Bonus Chapter: The Traveling Woman – Once a Carnie

Once A CarnieSo many people asked me for “more Kes” and to find out what he was thinking. Well, I’ve written this bonus chapter just for you. It covers the first time he sees Aimee again after eight, long years. Enjoy!

Being a carnie is the only life I know. I was born on the road, I live on the road and why the fuck would I want anything else?

Up until 24 hours ago, that’s how I thought.

I’m not dumb, even though there’s plenty of evidence that says I am. I know that most people are brick-dwellers. I’ve never really thought about the reasons for that: they’re what they are, and I’m what I am.

Dono used to say it was a waste of energy to worry about it. We were on a different road. Con used to argue about that when I was a kid. Even Dono couldn’t knock the questions out of him.

“Why do we have to live this way?” Con asked.

“It’s the way things are,” Dono said.

“But why?”


The summer I met Aimee was the summer Con stopped asking. I used to think it was because he’d gotten an answer, but later I realized he’d just made up his mind to leave as soon as he could.

When he did go, it hurt like hell. Dono never spoke his name again; it was like he’d died or something. Con sent me a card on each birthday, sometimes with money in it, but he never came home again. And by ‘home’ I mean he never came on the road with us again. He never came to Arcata either.

I couldn’t understand why he wanted to leave, so I guess it felt like he just didn’t want me and Dono.

But not all carnies were like us, born free, born to travel. A lot of guys just kind of found us, or the carnival found them, I don’t know. Like Zef. He wasn’t long out of prison. I think it was something to do with drugs: I don’t care as long as he doesn’t bring that shit around me. Well, I’ll tolerate some blow if it doesn’t interfere with the act, but mostly he just drinks beer.

Tucker is … Tucker. He came from the South, Tennessee or Kentucky, somewhere like that. He didn’t give his reasons for being on the road. He was doing this rinky-dink wall-of-death show, pretty lame, so when I offered him a spot in the newly-formed Hawkins’ Daredevils, he jumped at it like a pig in shit.

It’s not an easy life. There are crappy towns where you get treated like dirt; bad seasons where you get rained out or the crowds don’t come; years when the machinery breaks down or your horse goes lame, and costs outweigh what you earn. Or when you get sick and need a doctor or a dentist, but you’re on the road and don’t have the time to stop because unless you’re dying, you’ve got a schedule. Or knowing that if you don’t perform, money is going to be too tight for the next month.

But there’s nothing like it either—sleeping under the stars most of the year, seeing a new town every couple of weeks. I’ve traveled from coast to coast, been to almost every State. I’ve swum in the Atlantic and the Pacific. I’ve stood at the bottom of the Grand Canyon and the top of the Empire State Building. I’ve played to crowds of 50,000 and audiences of just five, and I get a high every time.

I’ve performed with three bust ribs and a broken arm, and I fucking smiled while I did it.

When I was a kid, Aimee told me a story about some dude who rode wherever he wanted on a magic carpet. And then she said that our RV was like a magic carpet. I teased her about that but I kinda got what she meant, too.

She loved the carnival as much as I did; I’d never met a townie like her before. When I was a kid, I imagined what it would be like if she traveled with us. Each summer we arrived in Fairmont, it was almost like I was holding my breath until I saw her. I couldn’t help thinking that one summer she just wouldn’t show up, but she always did. Every summer we’d roll into that maize field, and before the dust had settled, she’d be running toward me. My heart used to race when I saw her, this little shrimp of a kid with a huge smile—a smile just for me. The look on her face made me feel like a fucking king.

And then the year we turned 16, everything changed.

I’d fooled around with a lot of girls, more than I ever admitted to Aimee. I hadn’t had sex, but I’d done just about everything else. I hadn’t planned on still being a virgin at 16, and it’s not the kind of thing a guy likes to admit to, but Dono had scared the crap out of me about what would happen if I got a girl pregnant. He drummed it into me that kids should be wanted—and how they could ruin lives. Like Mom’s.

Being told your whole life that you’re a mistake—it fucks with you.

Most carnies have hook-ups with townies, but relationships stay pretty much within the life.

I don’t know what happened to Aimee between 15 and 16. Well yeah, I do, but I mean shit! She went from being this scrawny little kid to serious hotness, all within one year. Suddenly she’d gotten hips and tits.

