Kiss an Angel(9)

By: Susan Elizabeth Phillips


He gave a bark of laughter. “You need a keeper, angel face, not a husband.”

“Will you stop calling me that!”

“Be grateful that’s all I’m calling you.” He snagged the strap of her bag with three fingers of one hand and tossed it over the top as if it weighed no more than her pride. Then he hauled her to her feet, unlocked the door of the cab, and pushed her into the sweltering interior.

She didn’t trust herself to speak until they had left the airport far behind and were traveling on a two-lane highway that seemed to be heading inland instead of toward Hilton Head, as she’d hoped.

Flat stretches of palmetto and scrub stretched on both sides of the road, and the blast of warm air coming through the truck’s open windows whipped feathery strands of hair against her cheeks. Keeping her voice determinedly pleasant, she finally broke the silence. “Would you mind turning on the air-conditioning? I’m getting blown to bits.”

“It hasn’t worked for years.”

Maybe she was getting numb, because his announcement didn’t surprise her. More miles ticked by, and signs of civilization grew increasingly sparse. Once again, she asked the question he’d refused to answer when they’d gotten off the plane. “Will you please tell me where we’re going?”

“It’ll probably be easier on your nervous system if you wait to see for yourself.”

“I’m not taking that as a hopeful sign.”

“Let’s put it this way. The place doesn’t have a cocktail lounge.”

The jeans, the boots, the pickup with Florida plates. Maybe he was a rancher! She knew that there were all kinds of wealthy cattle ranchers in Florida. Maybe they were taking a roundabout way south. Please, God, let him be a rancher. And let it be like a Dallas rerun. A beautiful house, tacky clothes, Sue Ellen and JR. cavorting around the swimming pool.

“Are you a rancher?”

“Do I look like a rancher?”

“Right now you sound like a psychiatrist. You answered a question with a question.”

“I wouldn’t know anything about that. I never visited one.”

“Of course not. You’re obviously much too well-adjusted.” She’d meant the remark to be sarcastic, but she didn’t do sarcasm well, and it seemed to go right past him.

She gazed out the window at the hypnotically flat stretch of highway. Off to her right, she saw a dilapidated house with a scraggly tree in the front yard holding a collection of bird feeders made from gourds. The hot air blew over her.

She closed her eyes and tried to pretend that she was inhaling. Until today, she hadn’t realized how addicted she was to nicotine. As soon as things settled down, she’d have to quit. She’d be in a new setting, and she’d make some rules for herself. For example, she wouldn’t ever smoke in the ranch house. If she wanted a cigarette, she’d slip out onto the veranda or lie on a chaise next to the pool.

As she drifted into sleep, she once again found herself praying. Please, God, let there be a veranda. Let there be a pool. . . .

Sometime later, the jolting of the truck awakened her. She jerked upright, opened her eyes, and gave a choked gasp.

“Something wrong?”

“Tell me that’s not what I think it is.” Her finger shook as she pointed toward the moving object on the other side of the dusty windshield.

“It’s pretty hard to confuse an elephant with anything else.”

It was an elephant. A real, live elephant. The beast picked up a clump of hay in its trunk and tossed it on its back. As she gazed into the glare of the late afternoon sun, she prayed that she was still asleep and this was only a bad dream. “We’re stopping here because you want to take me to the circus, right?”

“Not exactly.”

“You want to go to the circus yourself?”

“No”

Her mouth was so dry it was difficult forming the words. “I know you don’t like me, Mr. Markov, but please don’t say you work here.”

“I’m the manager.”

“You manage a circus,” she repeated faintly.

“That’s right.”

Stunned, she sagged back in the seat, but even her naturally optimistic nature couldn’t find a silver lining in this dark cloud.

The sun-parched vacant lot held a red-and-blue striped big top, several smaller tents, and a variety of trucks and trailers. The largest one was painted with red and blue stars, along with the bright red legend quest brothers circus, owen quest, owner. In addition to a number of shackled elephants, she saw a llama, a camel, some large animal cages, and all kinds of disreputable people, including some dirty-looking men, most of whom seemed to be missing their front teeth.

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