen him. That was generally the case with her relatives. A large family and long-lived, they were spread out over the globe and rarely got together for clan gatherings. Which was, Maggie had privately decided, all to the good. To say that most of her relatives were peculiar was to understate the matter. They ranged from mildly eccentric to certifiably mad—though none was, to her knowledge, dangerous.

The undisputed heads of the clan were Aunt Julia and Uncle Cyrus, and both were... unusual. Definitely unusual. The younger generations of the family called them aunt and uncle, but the actual relationships were vague. Maggie didn't know their ages or, really, anything else concrete about them, and when in a mad moment she'd tried to research her family tree, she'd backtracked as far as the turn of the century before losing her nerve. By that point, the tree branches had been weighted down with so many colorful characters and peculiar stories that she decided she didn't want to know how it all began.

Merlin was indeed her cousin, though she wasn't sure how far removed. His name was legitimate, the gift of a romantic-minded mother, and he'd naturally ended up in a carnival. He'd done the most marvelous magic act years back; Maggie thought she must have been six when she'd first seen it. He had seemed old then.

"How old is Merlin?" she suddenly asked.

"I don't think that matters now, child, because he's dead," Aunt Julia replied frankly.

"Oh. I'm sorry. When's the wake?" Her clan wasn't noticeably Irish, they simply liked parties, and without exception every one of them hated wearing black.

"Day after tomorrow. Of course you'll come."

"Of course. Where?" The last family wake had been held in New Orleans. There had been marching, Maggie remembered. And trumpets.

Aunt Julia sighed and for the first time sounded a bit irritated. "He wanted his ashes scattered over Disneyland, but the authorities wouldn't hear of it. Cyrus tried, but he just couldn't bring them around. We've had to settle for Niagara Falls. Not as good, but he did say many times that he wanted to go over it in a barrel."

Maggie accepted that without a blink. "Almost as good, then. I'll arrange to be there. How did he die?"

"The police ruled it accidental, Maggie, but that's ridiculous. He was murdered." Aunt Julia stated her opinion just the way one standing in the midst of a cloudburst would state that it was raining. Absolute authority. There was no point arguing with her; only Uncle Cyrus had ever been known to succeed in getting her to back away from such an unequivocally stated opinion.

"Really?" Maggie asked. "Members of our family don't generally get bumped off." Her peculiar family did have a rather impressive record of good health and few enemies.

"We don't have stupid accidents either. You've just begun your summer vacation, haven't you? After the wake, perhaps you could find Wonderland and look around a bit? We should know the truth, child. For our own peace of mind. And for poor Merlin, of course. He'll hate it if he can never leave the area of that wretched well he was pushed into."

Maggie followed that reasoning only because she vaguely recalled that Cousin Merlin had believed strongly in ghosts and in the conviction that an unresolved or violent death chained a helpless spirit to the spot of his or her untimely demise. She wasn't particularly surprised by her aunt's request; over the past ten years, Maggie had become something of a troubleshooter on family problems. Apparently, a possibly murdered cousin fell into that category.

"All right, Aunt Julia. You can fill me in when I get there. Ill get a flight tomorrow if I can."

"Wonderful, child. We'll see you then."

Julia hung up the phone and sat gazing somewhat thoughtfully across the big old desk. "This time, you've surprised me, Cyrus," she said. "To send that delicate child into such a potentially dangerous situation alone—"

He chuckled softly. "Delicate? In appearance, certainly, but Maggie is no frail flower, sweet. She has an astonishingly good mind—particularly considering her upbringing. Of all our descendants she has inherited the highest degree of tolerance, the best-developed sense of the absurd, and the most childlike spirit. Combined with her sheer intelligence, those traits make her a rather formidable young woman. I'm not at all surprised she has yet to find a man to match her."

"And so?" Julia prompted.

"I've found one for her," Cyrus finished simply.

"You'll send him to Wonderland?"

Cyrus's vivid dark eyes shone with the radiant intelligence that only Julia saw unshuttered. "Like Alice, he must fall down the rabbit hole. If he is to see Maggie clearly, he must see all that she is."

After a moment Julia smiled faintly. "Daunting for him, poor man."

"He will survive." Cyrus chuckled again richly. "He may even prevail."

"Will we help?"

"Perhaps. We will certainly be ready to do so. At the very least we'll keep a close watch, as usual."

Julia nodded and smiled wryly. "I suppose you know what you're doing."

"Always, my sweet. Always."

It didn't strike Maggie as at all peculiar to find that the owner of the Wonderland carnival bore the improbable name of Balthasar Bundy; she knew of odder names, principally among her own family.

Her own given name had been strictly confined to her birth certificate, since she refused to use it; her understanding father had suggested "Maggie" as a reasonable compromise on her fifth birthday.

It didn't strike her as strange either that Balthasar instantly welcomed her into his troupe of carnies; she'd taken care both to dress and act suitably, after all, and her claims as an animal trainer would have been proven valid if he'd given her a chance to demonstrate.

What struck her as somewhat bizarre was Balthasar's immediate and cheerful request that she "mind the store" while he journeyed off to Africa in search of a rhinoceros.

"But why me?" she asked curiously as he bustled about his rather exotic caravan throwing colorful clothing into a battered suitcase. She had silently debated and discarded a question about the realistic possibilities of not only locating and capturing a rhinoceros, but then sneaking it off African soil and onto American soil in violation of a number of laws. To her experienced gaze, he bore all the signs of a man who would consider such a question totally pointless.

Balthasar gave her a comical look of surprise. "Well, my dear, no one else here could do it."

Maggie had too much experience with amiable lunatics to question this one further. And since she had several good reasons to believe he'd had nothing to do with Cousin Merlin's unfortunate "accident," she didn't try to prevent him from leaving. She merely asked a half dozen or so sensible questions and stood pointedly in his way until he answered them, then accepted the key to the money box—which was currently housed in the floor of the boa constrictor's cage—and promised to make herself at home in his caravan until he returned.

Then she waved good-bye from the doorway of said caravan as he rode off into the sunset in a battered 1958 black Caddie.

A muffled thump behind her made her jump. She turned to stare at the bed. It had come down from the wall, which it was supposed to do only after being unfastened. Balthasar had warned her in passing that the catch was defective. She gazed at the plush red velvet spread and gold-tasseled pillows, then allowed her pained eyes to take in the remainder of the caravan. Not that there was a great deal of space left once the bed came down.

There was a worn path in the faded carpet around the foot of the bed, which indicated that Balthasar habitually made certain he wasn't walking under the bed when it decided to drop. There was an emerald velvet love seat wedged in near the door with a scarred wooden table and oil lamp beside it. There was a wardrobe, which Balthasar had emptied, leaning a bit drunkenly on two shortened legs beside the narrow trapdoor that allowed access to the driver's seat of the wagon. And taking up the remaining floor space was a gleaming old rolltop desk, its every pigeonhole stuffed beyond capacity with yellowed papers.

Maggie heard herself sigh, which wasn't exactly surprising. She turned again and looked out on what was, she thought, a cross between a gypsy camp, a moth-eaten circus, and a lunatic asylum on wheels.

"Interesting place to spend a vacation," she murmured, and ventured forth to meet the inmates.

The scary part was that she felt right at home.





"I can't explain myself, I'm afraid, sir," said Alice, "because I'm not myself, you see." "I don't see," said the Caterpillar.

—Lewis Carroll (1832-1898) Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Curtsy while you're thinking what to say.

It saves time.





One




"Pardon me, but would you have the time?" The voice was harassed and anxious, just like the face Gideon found turned beseechingly up to him. It was an elderly face with wrinkles and a tentative smile, sitting atop a portly body dressed in a plaid suit that combined the improbable colors of lime green and purple.

Somewhat hastily, Gideon looked at his wrist-watch. "It's quarter after three," he replied.

"Oh, heavens, I'm late." The little man moaned and bustled away.

Gideon gazed after him for a moment, grappling with the notion that there was something familiar about the preceding scene. He shook off the thought and ventured a few more steps away from his car, looking around him with the wary gaze of a man quite definitely out of his element. Since he was sprung from a long and distinguished line of financial wizards with the Midas touch, his natural habitat tended more toward stately homes, huge boardrooms, and Learjets.

Definitely not seedy carnivals.

Though, to be fair, the colorful jumble of tents, wagons—the horse-drawn kind—people, and animals wasn't exactly seedy, since everything appeared to be clean and in good shape. It was just... well, cockeyed. In this age of high-tech special effects the Wonderland carnival was positively archaic. In its thirty years of existence it had eked out a marginal living for its varied dependents without ever making much of a splash. The carnival rolled into small towns and took up temporary residence in a parking lot or empty field for a few days or a week before moving on. The carnival wandered without rhyme or reason. That fact was the major cause of Gideon's apparent short temper. It had taken him nearly a month to find the carnival, and since his task wasn't a particularly pleasant one, the delay had done nothing to improve his state of mind. Muttering to himself, he took several more strides into the heart of chaos and very nearly fell over a towheaded urchin who had appeared out of nowhere.

"You cuss better'n Maggie," the urchin confided with the air bestowing a great compliment.

Estimating the boy's age at six or so, Gideon got a grip on himself and said, "Do you belong here?"

"I'm carny," the boy said, lifting his chin and showing a missing tooth as he grinned.

"Is that your name?"

" 'Course not. My name's Sean." Sean eyed the tall man before him while giving him a disconcertingly adult smile of condescension. "Don't know much, do you? 'Carny' means I belong here. You don't belong here. Whatcha want?"

Unused to children, Gideon returned the stare for several moments before it occurred to him that he wasn't going to win the battle of wills. Sighing, he said, "I want to talk to the—the manager, I suppose. Whoever runs this place."

"Why dincha say so? Come on, I'll show you." Without waiting for an agreement Sean turned and walked away, his short legs covering the ground with remarkable speed.

Gideon followed as the boy wound his way between wagons and tents and cages. The cages held animals, most of which were sleeping. The variety was astonishing. Gideon counted two lions, a tiger, and what he thought was a cheetah, as well as monkeys, bears, and a number of unidentifiable balls of fur.

He was thinking about the unexpected variety when he rounded the corner of a tent to see Sean holding an earnest conversation with a woman. She turned to face Gideon as he approached—and he felt a jolt as strong as kick in the stomach.