It freaked me out a bit, getting hard for my best friend, but as soon as I worked out that she felt the same—that she wanted me, too—it was the most amazing feeling. Having sex with her was better than anything I could have imagined. And I’d imagined it a lot.

When I lost her, I thought that she’d just been using me. That’s what her parents told me.

Once A CarnieAnd then seeing her again, with a kid, I saw my past and future and present all tangled up. Looking up and meeting her eyes wide with shock, my heart was pounding so hard, I thought it would crash and burn and take me with it. She looked so fucking beautiful, and all I could think was, that should have been me giving her a son.

The thought scared the fuck out of me. Every time I fucked a woman, I felt the urge to double-wrap my dick, and suddenly I was envious of the jerk who’d given her a kid. How fucked up was that?

When Sorcha first joined Dono’s outfit I was 15. She made it obvious that she’d fuck me, but only after she’d worked her way through most of the roustabouts first. I might have wanted sex, but I didn’t want my dick to fall off either. Kind of ironic, bearing in mind what happened later and how long we were together … if you can call it that.

Hooking up with her when I was 17 was just fucking. Angry fucking—the kind where you’ll take any emotion because it’s better than being numb.

But seeing Aimee again after all these years … it took every ounce of concentration not to show her what I was feeling.

Her voice wavered, uncertainty clouding her eyes as she stared back at me.

“It … it’s Aimee … Aimee Andersen.”

I had to work to keep my voice on the level. All the anger I felt listening to her old man yell in my face that I wasn’t good enough, that she never really wanted me. It was all there, as sharp as if it happened yesterday, not eight fucking years ago. I hate the bitch. At least … I really fucking want to.

“Yeah, I remember you.” As if I’d ever forget.

I leaned down to sign her kid’s program.

“What’s your name, dude?”

“Dylan,” he replied shyly, holding Aimee’s hand tightly, half hiding behind her.

“Cool name,” I said, giving nothing away as I scrawled my signature across the program with a Sharpie.

Aimee stood there stiffly, looking embarrassed and off balance. Yeah, I liked that a lot.

“Can … can we talk?” she asked quietly.

No fucking way! That was what I wanted to say, but it wasn’t fair to swear in front of the kid. It wasn’t his fault that his momma was a lying bitch.

“I’m kinda busy.”


It wasn’t the look on her face, but the kid’s, looking so disappointed that I was treating his momma like shit. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t kill the magic for him.

“Twenty minutes,” I said. “Out back.”

I didn’t look up to see her reaction as I gunned the engine and rode away.

Tucker and Zef were putting the bikes back into the trailer when I rolled up.

“Good show, boss man,” laughed Tucker.

“You were late on the grid pattern,” I growled. “Could have fucking rear-ended Zef.”

Tucker looked surprised.

“No way! That was as smooth as a virgin’s ass!”

Zef threw me a tight look. He always saw through my bullshit.

“What crawled up your ass? The performance was solid.”

I muttered something under my breath and ditched the bike, jogging back to the RV.

I tried to shower quickly, but my dick wouldn’t cooperate. Bastard was as hard as steel just from having seen Aimee fucking Andersen for all of thirty seconds. I jerked off hard and fast and had only just finished dressing when there was a knock on the door.

“Lady to see you, Mr. Hawkins.”

I took a deep breath and wrenched the door open, standing with my arms across my chest.

“You came back. That’s new.”

The angry words spilled out. So much for playing it cool. The usher threw me a disgusted look, shook his head, and walked away, leaving me with Aimee.

She looked nervous, twisting her hands together, just like she used to when she was a kid.

“You said to meet you ‘out back’. I wasn’t sure what you meant, so … here I am.”

Her eyes darted to the kitchen, the living area, anywhere but at me. I stepped back to let her inside, and she plopped down on one of the sofas and looked up.

She finally met my eyes, and I saw nerves and something more.

When she licked her lips, I couldn’t help the reflex of my eyes falling to her mouth. I didn’t want to want her—but I did. And that really pissed me off.

“What are you doing here, Aimee?”

“I came with my sister Jennifer and Dylan. You remember Jennifer?”

Her voice was high pitched and falsely bright. Completely fake.

I shrugged, impatient with her bullshit. “I mean, what are you doing here?

“I … I wanted to see you.”

“Yeah? Well, now you’ve seen me, you can go.”

I was surprised to see tears in her eyes when I spat out my harsh reply.

“You want me to go?” she whispered.

