Disclaimers - See Part 1.
SUMMER'S CIRCUS - PART 2
When Summer reappeared in the ring - Alison had persuaded the disbelieving ringmaster that watching her rehearse would not bore her - her long black hair was tied back into a neat plait. And she was no longer wearing a sweatshirt and jeans but had changed into a sky-blue leotard that left little to the imagination.
Alison swallowed convulsively, sure her eyeballs must be popping out on stalks.
Summer crossed to a ladder at the edge of the ring, and plunged her hands into a small canvas bag hanging prominently from one rung. She shook off the excess of something white and dusty - chalk? wondered Alison - then swarmed up the ladder at a speed that startled the watching journalist.
The three huge men and two tiny women who made up the Dyakonov Troupe shouted a welcome as the ringmaster joined them on the complex network of wires, ropes, and trapezes that crisscrossed the upper recesses of the Big Top.
As Summer and the acrobats - or 'aerialists', as Summer had called them - talked and gestured, Alison noticed anxiously that there wasn't a safety net..
"Donít worry," said a voice in her ear. "The Boss knows what she's doing."
She turned to find Ruud standing next to her.
"And the safety guys are very experienced," he added.
He pointed to two burly men who Alison had seen around but had yet to meet. They were standing patiently by the side of the ring, gripping ropes that disappeared skyward, looking up. She vaguely remembered them doing the same thing last night.
Alison smiled gratefully at him. "It's very short notice. Does Summer do this often?"
"Often enough." He shrugged. "It's that old 'The show must go on' mentality."
"Do performers often get hurt or fall sick?"
Ruud shook his head. "Fortunately not. Circus people are tough. But it does happen, on occasion. And then, if it's an individual act that's out of commission, we substitute another act. Egor and Maks, for example, can do a nifty knife throwing act, if required, and Tonio and Marcello can also juggle."
Alison listened interestedly, but her gaze was still fixed on Summer.
"It's only the big troupes that cause problems," continued Ruud. "Cancelling them leaves a huge hole in the schedule, and the audiences donít like it. Fortunately, Summer's an experienced aerialist."
Summer was now strapping herself into a safety harness. The ringmaster seemed perfectly relaxed and at home in her lofty environment. She glanced down at the men holding the ropes and called, "Everything okay, safety?"
They gave her a thumbs up sign.
Summer nodded then began a series of stretching exercises. Then she leaped onto a trapeze and began pumping her legs to set it swinging. All except one of The Dyakonovs swung into action too - the man with the bandaged wrist must be Cheslav, thought Alison.
Alison vividly remembered the routine from last night's performance. It had been spectacular. The petite female acrobats had seemed to throw themselves so far out into space she'd been convinced they'd crash into the audience below. Of course they had all been snatched safely out of the air by their burly menfolk, and the safety ropes meant there had been no danger in reality. Still, it was very different watching someone you knew and liked risking their life up there Ö.
Abruptly, Summer let go of the trapeze ropes and slid backward, until her knees were hooked over the bar. Then she slid back even further, entwining her legs round the ropes, until she was held upside-down by her ankles alone.
Alison's heart thumped loudly.
One of the tiny women - Irisa, was that her name? - swarmed out onto another trapeze and began swinging. She too, ended up suspended by her ankles. After a few swings, Irisa let go and soared out into space towards Summer.
Surely they had mistimed it, thought Alison, her heart racing as Irisa did a complicated triple somersault. Surely Irisa's arc was going to miss Summer's by several feet? But Summer's trapeze continued its rhythmic swinging, its occupant apparently unconcerned. And then, somehow - Alison couldn't quite work out how - the ringmaster's hands were clasped firmly round Irisa's ankles, and she was flipping the small woman over so that she held her wrists instead.
"I'm sorry," said Alison faintly. "I donít think I can watch any more of this."
"It's all right, you know. They're perfectly safe," said Ruud.
"Even so Ö" Surprised at the strength of her fear, Alison fled into the gloomy morning sunlight.
After a moment she became aware that Ruud had followed her out. "Summer said when you got bored, I was to introduce you to the rest of the acts," he explained.
Bored! Alison nodded numbly. "That Ö " she managed on the second attempt. "That would be good."
"Ruud tells me you couldn't stay and watch me rehearse." Summer wiped a towel over her sweaty face and contemplated taking a quick shower.
Alison blushed. "No. Sorry. I wanted to, but I was afraid youíd fall, or drop someone."
Summer couldn't decide whether the remark showed concern for her safety or doubt in her abilities. She kept her expression neutral. "So, anyway," she said, "I was going to offer you a complimentary ticket for the matinee, so you could see me perform with the Dyakonovs. Bad idea?"