Midtwenties at a guess, though all he was certain of was that childhood was behind her. Her hair was so light it seemed made of spun silver, gleaming in the afternoon sunshine, and it was so long she probably sat on it. Incredibly green eyes looked out of her delicate face with the enigmatic mystery of a cat and an underlying... something... that wasn't wildness exactly, but more like the mischief of an incorrigible, but delightful, child. And her small, slender body was draped in some filmy green material that fluttered about her in the slight breeze.

If Gideon was any judge of shapely female forms, she was wearing absolutely nothing underneath the gauzy emerald material.

"You're just in time," she told him in a bright, sweet, childlike voice.

Taken aback, Gideon said, "Just in time for wh—" and found himself with an armful of something furry. To his immense relief, he discovered it was a puppy. He stood there holding the small, wriggling creature and feeling slightly shell-shocked as he stared at the woman.

Ignoring him now, she spoke to Sean with improbable sternness. "You should be helping Malcolm get ready. You know he likes tea and poker promptly at four o'clock."

Tea and crumpets, Gideon thought. Wasn't it supposed to be tea and crumpets? If she'd said beer and poker, now he could have understood. He shook the absurd thought away.

"Ill help him, don't I always?" Sean was demanding aggrievedly. "But you said to find Leo and I can't, so I had to tell you. And besides, he wanted to talk to you." A small, grubby thumb was jerked toward Gideon.

"Well, all right then." She plucked the puppy from its temporary resting place in Gideon's arms and handed it to the boy. "You take Alexander back to Tina and I'll find Leo."

" 'S okay with me." Sean accepted the puppy with a charitable nod and expertly tucked it under one arm as he strode away.

Gideon discovered that his dark suit was liberally covered with white hair. He brushed at the clinging stuff, then gave up and prepared to address himself to the woman. Except that she was wandering away. He went after her, avoiding one large dog sprawled out between two tents and the ample rump of a huge horse grazing peacefully and completely untethered on thick green grass.

She was standing at the edge of the woods and frowning slightly when he caught up with her.

And before he could say a word, she turned to him with a faintly anxious air.

"Do you think Leo could have gone into the woods? Even after I told him not to?"

He stared down at her, wondering inconsequentially how such a tiny woman could be so... so richly curved. Her filmy outfit made the fact obvious. Very obvious. He tried not to think about it. The top of her head didn't even reach to his shoulder, and something about the way she tilted her head to look up at him was peculiarly moving. No. A ridiculous idea.

Then her question sank in. The suspicion that she might be a little less than all there crossed Gideon's mind, but he dismissed it. Those eyes might be enigmatic and contain a gleam of devilment, but there was also sense there. He hoped.

"Who—or what—is Leo?" he asked with what patience he could muster.

"Well, he thinks he's a lion," she explained.

Gideon wasn't sure he wanted to know, but asked anyway, "What is he really?"

Bafflement crossed her features. "We've never been quite sure. Maybe you'll know when you see him."

"I don't think I want to see him. Look, if you run this—this carnival, I came here to talk to you."

"All right," she said mildly. "But first I have to find Leo before he scares somebody. Especially himself."

Gideon discovered he was addressing the back of her silver-blond head as she turned away, and he wasn't surprised to hear a note of frustration in his voice. "At least tell me what the hell he looks like."

When she glanced back over her shoulder at him, he could have sworn there was a fleeting gleam of sheer laughter in her fey eyes, but her sweet voice remained vague. "Oh... he's sort of brown. He looks like a cat. But not really. Bigger than a cat. Smaller than a lion."

After that masterly description Gideon was prepared for almost anything. Telling himself that this odd woman was obviously unable to think of anything but her misplaced animal, he got a grip on his patience and began to follow her into the woods.

He lost her almost immediately. It surprised him, because with her silvery hair she should easily have been visible; though shadowed in places, the woods weren't particularly dark. He debated briefly and silently, then cursed under his breath, took his suit jacket off, and rolled up his sleeves. He left his jacket hanging on a handy limb as he set out.

He wasn't worried about becoming lost since he had an excellent sense of direction. And if it occurred to him that the diminutive lady, who, according to Sean, was the manager of Wonderland, would hardly treat him with such childlike friendliness once she found out why he was here, he tried not to think about it. Even though he had an uncomfortable awareness that it was his reason for engaging in this absurd hunt: anything to delay the inevitable.

Being a methodical man, he worked his way methodically through the woods. Bordered on two sides by winding, two-lane country roads with fields beyond, the forest was a roughly triangular section of towering oaks and maples and other hardwoods bisected by a tumbling stream complete with a small waterfall. He estimated the total size of the forest at about ten acres.

He searched ten acres. Then, hot, tired, and irritable, he found himself back where he'd started. His jacket was just where he'd left it. So was something else.

It was crouched on the same limb, the very tips of two forepaws resting on the jacket's collar. It was, without doubt, brown—several mottled shades of brown, in fact. And it was smaller than a lion by several feet and a considerable number of pounds. But it was definitely bigger than a cat. Even though that was what it was.

Ridiculously long, funnel-shaped ears topped the traditional wedge-shape of a cat's head. A ringed and bushy tail lay alongside the mottled-brown body with its tip twitching lazily. And huge, startlingly round, yellow eyes peered at Gideon doubtfully.

"Leo?" He felt a bit absurd asking, but something about the hesitant stare made him feel he ought to.

"Wooo?" the animal replied.

Gideon blinked. Not exactly a catlike sound, he reflected. Still, it had to be Leo. And he was sick of the search. "Come down from there," he commanded firmly. Somewhat to his surprise, Leo instantly jumped down from the tree's branch and stood looking up at him with a comically dubious expression on his pointed, furry face.

Gideon lifted his jacket from the limb and draped it over his arm. "Come along," he ordered, and began making his way out of the woods. A glance down showed him that Leo was obediently pacing beside him. He was a large animal; the point of his shoulders nearly reached to Gideon's knee, and he had to be almost three feet long from the tip of his nose to the end of his tail.

"Oh, good! You found him."

For an instant Gideon's feelings threatened to overcome him. She was sitting just outside the woods in cool shade, her seat a canvas camp chair. A bundle of colorful material was in her lap, and she was mending a tear with small, neat stitches. Opening his mouth to say something that probably would have scorched her, Gideon was forestalled when Leo, making the most absurd chattering sounds, hurried over to her.

She seemed to listen seriously, gazing at the cat gravely as he reared up with his forepaws on her knees. Then, when he fell silent and looked at her expectantly, she shook her head and said, "Well, it isn't my fault. I told you not to go into the woods. Tina saved your lunch for you, so go and eat it."

"Wooo?" Leo asked dolefully.

"Yes, I expect so. She has every right to be angry with you. You'd better hurry. If you ask her nicely, she might make you another one."

Leo removed his paws from her knees and loped—peculiarly, since his back legs were longer than his front ones—toward the scattered wagons.

Gideon gazed after him for a long, silent moment, then looked down at the woman. "Make him another what?"

"Collar." She held her sewing up and studied it critically, then neatly finished off the row of stitches and removed the needle from the cloth, tucking it away in a small sewing kit, which she slid absently into a pocket of her skirt. "He lost his in the woods. Didn't you hear him say so?"

Several possible responses to that mild question occurred to him as he watched her rise and fold the camp chair, then tuck it under one arm along with the bundle of material. Gideon really— really—wanted to believe that this woman was absolutely batty. It was the simplest and safest explanation. She was quite mad, and it would be in his best interests to say what he'd come to say and then leave this place with all speed.

He half convinced himself of that. Then she looked up at him, brows slightly raised in question. And he felt a curious mixture of shock and satisfaction when he saw a brief glimpse of cool, tranquil intelligence in her green eyes.

She was not crazy.

Gideon had always been fascinated by puzzles. He couldn't leave one unsolved; he had to understand. He rediscovered the trait within himself at that moment. This woman was the most enigmatic puzzle he'd ever stumbled across, and he couldn't leave without at least trying to understand her.

That's what he told himself.

"How did you scratch your arm?" she asked, looking at a small cut on his forearm.

He followed her gaze, remembering that he'd rolled up his sleeves at some point. "Thorns, I suppose. Do you mind telling me your name?"

"No. It's Maggie. We should put some antiseptic on that so it won't get infected. My wagon's this way."

Walking beside her, he glanced down and had to ask. "Did you really understand Leo?"

"Didn't you?"

He decided not to answer that. "Maggie what?"

"Durant."

"My name's Gideon Hughes."

"Yes," she said tranquilly. "I know."

"You do?" He was a little startled.

"Of course. Balthazar's attorney contacted us after the tragedy so we'd know what had happened. Sad, isn't it? That he went all that way, I mean, and almost made it. If the authorities hadn't stopped him in Dakar, the rhino would never have gotten so upset and gored him. But you can't get probate for months, so we weren't really expecting you yet."

Her gentle, childlike voice was disarming; it took Gideon several moments to digest what she'd told him. "Expecting me?" he ventured finally.

"Naturally."

Gideon was about to question her further when they rounded the back of one of the wagons and saw something that made him forget everything else.

The carnival was camped along the edge of the forest about a hundred yards from the road so that several of the wagons and tents could take advantage of the shade. Between a faded pink tent and a mauve-colored wagon, a red-and-blue-checked circular tablecloth had been spread on the ground in the shade. Around the edges of the cloth were five people frowning in concentration at the cards they held in their hands.

Only one of them looked familiar to Gideon; he was the absurdly dressed man who had asked the time. By comparison, he didn't look so ridiculous now. On his left was a lean, aristocratic gentleman with fine silver hair who seemed to be wearing a white toga. Clockwise around the circle, next was a clown in full makeup and costume, a woman with wild black hair dressed colorfully as a gypsy, and a redheaded man somewhere in his twenties who was wearing a Scottish kilt and a garland of wildflowers in his hair.

Gideon stopped in his tracks and stared at them. The tablecloth was covered with the remnants of tea, complete with a delicate pot and dainty cups and saucers as well as a number of plates holding nothing but crumbs. The clown had a monkey on his shoulder that was busily eating a banana, a cockatoo roosted on the shoulder of the toga-clad man, and Leo was chattering insistently in the ear of the gypsy.

"Go away!" she muttered, elbowing him sharply.

"Bet, Tina," the toga-clad man said in an irritable tone.

"Can't you see I'm trying—" She turned her head to glare at the persistent cat, finally holding her cards down close to his nose. "Look at this!"

Leo peered, then emitted a squeak and hastily sat down.

