When her fiance' calls off their engagement, veterinarian assistant Lisa Prentice joints the circus in hopes of healing and escaping the everyday grind. But life under the big top isn't quite what she expected. None of the veterinarian's former assistants managed to please their short-tempered boss, and Lisa fears that her days are number, too.
Michael Figaro, a dashing young trapeze artist, is also cautions about whether Lisa can stay, and because of that, he tries to keep his distance. Still, Lisa finds herself overwhelmingly attracted to him. Although Michael is the aerialist, it is Lisa who is flying on an emotional high wire. What happened to her safety net? Will their love survive?
"MR. FIGARO, WHERE ARE you?" Lisa Prentice muttered anxiously under her breath. Her gaze flicked from face to face in the busy airport terminal. No one looked familiar.
She checked her watch. Her plane had arrived right on time--actually, several minutes late. So why wasn't he here? Indecision swamped her. Should she hurry to the luggage claim area, pick up her bags, and call a cab? Or stay put? She remembered what Ed Figaro had written:
"On June 4, I'll meet you in the United Airlines terminal at the Wicker City, California airport. Dr. Woodstock is happy you've accepted the job offer and sends his regrets he cannot meet you himself. Please find your flight ticket and travel itinerary enclosed. In the event you don't remember what I look like, I'll be wearing a red wind-breaker with the Jessell and Stern Circus insignia."
She peered out the floor-to-ceiling window through a slanting sheet of rain. The run-way glistened in the downpour. Slate against gray. The endless span of wet concrete seemed to meld into the equally gray horizon.
"Nauseating situation, eh?" a man with an English accent said as he followed her gaze.
"Hopefully nothing more than a brief summer squall," Lisa answered politely. "I understand rain's rare in southern California."
He nodded in agreement. "I'm here to meet my great-niece. Traffic was beastly on the interstate--" He broke off suddenly. "Ah, there she is now!"
"Uncle Ralph!" A pretty young woman wearing a tailored white blouse and a navy blue mini-skirt let out a squeal, elbowed her way through the crowd and enveloped him in a hug.
"Have a good visit," Lisa said wistfully as they hurried away, arm in arm.
Their happy reunion only underscored her impatience. Surely Ed Figaro would appear any minute now, she told herself as she sank into the nearest available seat. Undoubtedly he'd gotten stalled in the “beastly” traffic the man with the English accent had just described.
She felt weary. Bone weary. And her head had begun to pound. Her flight from LaGuardia Airport had seemed to take forever. Electrical storms. Crying babies. And now, no Mr. Figaro.
"Today is the first day of the rest of your life." The familiar refrain echoed inside her head. A new beginning. Ever since she'd been a little girl, she'd dreamed of running away with the circus. And now she had a real reason for running. She swallowed hard. The big question is, will it all work out?
The rich aroma of freshly brewed coffee wafted from the cappuccino cart on the opposite side of the wide corridor. Though it was tempting to indulge herself, she quickly dismissed the notion. Her nerves were already stretched to the limit and caffeine might only worsen her headache.
She continued to eye the steady stream of people. Edward Figaro. A picture of the head animal trainer at Jessell and Stern took form in her mind. Despite what he'd said in the letter, she knew she'd have no difficulty recognizing him. Mid-fiftyish. Snowy white hair and a smile nearly as large as the big top itself.
Today's journey had all started when Dr. Joseph Woodstock, the veterinarian who traveled with the circus, had written to her. He was seeking a competent veterinary assistant, his letter explained. Though the job would pay well, it involved many long, hard hours and sometimes unpleasant circumstances. Would Lisa be interested?
Over a year earlier Lisa had helped save a critically ill Arabian horse named Ebony while the circus was on a five-week lay-over in Madison Square Garden. After watching a show, Lisa had unexpectedly come across the circus vet in the back lot. He was attempting to medicate the uncooperative mare suffering from an abscessed wound.
Lisa had quickly introduced herself, given him her business card, then offered her assistance. Ed Figaro's only son, an aerialist by the name of Michael, had been helping out too. After the crisis was over, he'd lingered a while to show her around. It hadn't taken Lisa long to determine that Michael was an incorrigible flirt.