Alison turned to her and put a hand on her arm. "It's a lovely idea, Summer. Thank you. But -" She stopped, her cheeks reddening.
My, but she blushes a lot! thought Summer. "You've made other plans?"
"I have to write this article, and get the photographs developed. You said yourself, by the time I 'place' this, the circus will be ready to move on. So Iíd better get on with it."
It was Summer's turn to feel embarrassed.
"In fact," continued Alison, forestalling Summer's apology for her earlier rudeness, "I was wondering if you could let me have the circus's itinerary, because I may be able to place the piece with a regional paper that covers one of the towns you're playing, drum up some trade for you before you get there."
Summer blinked at her. "Youíd do that?"
Alison looked surprised Summer needed to ask. "Of course."
There was a moment's silence, and Summer suddenly found herself not wanting to lose touch with the young journalist. "Why donít you come back tomorrow," she said impulsively. "I'm doing something that you might be able to use in your article."
"A couple of schools are coming." Summer felt suddenly shy. "It's something I've started doing recently on Saturday mornings - educational visits for children. We show them behind the scenes, the safety props etc, then they meet the acts -"
Alison laughed. "So you've been giving me the kiddy's educational tour?"
Summer considered for a moment. "I suppose I have!" She grinned, then became serious again. "Actually, it's also a sprat to catch a mackerel. Pester power, you know?"
"Get the kids on your side and they'll pester their parents to let them come to a show?"
"Sneaky." Alison grinned.
"Yeah. Ö So, are you interested?" Summer found she was holding her breath.
"Sounds like a plan," said Alison.
Alison called in at a local photo lab that had given her professional results in the past and dropped off the five rolls of 35mm film she had exposed, then went back to her flat.
For the next few hours, she listened to audiocassettes and made notes for her article. The contrast between Summer's rich tones and the mangled English of some of the circus performers made Alison smile. This whole circus thing was so different - no wonder some people ran off to join. Or maybe it wasn't the circus that so intrigued her, she told herself wryly, maybe it was the circus owner!
As she listened to the tapes, she realized that Summer had been tightlipped about herself, preferring instead to discuss circuses in England and Russia or to praise other members of the company. She found herself wanting to know more about the dark haired woman. An old family friend worked for the local newspaper and had access to their archives. That would be as good a place as any to start, she supposed. She flipped through her address book, noted Harold Robinson's phone number, and dialled. Half an hour later, she was standing by his desk.
"How far back do you want to go, Ali?" Harry looked enquiringly up at her.
She bit her lip at the hated diminutive. "I donít know. Isn't there some kind of cross-reference we can use?"
"We're not fully computerized yet," he explained. "We've only got indexes for the last five years. Before that, it's good old index cards Ö"
"Oh." She thought for a moment. "Well, five years should be enough, I suppose. See what you can find on 'Summer's Circus'."
Obediently, Harry typed in the words, and seconds later a couple of reference numbers appeared. "Youíre in luck."
"Try that one," said Alison, pointing to the most recent reference.
It proved to be a small item, its gist being that Summer's Circus was now planning to forego animal acts entirely. It mentioned its owner only in passing, but the mention was a relevant and startling one - it referred to Summer Walsh's 'previous convictions for animal cruelty'. Alison wrinkled her nose in consternation. Cruelty?
"What about that other reference?" she prompted Harold.
He tapped some more keys and soon Alison was shakily reading that Summer Walsh ('who gave her name in court as Summer Blake' she saw in surprise) had been convicted of 12 counts of causing unnecessary suffering to three elephants and six horses and fined £5000 costs.
As she stared at the grainy black-and-white photo of a younger Summer Walsh, the features hard and uncaring (or it could just be the angle and light, she acknowledged), Alison felt sick. She could only wonder why the magistrate hadn't also banned Summer permanently from using animals in her circus.
Perhaps everything Summer had told her, everything she had seen so far, had been an act, a ploy to get sympathetic publicity for an ailing circus. After all, what did she really know about the woman? Fact - Summer had retrieved her wallet from a pickpocket and saved her from a mugging; but maybe it had been as much self interest as heroism - think of the bad publicity if news of either event got out.
The thought that Summer had conned her was unbearable. Some journalist I am! thought Alison miserably. I should have done my research before I went to the circus.
"Seen enough?" asked Harold, breaking her reverie.
"More than enough," she said bitterly. "Thanks, Harold. I owe you one."
Saturday was another overcast day, and Summer wasn't looking forward to guiding yelling schoolchildren round the site, but for some reason, she felt cheerful. Some reason! She knew very well why she was looking forward to today.