"Fold," the four men chorused instantly as they tossed their cards down.

Tina looked at the small pile of pennies in the center of the tablecloth, then turned her head again to glare at Leo. "Ill give you a collar," she said. "How do you feel about a hangman's noose?"

Leo said, "Wooo," miserably, and hung his head.

Gideon shook himself out of the stupor and continued walking, finding Maggie waiting patiently at a huge wagon some little distance from the others. He hardly looked at the wagon. Jerking a thumb backward, he asked incredulously, "Are they kidding?"

She looked past him at the tea-and-poker party, then lifted her puzzled gaze to his face. "About what?"

He stared down into utterly limpid green eyes.

She was very lovely. He decided he should leave. Immediately. Her eyes were like wells, so deep he could only see the placid surface reflecting light and just hinting at all the possibilities of what might lie underneath. Treasures were hidden in wells. It was also possible, he reminded himself, for one to drown in them.

"Never mind," he murmured. "I don't think it matters."

For an instant, so brief he might have imagined it, he saw again that flash of sheer intelligence, the utterly rational and shrewd humor. Then the surface of her gaze was unbroken once more, serene and without even ripples to hint at things moving in unseen depths. Her smile was warm, like sunlight through a cloud, catching at his breath.

"This is my wagon." She turned and climbed the steps to the open door.

Gideon felt bereft for a moment, rudderless. It wasn't a comfortable sensation for a man of thirty-five, especially when that man had never taken an unplanned turn in his life. But a small voice in his mind whispered now, seductively, that treasures weren't found on the predictable and neatly paved walkways where a thousand feet passed daily. He tried to ignore the voice; he'd never heard the damned thing before, and it promised, at the very least, a lack of control that appalled him.

"Gideon?" She looked out at him, brows lifted. "Aren't you coming in?"

After a moment he climbed the steps and went into her wagon.

"Sit down," she invited, gesturing toward a brightly green love seat as she leaned the camp chair against the wall, put the bundle of cloth on the foot of the bed, and opened the door of a big wardrobe to begin searching through it.

He was glad to sit. The interior of the wagon struck his senses like a blow. He looked around slowly, his gaze lingering on the scarlet velvet bedspread and tasseled pillows covering the bed that took up most of the space. He closed his eyes, opening them again when she settled beside him. She was holding a first-aid box open on her lap.

While he watched silently, she got out a tube of antiseptic and some gauze and put the box on the floor, then took his wrist and guided his arm until it rested across her thighs. He could feel the warmth of her, and a soft scent like wildflowers in a meadow rose to his nostrils. Her long, clever fingers were bare of rings.

"Are you married?" he asked.

She was carefully spreading antiseptic cream over the scratch on his arm and didn't look up. "No."

"Involved with anyone?"

"No. Are you?"

He gazed at her profile and felt more then heard a sigh escape him. "I wasn't when I got here."

Finished with her task, she tossed the used gauze into a small trash can near the door. "It'll heal better if it isn't covered," she said, capping the tube of cream.

"Did you hear what I said?" he demanded.

"Yes." She put the tube back into the box and then sat back, looking at him. A tiny smile curved her lips and her fey eyes were completely unreadable.

"I just made a verbal pass," he explained.

She considered the matter, then shook her head. "No. You indicated interest. A verbal pass is something like—'Why don't we have breakfast in bed?' "

"Why don't we have breakfast in bed?"

"You do come straight to the point, don't you?"

He eyed her, a little amused at both of them, and very surprised at himself. It was totally unlike him to move so fast, and even less like him to be so blunt. Still, having begun in that vein, he kept going. "We're both over twenty-one. At least, I hope—?"

"I'm twenty-eight," she supplied sedately.

"Then you've certainly heard quite a few verbal passes."

"A few."

He wanted to ask how she had responded to passes from other men, but bit back the question. She would say it was none of his business —or, at least, any other woman would. And she'd be right. Her past was no concern of his, and that had never troubled him in previous relationships with women; in fact, he'd never even been tempted to ask.

"Are you just going to ignore my pass?" he asked.

She looked at him, an uncomfortable perception surfacing in her vivid eyes. Rising up out of the depths, he thought, like some mysterious, all-knowing siren. "Unless and until your motives change, yes, I think I will."

"My motives?"

Mildly she said, "You don't like giving up control to anyone else, and as long as you don't understand me, you feel it puts me in control. You don't want the vulnerability of a possible relationship, just the control of knowledge. Sex, you believe, is a means to finding that knowledge. In your experience, women tend to give up all that they are to a lover, whether he responds in kind or not. How am I doing?"

Gideon cleared his throat and leaned back in the corner of the love seat, removing his arm from her warm thighs. He devoutly hoped he didn't look as unnerved as he felt. She had neatly—and with devastating accuracy—stripped his motives bare while becoming even more of an enigma herself. "That makes me sound like a selfish bastard, doesn't it?" he said, neither admitting nor denying what she'd said.

"Most people are selfish; it's the nature of the beast. You have a logical mind and it's perfectly logical to think that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line."

"Are you saying it isn't?"

In a very gentle voice she said, "Not between people. Between people, shortcuts are usually painful."

She was right—and he was even more surprised at himself. Did he really feel so out of control? Had he been so shaken by his confused response to her that his first instinct had been to reach for an immediate, shallow intimacy? Such an abrupt leap, assuming she had accepted, virtually guaranteed that there would be little more than a brief fling between them. Because she was right about something else; intimacy without knowledge was seldom anything but damaging.

And he knew that.

After a moment he said, "I apologize."

Maggie looked faintly surprised. "I wasn't offended. I just want you to understand that I don't believe sex is a means to an end. By the time two people become that intimate, most of the questions should already be answered."

"You're right." Gideon was mildly surprised at his own lack of defensiveness; he was, more than anything, intrigued by her insight into his motives, and disturbed by those motives themselves. "But how did you know? About me, I mean. Did it show so plainly?"

"No. I just knew."

Now, that was unnerving, he thought. "How?"

"It's a knack I have," she answered serenely.

Before Gideon could probe further, there was a thud near the door that might have been a knock, and the redhead member of the tea party, the garland of flowers still in his hair, peered in at them and spoke in an aggrieved tone with a touch of Scotland in the rhythm.

"Maggie, love, you've got to do something about Oswald! He's taken them again."

She turned her head to look at the visitor. "Farley, I can't teach Oswald to love bagpipes. And I can't keep him from hiding them from you. Why don't you challenge him to a poker game and bet the pipes? He always loses to you."

Farley brightened. "That's a thought, it is indeed, love. It'll appeal to his sense of honor, what's more."

"Of course it will. Farley, this is Gideon."

"Hello," Farley said briefly to the other man, and then vanished from the doorway.

Gideon told himself silently that endearments probably came naturally to Farley; it didn't mean a thing.

Maggie apparently considered their previous conversation over, because she picked up the first-aid box and rose to her feet. She put the box away in the big wardrobe, then came back around the foot of the bed and looked at Gideon with a faint smile. "Do you want to go meet the other people you'll be putting out of work?"

He blinked, the attack totally unexpected. Not that it was an attack, exactly; her voice remained sweet and calm. But the words... Getting to his feet, he said slowly, "You obviously know I mean to sell the carnival."

"Yes. Natural, I suppose. Our income barely covers expenses, and we could by no stretch of the imagination be a tax write-off. You aren't carny, so you have no feeling for this life or what it means to the people involved. I understand Balthasar was such a distant connection you aren't certain how you were related to him, so no family feeling is involved."

Gideon opened his mouth, but she was going on in the same soft, childlike voice.

"The wagons are all antiques and will probably fetch a healthy price. Trained animals are always in demand, and those that don't perform can certainly go to zoos. We have a number of costumes and carnival games you can doubtless unload for a few dollars. You won't have to worry about severance pay, of course, or retirement benefits or pension plans; carnies don't sign employment agreements. So it doesn't really matter that most of the people here quite literally have no place else to go, or that at least three of them were born in Wonderland wagons. That certainly isn't your problem."





At least I knew who I was

when I got up this morning,

but I think I must have been changed

several times since then.





Two




She was still an enigma, but Gideon now knew at least one thing about her: She could flay the bark off an oak tree without raising her voice or losing her gentle smile. He felt a bit flayed and— now—defensive.

"What do you expect me to do?" he demanded. "I don't know a damned thing about carnivals, and I have no desire to own one."

"Of course not. Along with the other drawbacks, it's a totally alien way of life to you. I expect you're doing the only reasonable thing to be done."

Her voice was unchanged, and her agreement held no sarcasm whatsoever, but for some reason Gideon felt even worse about the situation. "What will you do?" he asked, unable to halt the question.

"Unlike the others, I do have somewhere else to go."

"Where?"

"That isn't your concern. Do you want to meet the others now, or shall I break the news to them myself?"

Gideon wanted to shake her. He wanted to kiss her. She stood in her ridiculous wagon telling him things he didn't want to hear in her sweet voice, looking up at him with her enigmatic, haunting eyes. And he was still intrigued by her, dammit, even more than ever.

Realizing that he badly needed to think this through before he made a total fool of himself, he said tightly, "It's getting late. Ill stay in town tonight and come back in the morning. Ill meet the others then."

"As you wish."

He hesitated, then asked unwillingly, "You'll be here, won't you?"

She chose to answer the question generally, though it had been directed specifically at her. "Well be here."

Gideon hesitated again, then swore beneath his breath and left the wagon.

Maggie stepped to the doorway and leaned against one side, gazing after him. His tall form moved with natural grace, she noted idly, and with the unthinking power that came not only from physical strength but from intellectual and emotional certainty; Gideon Hughes had always known exactly who and what he was.

Farley appeared around the end of the wagon and followed her gaze. "Where's he going?"

"Town. But hell be back," she said absently.

"Tomorrow?"

"No. Tonight. No room at the inn."

Farley looked up at her quizzically. "Want me to pitch the extra tent?"

"I suppose you'd better." She waited until he began to turn away, then spoke mildly. "Farley? You've never called me love until a few minutes ago."

He looked at her, hazel eyes bright with laughter. "The mood just took me," he explained innocently.

"Anything in particular spur the mood?" she asked.

"I expect it's a dog-in-the-manger attitude," he said in a judicious tone, then winked at her and turned away.