Christ! I couldn’t believe I was falling for her act again. But seeing her on the verge of tears, I felt a sharp pain inside my chest—something I hadn’t experienced for a long, long time.

“Yeah, that would probably be best,” I muttered.

“But … I don’t understand!” she cried out angrily. “Why are you being so … so cold!”

I closed my eyes briefly, running my hands through my hair in frustration. I couldn’t bring myself to kick her out.

“Do you want a coffee or something?” I asked. Fucking lame.

“Thank you,” she said quietly, staring at her hands resting in her lap.

I took my time at the coffee machine, trying to decide what I needed to say to her; trying to decide what she wanted from me. Maybe I could just fuck her and get over her already.

“Black okay?”

“Does it do lattes?”

I couldn’t help smiling. Aimee and her fancy, girly coffees. Sorcha drank hers black, no sugar—suited her.

Finally, I handed her a cup of frothy stuff.

“No leaf shapes in my foam?” she asked, pretending to look disappointed.

“You should have said,” I deadpanned. “I could have done a monkey riding a unicycle.”

I thought she’d laugh, like most women would have, but instead she sighed.

“When you opened the door, I half expected Mr. Albert to jump out.”

Her unexpected comment felt like a knife to the gut.

“I was sorry to hear about Dono,” she said, unaware that she’d already gutted me like a fish. I felt my body tense.

“How did you know?”

“Sorcha told me and…”


Doesn’t she come tonight?

“Yes, I was looking for you, but I found her—she told me about Dono. I felt so bad, like it was my fault or something.”

She was talking in riddles.

“Run that by me again?”

She shook her head and took a deep breath.

“Sorry, I’m not making much sense. I suppose because it happened after … well, you know … I’m sure the stress didn’t help.”

I stared at her. She sounded so sincere … but then again she always had. I blew out a long breath.

“Yeah, not a good time.”

“No, it wasn’t.”

We sat there, neither of us knowing what to say. I wondered again why she was here. If she’d just wanted to put the moves on me, most chicks would have done it by now.

“You seem to be doing well,” she said at last. “Hawkins’ Daredevils—the name suits you. Why did you change it?”

Not going there.

“Long story.”

She sighed again and stared at her hands. She looked so sad that I felt like a bit of a shit. She’d always been my weak spot.

Finally, I managed to think of a neutral question. “Did you go to college like you wanted?”

She smiled and her eyes brightened, making my cold heart beat hard.

“Yes, I did.”

I nodded slowly. “Teacher?”

“You remembered!”

She seemed so happy that I hadn’t forgotten. Too many times I wished I could forget.

I nodded again. “Yeah.”

“I love it,” she said enthusiastically. “I’m teaching third graders at a school near Boston and…”


I wasn’t expecting that. I’d assumed that she’d stayed in Minnesota.

“Yes, it’s different. I like it.”

She bit her lip, holding back whatever else she was going to say. I decided to cut to the chase.

“Married?” I asked, looking pointedly at her empty ring finger.

“No,” she laughed, her cheeks flushing. “You?”

I shook my head. “No, but I’m … involved … with someone.”

If you could call fucking my manager whenever she was around ‘involved’.

Aimee gave a weak smile.

“Well, that’s nice. Lucky lady.”

I waited for something else, some snippy comment, but she chewed her lip and stayed silent.

“So,” I said at last, “you’re back in Minnesota for the summer?”

“Not the whole summer, no. Just a quick visit. Catching up with family, you know.”

“Not really,” I said acidly.

She blushed again.

“Um, how’s Con doing?” she stammered. “I tried to find him at Northwestern, but, well, I couldn’t.”

What was she talking about? That was fucking years ago. “Northwestern?”

“Well, not recently, of course. But after … I just thought … he might be able to help, or something.”

“Help with what?”

“Jesus, Kestrel!” she yelped, taking me by surprise as she slammed her cup down on the table. “Finding you, of course! You just disappeared and I didn’t know where you were or what you were doing. I called your cell about a million times, but you never answered and then … nothing. I was desperate! Even if you didn’t want to see me, I just wanted to know that you were okay!”

Anger bubbled up inside of me. Was she really trying to blame me for the shitstorm that went down eight years ago?

“What do you mean, even if I didn’t want to see you? Of course I wanted to fucking see you!” I shouted. “I drove all the way to Fairmont just for five minutes of your precious time!”

Aimee’s eyes were wide with shock.