Humming a jaunty tune, Summer pulled on her ringmaster's outfit - had to give the kids a good show, after all - and strode to the cook wagon. Two cups of coffee and a doughnut later - the memory of Alison's little doughnut mishap brought a smile to her lips - she was ready for anything.
Four coaches rolled up ten minutes late - a good start, since school parties were sometimes hours adrift of schedule. While Egor and Maks entertained the little horrors, she waited eagerly for Alison to arrive, but as the minutes passed and there was no sign of the journalist, her high spirits began to drop.
Oh well, she thought, as Egor cast her an imploring glance - time to get this show on the road.
An hour passed, and there was still no sign of Alison. During the break for toilets and refreshments, while the children were treated to a toffee apple or candy floss - a cue for raised voices and complaints - Summer ran to her office to check her answerphone. No messages. She frowned. Surely the young journalist would have told her if she'd changed her mind or had to cancel for some reason. Something must have happened.
She was halfway back to the Big Top when a green Fiesta - Alison drove such a car, she remembered with relief - turned into the public carpark.
Summer's high spirits returned and she jogged towards the car. By the time she reached it, the driver's door was open, and a very grumpy looking Alison was getting out.
"Hey, Alison," said Summer, smiling. "What kept you? I was worried."
"The engine was playing up," said Alison, her tone cold.
The frosty reception left Summer off balance. Her smile disappeared. "Um Ö" she said uncertainly, "why donít you let me get Grigori to have a look."
"That's not necessary." Alison barely looked at her. "I'll call a garage." She slammed the car door shut and began to walk towards the Big Top.
Summer jogged to keep up. "Are you OK?"
"I nearly rang to cancel," said Alison, "but we agreed Ö."
Summer didnít know what to make of her companion. She had supposed it was the car trouble making her ratty, or PMS even, but the young woman was acting sullen, almost resentful.
"Have I done something wrong?" she blurted out, amazed at how much Alison's displeasure stung.
For a moment she thought the blonde woman wasn't going to answer.
"I donít like being used."
"What?" Summer tried to make sense of the remark. It was the journalist who had approached the circus, not the other way around. "And just how am I using you?" she demanded.
Alison ignored her question. "But then I guess, after that animal cruelty conviction, you need all the good publicity you can get."
Summer sucked in her breath sharply. "That was five years ago," she managed. "I donít use animals any more."
"And that makes it all right?" Alison stopped walking and glared at her. Two red spots now burned in her cheeks. "In my book," her voice dropped several notes, "people who abuse animals are the lowest of the low."
Alison's contempt struck Summer an almost physical blow. She turned away quickly, raising her emotional shields. In my book too, she thought. Unexpectedly, a hand on her arm halted her.
Summer turned back to the journalist, debating whether to continue what was obviously a lost cause. "Why was I convicted?" she asked at last. "Because I deserved to be."
Alison's brows drew together. "But why?"
Summer realized what Alison was actually asking. "You mean why hurt the animals?"
Alison nodded. "What harm did the elephants and horses do you?"
Summer was now completely confused. "None, of course. Mobray was a brute, plain and simple. Given the choice of stick or carrot, he preferred the stick."
It was Alison's turn to look confused. "Mobray?"
"My animal trainer."
Summer really wasn't in the mood for this. "Is there an echo in here?" she asked irritably. "Look, it was my fault, okay? I should've kept a closer eye on Mobray but I had other things on my mind at the time. I messed up and my animals paid the price - I'm not proud of that. Is that what you wanted to hear? Well, now you have."
She shrugged off the hand that still rested on her arm and stalked off, only to stop abruptly as the journalist circled in front of her. The warmth, she noticed in confusion, had returned to Alison's green eyes.
"Of course," said the journalist, panting slightly, "you were prosecuted because it was your circus Ö your name on the animal license."
All at once it dawned on Summer that Alison had believed she personally had been cruel to the animals. She stifled a pang of disappointment. After all, she should be used to people assuming the worst about her by now, shouldn't she?
"Look, Alison," she said quietly. "I wasn't trying to hide anything, honestly. I didn't mention the conviction before because it didn't seem relevant to your article. I'm Ö I'm sorry if you're disappointed in me." She took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. "Now, I have a business to run, and party of schoolkids waiting for me -"
Alison stepped to one side and slipped an arm companionably through Summer's. "Then we'd better get on with it, hadnít we."
'We'. If the mercurial journalist was prepared to forget the misunderstanding, then so was Summer. The only thing that mattered, she realized, was that Alison was smiling at her again, the green gaze warming her belly, and easing the headache behind her eyes. "Okay," she said. "Let's go."
