The magical Jolly Carnival is the only life Rilla knows—and it’s falling apart around her. Just as she’s thrust into the role of Ringmaster after her father’s unexpected death, an old family friend turns up to challenge her birthright.
Her rival’s sexy son Jack isn’t helping either. Despite being a greenhorn and an outsider, he’s intent on charming everyone, convincing them all that Rilla isn’t up to the task of leading them through these tough times.
But Rilla must also contend with another threat—the ongoing sabotage that has been disturbing their delicate magical balance and threatening to destroy the Carnival. All signs are pointing to an insider, making it impossible to know who to trust.
To save her beloved Carnival, Rilla must do everything she can to find the saboteur before they attack again. But if she takes her eye off the battle for Ringmaster—even for a second—she risks losing everything she’s trained for her entire life.
BY TRUDI JAYE
The red-and-white tent roof shuddered in the wind and rain. Ropes and canvas flapped, as if Abacus himself were objecting to his final resting place.
Rilla swallowed hard around the lump that had been permanently stuck in her throat since she’d been told of her father’s death. All around her were Carnival folk, their heads tilted upward, tears running down many faces.
It couldn’t be true. Her larger-than-life father was limitless, unbeatable. Certainly not meant to die in a stupid car crash.
Over their heads, Missy crawled along the high-wire rigging toward the top of the massive tent. The silver of her leotard sparkled under the lights, and her long legs clung to the ropes with an elegance that hid powerful muscles. Every pair of eyes in the tent watched as she completed the tradition that had been started three hundred years before, by the nine original families.
The ashes of almost every member of the Jolly Carnival who’d passed on were contained in one of the two huge round tent poles. They literally held the very essence of the Carnival. And now her bright and brilliant father was another collection of ash in the Carnival tradition.
Barb squeezed her hand; Rilla glanced at her and nodded. It was Barb’s daughter Missy up there doing the final ceremony, and she was glad it was someone who’d loved her father almost as much as she did. Rilla looked around the tent, trying to memorize the people. Everyone was there, from the newest greenhorn to the oldest hand, crowded into the massive big top. She knew every face in the room.
Rubbing at the tears running down her face, Rilla felt her anger flare again. She’d been keeping it at bay, but every so often, it burned its way up her throat. She wanted to shout at someone, hit them, cry out at the injustice.
It wasn’t right.
A violin began to play a slow, haunting melody. The tune hit the chorus and she recognized it. She tried to smile. From her other side, Christoph’s muscular arm clamped around her shoulders, and she listened silently to the rest of the ABBA song that Viktor was playing in slow time.
The song was a lovely idea, but her father would have hated the slowness. He loved the speed of the tunes by the Swedish band. He’d always said the tents went up faster to the beat of “Mama Mia.” And he’d always preferred the nickname Abba to his full name Abacus.
“He wouldn’t want you to be sad, little one,” said Christoph as he gave her another squeeze with his massive arm.
She looked up at him and took comfort in his familiar lined features. He was the strongman of the Carnival in more ways than one. “I know. But it doesn’t help.”
“No, it doesn’t. Come, we should go now.” Rilla allowed Christoph to gently pull her toward the tent flaps that would take them away from the crowds of people. His mustache twitched, and she knew he was trying not to cry at the loss of his friend.
As they walked out, a flash of blue hair caught her eye. A man stood near a side entrance to the big top, his expression a strange mix of anger and excitement. His shock of blue hair stood at attention on his head, and he wore a black shirt with matching black trousers. A ripple of unease washed through Rilla. The stranger caught and held her gaze. Then he turned and disappeared out into the storm.
Rilla frowned. She opened her mouth to question Christoph, then closed it again. Her father knew literally thousands of people. He’d been a big, charismatic personality who’d lived his entire life on the circuit. There could be any number of people she’d never met who could claim a relationship with him.
The blue-haired man might have seemed out of place, but that didn’t mean he shouldn’t be there.
She glanced back up at Christoph as they neared the exit. For the first time, she noticed the grey hair mixed with the black on his head. Her father and Christoph had grown up together, lived their lives together. The big man had helped Abacus raise Rilla when her mother had left. He was going to feel the gap left by Abacus just as she did.
“Rilla, there’s a problem.”
“Pardon?” Rilla turned, trying to focus on the scruffy boy who’d stopped her. She blinked and recognized Joey, one of the younger runners.
“There’s a man. He says…” Joey trailed off as an older man strode past him, straight up to Christoph and Rilla. He pushed out his chin and glared at them both.
“My name is Blago Knight. I’m here to claim the title of Ringmaster.”
Rilla felt the world sway. If Christoph hadn’t been holding her up, she didn’t think she would have remained standing. The momentary confusion cleared and she blinked, looking at the man in front of her. Her gaze narrowed.
Who the hell did he think he was?