Maggie looked after him until he was out of her sight, then murmured to herself, "You were listening, Farley; I really wish you hadn't done that." After a moment she glanced toward the settling cloud of dust that Gideon's departure had created, then said even more softly, "And you showed up before I was ready for you. What am I supposed to do now? Damn."

Not quite what she had expected, Mr. Gideon Hughes. There was... well, too much of him. Too much physical presence, too much intelligence and perception, and too many plans she couldn't let him discuss with the others. It would be better all around, she thought, if she made him so mad he'd just leave.

He had the look of a man with a formidable temper, which didn't disturb Maggie at all; she had yet to encounter a temper unruly enough to trigger her own. The only problem with that option was that she doubted he'd leave no matter how mad she made him; he certainly hadn't bothered to hide his interest in her, and he also had the look of a man accustomed to getting what he wanted whether it required patience or a pitched battle.

He was less likely to concentrate on dismantling the carnival while in the midst of a pitched battle, of course.

Farley reappeared with an armful of canvas and poles. "Where d'you want it?" he asked cheerfully.

Maggie pointed to a cleared space near her wagon. "There, I suppose." She ignored his raised eyebrows and watched as he began setting up the tent.

It was almost dark when Gideon returned to the carnival's campsite. He didn't know quite how he felt about the fact that renovations in one of the town's two motels and a regional businessman's convention in the other had made getting a room impossible; after his earlier encounter with Maggie he was uncertain of his welcome since he didn't dare guess how she'd feel about his return.

He parked his car nearer her wagon than before and approached it a bit warily. The campsite was relatively quiet; lights and voices came from most of the wagons and several tents, along with the appetizing scents of cooking, but he didn't see anyone moving around outside. A new tent, a hideous yellow color, had been pitched about twelve feet from Maggie's wagon, and Gideon averted his eyes from it.

"Back so soon?" Despite her question, he had the notion that she wasn't at all surprised to see him.

He stopped at the bottom of the steps leading to her door and gazed up at Maggie as she stood in the doorway. Soft light from an oil lamp inside the wagon silhouetted her slender figure and turned the diaphanous dress she wore into little more than a gauzy veil. All his senses responded instantly to the sight of her, and he had to force himself to concentrate on what he was saying. "I couldn't get a room in town," he explained, and hesitated briefly before going on. "Since it's only for one night, I thought I could stay here. If you don't mind."

"This is your carnival," she pointed out mildly. "The wagons are all occupied, but if you'd like to kick somebody out—"

"No, dammit!" Gideon was feeling defensive again and didn't care for the emotion. "If there's no extra room in a wagon or tent, I’ll sleep in the car."

Maggie left the doorway and moved to sit on the third step. Her expression was still polite, and her voice was serene when she said, "As a matter of fact we do have an empty tent. The yellow one there. You're welcome to it."

Before he could speak, Gideon caught a hint of motion behind her, and even as a loud thud shook the wagon he realized that the bed had fallen.

Maggie didn't even flinch.

"What the hell?"

"Defective catch," she said. "The bed is supposed to stay up against the wall. Like beds in trains. But the catch has a mind of its own. Are you going to take the tent?"

"Yes." He could, he decided, accept the unexpected calmly. Of course he could. "Thank you."

"Why thank me? It's your tent."

He took a breath and folded his arms across his chest. "Tell me something. Are we going to go on this way?"

"This way?" Her eyes reflected the last of the daylight like some shaded forest pool.

"Yes, Miss Durant, this way. You're hell-bent to keep needling me about my plans for the carnival, aren't you?"

Without replying to his question she said, "Tell me something?"

"If I can."

"Are your plans set in concrete?"

"No," he said after a moment. "I try never to do that. Do you want an opportunity to argue for the defense?"

"I think I do," she said slowly, looking at him with a very slight frown that stole the fey innocence from her face and lent it an expression of troubled gravity. "But if you're planning to leave tomorrow, that doesn't give me much time."

Since Gideon had mentally been searching for an excuse to spend more time with her, the opportunity was too good to pass up. "I can stay a few days. If I have to."

The reflective green eyes looked at him with a sudden gleam of irony in their depths. "Don't go to any trouble on my account," she said gently.

Gideon cleared his throat and tried not to look as sheepish as he felt. Blast the woman, she was continually cutting him down to size. "Sorry. That remark was in the nature of protective coloration. A man isn't supposed to jump at the slightest excuse to be near a woman."

With an interested lift to her brows she said, "Who says he isn't supposed to?"

"It's in the macho handbook. Between chapters on why real men don't eat quiche or wear pink shirts." He wasn't terribly surprised that she seemed neither flattered nor insulted by his admitted interest in her, since she understood his motives all too well.

"If I were you," she said, "I'd throw out that particular handbook."

"Are we back to being sensitive again? I've lost track." The note of despair in his voice wasn't entirely false.

Maggie's mouth curved slightly. "God knows what the current phase is, but I prefer honesty. Just be yourself."

"I was being myself," he said, "earlier. And you as good as told me I was a selfish bastard."

"You said that, not me. All I said was that you wanted to control the situation," she pointed out in a tone of tranquil innocence.

He sighed. "I have the unnerving feeling that my chances of besting you conversationally are nil."

Her smile widened, her exotic eyes holding a gleam of genuine amusement. "I hate to lose," she murmured. "You might want to keep that in mind." Without a change in tone she added, "There are a couple of blankets in the tent; if you need more, I have a few extra ones. Have you eaten?"

"No."

"Tina's our cook this week; she's fixing a pot of Irish stew, I believe. Would you like some?"

"Please."

Maggie nodded and got to her feet. "We usually eat in our own wagons, so I’ll go and get the food while you change. You are going to change, aren't you?"

He glanced down at his neat three-piece suit. "Slightly out of place, am I?"

"A rose among daisies."

"No man," he said after a stunned instant, "likes to be called a rose. And that isn't from the handbook; that's in the marrow. Luckily, I brought a few things more casual than what I have on." He eyed the yellow tent with a certain amount of ungrateful revulsion. "I won't be able to stand up in there, let alone change clothes. May I borrow your wagon for a few minutes?"

"Certainly." She descended the remaining steps until she stood before him. "I have to check the animals before dark anyway. Make yourself at home."

Gideon watched her walk away, idly trying to decide why she seemed to move more gracefully than any other woman he could recall. A dancer, perhaps? No, he didn't think so. Her grace was innate rather than taught, like that of some wild creature. In fact, he thought that was what intrigued him about her more than anything else. In her movements, her voice and eyes, even her quiet glances and slow smiles, there was a sense of something... not quite tamed.

His imagination, perhaps. But he didn't think so. Whatever it was, he knew only that he had never sensed it in a woman before, and that his response to it was instinctive and emotional rather than intellectual. Just like his aversion to being called a rose, it was something as deep as his marrow.

Which was not to say that he didn't respond to her on both intellectual and emotional levels as well. He did. He enjoyed talking to her—or rather, sparring with her. He felt unusually aware of his own senses when she was near, and he was also, he'd noticed, more apt to say exactly what he was thinking without feeling any need to hold back or guard his words.

Frowning, Gideon turned away from the wagon and toward his car. He was still conscious of not being in control of this situation, of being off balance and out of his element; that was largely due to Maggie but not entirely.

A rose among daisies. Great.

Leo was sitting on the hood of his rental car. They stared at each other through the deepening twilight, the cat still doubtful and the man likewise.

"Wooo?" Leo ventured.

Gideon felt an absurd urge to reply, but he had no idea what the question was. Opting for silence, he got his bag out of the trunk and then locked up the car and returned to Maggie's wagon to change. By the time she came back around half an hour later, he was dressed in jeans and a pale brown sweater and was sitting on the green love seat looking through a heavy volume of English literature. He set the book aside quickly when he saw her and rose to take a crowded wooden tray from her.

"Let me."

"I'm not proud," she said, relinquishing the tray. "Wait a second while I get the table out."

Gideon watched her unearth a card table from the big wardrobe and unfold it near the love seat. While she was doing that, she said, "By the way, we have a bathhouse set up at the other end of camp in one of the bigger tents. All the modern conveniences. Except hot water."

He thought of shaving in cold water and couldn't help but grimace. "Do you people always live like this?"

She unloaded the tray while he held it, placing dishes of hot stew, a basket of bread, pitcher of iced tea, glasses, napkins, and cutlery onto the card table. "Always? I suppose. We were ta have set up closer to town, but a bigger carnival got in ahead of us, so there wasn't much use. Our next stop will probably be Wichita, but a circus was there last week, so we should wait a few weeks before we go In. That's why we're camping here, really."

"Ever thought about scheduling regular stops?"

"Schedules are so—so rigid. Don't you think?" She moved around the table and sat down at one end of the love seat. "Just put the tray on the bed."

He obeyed, wondering if the comment about rigid schedules had been aimed at him. Taking his place beside her, he said, "I suppose you know I'm a banker?"

She poured a glass of tea for him and sent him a glance of amusement. "An investment banker, I believe. Which basically means that you gamble huge sums of money."

"Not at all. I provide financial backing for business ventures."

"Which could well fail."

"It's a possibility," he admitted. "But not that much of a gamble. I make sure the risk is minimal."

"Ill bet you do," she murmured.

Gideon decided to change the subject; this one was making him sound and feel like the proverbial stuffy banker. Nodding toward the table beside the love seat where he'd put the literature book, he said, "I think that's the textbook I remember from college. Yours?"

"Yes."

"What did you major in?"

"Psychology, history, and computer technology."

He blinked. "What, all three?"

"Three different colleges." Her voice was placid. "I can usually earn a four-year degree in two years. Next fall I’ll try my hand at archaeology. Very interesting, the study of man. I always had a fondness for pyramids—maybe I’ll specialize in Egyptian archaeology."

Gideon ate in silence for a few moments, vaguely aware that the stew was excellent. "You mean you have three four-year degrees?"

"So far."

"And you earned them while running a carnival?"

Maggie looked faintly surprised. "No, I'm just managing the carnival this summer. Before he went off to Africa, Balthasar asked me to. I didn't have anything else planned."

"Three degrees, and she's running a sideshow," Gideon murmured to himself.

She glanced at him again, then said, "When my father died, he left a trust fund for me and asked that I use the money for my education. I like learning, and I haven't run out of money yet, so I'm still in school. I suppose you could call me a habitual student." Quite abruptly, her soft voice took on a steely note. "As for sideshows—there are no freaks here. No con men or rigged games. Just a group of mildly eccentric people who happen to be quite nice on the whole, and who don't know any other way to live."