As they neared the big blue-and-white marquee, Summer spotted Grigori and paused, remembering something. "Hey, Grig. I've got a job for you."
The juggler put aside the props he was painting and sprinted across to join them.
"My friend's car," Summer pointed at the distant Fiesta. "Looks like her engine is playing up. Check it out and see if you can fix it, will you?"
"Sure thing, Boss. I'll get my tools." He jogged away.
"You didn't have to do that." Alison smiled up at her. "I would have called a garage."
Summer shrugged. "I know Ö. Now, did I mention that about two million kids are waiting for me?"
"I'm knackered! And I was only watching. You must be exhausted." Alison gazed sympathetically at Summer who was sprawled in a chair in the cook wagon, drinking coffee as if it were the elixir of life.
"You get used to them," said Summer, coming up for air. "Most kids mean well, it's just they get overexcited. A firm hand, the odd threat - " Blue eyes twinkled. "That's all you need."
"Yeah, right." Alison yawned. It was late afternoon and she had things to do, an article to write, transparencies to collect Ö but she really didn't want to leave. It was an odd feeling, she decided. But there was just something so right about being with Summer.
Don't get used to it, her mind warned her. The circus is only here for another eight days, and then she'll be gone. And life would be drab again, she thought, her heart sinking.
"Penny for your thoughts." Summer's voice jarred her out of her reverie.
"Oh, they're not worth a penny," said Alison. She eyed Summer uncertainly. "Um, I was just wondering Ö" God, this was so embarrassing.
Alison looked at her hands while she gathered her courage. "Well, uh, since you wonít be here in Cheltenham that long, and you probably donít know much about the place Ö." She stuttered to a halt and glanced fearfully at Summer, expecting Ö what? A look of irritation, impatience even. Certainly not the gleam of pleasure in the eyes, the smile on the lips.
"Why, Alison. Are you offering to show me the sights?"
She felt a slow burn begin deep in her belly at the ambiguousness of Summer's words. She exhaled and gathered her scattered wits.
"Iíd be glad to show you around, Summer, when you get some time off." A thought struck her. "You do get time off, donít you?"
Summer grinned at her. "Funny you should mention it. The local council won't let us perform on Sundays, so tomorrow I've got the whole day free."
"Tomorrow it is, then."
Summer stared at the Regency style house with the blue plaque on the wall. Its massive wooden door was locked, and a printed sign said 'closed'.
"Never mind," she told her blonde companion. At least today the sun was shining, and the temperature looked set to climb to something approaching the norm for a British June. She tilted her head towards the sunshine appreciatively.
"But it can't be closed!" Alison consulted her tourist's guide yet again. "I donít believe this," she wailed. "Why is everywhere closed on Sundays?"
It was time to come clean, decided Summer. "Why donít we just head for Pittville Park? We could take it easy, get an ice-cream Ö "
Alison froze, then her expression changed to one of embarrassed understanding. "You've been here before, haven't you. Oh bugger! Why didn't you say something, Summer?"
"I thought if I did, you'd withdraw the invitation," admitted Summer. "And I really wanted to spend some time with you." She dropped her gaze and examined her hands. "Was that -" she looked back up, "- presumptuous of me?"
The young journalist was looking slightly stunned. "Uh, no," she said, after a moment. Then she smiled. "Me too."
Summer found she could breathe again. "Okay." She took the guide book from unresisting fingers and slipped it into her jacket pocket. "Pittville Park it is, then." She placed a hand on Alison's elbow and was pleased when her companion made no attempt to remove it.
"It's not much, but I like it." Alison stepped through the front door into her small living room. Summer followed, hard on her heels.
"Nice," said the ringmaster, looking at their surroundings.
Alison hung her jacket on the coat stand, then waited for Summer to remove hers. "Compared to a caravan, you'd think anything was nice!"
"Hey!" But Summer's tone held only mock offence. She handed Alison her wellworn leather jacket.
"Make yourself at home, Summer."
Alison went through to the tiny kitchen, got out two mugs and the jar of instant coffee, and filled the electric kettle with water from the cold tap. As she waited for it to boil, she wondered, slightly anxiously, what Summer was really making of her flat. She was glad she'd tidied it before leaving for their rendezvous that morning.
The day had passed in a warm haze of sunshine and inconsequential talk. After a lunch of hamburger and raspberry-ripple ice-cream, they had gone for a lazy stroll by the boating lake. She laughed at herself, trying to remember when she had last felt this good. Certainly not last Sunday, which she had spent doing market research, poring through the ridiculously bulky newspapers and colour supplements, looking for ideas for future articles. If anyone had told her then that she'd be spending the day with the tall, dark and attractive woman in the other room Ö.