Given to impulse--a trait that in the past had been both Lisa’s salvation and her bane--she'd responded to the vet's offer of employment with an unequivocal yes.
Only later had her misgivings seeped in. When the veterinarian spoke of hard work and long hours, she knew he wasn't mincing words. Granted, at first glimpse, traveling with the circus sounded romantic and glamorous, but she realized the work could be demanding. There would be times, she was certain, they would be hard pressed to attend to all the animals that needed their care. What was more, Lisa's quick assessment of the circus vet that day told her he might not always be easy to please. She couldn't help wondering whether she'd be his first assistant or merely one of many others who'd come before her--others who hadn't managed to stay in his good graces.
But where else could she bring in the kind of money the circus veterinarian was willing to pay? Though Doc Largent, the small-town vet on Long Island whom Lisa worked for, was like a father to her, he could never afford to match the wages Jessell and Stern had promised. And goodness only knew, her debts were mounting with each passing month.
She looked up. Michael!
His grin widened as he drew closer. He ruffled her short-cropped, chestnut-colored hair. "Good to see you again, Lisa."
"I...I was expecting your father, not you."
"Disappointed?" He sent her a crooked smile.
"Oh, no..." Why was he flustering her so? "You just caught me off guard. That's all." Her pulse raced. Too much stress, she thought. The past two weeks had been filled with frenetic preparations--giving notice to her landlord, packing, selling her car, making arrangements to store her furniture and other belongings.
He winked. "Looking good, Lisa."
She bit her lip, uncertain how to respond. She wasn't ready for the likes of him--nor any other man, for that matter.
Yet to her astonishment, she realized she'd been sizing him up too. His hair, the color of winter wheat, was perhaps a little lighter than she remembered. It hung thickly, almost touching his collar. His muscular forearms were tanned, showing off his corded tendons. The fabric of his black T-shirt strained over taut chest muscles.
She heaved a sigh. "I need to find a place where I can buy more aspirin." Hopefully it wouldn't be long till they arrived at the circus grounds, and she wouldn't have to deal with him anymore.
"Yes." She offered the first explanation that came to mind. "I never seemed to get them before the snowboarding accident."
"Oh, yeah." He nodded. "If I remember right, you'd just finished your physical therapy a few weeks before we met at Madison Square Garden. How're you doing now?"
"I'm fine." She smiled. "In some ways, that seems so long ago. Back then, I'd just been working for Doc Largent about a week." During the short time between graduation from community college and her first day on the job, she'd gambled unwisely and tried to get along without health insurance.
Then came the afternoon she'd crashed on the ski slopes and suffered a fractured femur and internal injuries. Though she'd recovered, the medical bills had been staggering. Too proud to accept financial assistance from her older brother in Wyoming--her only living blood relative--she doggedly determined to pay off the debt as quickly as possible.
"I hope you haven't been waiting too long," he said as he hefted her carry-on bag over his shoulder and started walking. "Traffic was outrageous. I guess I underestimated my time." His gait was loose and carefree, with the easy agility of a trained athlete.
"I've been here a little while...but no harm. Just figured the nasty weather slowed things up." She hurried to match his stride as they continued down the long corridor, weaving their way through a crush of travelers.
He slowed some, waiting for her to catch up. "Pop sends his apologies he couldn't come for you himself. One of the leopards has a respiratory infection and Pop promised Doc Woodstock he'd give him a hand." He pointed straight ahead. "Let's check out that magazine stand. They probably sell aspirin there. Better yet, sit down and relax while I do it."
"Thanks, Michael...but that won't be necessary. I'll go." Already she was digging through her purse in search of her wallet and cell phone. "Besides, I promised Doc Largent I'd call just as soon as I got in. Why don't you wait right here. I'll be back in a jiff."
“All right.” He gave a forced shrug, sensing she needed some space. If Lisa was anything like his sisters, he knew a guy had to tread cautiously. "Take your time."
As Michael leaned against a wall that separated the corridor from a small arcade, he watched Lisa's retreating form. Man alive! She was still as sexy as he'd remembered. More appealing than ever.