Gideon sat back in his corner of the loveseat and looked at her. "I keep saying the wrong thing, don't I?"

She matched his pose, leaning back in her own corner. "I think you're trying to find some logic in this situation." Her tone was dispassionate rather than forgiving.

"Will I?"

"No. The carnival isn't logical, as you understand logic. Nor are the people here—including me. Your world is a million miles away."

He shook his head. "I'm not that different. I haven't dropped onto an alien planet, Maggie."

She smiled. "No. And this is Kansas, not Oz.

But you expect order, and you aren't going to find that here. No schedules—except for Malcolm's tea parties. It's a place where you can wear a clown's face, or a toga or a kilt, and nobody looks twice. A place where you talk to the animals and they talk back, and it doesn't matter that you aren't speaking the same language. A place where being normal is to be slightly mad."

"There are lunatics in my world," he pointed out.

"Yes. But in your world, they aren't normal. In this world, they are." She was on the end of the love seat with the lamp beside it, and the soft glow made her hair gleam silver. Gideon thought she looked like an angel—except for the strange and enigmatic depth of her eyes.

A mad angel.

He cleared his throat. "Are we talking about the carnival? Or about us?"

Maggie looked at him steadily. "Us? Didn't we close that subject?"

"No. If I remember, you used the words 'unless and until' my motives change. They have." He was surprised to hear himself say that, but wasn't tempted to take back the statement.

"What are your motives now?"

"I thought you had a knack of seeing things like that?" he murmured.

"If you expect me to be consistent," she said somewhat dryly, "you haven't been listening to me."

"Sorry." He had to smile a little. "All right, then. My motives. I won't deny that I was—knocked off balance earlier today, or that you were right about my motives then. But I agree with what you said. Most of the questions should be answered first.

I'd like to try to get those answers, and control has nothing to do with it. I want you, Maggie."

To his surprise, the blunt statement drew a visible reaction from her. Her eyes widened and... she blushed. Blushed. Faint color flowed over her cheekbones like a delicate tide, making her appear very young and adorably confused. It was fascinating to watch.

"I see," she murmured, her gaze falling.

"Are you blushing?" He sounded as astonished as he felt.

"Of course not. I outgrew that years ago." She looked back at him, mysterious ripples disturbing the serenity of her eyes. "I was just surprised."

"Why? You knew I wanted you."

Maggie didn't want to answer his question, partly because she thought her answer might well make him draw away. It was obvious that he hadn't heard his own voice, hadn't been aware of the implacable note in it. When he had said he wanted her, there had been more than desire in his voice, something unrelenting as if it came from instinct. And whatever it was, her response to it had caught her completely off guard.

The sensation was strange, almost frightening. She could feel her heart beating, thudding against her ribs and in her throat in an uneven rhythm. Her skin felt hot, and she was suddenly, vividly aware of her body as being female. The cool rationality of her mind had become uncertainty and confusion.

Always before, Maggie had felt detached from men. She had heard a number of men express interest and desire, men who, like Gideon, had questions because they were puzzled by her. Yet none of them had roused the slightest spark of response in her, and she had not gone out of her way to supply answers. Never one to accept half measures, she had long ago decided that if she didn't find the right man, she wouldn't make the mistake of settling for the wrong one. She had flirted, enjoying the verbal sparring—much as she had with Gideon. She had never been tempted to go beyond flirting. Until now.

"Maggie?"

She looked at him. Really looked. Less formal now in his jeans and sweater. His thick copper hair gleamed with gold highlights, and his eyes were the gray of storm clouds. His face was almost classically handsome, strong and filled with character. The pale brown sweater set off his tan and made the power of broad shoulders more evident, and the jeans fit well over narrow hips and long legs. He was curiously more masculine than any man she'd ever met, as if an aura surrounded him.

He leaned toward her. "Maggie?"

She drew a breath, wondering idly when that automatic function had become a voluntary thing. "Are you sure you want your answers?" she asked huskily.

"Why wouldn't I?"

"You may not like them." She had often thought of herself as an odd woman in many ways; that had never troubled her, but it could well disturb him.

"I can't imagine that," he said. "But it doesn't matter. It's too late for me to make the choice, Maggie. You can throw me out, but I can't walk away."

"I can't throw you out. This is your carnival."

"Stop saying that." His voice was sharp. "I'm not talking about the carnival, and you know it."

After a moment she half nodded, realizing that the choice had been made for her as well. The timing couldn't have been worse, and she was aware for the first time of just how painful it would be if the man whose questions she wanted to answer didn't like the answers at all. When he began to understand her, he could well decide that their worlds were indeed too far apart. Or he could, in the end, want only an affair to satisfy a purely physical desire. Only time would tell.

"I suppose—" She was interrupted by a rap somewhere near the door.

The woman dressed so colorfully as a gypsy, her black hair in wild ringlets, stuck her head in the doorway. "I thought I'd get the tray if you two are finished," she said briskly.

Maggie glanced at Gideon, then said, "We're finished. But you didn't have to come for it, Tina."

"No trouble." She came into the wagon and began transferring everything from the card table to the tray on the bed.

"Tina, this is Gideon."

"Of course it is," Tina said before Gideon could say a word. She eyed him, then looked at Maggie. "His feet’ll stick out," she observed.

"Not if he bends his knees," Maggie said.

"That's true." Tina lifted the tray easily, her gaze still on Maggie. "Lamont lost his nose," she said with the clear expectation of being understood.

"Where?"

"He doesn't know. But he's upset."

Maggie nodded. "Okay. Ill go talk to him."

Tina nodded in turn, then briskly carried the tray out of the wagon.

For a long moment after she left, Gideon didn't say a word. Then, very carefully, he said, "I gather my feet will stick out of the tent unless I bend my knees?"

Maggie was looking at him solemnly, apparently back on balance now. "Yes."

"So far so good. I hope Lamont is the clown?"

"He is."

Gideon sighed. "I don't know whether to be glad or terrified that I understood that conversation."

"Let me know when you make up your mind."

He looked at her. "You were about to say something before Tina came in."

"Was I?" Oh. I think I was about to say that the subject was open again."

"The subject of us?"

Maggie got to her feet and began folding up the card table. "That subject, yes. At the moment, however, I have to go see a clown about his nose."

"It's still early," Gideon ventured, watching her.

"I get up at dawn to feed the animals."

He sighed. "And tomorrow's another day."

"Good night, Gideon."

"I think it's obvious," Farley said in a firm tone. "Maggie's snuggling up to the man so he won't break us up."

Tina threw him a warning glance, but Sean, who was sitting in the doorway of the wagon finishing his stew, didn't even glance at the two adults inside. "Watch what you say," Tina ordered in a low, fierce voice.

"The lad isn't paying attention—"

"She likes him," Sean said.

Tina looked at Farley. "He always pays attention." Then she looked back at her son. "Why do you think she likes him, Sean?"

The boy shrugged. "Dunno. When he left today, she was lookin' after him. Maybe that. Can I sleep in Buster's tent, Ma? He's got Alexander with him, and—"

"All right, but I'd better not catch you roaming around outside."

Wise in the ways of his parent, Sean vanished from the doorway before she could change her mind, leaving his plate balanced precariously on the threshold.

"D'you think the lad's right?" Farley asked, lounging back on the daybed that was wedged in between the door and the table where Tina was stacking the washed dishes.

She half shrugged. "He's a good-looking devil, and he can't keep his eyes off her. Judging by his clothes, I doubt he needs the money he'd get from selling out. If he wants to get in good with Maggie, he won't make that threat. We'll see."

After a moment Farley said, "So we be nice to the man and wait? I’ve never been one for patience."

"What else can we do? As soon as he gets probate, he can sell out. We can't stop him."

"Can't we, now? I'm thinking there's always a way of doing that. A man isn't a mountain, but they have one thing in common. They can both be got around."

Tina leaned back against the table and looked at him. "You could talk most devils out of both horns and at least one cloven hoof, Farley, but don't try your tricks on that one. Maggie has a chance of getting round him, but the rest of us haven't a hope in hell. Now, would you mind very much getting out from underfoot so I can finish my work?"

He rose with an injured expression. "You don't have to throw me out, I was leaving."

Maggie remained in the darkness close to Tina's caravan until she was sure Farley was gone, then eased away in silence and moved toward her own wagon. She had listened to at least two other conversations tonight, and all were basically the same. Everyone was nervous about Gideon, but convinced that she would either charm or seduce him into sparing the carnival.

Which gave her, she hoped, a little more time.

What she had to avoid at all costs was for Gideon to announce to the others that he meant to sell. Until he committed himself to that plan, she thought nothing would happen—at least for a few days. The level of tension was too high now, so she couldn't expect more than a few days' grace no matter what he did.

She had considered telling him the truth, but had discarded the idea at least for the moment. She didn't know him yet, and in any case, hearing that he had inherited along with the carnival one murderer was apt to upset him a bit.

Feeling restless and uneasy, she returned to her wagon, skirting Gideon's tent. A faint light from the small oil lamp Farley had left glowed inside it, but there was no shadow to indicate if Gideon was awake or sleeping. Maggie climbed into her wagon and softly closed the door.

She changed into her usual sleepwear and then moved the lamp and its small table beside her bed. In the few weeks she'd been here, she had grown more or less accustomed to the scarlet velvet bedspread and gold-tasseled pillows, so she didn't think about how they looked. And she didn't think about how she looked lying back on the pillows in her white teddy with the book of literature in her lap. Since a tacit rule of the carnies was that no one was needlessly disturbed once their door or tent flap was closed at night, she wasn't expecting visitors.

It was a habit of hers to read before sleeping, usually old favorites, and the collection of poems, short stories, and essays was perfect. She was immersed in one long, rambling poem when the tap came at her door, and she answered absently.

"Yes?"

The door opened. "I wanted to take you up on your offer," Gideon began, stepping inside.

For one very long moment Maggie wasn't sure which offer he was talking about. She was hardly a shy woman, but even in the lamplight the intensity of his gaze was obvious, and she was suddenly very conscious of her brief and quite revealing choice of sleepwear. Then she remembered.

"Oh. The extra blankets?"