The kettle clicked off, and she poured boiling water onto the granules, added milk, and carried the mugs back into the sitting room.
Summer was standing by the crammed bookcase. She closed and replaced the book she had been examining. "You certainly like to read."
Alison smiled. "What can I say? I'm a bookworm." She indicated the brimming mugs. "Milk, no sugar, right?"
"Right." Summer moved round to the settee and sat down, crossing her long legs.
Alison looked at the two mugs. Hmmm, X Files or Xena? She held out the Xena mug to Summer, and their fingers brushed - their first touch, skin on skin.
"Careful!" Summer's hand shot out to steady a mug that was suddenly threatening to send coffee flying everywhere. "You OK?"
"Fine. Sorry." Alison tried to get her breath back. She placed the Xena mug on a coaster on the coffee table in front of Summer and took a seat next to her, aware that Summer was watching her closely, a guarded look on her face. Had she felt it too? she wondered. Oh God, what if she didn't feel the same way?
The ringmaster picked up her mug and took a sip. "I'll finish this, then go," she said.
"No, don't." The words were out before Alison could stop them. "Uh, I mean - " Her words dried up as something in Summer's gaze changed, and she put down the mug, reached out a hand and gently stroked Alison's cheek.
"It's all right," she murmured. "I know what you mean."
This time the sensation of skin on skin was more of a tingle than a shock, decided Alison. Then Summer's long fingers moved lower, tracing the outline of Alison's mouth, and she forgot how to breath. Her eyelids fluttered closed.
The hand left her mouth and cupped her chin, gently lifting it. She opened her eyes and gazed into blue eyes that were now only inches from her own.
"If you donít want to do this," said Summer - Alison dreamily watched the lips moving, barely aware of what they were saying - "all you have to do is tell me."
The lips moved closer.
"You can always say 'no' Ö."
Alison felt no urge to say anything at all, in fact felt incapable of speech. All she could think of was how those lips would feel. Then they were pressing warmly against hers, softly at first, then more firmly.
Alison wrapped her hands in long black hair and leaned into the kiss. "Uh -" The sound came unbidden from somewhere in the back of her throat.
The delicious sensation stopped. "Do you want me to stop?" asked Summer, her breath warm on Alison's mouth, her tone uncertain.
"Good." The words were a soft growl.
The muffled sound of a phone ringing pulled Summer from the kiss.
"Let it ring," ordered Alison.
Obediently, Summer searched for her partner's tongue again, but the muffled ringing continued. It was coming from her jacket pocket, she realized.
With a groan, she broke the kiss again. Alison looked reproachfully at her. "It might be important," she apologized, rising from their tangled position on the settee and crossing to the coat stand. She retrieved the cell phone from her jacket pocket.
"Walsh. This had better be good."
She recognized the voice immediately. "Grig. What's up?"
"It's your Uncle Tommy, Boss. He's here and he wants to talk to you." Grigori's voice dropped to a whisper. "And he's not happy."
She should have known this would happen, thought Summer tiredly. "Put him on." She was aware of Alison's impatient gaze.
A mumble of voices came over the phone, then Grigori resumed. "He says - pardon my French! - to get your arse over here. He's not gonna talk to you over the damn phone."
Summer held onto her temper with difficulty. "Tell him itís not convenient. He'll have to wait."
Another mumble of voices, then Grigori was back on the line. "He says if you donít get over here pronto, he's going to close us down."
"And he could do it too, Boss. He's got a pull-down crew with him."
"He so much as touches my property, he'll be spitting teeth for a week."
Aware that Alison was looking anxiously at her, she took a deep calming breath before resuming. "Okay, Grig. Tell him I'll be there in twenty minutes. I've got to walk from the other side of town." She rang off and stuffed the phone back in the pocket.
"What's wrong?" Alison had risen from the settee.
"I have to go," said Summer. "It seems my Uncle Tommy has turned up and is making threats."
Alison frowned. "Why would he do that?"
Summer shrugged, unwilling to go into detail. "Youíd have to ask him." She pulled on her jacket. Alison came up beside her and laid a hand on her arm.
"Is it serious?"
Summer laughed humourlessly. "Yes, unfortunately. He's very big in circus circles." She could see her young friend had no idea what she was talking about. "Ever heard of Tommy Blake?"
Alison's brows drew together. "The name's vaguely familiar. Donít know why, though Ö. And your real surname's Blake too, isn't it?"
So she had found out that much. Summer's opinion of the young woman rose another notch. Then Alison's eyes went wide with recognition.
"Oh, you're one of those Blakes?"