“What? When? When did you drive to see me?”

She really didn’t know what I meant?

I stared at her. “Seriously? You’re saying you didn’t know?”

“Didn’t know what?”

“Fuck,” I muttered, beginning to think that one of us was crazy, but no longer sure it was her. “I tried to see you, Aimee. I came for you, just like we’d planned. I was going crazy when you wouldn’t answer your phone. Then Dono found out what I was planning and threw my phone in the bay. We got in the worst fight…” I paused, remembering that night. “I called your house so many times, but as soon as I spoke, the call was cut off. I didn’t know what to think. I even wrote you but I never heard back, so I packed up everything and stole Dono’s truck.

“It took me two weeks to get there from Arcata because the fucking thing broke down in the snow, and I got stuck in Rapid City for eight days while I found an auto shop that would let me use their tools to fix it.”

I took a deep breath.

“Your mom answered the door. I remember that. She looked so shocked, I thought she was going to faint. But then your dad was there.” I scowled at the memory. “He tried to freeze me out, but I sat outside your house for two hours. I think the only reason he let me in was because he knew I wouldn’t go away. He told me that you’d gone to live with your aunt in Michigan and weren’t coming back.” I stared at her, trying to figure out if she was for real. “He said that you’d realized it was a mistake to get involved with … trailer trash … and that you didn’t want me to contact you. He told me that you’d thrown your phone in the garbage.”

She gasped, and I had to look away or I wouldn’t have been able to go on.

“I’d used up all my gas money to get to you. Your Dad had to give me three hundred bucks to fuck off. Pretty ironic, huh? At least I could get home. Dono kicked my ass about halfway to Sacramento for that stunt. But he didn’t get sick until two weeks before Easter. We were getting ready for the spring circuit and … I guess his heart just gave out. That’s what the docs said.” I looked down, trying to ignore the pain in my own chest. “Old story now.”

Aimee looked stricken, and the truth hit me with the force of a Mack truck: she didn’t know.

“I thought you’d changed your mind,” she choked out. “They didn’t tell me. They didn’t.”

I shook my head, angry that we’d both been lied to. And sad. “I’m figuring that out now.”

The look on Aimee’s face made me want to hit something.

“Yes,” she whispered, her voice breaking, “they had sent me to Michigan, but I was only there for a month. I came back to finish school. I probably only missed you by a couple of days.” Tears slipped from her eyes and she brushed them away angrily. “Dad smashed my phone to pieces—that’s why you couldn’t reach me. I would never have thrown it away. I wrote to you, but my letter came back, marked ‘return to sender’. That’s when I tried to contact Falcon, but that was a dead end, too. I couldn’t find any reference to you or Dono on the web, it was a nightmare. One of Jennifer’s friends lived in Redding, and she offered to drive out to Arcata Bay to try and find you, but when she got there, the log cabin was empty—abandoned, she said.”

I rubbed my hands over my face. “I can’t believe this. We were both looking for each other…”

“At least you knew where I was,” she said, her voice suddenly accusing.

All the sympathy I’d been feeling for her evaporated.


“You gave up on me!” she shouted. “I waited for you, but one word from my dad and you left with your tail between your legs.”

“Just back the fuck up!” I snarled.

“No! You back up! How could you be so stupid?”

My eyes blazed at her as I roared my reply. “I’m not stupid!”

“You are!” she screamed at me, her face furious. “You’re so dumb! You’re as dumb as dirt for believing my asshole father! I didn’t want to live when you didn’t come back.” Her voice cracked and she looked down, mumbling the final words. “They called it a breakdown, but it was just my stupid heart that was broken.”

Once A CarnieAnd then she fell apart completely. Her body shuddered as tears wracked her small frame. I couldn’t help myself. I pulled her into my arms, rocking her against me, whispering soothing words.

I believed her: every fucking word. Her goddamn parents had kept us apart, trying to ruin our lives. Why the fuck had I believed them? I should have believed in Aimee, in us.

It felt right to hold her in my arms; it felt right to want to protect her, to never let her go. It was confusing, too much to take in, so I just held her against me, breathing in her scent, letting her curl into my chest.

After ten minutes of seriously ugly crying, her tears finally stopped and she seemed embarrassed as she pulled away from me. I didn’t want to let her go, but I did.

“Sorry,” she sniffed. “God, I must look like hell.”

She dug a tissue out of her purse, wiping her eyes and smudging her mascara even more.