He exhaled slowly, folding his arms across his chest, allowing the tension to ease. Keep your cool, Figaro, he told himself. It won't work. She's a townie, an outsider. She won't last long. Don't forget the other two vet assistants got washed up in no time. Without a doubt, Lisa's just as naive--maybe even worse.
The high-pitched electronic sounds of the video games punctuated his thoughts. Why had he agreed to come? Maybe, instead, he should've stuck to his promise to Claudette and found someone else to meet Lisa. His twin sister had begged him to drive Rita, one of the show girls, to the outskirts of town. Supposedly Rita needed to look up a long-lost relative. A phony reason if he'd ever heard one. Rita might be sharp, he thought, but she's not my style. I wish Claudette would stop trying to play match-maker.
Lisa emerged again from the crowd, her cheeks slightly flushed. "I caught Doc just as he was about ready to close up," she reported breathlessly. "Now--" She sighed again. "Now I need to get the rest of my stuff in the luggage pick-up area."
He straightened. "Which way?"
"Downstairs, I think. At least that's what I overheard someone say."
"I suppose you've had a busy year with the circus," Lisa said politely in an attempt to keep the conversation light.
"Yep. Our schedule can be grueling sometimes. Two to three performances a day while we're on the road; catching up with maintenance and repairs when we hold over in winter quarters." He darted her a cautious look. "Actually, though, last year I wasn't around much."
"What do you mean?"
"I left for several months. I decided I needed to test the waters on the outside."
"Your parents actually went along with that?"
"Yeah, they were cool. Even though they both grew up in circus families, they told us--my sisters and I--they expected us to make up our own minds. Do what we really wanted. The Figaros have performed in the circus for over three generations, you know. Years ago Mom and Pop came from Europe to America to join a small family circus. A dog and pony show, as we say. But their big break was when they were hired by Jessell and Stern."
"So where did you go? What did you do?"
"The first job was on a fishing vessel off the Gulf of Alaska. The second involved selling home health care equipment to clinics and rehab facilities." They skirted a gift shop, a small deli, and a group of flight attendants talking and drinking coffee from disposable cups.
"And the jobs didn't work out?" she asked.
"The fishing job was seasonal, of course. Though it offered some of the same adventure and danger that circus life does, I soon discovered it wasn't for me." He smiled wanly. "The sales job...well, what can I say? The pay was good. I was bringing in way above my quota. But something just didn't click." He turned, meeting her gaze, his eyes earnest. "Maybe it was because I was beginning to discover the grass isn't always greener on the other side of the fence. I was happiest with what I already had."
"You’re lucky, Michael,” Lisa said after a moment's contemplation. "Some people never do realize that." Charles, for instance. Her thoughts darkened. Two years ago, her fiancée Charles Bergman, a corporate lawyer in Manhattan had suddenly proclaimed he'd found someone else. Someone more stunning. Someone more successful. Someone more than a mere veterinary assistant.
How had she managed to delude herself into believing his reputation as a womanizer would end? Her pain--and their hasty break-up--had been almost unbearable. After that, she vowed the price of a permanent commitment was simply too high.
They rounded a corner, then stepped onto the escalator that led to the luggage claim area. Michael stood close behind. Too close. Her physical awareness of him disturbed her.
"And what about you?" she heard Michael ask. "What have you been up to this past year?"
She shrugged. "Working nine to five. Getting engaged. Getting unengaged."
"Yes." She balled her hands into fists, knowing she'd made a mistake mentioning it. She wasn't ready to talk about Charles, especially with someone like Michael. Yet it amazed her how quickly he'd already shared some personal details of his own life.
She managed a smile. "But enough about that. Tell me about your troupe, Michael. I'd like to know everything."
"Well, all right." He hesitated, slanting her a look. "We're called the Flying Figaros. First there's Claudette, my twin. Then there's Estelle, two years younger. She's kind of petite and spunky, a lot like you," he added. He broke into a grin and winked again. "Uncle Rudy, my father's brother, works as our catcher. He took over about five years ago after Pop fell from a tight rope, suffered a ruptured disc in his lower back and was forced to turn to animal training instead."