Summer felt a quiet pride. "Yep. The oldest circus family in Britain."
"Then why on earth donít you use your real name, Summer? Surely it would help boost your audiences."
"Because I promised I wouldn't." It wasn't quite the whole truth, she thought sadly Ö that Uncle Tommy was ashamed of her, of the damage she might do to the family reputation. But she didn't want to go into that with this young woman, not yet at least. She glanced at her watch. "I've really got to get going."
"Oh, okay." Alison gazed at her uncertainly.
Summer gave in to the look in the green eyes. "C'mere." She pulled the young journalist into a hug then released her reluctantly. "Guess I'll see you tomorrow." She opened the front door and set off down the stairs.
"Summer, wait." Alison took the stairs three at a time, afraid the other woman was already out of earshot.
"Hey! What's your hurry?" Strong arms steadied her as she barrelled into Summer who was waiting for her on the front doorstep.
"Let me give you a lift back to the circus," panted Alison.
"It's not necessary. I can easily -"
"I know it's not necessary," said Alison. "I want to." She saw the moment's hesitation followed by acceptance cross Summer's face.
"That'd be great."
Alison took Summer's arm and propelled her over the gravel that separated the crescent shaped block of Regency flats from the road and doubled as car parking space. "So," she teased, "will I get to meet this Uncle of yours?"
Summer's face darkened. "I don't know that that's a good idea."
Alison's good humour vanished and she halted. "Are you ashamed of me?"
Summer's eyebrow shot up. "You know I'm not."
A bemused Alison guided Summer to her Fiesta.. "What, then?" She pointed her key fob and pressed. The car's lights flashed and there was a loud clunk as its doors unlocked. She opened the driver's door and climbed in.
While Summer got in, Alison concentrated on doing up her seatbelt.
It was a moment before the ringmaster spoke. "It's more like my uncle is ashamed of me," she said quietly.
Alison paused in the act of turning the ignition key. "I'm sorry?"
"No, he's sorry," said Summer wryly. "Sorry I was ever born."
The engine caught, and Alison released the handbrake and drove out into Lansdown Crescent. "Because of the cruelty conviction?" It was the only thing she could come up with. "But surely he knows that was Mobray's fault not yours Ö."
She waited for the pedestrian crossing lights to turn green then turned into Montpellier Terrace. Summer fiddled with her fingers and stared silently out of the window at the open air tennis courts which were busy with fair weather players.
"The cruelty case has nothing to do with it," said the dark haired woman at last.
This was like pulling teeth! thought Alison, trying not to grind her own molars. "What, then?"
A sigh greeted her question. "Iíd rather not talk about it."
"Oh, okay." Alison tried not to feel hurt as she drove past the hospital, turned left into the Old Bath Road then right into the circus's public carpark. It was empty apart from two vans with the logos 'Blake Family Circus' emblazoned on the sides.
"We're here," she said unnecessarily.
Alison watched Summer unbuckle her seatbelt and get out, her expression grim, her shoulders slightly hunched.
"Want some moral support?"
The ringmaster paused and gave her a warm glance. "No." She squared her shoulders. "I have to do this on my own Ö. But thanks for the offer."
Alison nodded. As Summer prepared to walk away, she found herself needing to know where things stood between the two of them.
"Summer. Wait. Are you coming back Ö afterwards?" she asked clumsily. "To my place, I mean."
Summer looked back at her, one eyebrow raised. "Why, Ms Carmichael. Is that an indecent proposal?"
Alison felt her cheeks flush a fiery red. I am so bad at this, she thought, wincing.
"Sorry Ö." Summer's gaze was part amusement, part sympathy. "Um, I donít think that's a good idea, Alison," she said gently. "Much as Iíd like to. This thing with my Uncle Ö." The tall woman shrugged. "I've no idea how long it'll take. And itís Miss Clio's birthday party tonight Ö the others will be expecting me."
"Oh." Alison tried not to let her disappointment show. "I understand."
Summer chewed her lip, her expression suddenly thoughtful. "Hey. Why donít you come to the party with me?"
Alison felt her breath catch. "But surely - it's a private party, isn't it? Wonít the others mind?"
Summer shook her head. "They like you."
"Like me?" Alison found the thought surprising.
"They've got good taste, huh?" Summer's smile sent a feeling of heat straight to Alison's groin.
"Besides, rumour has it - " the ringmaster stooped and lowered her voice conspiratorially, "- I'm still the boss around here, so who's going to argue with my choice of party guest?"
"Well Ö if you put it like that." Alison examined her fingernails and waited for her blush to fade. "So," she said, softly. "What time shall I turn up?"