“Better?” I asked quietly.

“Ugh, I feel horrible,” she admitted with an embarrassed frown. “I’ve cried all over your shirt. I’m so sorry.”

As if I gave a fuck about that.

“Hey,” I said, grabbing her chin and making her look at me. “It doesn’t matter. It’s been a shock. For both of us.”

I couldn’t help touching her, my fingers wiping away the last of her tears. It shocked me how much I still wanted her.

This time, I pulled away from her, reluctant to go there again. She has a kid, I reminded myself.

“Do you mind if I clean up this mess?” she asked, pointing at her tangled hair and blotchy face.

She looked so much like the girl I remembered, that I couldn’t help smiling.

“Sure, no problem. Second door on the left.”

She stood up and hurried out, avoiding my eyes.

I was glad she’d given me some breathing room. It was so fucking confusing having her here. When I was a kid, I was so sure that I was in love with her—whatever that meant. But I’d spent the last eight years hating her, and now … what the fuck was I supposed to think now?

I needed time to…

“Kes, bro!” yelled Tucker, as he and Zef burst into the RV and plopped down on the sofas. “Zef’s setting up a game of poker with a couple of the roustabouts. You in?”

But before I could answer, Aimee returned. Her hair was combed, but her eyes were still red it was obvious that she’d been crying.

Tucker’s eyes were all over her, which made me want to punch the smile right off of his smug fucking face.

“Who’s been a naughty boy, Kestrel?” he laughed. “The boss-lady isn’t going to be happy that you’ve been screwing on company time.”

Aimee blushed even redder and threw him an angry look.

“Shut up, Tucker,” I snapped, suddenly wanting to defend her. “It’s not like that. Aimee’s an old friend.”

“Sure she is,” the asshat laughed again.

“Not bad though,” said Zef. “Although it looks like you had to rough her up some.”

“Shut your fucking mouth,” I snarled, as I saw Aimee’s expression turn embarrassed.

I decided we needed to go somewhere quiet to talk some more, and I held out my hand to her. “Come on, Aimee. Let’s get out of here.”

But before we could leave, Sorcha stepped into the RV. I hadn’t been expecting her to show up until this evening, and her timing couldn’t have been worse.

She didn’t even glance up from the papers she was studying as she walked inside.

“Nice show, boys. Good door receipts. I’ll have the total in a couple of hours. For the next show on Thursday I want you to…”

Then she saw Aimee and her lips curled in a sneer. “I thought we agreed that you’d keep your tramps out of the RV.”

Aimee’s mouth dropped open in shock as Zef laughed and shook his head.

“She’s not one of ours, Sorcha. This is all on Kes.”

Surprise washed over Aimee’s face, erasing the shock.

“Sorcha?” she gasped. “You’re Sorcha? I didn’t recognize you as a blonde, but your manners sure haven’t improved.”

I didn’t understand their reactions. Hadn’t they met just a few minutes ago? What the fuck was going on?

“I thought you said you already talked to Sorcha?”

“I didn’t say that!” Aimee frowned.

“Yeah, Aimee, you did,” I said angrily. “You said she told you about Dono.”

Sorcha’s face paled, and her gaze dropped from mine. She looked guilty—and that confused me even more. But Aimee looked like she knew what was going on—I was glad one of us did.

“Oh right,” Aimee said, nodding slowly. “But I meant years ago. The year after you … left, I went back to the carnival and Sorcha was working the hoopla booth. That’s when she told me about Dono.”

I pinned my gaze on Sorcha, fury beginning to surge inside me. If this was what I thought it was … Sorcha licked her lips nervously, shifting from foot to foot.

“Sorcha?” I grit out. “You want to explain what the fuck is going on?”

Zef and Tucker were enjoying the show. They should have brought popcorn.

“We can talk about this,” Sorcha said to me nervously, reaching out to touch my arm.

I jerked back.

“Now,” I said coldly.

“Babe, come on,” she whispered, pouting a little.

“NOW!” I ordered.

“You’ve got this all wrong,” she whined. “I knew that little bitch was no good for you. Everything was fine until she came along. We’ve got a good thing going, haven’t we, babe?”

I lost it completely. More lies! Everyone had fucking lied to me!

I threw my coffee cup hard, so it shattered behind Sorcha’s head, showering her with cold coffee.

Sorcha yelped as brown liquid spattered all over her. I was a nanosecond from doing something far worse.