"So who replaced you while you were gone?" she asked, watching the floor below draw closer.
"My second cousin Bo, who normally travels with another circus. All the time, though, Claudette kept insisting that Bo wasn't working out--which I hate to admit, was probably true." They stepped off the escalator.
"Why?" Lisa asked. "Hadn't he been flying as long as you?"
"No. Not quite. But as far as Claudette was concerned, that was only part of the problem. She never wanted me to leave in the first place. Claudette was afraid the troupe's reputation would fall apart and all our years of hard work and practice would've been for nothing."
"I guess you couldn't blame her for that," Lisa said.
"Right. But you don't know my twin sister. She can get a little unreasonable at times. No matter what I do or say, she can’t seem to shake the notion I might decide to split again. This time, permanently."
"I've always heard that circus families are close," Lisa said, casting him a side-long glance.
"Yes. Claudette, Estelle, and I started flying when we were little kids. Even though we have our ups and downs like all brothers and sisters do, we can't help but be tight."
Lisa envied him. She and her brother, the only two children of alcoholic parents who'd spent the best part of their lives in and out of treatment centers, had been raised in a succession of foster homes. All those years she'd always realized how tenuous and fragile her home life could be. Her foster parents might decide the arrangement wasn't working out and send her away. And even if they didn't, she would still have to eventually move on. How Lisa longed for the security of a stable and loving family.
"Now for your bags," Michael said, leading the way toward the conveyor belt. "One or two? What do they look like?"
"Two. Two big ones." She rattled off a description as she clutched her claim ticket. But as one unfamiliar piece of luggage after the next paraded by, a strange feeling rose in the pit of her stomach. Her suitcases weren't there.
"I'm sorry, miss," the skycap said after she'd tipped him to investigate further. "Apparently your luggage was rerouted on another flight."
"Great!" She gulped as visions of her bags landing in some exotic foreign airport flashed by her.
"I checked at the desk for details," the man said. "There's another plane due in from LaGuardia in an hour, flight 801. If you'd like to wait, there's a good chance your bags will turn up then."
Lisa sent Michael a questioning look.
"Don't worry," he was quick to say. "I've got plenty of time."
"Are you sure? Don't you have a show to hurry back for?"
"Not today. There's no matinee."
They passed the next hour at the airport deli, sipping sodas and munching on bagels and cream cheese. But after the next flight arrived without her bags, she had no choice but to fill out a missing luggage form.
"I'll put down my brother's address in Jackson Hole and call him first chance I get," she said to Michael. She heaved a sigh of frustration. What was she going to do? Buying new clothes would put a sizable crimp in her budget, but she'd never admit that to Michael. She'd learned at an early age to be as self-reliant as possible.
"You brought a few things in your carry-on?" Michael asked.
"Yes, thank goodness. Enough for maybe a couple of days."
"If push comes to shove," Michael said, "and your luggage never does show, maybe Estelle or Claudette can loan you some of their clothes." He turned for a brief moment, his eyes roving over her approvingly. "I think you and Estelle are about the same size."
"Thanks, but that won't be necessary," she said, lifting her chin. "I'll figure something out."
At last they were speeding away from the airport in Michael's green Ford pickup. The subtle masculine scent of his after-shave tugged at her composure. No, Lisa. Get a hold of yourself. You joined the circus to try to forget what's happened. You don't need another man to mess up your life.
"Estelle says to tell you that you're welcome to live with her in her trailer," Michael said. "She's got plenty of room and would love the company. The two of you should get along fine."
"I'd like that. At least for a while." She flashed him a smile.
Through the speakers in his CD player, the silky strains of a saxophone played. The windshield wipers moved back and forth with a steady drone. The streets glistened with moisture. Off the freeway, she caught an occasional glimpse of palm trees sandwiched in between sections of shopping malls and business parks.
"Your father said in his letter that my lodging would be provided," Lisa continued, "but I do intend to buy my own RV--maybe a small used trailer--just as soon as I can pay off some bills." She bit her lip. "That is, if I manage to stay."
"You mean if you don't pass your probation?"