"Make it about nine," said Summer. "I'll see you then."
Alison watched the tall woman take a deep breath, straighten her shoulders, and walk away.
He was waiting for her in the Big Top, looking, as always, as if he owned the place. His hair was slightly thinner on top, but otherwise, he looked exactly the same. Summer walked towards him.
"Uncle Tommy." She kept her tone neutral. "You wanted to talk to me in person. Here I am."
"Well, if it isn't my favourite niece." His scowl belied his words. "I thought I told you not to bring your flea-bitten outfit to these parts."
She shrugged. "A gig's a gig, Uncle. And we needed the money."
"So I've heard. In fact, I'm surprised youíve lasted as long as you have, girl." He eyed her appraisingly. "You're as stubborn as Jack was."
The mention of her father caught her off guard, and she turned away, fighting for control.
She noticed a group of muscle-men waiting in the wings, being eyed warily by members of her own circus, and turned to face her Uncle again. "Why do you want to close me down?"
"I'd've thought that was obvious." His tone was scornful. "You're much too careless to run a circus, Summer. People could get hurt."
"I have all the relevant safety certificates."
"Paperwork." He waved a hand dismissively. "So it says you passed the inspections with flying colours? So what? We both know the evidence points to the contrary."
His words stung. "That was ten years ago, Uncle!"
"Yesterday, as far as I'm concerned."
"Donít you think if I could go back and change things I would?" She found herself reaching instinctively towards him.
His gaze locked with hers. "And that makes it all right, does it?" His voice was soft, but the bunched hands, knuckles white, betrayed his real feelings.
"Of course not." She dropped her hand. She should have known any appeal to him was useless. "But what's done is done." To her annoyance, her voice trembled.
He turned away from her, as though he couldn't bear the sight of her.
When he signalled to his crew, and brought them running, Summer braced herself for the worst. There was no way she could stop her Uncle's bully boys if he told them to pull down the Big Top.
"Mr Blake?" Their leader was deferential, his voice surprisingly cultured.
But to her surprise, Uncle Tommy's growl, when it came, was addressed to her. "When you leave Cheltenham, Summer, donít come back."
"I can't promise that, Uncle."
He shrugged. "Then next time, I'll close you down and shred your Big Top."
Without a backward glance, he marched out of the marquee. The members of his pull-down crew followed him.
Loud pop music echoed round a streamer-festooned Big Top. In the ring, now transformed into a heaving dance floor, Miss Clio and Andor were dancing happily with the Dyakonovs, while in another part of the marquee, a laughing Grigori was trying to teach Russian dance steps to Ruud and Jan - a hopeless task by the look of it.
Alison gazed at the crates of wine, beer, Russian vodka, and, for the birthday girl, ouzo, stacked in an aisle. Already they were half empty. Circus people really liked to party, she thought ruefully.
She turned to regard the older woman standing next to her, and for the tenth time that night wished Summer had thought to mention that the party was casual dress. Alison's off-the-shoulder dress and high heels made her feel distinctly overdressed compared to Summer's silk shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots. Not that Summer had anything but admiring comments to make, and it had taken the ringmaster some time before she could shift her gaze from Alison's cleavage.
Alison frowned. On the surface, Summer seemed to be enjoying herself, but there was an air of tension, almost desperation about her. Not to mention the fact that she was drinking too much.
"Want to tell me about it?" asked Alison.
Summer gave her a fuddled glance, then shook her head. "It's party time, Alison. We're here to have fun." Summer shoved a bottle of wine at her, then shrugged when Alison declined it. "Eat, drink, and be merry." Her voice was slightly slurred.
Alison completed the quotation mentally. 'For tomorrow we die.' What was going on here? If Summer had a problem, getting drunk wouldn't help solve it. She found herself torn between hugging Summer and shaking some kind of sense into her.
"I'm going to dance," she said instead. "You coming?"
Summer shook her head and gestured at the dance floor with her glass, sloshing wine everywhere in the process. "Watch out for Maks - he has big feet."
Alison stomped off and eased her way into the ring.
Egor noticed her, smiled, and motioned for her to join him. She did, glancing around her to see what kind of dancing the others were doing and realizing, gratefully, that, for all their acrobatic skills, when it came to dancing, some of the circus people were worse than she was.
"Enjoying the party?" asked Egor, shouting to make himself heard above the din.
"Not much." Alison glanced significantly at the dark haired figure now sitting alone in one of the stands. As she watched, Summer refilled her glass and took another gulp. "What happened with her uncle?"
Egor followed her glance, then shrugged. "Family spat, by the look of things," he shouted. "He threatened to close her down, but she got him to back off. God knows how." Abruptly he grabbed Alison, twirled her around twice, then grinned at her.