“Tell me the fucking truth for once!” I yelled, getting in her face and glaring down at her.

“Fuck you!” she screamed back. “You’d be nowhere without me! Nowhere! I took you in when you had nothing. You’re a fucking illiterate circus act. I gave you everything!”

Pain flared in my chest as she admitted what she’d done. For eight years, she’d lied to me, hidden the truth, kept Aimee from me.

I grabbed hold of her arm hard and dragged her across the carpet, then threw her out of the RV. She stumbled, landing on her hands and knees in the dirt.

Aimee looked upset, but Tucker grinned at me. “Don’t worry, sweet cheeks, they do this all the time. They get off on it. Sorcha likes it rough, if you know what I mean.”

I turned on him, ready to beat the shit out of Tucker if I couldn’t take it out on Sorcha.

“Out! Get out! Everybody get the fuck out!”

Tucker looked amused but Zef was just pissed as they left the RV. But then Aimee tried to follow them. I hated the look of fear I saw on her face. She was the one person that I didn’t want to be afraid of me.

“Aimee, stay?” I asked quietly.

She hesitated at the door. I wanted to beg her, but I didn’t do that shit.

“Okay,” she said hesitantly.

She sat nervously on the edge of the sofa while I paced up and down, trying to cool my anger and frustration. I wasn’t doing a great job of it.

“I can’t fucking believe this. Eight years. Eight fucking years!”

Then I slumped into the sofa opposite Aimee and stared across at her.

“Just like your parents,” I laughed without humor. “You think you can trust someone, but they just screw you over.”

I’d been such a dick, believing what Aimee’s parents had told me; believing what Sorcha had told me.

“What a bitch,” I muttered.

But then Aimee’s phone rang and I was pissed all over again.

“Do you mind if I get that?” she asked quietly. “It could be important.”

Probably the kid’s father.

This whole day was totally fucked.

She pulled out her cell and walked a few steps away, although she didn’t try to stop me from hearing what she was saying.

“Sorry, Jen. Things took a little longer than I was expecting.”


“He’s being a real handful, huh?” She laughed at something the other person said. “Okay, no problem. I’ll be there. I’ll see you in ten minutes.”

She finished the call and looked at me apologetically.

“You’ve got to go.”

“Sorry, duty calls.”

“That’s okay,” I said bitterly. “Your son needs you.”

Aimee blinked, her expression surprised. “Dylan’s not my son,” she said firmly. “He’s my nephew.”

What? Yeah, of course. Jen was her sister… “I thought … he’s Jennifer’s kid?”

“Yes. Wow, you really thought he was mine?”

She seemed stunned by the idea.

“Yeah, you looked really close.”

She smiled. “Dylan’s great. I miss him so much when I go home.”

I nodded slowly. That’s right—she doesn’t live around here. “How long is it before you leave?”

“It’s kind of open at the moment. I had some things planned, but they fell through. I want to spend time with Jennifer and Dylan, and I was going to see my mom…”

She frowned, and I wondered what she’d say to her folks now she knew the truth.

“Are you still going to see her?”

“Hell, yes!” she snorted. “She’s got some explaining to do!”

“And your father?”

She shook her head. “I haven’t spoken to him for two years, and I haven’t seen him in four. He and Mom split up when he had an affair. He’s not really a part of my life.”

“Good,” I said coldly, “because otherwise I’d be tempted to beat the shit out of him.”

Aimee frowned again then glanced at her watch. “I’m sorry, I’ve really got to go.”

I stood up, making a sudden decision. “I’ll walk you.”

“Oh,” she said, sounding surprised. “Thanks. I’d probably get lost, so that’ll be great.”

I opened the RV’s door and jumped out, turning to give her my hand to help her down.

“Thank you,” she muttered.

But I felt too much holding her hand, so I dropped it quickly and shoved my hands in my pockets. This was a bad, bad idea: she was the only woman I’d ever met who had the power to rip out my heart. Seeing her again, all I wanted to do was wrap my arms around her, hold her, kiss her, fuck her till she screamed my name.

“So, Sorcha’s your manager now?” she asked, her voice sounding skeptical.

I nodded, not really wanting to have this conversation.

“And your girlfriend?” she asked, pushing a little harder.

I shrugged. “Not really.”

Aimee looked relieved, and I couldn’t help liking that. A lot.