"Uh-huh. Dr. Woodstock told you what he'd written in my contract?"
"Sure. Doc put the same requirements on the other two assistants."
"Oh." She gulped again. "So I'm not the first. I wondered about that."
"There were two. In less than a year." He waved a hand through the air. "Here today. Gone tomorrow."
She wound a strand of hair around her finger as her uneasiness about the veterinarian skyrocketed. "Last year when I was helping Dr. Woodstock, well... How can I put it without sounding rude? I got the impression he isn't exactly Mister Rogers."
"You're right." Michael chuckled. "But in all fairness, let me say this. Doc's a top-notch professional. He's terrific with the animals, especially the larger critters. If you can get along with him and pass your probation, you'll have it made."
"Have you worked with him a lot?"
"Some. When Pop or one of the keepers is busy, I try to help out. So does Mom, though most of the time she's busy training her poodles."
"Well, I'm not worried about anything at all," she said with false bravado. "I enjoyed my job at the veterinary clinic back on Long Island, and I'm going to enjoy this one too."
"I hope so...but don't overlook the obvious, Lisa." The doubt in his voice came through loud and clear. "Lions and tigers aren't your everyday house cat, you know." He swung into the next exit, merged with the traffic and came to a stop at a traffic light.
"Maybe you're right about that," Lisa conceded. "But I'm sure my perseverance and love for animals will see me through. I've been an animal lover since as far back as I can remember. Only problem was, because I changed foster homes so often, I rarely got to have any pets I could call my own."
"Must've been kind of tough."
"Yeah, it was. Though most of the time, I lived with loving families, I always knew my situation was temporary." She offered him a tentative smile. "I can remember wishing and praying I could have a puppy or kitten for my own. Just to have something to love that was all mine."
Her words were unraveling him. He tried not to let his feelings show, but it was a tough call. "Didn't you ever talk to your foster parents about that?"
"No. Never. I just figured it wasn't worth it. I was lucky enough they'd agreed to give me a home, let alone a pet too."
As the light turned to green and they were off again, she detected a play of emotions on his face. Sadness. Concern. Tenderness, perhaps?
He reached out and touched her hand. "Cheer up, Lisa. You've finally hit the big time. Now you've got a whole menagerie of pets to call your own."
She couldn't help smiling. "You're certainly right about that," she answered him. “I’ll have more animals than all the pet stores combined.”
"And time to spend with Ebony too," Michael reminded her.
"Oh yes! I've thought about her so often!" The black Arabian was Edward Figaro's most prized show animal. "How's she doing?" Lisa asked. "Did she recover from the infection?"
"Ebony's great." His brows knit together in a frown. "Hopefully she'll never get sick like that again. She had us all plenty worried, especially my father."
"I remember. Your dad was nearly beside himself."
"That's putting it mildly. Pop's got a lot invested in that horse--in more ways than one."
"What do you mean?"
Michael swung into a narrow alley and slowed the truck to a crawl. "Last week my father found out he's been inducted into the Circus Hall of Fame. All because of the trick's he's taught Ebony."
"That's wonderful!" She turned to face him squarely. "When can I see Ebony again?"
"Maybe later tonight after the show."
Michael parked behind a long string of trucks and trailers. He reached out again to touch her hand. "Lisa?"
"After this, I may not be seeing much of you...I mean, we're both going to be busy."
Her heart turned over. Michael's dark eyes, those deep pools of midnight blue were driving her insane--and if he kept touching her like this, she might fall apart completely.
"I realize that," she said and swallowed hard. "Just because you gave me the grand tour last year in Madison Square Garden, doesn't mean I expect you to do that this time too."
He hesitated, running his tongue over his lower lip. "Good. So now that we understand each other, there's one more thing...."
"Just in case I don't get the chance to say it later...I...I want you to know I'm really glad you're here. It's great to see you again." His expression remained closed.
"Thanks." The words caught in her throat. "It's great to see you too."
She averted her gaze, struggling against panic. Maybe she should ask him to drive her back to the airport. Maybe she should say she changed her mind. But no...this was the opportunity of a lifetime. She was here now, and that's where she would stay.
She had no choice but to face the consequences.