In some rational part of his mind Gideon had questioned his own attraction to this fey woman. It wasn't her beauty, he had thought; he wasn't particularly susceptible to feminine beauty, having discovered long ago that the enduring traits were the inner ones. Though now, at this moment, he wasn't so sure. She was wearing a white teddy with a deep V neckline and a gauzy lace panel at the waist, below which was the briefest skirt he'd ever seen. Her knees were slightly raised to provide a prop for the book in her lap, and her long hair had been pulled around over her shoulder to drift over one breast like strands of silk.

Curiously enough, the gaudy, even tawdry, bed had become something entirely different now. The scarlet spread seemed deeper in color, the tasseled pillows bright splashes of color. She glowed in the center like some rare jewel.

He couldn't stop looking at her. Wanting her.

"The blankets?" she repeated.

Gideon cleared his throat. "Right. The blankets."

"Top shelf of the wardrobe."

He took a step, Intending to walk around the foot of the bed to reach the wardrobe. But somehow, he found himself sitting on the bed beside her. She was looking at him gravely, faint color in her cheeks, and her voice was a little husky when she spoke.

"I don't think this is a very good idea."

"It feels like a good idea," he murmured, lifting one hand to cup her cheek. "I've wanted to kiss you since the first moment you turned and looked at me."

"Is that all you want?" she murmured. "A kiss?"

"You know better. But I'll settle for that. At least as a start."

Maggie didn't protest again. She admitted to herself only as his lips touched hers that this was something she wanted, even something she needed. Then her reasons didn't seem to matter very much.

The first touch was gentle, almost tentative, but the hesitancy vanished quickly. Burned away. Maggie could feel the heat rise in her like a storm surge, so swift and violent she had no defense against it. His mouth hardened, slanting across hers to deepen the kiss with a stark passion that made her shudder helplessly, and she was barely aware when her arms lifted of their own volition to encircle his neck.





"She's in that state of mind," said

the White Queen, "that she wants to deny

something—only she doesn't know what

to deny!"





Three




Her arms around his neck... It was that mindless gesture of trust and desire that brought some semblance of sanity back to Maggie. She felt the thick softness of his hair beneath her fingers, felt the hard pressure of his chest against her breasts as he drew her suddenly closer, and she was conscious of the same shock she'd felt earlier.

She wanted him. Questions didn't matter. Answers didn't matter. What she felt was something so deep there wasn't even a word to name it. All she knew for certain was that now she understood what true madness felt like.

It was Gideon who ended the kiss with visible reluctance, raising his head slightly to look at her. His eyes were heavy lidded and darkened, his face taut. "I didn't expect that," he murmured.

She had to swallow before she could get the question out. "Expect what?"

"Didn't you feel it too? The power of it?"

Maggie was an honest woman, but she also had a strong sense of self-preservation. At that moment she decided a truthful answer might be gasoline thrown on the fire. Unless, of course, she could turn an emotional reality into an impersonal observation. In the most even voice she could manage, she said, "If you drop the right two chemicals into a beaker, sometimes you get quite a reaction."

"So we're just two chemicals that happen to react to each other?" His voice was level.

"Physically, yes." She didn't believe that, but elected to take some kind of stand; if nothing else, it would give them something to argue about. "The easy way, remember? The shortcut. If you push the right buttons physically, you're going to get a predictable response. An emotional response is another matter altogether." Her throat was aching, but she met his narrowing gaze with certainty in her own.

Somewhat belatedly she mentally ordered her fingers to leave his hair alone and drew her arms from around his neck.

After a moment Gideon removed his own arms and straightened, but continued to look down at her. The flicker of anger she'd seen in his eyes had been fleeting, replaced now by a considering look that was a bit too perceptive for her peace of mind.

"Is this where I get mad and storm out?" he asked.

Maggie had become accustomed to the fact that she often baffled people, but she could never understand why. Now she knew. It was somewhat unnerving and rather fascinating to have a person's shrewd comprehension turned on her for a change. But stubbornly, she stuck to her part.

"That's up to you," she told him. She'd never even considered how difficult it would be to sound dignified while wearing a scanty white teddy. She made a mental note to herself to consider the matter carefully should such a situation arise again.

Softly, he said, "Who wants to control the situation now?"

It was a taunt, and if it didn't rouse her temper, it at least ruffled it a bit. She debated with herself silently, then said, "Maybe you're right. But so am I. The fact that physical attraction exists means very little unless emotions are involved as well. Maybe you can crawl into bed just because your body tells you to, but I can't."

After a moment, and in a very mild tone, he said, "I must say I'm encouraged."

"In what way?"

Gideon smiled. "I asked a very simple question, Maggie. I asked if you felt the same unusual reaction I felt."

Normally quick-witted, Maggie realized only then what she'd done. And she could only smile at herself for it. "I promptly went overboard with explanation, denial, and justification."

"You certainly did."

She sighed. "Don't gloat."

"Ill try not to, but it won't be easy. Will you answer the original question now, please?"

Maggie gave in with all the grace she could muster. "Yes, I felt something... unusual."

He nodded, his expression serious. "Good. We've established the fact that we both feel a special physical attraction for each other. Now we can work on the other levels."

"How are we going to do that?" she asked, wary but interested.

"The usual ways, I thought. Talk. Get to know each other. That sort of thing." Still wearing his serious expression and matter-of-fact voice, he added, "Mind you, there's nothing I'd rather do than climb into this absurd bed and let the other questions slide for the time being. But I do agree with you that those questions should be answered first."

She eyed him speculatively. "You do, do you?"

"Of course. I'm a mature man, after all. I'm hardly at the mercy of my hormones."

"Glad to hear it."

"So, well take things slow and easy." His voice had become brisk. "Ill sleep in the tent and bend my knees, shower and shave in cold water, and play the role of a stranger in a strange land."

"And I?"

"You will, I trust, be no more enigmatic than necessary so that I have at least a fair chance of finding the answers."

Maggie nodded slowly. "All right."

Gideon got to his feet. "Fine. See you in the morning."

She waited until he reached the door, then said, "Gideon? You forgot the blankets."

"No, I didn't. The temperature out there is in the high seventies. And my body temperature must be over a hundred. Good night, Maggie."

"Good night."

She stared at the closed door for a long time, then finally put her book on the table and blew out her lamp. She didn't get under the covers; the air temperature was comfortable, and like Gideon, she could tell that her own body temperature was way above normal. In fact, she felt feverish.

Lying back on her pillows in the dark caravan, she replayed the past hours in her mind and tried to figure out what to do next. It would have been relatively simple without Gideon's presence; she'd just do as she had done before, listen and watch. But he was here now. Here, and bent on exploring a potential relationship. Every eye in the carnival— barring those of the few younger children—would be watching them either openly or covertly. And she doubted that Gideon would be out of her presence very often.

For the first time in her life she found herself torn between conflicting desires. She wanted to get to know Gideon, but at the same time she also wanted to find out who had killed Merlin and why. Involvement with Gideon meant she would have to be honest and her true self. Finding a killer required the opposite—detachment and deceitfulness.

Maggie wasn't accustomed to dividing herself. No matter how capricious and paradoxical she seemed to be, she was always working toward a single goal of some kind. But now... How could she show Gideon one face and the. carnival another? How could she look for love and for a murderer at the same time?

Love?

Years before, Uncle Cyrus had told her that love would come when least expected, probably when least wanted, and undoubtedly at the most inconvenient time possible. As usual, he had been right. She didn't believe she was in love with Gideon, at least not yet, but for the first time in her life the possibility was definitely there. Her state now, feverish, restless, anxious, and undecided, was proof of that.

She was tempted to try to to find some excuse to send Gideon away for a few weeks. If she told him the truth, he would certainly stay and quite likely insist on calling in the authorities as well. If she made up some other reason that he didn't believe or found impossible to accept, she could easily lose the opportunity to find out if there was more than a chance of love.

It wasn't in Maggie's nature to shirk responsibility; she had promised her family she would find Merlin's killer, and she intended to do just that. But she also intended to explore the possibility of a relationship with Gideon. The problem, she thought, was how to accomplish both objectives simultaneously. It never occurred to her it was impossible, simply because "impossible" was a word stricken at an early age from her vocabulary. There was always a way to manage two things at once. The question was how to tackle her twin goals.

Until she could figure out some kind of workable game plan, she'd just have to play it by ear. A dangerous thing to do when you were looking for a killer.

Or looking for love.

The next morning, awakened at dawn by the sounds of hungry animals demanding breakfast, Gideon braved the cold water of the carnival's facilities. He ate breakfast with Maggie in her wagon and then went to be introduced to the other members of Wonderland's family.

Maggie had kept breakfast conversation casual, talking a great deal about the carnival and very little about herself. She seemed to Gideon to be in a peculiar mood—even for her. She was so vague and childlike that he couldn't for the life of him penetrate the veils of her enigmatic self. She was breaking her promise of the night before to be no more baffling than necessary. However, he didn't call her on it because he was far too interested in finding out why she had retreated from him.

In the meantime he played a waiting game, obediently accompanying her from person to person for an introduction. She gave each his name, added no explanatory comments, and no one seemed to expect more.

"Do they know who I am?" he asked after leaving Oswald's wagon. Oswald was the aristocratic gentleman who had worn a toga at the tea party; he was wearing the same costume today and had greeted the introduction with a fierce stare and an irritable, "Well, of course he is."

Maggie nodded, her expression utterly serene. "Naturally, they know you own the carnival now."

"Nobody's mentioned it," he observed.

'They know." She sent him a glance, then paused beside the tiger's cage, apparently to study the

beast. Without looking at Gideon again she said mildly, "Oswald once taught at MIT. They called him another Einstein."

"Then what on earth is he doing here?"

"You've heard the expression 'future shock'?"

"Yes."

"It happened to Oswald, but a little differently. He could cope personally with how fast technology was advancing, but he saw further than anyone else. He didn't like what he saw. He told me once that we had too much knowledge and too little wisdom, that we were learning too fast. He said it terrified him."

After a moment Gideon said slowly, "So he just... retreated? Retired to an anachronism?"

"I suppose. Do you like Rajah?" She reached between the bars to scratch the tiger behind one lazy ear.

Gideon accepted the change of subject and looked at the drowsy tiger. "Beautiful. He seems tame enough."

Maggie began walking again toward another of the wagons. "Looks can be deceptive, especially with tigers." Her voice was bland. "There's muscle underneath the stripes. And a wide-awake predator behind the sleepy eyes."

Walking beside her, Gideon asked, "Is that a pointed reference?"

"That," she said, "was an observation." She stopped and reached out to knock lightly on the jamb of an open door. "Lamont," she called, "come out and meet Gideon."