“Oh. It’s just that you said you were involved, so I thought…”

Nope, she wasn’t going to let it drop. That was definitely the Aimee I remembered. I glanced at her, and I saw the moment she realized exactly what Sorcha had been to me. I saw disappointment, and something else that was gone too quickly for me to recognize.

“She’s a manager-with-benefits?”

I gave a small smile, but didn’t agree or disagree.

“How come you call yourself Hawkins now?” she asked, changing the subject.

Why the fuck did she have to ask that question?

“That’s a long story,” I said curtly.

She pressed her lips together in a way that told me she was done talking. I wanted to smile. Her face was an open book—she really couldn’t act for shit. Everything she felt was obvious, especially if you knew her as well as I did.

“So … Boston: how did you end up on the east coast?”

She glanced at me quickly before she answered.

“It’s a long way from Minnesota.”

“Yeah, I noticed that. Do you like it?”

Once A Carnie“I do! I love being so near Boston and all the history there. I’ve made a couple of trips to New York, too. Have you ever visited there? New Hampshire, I mean.”

“Yeah, a few times,” I said. “Not recently, but when I was a kid we had some bookings: Philly, Scranton, Albany … D.C. … some other places—I don’t really remember.”

“You’ve traveled so much,” she said wistfully. “I always meant to, but really I’ve just shuttled between Minnesota and Boston.”

By now we’d reached the cotton candy stall at the end of the midway, and I could see a woman holding Dylan’s hand. Time was running out. Again.

“It’s been really good to see you again, Kes,” she said, her voice wistful. “I’m happy things have worked out for you. I always knew you’d be a star.”

I smiled at her words, but all I could think was, she’s leaving again.

“And you’ve done well,” I replied. “You’re a teacher—what you always wanted.”

“Yep, guess it worked out for both of us,” she said, her lips smiling, but her eyes sad.

I nodded and looked away, making a decision that I was probably going to regret.

“Maybe we could … talk … or something, before you head back east?” I offered, my voice almost reluctant.

Her face brightened immediately.

“Really? That would be great!”

Her voice was so enthusiastic, I couldn’t help smiling at her and raising one eyebrow.

“Fine!” she said grumpily, elbowing me in the ribs gently. “If you hadn’t asked, I would’ve come back to the fair to stalk you.”

I laughed out loud, amused that Aimee was still the same—she had absolutely no game. I kind of loved that about her.

Whoa! Where the fuck did that thought come from?

“Give me your cell phone,” I said, still smiling. “I’ll program my number.”

She handed it over and watched while I added my details, then I called my own phone.

“Now I have your number, too.”

She smiled happily, and I winked at her.

As we walked up to the cotton candy stall, the woman was staring at me. I recognized the look, totally eye-fucking me. I guessed this was Aimee’s sister and I immediately tensed up. Aimee’s family had never liked me.

Then the kid gave a happy shout.

“Aunty Aimee! We’ve been waiting forever!

Aimee laughed at his annoyed expression.

“I was catching up with an old friend,” she said happily.

Friend? Yeah right.

The kid squinted his eyes then gasped. “Motorcycle Man!”

I couldn’t help smiling. I loved the way kids let themselves go during my show, enjoying themselves without worrying about what anyone thought. I smiled at him, then dropped down to one knee so we were the same height.

“Your Aunt Aimee has been telling me all about you,” I exaggerated. “You sound like a cool kid.”

The kid squirmed with shyness and half hid behind his mom’s legs.

“I like your motorcycle,” he mumbled. “When I grow up I’m gonna have one just like it.”

“Is that right?” I laughed, standing up again.

“Not unless he wants to give his mom a thousand gray hairs,” the woman said. But to my surprise, she smiled at me. “Good to see you again, Kes. It’s been too long.”

“Um, thanks,” I muttered, confused that she was being friendly.

The kid peeped out to look at me.

“You could bring your motorcycle to my house and I could show all my friends,” he said, a pleading look on his face.

“Dylan,” Jennifer said gently. “I’m sure Mr. Hawkins is far too busy…”

But I wasn’t going to miss an opportunity like that. I wanted to see Aimee again.

I interrupted her. “I’ve got shows Thursday through Sunday, but I could come by after that.”

I risked a glance at Aimee. She looked surprised, but happy, and that was all I cared about.

“Well,” Jennifer said, after looking at Aimee, “that would be lovely. Maybe we could set something up for next week…”

“I’m free Monday,” I said, not wanting to wait.