"So why isnít she happy about it?" she shouted, when she had got her breath back.
"Who, the big, bad boss?" Maks had waltzed up to join them.
Alison smiled hello at him, then nodded.
"'Fraid she doesn't confide in us," shouted the little clown, whose dancing reminded Alison of a drunken gorilla. " It's that big tough 'I donít need anyone' attitude she cultivates. Sometimes, it's a pain."
"Tell me about it," muttered Alison darkly.
Summer woke to a throbbing headache and a taste in her mouth she didn't want to even think about.
Oh God! She sat up and waited for the room to stop spinning.
"Here," said a familiar voice.
Something appeared in front of her nose, and Summer stared at the object for several seconds before she realized it was a mug. She pulled it towards her and took a sip. Mmmm, coffee. She took a more substantial gulp then registered that someone was still holding the mug. She tracked the arm to its owner.
Warm green eyes regarded her, and soft lips quirked as they tried to suppress a grin. "You donít look so hot," said Alison.
"I donít feel so hot," admitted Summer croakily. She took full possession of the mug, and while she drank, gazed blearily around her. Someone must have brought her back to her caravan, and removed her boots but not the rest of her clothes, she noted absently.
She wondered dimly what Alison was doing here at this hour of the morning - it was morning, she decided, because daylight was peeping under the blinds. Then she noticed one of her pillows and a rumpled blanket lying on the floor beside her bed, and - a beat later - realized that Alison was still wearing her party dress, though now it looked distinctly the worse for wear.
"Our first night together," said Alison.
Summer almost choked on her coffee. "What?" The expression in the journalist's green eyes was indecipherable. "You mean Ö Uh Ö we didn't, did we?" Embarrassed, she rubbed a hand across her forehead. "I donít remember!"
Alison grinned at her. "Had you going there, didn't I? No. We didn't. You were too drunk."
Relief was followed by shame. "I'm sorry, Alison."
"Inviting you to the party and then ignoring you."
Alison shrugged. "Not the first time that's happened. Probably wonít be the last." Her gaze was compassionate. "Look, I understand. It was that business with your Uncle, wasn't it?"
Summer put down the now empty mug and struggled to her feet. "I don't -"
"I know, I know. You donít want to talk about it." There was an edge to Alison's voice. "But someday youíre going to have to, Summer. If you deal with things by drinking, trouble is the problem is still there when you sober up. And in the meantime you've turned into a pathetic old drunk that nobody wants to be around."
Summer was startled by such bluntness.
"And I really donít want that to happen to you."
The concern on Alison's face brought a lump to Summer's throat. When was the last time someone had looked at her like that?
"Neither do I," she said quietly.
Once she was satisfied Summer was functioning on all cylinders again, Alison left her phone number with the ringmaster and went home. There she showered, changed into her favourite shirt and jeans, and spent the rest of the morning working on her article.
It had grown into a substantial piece, full of circus history and amusing anecdotes, enhanced by numerous colour slides of the performers in rehearsal and performance. Alison was so pleased with it, her sights rose considerably. The article would be perfect for a weekend colour supplement, she decided, as she researched contact details for the national newspapers and began phoning editors.
It was Monday, and the newspaper editors were rushed off their feet, but several expressed a cautious interest, and she soon found herself faxing them an excerpt. By three-thirty in the afternoon, she had a commission from the Weekend editor of The Guardian, in writing.
She couldn't wait to tell Summer the good news, which had her literally dancing around her flat chanting, "I'm a journalist, a proper journalist." for five minutes.
When, half an hour later, the phone in her flat rang, she thought it might be the Weekend editor requesting a minor alteration, but she recognized the voice immediately.
"Miss Alison. I hate to bother you like this -"
Alison could hear the beginning of Also Sprach Zarathustra in the background. The Monday matinee must be about to start, she realized.
"- but we're rushed off our feet here, and I need someone to pick up the Boss."
Alison was confused. "Summer isn't there?"
"No, she had to go to Casualty."
"What?" Alison felt herself beginning to panic. "Did she fall? Is she badly hurt? What -"
"It's not serious," interrupted Egor. "A lighting rig came loose during rehearsals. Summer was in the ring when it fell. It struck her a glancing blow."
"I don't believe this! How can you be so calm about it?"
A mumble of voices. "Look, I've got to go. Will you pick her up? She's at the Cheltenham General. I know it's not far, but she might not be fit to walk."
"Oh Ö. Oh, sure. You can count on me."
"That's why I rang you." And with that, Egor rang off.
CONTINUED IN PART 3