A clown in full makeup—minus his red nose— immediately came out and sat down on the top step. He looked at Gideon, said, "Hi," in a distracted voice, and then looked mournfully at Maggie. It was something of a triumph that he could assume that expression, since a wide red smile was painted on his face.

"You should have a spare," she told him sternly.

"Well, I don't." Other than his makeup and a riotous wig of yellow hair, Lamont was wearing jeans and a T-shirt. He was, Gideon realized, hardly more than a kid. He reached up to finger his naked nose and gave Maggie another sad stare.

"Ill go into town sometime today," she told him, "and try to find another nose for you. All right?"

He nodded, still fingering his nose. "All right. Maybe you'll see Jasper there."

Maggie looked faintly surprised. "He's in town?"

"Well, sure. I mean, he must be, right?"

Gideon had the strangest impression that a silent message passed between the two of them, though there was no change of expression on either side.

After an instant Maggie nodded. "Beau's about to cast a shoe, Lamont. Maybe you'd better look at him."

"Okay. Nice meeting you," he added vaguely to Gideon, then scrambled off the steps and wandered away.

Maggie moved in the opposite direction toward a rather large tent pitched some yards away.

"What's Lamont's story?" Gideon asked her.

She glanced at him, a very faint crease between her brows. "Lamont? He's our blacksmith in addition to being a clown."

"I gathered that. I mean, why did he join the carnival?"

"Wonderland happened to be passing through his town a couple of years ago. He was sixteen, and he thought he'd better leave home."

"Why?"

She stopped and gazed up at him. "His father had some problems, and Lamont suffered for them."

"Abuse?" Gideon said slowly.

Maggie nodded. "It's funny about kids and clowns. Lamont never laughed very much as a kid, but now he paints on a smile and makes the kids laugh. He's still very insecure and anxious. That's why he worries about losing things."

"Why does he wear the makeup all the time?"

"Because he wants to. Maybe because he can't quite smile without the paint. Not yet, anyway." She began walking.

After a moment Gideon followed. He didn't much like this. He wanted the carnival's future to be a side issue between them, and Maggie was forcing it center stage. He didn't resent the compassion for these people that he was beginning to feel— but he was aware of other feelings creeping in to disturb him.

This place meant a lot to her, he could see that. He couldn't help but wonder how much. Enough so that Maggie was willing to make herself part of a package deal? She was showing him these people as individuals, all of whom truly had nowhere else they could fit in—but what if he ignored emotion and made the logical decision to sell? Would her next ploy be to offer herself in exchange for an assured future for the carnival?

How much of her enigmatic surface was the chameleon face of an actress?

Gideon didn't want to think that. He didn't want to believe that her passion had a price tag, that her mystery was sheer artifice. But because he had so many questions and so few answers, doubts were nagging at him.

"Your world's beginning to look a little grim," he said.

"Not the world. This world is an escape from grimness."

"What are you escaping from, Maggie?" He needed answers of some kind.

"A boring summer vacation." A few feet from the tent Maggie expertly balanced herself as a raven-haired urchin about Sean's age erupted from the opening and ran into her. "Where's the race, Buster?" she asked calmly, setting him upright again.

He looked up at her with china-blue eyes shining angelic innocence. "I didn't do it, I swear I didn't."

"Do what?"

"Buster!"

The child closed one eye in a comical grimace as the enraged shout came from inside the tent. In a subdued tone he murmured, "I didn't forget to lay out papers for Alexander last night. He must have ate 'em. Or Sean stole 'em just to get me in trouble. Tell Ma I didn't forget, Maggie, please?" The stare he directed up at her was heartrending.

She didn't appear to be overly affected. "Buster, we made a deal, didn't we? I told you Alexander could sleep in your tent if your parents said he could, and if you trained him to use the papers."

"He don't like to use the papers," Buster said ingenuously. "He likes to use the floor of the tent. An' he's just a puppy, Maggie—"

Two more people emerged from the tent, an average-looking man somewhere in his thirties of medium build with a placid expression, and a strikingly beautiful woman whose fierce frown didn't quite hide her peculiarly vacant china-blue eyes. "Buster," she said, "get in here and clean up the mess!"

The boy looked up at Maggie's calm expression, glanced at Gideon's faintly amused one, then hung his head and turned back toward the tent. "Aw, Ma," he muttered, but quickened his pace when she said his name again warningly.

When he'd disappeared inside, Maggie said, "Sarah, Tom—this is Gideon."

Sarah looked him up and down with childlike curiosity. "What do you do?"

Having learned that carnies apparently didn't shake hands with strangers, Gideon left his in his pockets. "I'm a banker," he replied, wondering if that was what she was asking.

She looked at Maggie in bewilderment. "Are we trying to borrow money?"

"It hasn't come to that yet," Maggie answered.

Tom nodded a greeting to Gideon, then looked at his wife. "He owns us now. I told you," he said in a gentle voice.

Gideon wondered silently if he should point out that slavery was illegal. He decided not to.

"He looks different," Sarah said stubbornly.

"He was wearing a suit yesterday," Tom explained.

Sarah studied the visitor again. "You should stay away from suits," she told him. "They make you look mean."

"Ill remember that," Gideon said.

Dismissing him, she looked at Maggie. "Tom says Jasper went to town. Did he, Maggie?"

"I expect so."

"Of course he did," Tom said in the same gentle but firm voice. "He goes off on his own a lot, you know that." In a sudden tone of surprise he said, "Look at this. I've lost a button, Sarah." He was gazing down at his open hand, in which lay a button.

"You're so rough on shirts," his wife told him in a scolding voice. "I don't know what I'm going to do with you, Tom! Come inside and let me mend it."

Gideon, who had seen the other man unobtrusively and quite deliberately twist the button off, didn't say a word as he watched the couple retreat into their tent. He followed Maggie as she began moving toward another of the wagons. After several steps, and entirely unwilling, he said, "And them? Their story?"

"Buster was born in that tent," Maggie said. "Tom and Sarah joined when they were just kids. Together. Her family wanted to put her away."

"Insanity?"

Maggie stopped walking, gazing at the wagon still ahead of them. Then she looked up at him. "That's a relative term, isn't it? Sarah... couldn't cope. She got anxious, worried herself into hysterics without reason. Her family was embarrassed by her. And her problems were worsened by the fact that she's so beautiful. When she was fourteen, a strange man promised her a pretty necklace if she'd come with him. Tom protected her then, and he still does. He takes care of her. We all take care of her. She's safe here. And happy."

"What's their job in the carnival?"

"Tom runs a few games. Honest games. Sarah's our seamstress and designer. She makes beautiful costumes."

Gideon glanced around at the sprawl of wagons and tents and murmured almost to himself, "Sanctuary."

"You could say that."

He looked back at her serene face and bottomless, unreadable eyes. "You're arguing very persuasively for the defense," he told her a bit tautly.

"I'm just introducing you."

"We both know better. You're turning this into a personal matter. I can't make a dispassionate business decision as to whether I should sell after you've forced me to see these people as individuals." He was growing angry now, both because she had made him see what he would have liked to ignore, and because he wanted her to think about him rather than the damned carnival. He didn't like the doubts he was feeling.

"Is that the bottom line here? A purely business decision?" Her voice was still mild, but it had an edge now. "Because if that's so, the decision is already made. The logical, reasonable, businesslike, untroubling solution to your problem is simply to sell out. No hassles. No worries. No complications. And no need to get involved."

"And if I do? That puts paid to my chances with you, doesn't it, Maggie?"

She could feel her temper slipping from her control, and it was an alien sensation. She felt hot, tense, and even though a reasonable voice in her head was telling her why he was saying these things, it didn't help. A strange, shaken laugh escaped from her lips.

"Oh, am I the prize? If you're a good boy and do what I want you to do, then you'll get what you want? Is that the game we're playing here?"

"You tell me." His gray eyes were steely. "I'd really like to know, Maggie. You put a hell of a distance between us this morning, and since then you've talked about nothing except the carnival and these people. So I've got to wonder. Was that passion last night faked? Are you the bait to keep Wonderland in business?"

She took a step back, almost as if he had hit her. In a soft, shaking voice she said, "You want to sell the carnival? Fine. Ill buy it. Right down to the broken wagon wheel the birds roost on. Tell your lawyer to get in touch."

Gideon knew he'd gone too far. "Maggie—"

"Leave. Now. Your business here is concluded." She turned on her heel and walked away.

He stared after her, a strange tightness in his chest. "Damn," he muttered.

Tina found Maggie brushing one of the horses a few minutes later and stood watching the rhythmic strokes. She looked at the younger woman's set face, then said, "He's gone. Got in his car and left."

"I know."

Lifting herself up to sit on a feed barrel, Tina said, "So?"

Maggie turned away from the horse and sighed. She dropped the brush into a wooden box holding several of them, then sat down on an overturned water bucket. "So what?"

Tina grimaced faintly. "Hey, this is me, remember? I gave you a reading when you first got here. Can't hide from Madame Valentina." She smiled, then sobered. "We both know you're a very smart lady. And you're doing a damn good job of holding this place together. Old Balthazar never did so well. But you don't belong here any more than that redheaded devil who just roared out of here does."

"I fit in here," Maggie said, knowing it was true.

"Sure you do. But you don't belong. The rest of us are all varying degrees of crazy; you're a little strange, that's all."

"Thanks a lot."

Tina smiled again. "My point is that you shouldn't wreck your chances with Gideon because of us. In your life, we're temporary; he looks like being long-term."

Maggie was silent for a moment, then said, "You all heard, didn't you?"

"Malcolm heard, since you were so near his wagon. Telephone, telegraph, tell Malcolm. Everybody knows you and Gideon had an argument. Lot of speculation going on."

"I lost my temper, Tina. I've never done that before. And it was stupid. It was inevitable that he'd have doubts, that he'd think I was... Damn." She shook her head slightly. "I don't know if hell come back."

"He will."

"Been looking into your crystal ball?" Maggie kept her voice light.

"No. I saw his face before he got into his car. He wasn't angry. He looked like a man who'd been punched in the stomach—and hadn't been very happy to find out it was his own fist that did the job."

Maggie drew a shaky breath. "It was a logical question he asked—if I was bait to keep the carnival intact. The worst of it is that I did think about it when we first met. You know, if I could distract him. But I couldn't go through with it."