“Great!” Then she turned to her sister while she carried on speaking to me. “I take it Aimee has your number so she can text you the directions?”

I grinned at both of them, enjoying the flush of heat in Aimee’s cheeks. It got me thinking all sorts of ways I could make her hot.

I dragged my mind out of the gutter to reply.

“Yeah, I just gave it to her.”

“That’s all settled,” Jennifer said. “Now I need to get this monster home before he grows horns and a forked tail.”

“Mom!” the kid groaned, and I couldn’t help smiling when he checked his head and butt, just in case.

Aimee looked like she didn’t know what to do or say next, so I bent down and kissed her on the cheek, resisting doing anything else. Then I said goodbye to her sister and shook the kid’s hand.

“Take good care of these ladies,” I said, and the kid nodded seriously.

I glanced once more at Aimee and walked away.

It took every ounce of strength not to look back at her.

What the hell had just happened?

In the space of half-an-hour my life had gotten turned inside out. I couldn’t believe that Aimee Andersen was back in my life. I knew it couldn’t be for long. She’d be heading back to New Hampshire, and I’d be heading south for Texas and the next shows, another town.

I wasn’t used to feeling so many emotions. Those had fucked with my head so much when I was a kid. That’s why it had always been easy having Sorcha around, because I didn’t feel anything for her.

That had changed, too. I hated the bitch. The moment I saw the guilty look on her face, I knew that Aimee was telling the truth and that Sorcha had lied to me for years. I hated being the sucker to her game. Well, that ended now.

Of course, she didn’t give up that easily.

I was heading back to the RV when I saw Zef.

“Sorcha’s waiting for you.”

“Bitch,” I growled under my breath.

“Whatever she did, we still need a manager,” Zef said calmly.

“Fuck that! She’s out … done! I’ll find a new manager.”

Zef shrugged and walked away. He knew better than to argue with me when I was this angry.

I strode across to the RV, but Sorcha wasn’t waiting in the living area. With a mounting sense of loss for what might have been with Aimee, and fury at Sorcha’s lies, I ripped open my bedroom door.

She was lying in my bed, and I could tell that she was naked.

Her eyes flared with excitement when she saw me, and she licked her lips.

I folded my arms across my chest and stared down at her.

I’d always thought Sorcha was hot, and I’d ignored the fake tits and fake hair. I didn’t care enough that she did that shit to herself. But now, seeing her for what she was, I just wanted her gone.

“Get out.”

“Aw, babe, you don’t need her; I can give you everything you want.”

She kneeled up and let the sheet fall away from her, then she massaged her tits together.

“You look angry, babe,” she said, her voice low and attempting to be seductive. “Take it out on me. You know I like it—and you love it. Come on. Get mad.”

She was almost panting by now and my dick decided it wanted some of the action. Dumb fucker never did think about anything other than sex.

Sorcha smiled and started fingering herself. I grabbed her arm and pulled her off my bed.

“Get out!” I growled. “Take your shit and get out!”

“What are you talking about?” she said angrily. “I don’t care if you fucked her. I’m here now. I’m your fucking manager, Kestrel!”

I ignored her, grabbing her clothes and walking to the RV’s door and tossing them outside. Then I wrapped my hand around her bicep and hauled her out of my room.

She dragged herself free and tried to scratch my face.

I slapped her hand away, about two seconds from doing something we’d both regret.

She was screeching and screaming, yelling every foul-mouthed curse the carnival had ever taught her. Then she picked up the nearest thing to her, which happened to be my laptop, and threw it at my head.

I caught it easily.

“We are done here, Sorcha. You’re a fucking liar and a lousy lay. Get out and don’t come back. Ever.”

I didn’t care that she was still naked; I threw her out of my home and slammed the door.

I sat down on the sofa, trying to calm the fuck down. If Sorcha tried to come back now, she’d be making a huge fucking mistake. But it was oddly silent outside.

After a few minutes I felt calm enough to look out the window. Sorcha had gone. I breathed a sigh of relief and let my thoughts drift back to Aimee.

That was a fucking head spin: Aimee Andersen, after all these years. Not married, not seeing anyone—and she still looked at me like I made the sunshine.

It was a mistake, I knew it was a mistake, but I couldn’t stop myself either. Even now, years later, there was still something between us. I wasn’t sure what it was, but I sure as fuck wanted to find out…