"Not magnanimous enough?" Tina asked with a grin.

The answering grin was a little strained. "Not dispassionate enough."

"Oh. It's like that, huh?"

"In spades. As much as I've grown to love this place and you people, Gideon wouldn't have to offer anything in return. Hell, he wouldn't even have to say please."

"Does he know that?"

"Obviously not. I did too good a job of holding him at a distance today. And then I got really stupid and started telling him a little about the people here. He probably started to wonder if I'd decided to try compassion first."

"Ouch," Tina murmured.

"Yeah. The thing is, I know without a shadow of a doubt that if I did tell him he could have me if he spared the carnival, he'd walk away. He's not a man to buy a woman—no matter what the price tag reads. What's between us is separate from the carnival, but I think he began doubting that I felt that way."

"Maybe you better clear that up when he comes back," Tina suggested dryly.

They had grown to be friends in the past weeks, but Maggie hadn't dared confide her real reason for joining the carnival. So she worded her response to that carefully. "Ill try. But the fate of the carnival is in his hands, and he's going to have a hard time forgetting that."

"So you were bluffing when you said you'd buy it?" Tina's voice was casual.

Maggie swore inwardly; she'd hoped that little item had gone unheard. It wouldn't do for anyone here to find out she could afford to buy the carnival. "No. I'd raise the money somehow. I won't let Wonderland be scrapped, Tina. Tell everyone else, okay?" There was nothing else she could say.

"Ill pass the word." Tina tilted her head and studied the younger woman thoughtfully. "I guess I can see what you're getting at, though. This place isn't Barnum and Bailey, but the price tag for the whole shebang wouldn't be peanuts; raising the money to buy it would put you in hock up to your ears. Better if you can persuade Gideon just to leave us alone."

"Right."

"It is a problem between you two, though. How're you going to convince him you and the carnival aren't a package deal?"

"I don't know," Maggie said. "All I can do is tell him. Whether he believes it is up to him."

"Guess you're right."

Maggie shook her head. "Well, well see. By the way, what's this about Jasper?"

"Nobody's seen him since last night."

Conscious of a faint chill, Maggie kept her voice casual and puzzled. "The stuff about his being in town—?"

"A story for Gideon. He might have—overreacted to the news of one of us coming up missing." Tina shrugged a little. "You weren't here when Merlin disappeared, but I told you how it was. The police didn't give a damn until he was found dead, and then they were all over us. Everybody's paranoid, I think, worried that it could happen again."

"Do you think something's happened to him?"

"Who knows?" Tina's voice was helpless rather than heartless. "He does go off on his own sometimes, but it's usually just a few hours. If he isn't back by dark..."

Maggie nodded and after a moment said dryly, "Tell everyone to stop innocently remarking on it, all right? Gideon picked up on the undercurrent when Lamont mentioned it, and I think he saw Tom distract Sarah by pulling a button off his shirt. Gideon's hardly an idiot."

"Umm. Gotcha. Has he figured out you're not exactly one either?"

"Like you, he thinks I'm strange."

Tina dropped off the barrel and grinned. "But fascinating," she added.

Maggie sighed. "I'm getting a little tired of being fascinating, friend. It's like having a big chest; men stare at it so much they never see your face."

"I wouldn't know about that," Tina said with a mournful glance down at herself.

Maggie laughed and watched her friend saunter away. The spurt of humor faded, leaving her in a mood that was totally unfamiliar to her. Knowing herself thoroughly was the constant that enabled her to keep her balance no matter what lunacy was going on all around her; that easy self-knowledge seemed to be slipping away from her now. Unlike Gideon, Maggie rarely tried to impose control on any situation; her method was far more simple and a great deal more risky.

Presented with the unknown or unfamiliar, she merely immersed herself in it. Detached and observant, she stood in the middle of chaos and waited patiently for it to make sense to her. A true chameleon, she let her colors change to match her surroundings by sheer instinct, responding to people as they expected or required her to respond.

But with Gideon, the instincts themselves were chaotic. He said he wanted her to be herself, and that was a requirement never asked of her before. She knew who she was. What she was. The problem was that her instinct was to be what Gideon expected her to be—and he wasn't even sure what that was. As his idea of her changed, she instantly and unconsciously changed as well.

No wonder the man was baffled.

And no wonder, she thought, that her emotions and instincts were short-circuiting all over the place. What he thought of her at any given moment was so clearly evident to her that she responded spontaneously. He had thought her childlike and vague at their first meeting; she had donned those colors automatically. He had thought himself in the middle of an asylum; she had allowed a little madness to show itself. He had looked at her with a man's desire; she had felt the jarring awareness of her body as a woman's. He had expected her to hold him at a distance this morning after the interlude in her wagon last night, and she had. And when he had taunted her in anger, she had lost her temper despite the fact that she ? had expected him to do just that.

It was all her. Everything he had seen in her was her. But he wasn't seeing her as a whole, integrated personality, and because of that it was literally impossible for her to present herself to him the way he asked.

"Strange nothing," Maggie muttered to herself. "I'm as crazy as the rest of them."

Uncle Cyrus had told her the peculiar ability was her strength. He had also said that even though most people would look no further than their own idea of what she was—or was supposed to be—one day someone would want to look much deeper, to reach through the reflective surface and see what was there. The duration, he'd warned, would be bothersome.

Uncle Cyrus was sometimes prone to understatement.

Still, it was rather reassuring, she thought, that Uncle Cyrus was always right. He'd said that she would feel disjointed and confused for a bit, but then would regain her balance. There would come a point—a sudden one, he was willing to bet— when that other person's idea of her would clash head-on with some bedrock part of herself, and she would begin reacting for herself, reflecting what she truly was. She wouldn't entirely lose her chameleon colors... but for that other person from that point on, there would never be any doubt as to who and what she was.

Maggie didn't know if Gideon was that person, although it certainly looked that way. She rose and began making her way toward her wagon, trying to stop thinking about it. About him. Because, she knew, Tina could easily be wrong. He might not return. She didn't like the way the possibility made her feel. She didn't like feeling it at all.

The morning dragged on—still with no sign of Jasper—and afternoon came. Maggie was kneeling at the edge of the woods potting a wild rose bush that Sean had dug up for her as a present when she heard the car. She sat back on her heels and brushed her hands together as she watched Gideon get out of his car, look around briefly, and then come toward her.

He was carrying a small package wrapped colorfully and sporting a cheerful bow, and his expression was very sober. He kept his eyes fixed on her, ignoring the interested stares coming from several points in the encampment. When he reached her, he knelt down and looked at her steadily.

Maggie glanced at the package, which he had set on the ground, then met his gaze.

"A peace offering," he said quietly.

"What is it?" Her tone matched his.

A crooked smile softened his hard face. "A tasteful selection of noses for Lamont. There was a novelty shop in town."

It was unusual. Unexpected. Maybe even a little bit mad. Maggie felt her own lips curving in a smile. "Lamont will be delighted," she murmured.

"I bought a tent too," Gideon said. "A little bigger, so I won't have to bend my knees. And a fancy collar for Leo, in case Tina hasn't gotten around to making him one."

"It sounds like you're planning to stick around," she said in a neutral tone.

"I want to. If you’ll let me." He reached out to touch her cheek very lightly with the tips of his fingers, and his expression suddenly held something fierce. "I'm sorry, Maggie."





Take care of the sense, and the sounds will take care of themselves.





Four




After a moment Maggie drew back just enough so that his hand fell away from her. "Maybe you are. But you're still not sure about my motives. I can tell you that our relationship is quite separate from the fate of the carnival; I can tell you that whatever you decide won't influence my personal feelings, but I can't make you believe it. I could buy Wonderland from you, but that wouldn't be easy for me, and I consider it a last resort."

Gideon looked at her steadily. "All right. Let's solve that problem right now. I don't want Wonderland. I don't need the problems of owning it, or the proceeds from selling it. So as soon as I get probate, I’ll deed it over to someone else. Anyone in the carnival except you." He smiled. "I don't want to be accused of trying to buy something that isn't for sale."

Slowly, she said, "I suppose we could form a co-op. Let everyone have a share."

He opened his mouth, then shut it quickly.

Maggie had to smile. "I know. Then the lunatics really will be running the asylum. But they're a family, and they take care of each other. Tina could handle the business end; she's the shrewdest."

"What about you?" Gideon asked.

"I'm temporary. In the fall I’ll go back to school."

His eyes narrowed. "Then this isn't your life. Your world."

Maggie dropped her gaze to the rosebush, idly picking off a few damaged leaves. "My world is wherever I am."

"That's no answer."

Her instinct was to be vague because he expected her to be, but she fought against herself; if he was going to see her clearly, she would at least have to try to meet him halfway. It was surprisingly difficult. "You're wrong," she said. "That's the most important answer of all. It's why I fit in here so well, even though I wasn't born carny and never saw this place until a few weeks ago."

Gideon watched her intently, fascinated by what he was seeing. Her face was serene, her eyes limpid, and yet her tone of voice was one he'd never heard before, soft and firm without being at all childlike or ambiguous. He didn't understand the contrast. "Where were you born?"

"In Virginia. An only child of two extremely practical and logical people. They didn't quite know what to make of me. Mother still doesn't. Dad was killed ten years ago."

"I'm sorry. An accident?"

She smiled suddenly, and Gideon felt his heart stop. There it was, that fey smile that was peculiarly wise and tolerant and a little bit mad, as if she knew secret things the rest of the world hadn't begun to discover.

"You could say that. My wonderfully practical and logical parent decided to take up hang gliding. He wasn't very good at it, I'm afraid. But he did enjoy himself, even Mother admitted that. And to be killed while you're having fun isn't the worst way to go."

Gideon decided not to ask. "You—have a unique way of looking at things."

She sent him a glance that was a bit mischievous. "Not so unique in my family."

"I thought you said your mother didn't understand you."

"No, but then, Mother's the unusual one among all my relatives. The rest... Well, put it this way. If I owned Wonderland and they found out, everyone would want to join."

"You're kidding."

"Not at all. To say that my family is eccentric would be a considerable understatement."

"What am I getting myself into?"

"Oh, you don't have to worry. We don't see much of each other, really. The usual family gatherings is all. Other people seem to get nervous when we're all together." She looked at him again, tranquil innocence in her face. "I can't imagine why."

"The hell you can't." This time, Gideon felt on reasonably solid ground. "I may not have figured you out completely, but one thing I do know is that you're