“You do realize this is my father’s funeral?” she said, her voice breaking in the middle. She cleared her throat and pulled herself together. She was the Carnival leader now.
“Of course I realize it, young lady. But it doesn’t change the fact that I demand to speak to the Nine. You must convene an emergency session.”
“You’ll have to wait, Blago. This isn’t the time.” Christoph’s voice boomed unnaturally loud. Every eye in the crowded room focused on Rilla and the stranger.
“I know the rules as well as anyone, Christoph. I have to announce my intentions to the Nine immediately or it’s too late.” He glanced at Rilla. “If you stand in my way, you forfeit your rights to the Ringmaster claim.”
Shivers raced across her skin as she stared at the old man in front of her. Bushy eyebrows covered bloodshot eyes, dark and fierce at their center. The lined face was surrounded by a seething mass of white, frizzy hair. He held a black cane in one hand and an old-fashioned bowler hat in the other.
How could he have a legitimate claim? She didn’t understand. She’d never even heard of him.
A knot of tension pushed against her temple, and a headache crawled across her scalp. She lifted one hand to her forehead and rubbed at it, trying to break up the pain that was bashing around inside her head. She just needed a moment to clear her head, time to think without this grief filling her up until she was ready to burst with the pain.
But rules were rules. “Come with me. It will be informal but enough to judge your claim and if you’re valid.”
“‘Course I’m valid. Just ask ol’ Christoph here. He’ll vouch for me.”
Rilla looked up at Christoph in shock.
Her oldest family friend nodded and she realized he’d used Blago’s first name a moment ago. Of course he knew him.
But how? And why had she never heard of this stranger? “Fine.” She looked around and gestured to the others in the Nine. They would meet immediately to determine his claim.
Rilla paced along the narrow aisle in her caravan, clenching and unclenching her hands. “How can someone I’ve never heard of have a claim? It doesn’t make sense,” she said.
Christoph lifted his head from his hands. “I’d never have thought…” He cleared his throat. “Abba… your father would never have expected him to come back. It was so long ago.” He lowered his head into his hands again and seemed to shrink into the small sofa in Rilla’s lounge area.
“What was so long ago? What is this all about?”
He looked up again, shaking his head. “He was in the show crew, probably would have been Showmaster instead of me if he’d stayed. But he was thrown out, thirty years plus three.”
“Thirty-three years?” Rilla stopped pacing. “Isn’t that…? He tried to stop a Gift?”
Christoph nodded. “Got himself and his family kicked out. Everyone back then was shocked, especially Abba. They were tight.”
“His whole family?”
Again, Christoph nodded. “Mother, father, sister—they all helped him. He fell for the Mark, interfered with her Gift.”
She’d been told, her father had drummed it into her, but she’d never really thought… The Carnival had thrown someone out? Left them behind to survive without the help of the group? “But surely…” She stopped when she saw Christoph shaking his head. “No wonder he’s pissed.”
“Listen, Rilla, he’ll have support from some of the older ones who’ve been rumbling that you’re too young to be Ringmaster and that you won’t be able to deal with the sabotage problem.”
“It’s not against the rules to be young.” She crossed her arms and glared at him. Her father hadn’t expected to die and leave her to run things at twenty-four years of age, but she was perfectly capable of doing it.
“No, just uncomfortable for some of the older ones to accept.” Christoph heaved a sigh and rubbed one hand over his forehead.
“And some of the younger ones.”
He shrugged. “You’ll just have to prove them wrong. You’ve been raised for this, Amaryllis Jolly. It’s your family name on the sign out front, your family that survived the wreck, and your father that’s been running the show for the last forty years. Don’t forget that.”
“I can’t forget it. But…” She rubbed her hand over her stiff neck muscles.
“Don’t doubt yourself, Rilla. This isn’t the time or place. You’re the acting Ringmaster until the Carnival chooses someone to lead. You’ve got an advantage and you need to use it. You need to prove to everyone, especially the Carnival, that you’re the right person for the job, and you’ve got to do it quick. Blago, he’s a smart man. He’ll take every advantage he can get.”
“How well do you know him?”
Christoph sighed. “He was one of the old gang. We were all tight when we were kids. But I’ve changed since then. Maybe he has too.”
Rilla took a deep breath. “The Nine accepted it pretty easily.”
“What else could they say? He’s legitimate, Rilla. Him and his son.”
“The fella that was waiting outside the tent. Tall, dark hair.”
Rilla shook her head. How could she have overlooked the son? It frightened her that she could have missed something so simple.
“Nah, he stood back. Let his da do the talking. Blago was raised Carnival. But the boy, he’s green and he looked it. That’ll count against him, no doubt there.”
Rilla nodded. Outsiders weren’t welcomed easily.
“Where are they now?” She had to plan, to figure out how she was going to fix this.
“In the food tent, where you should be.”
“I’ll get there.” It was her father’s funeral; of course she would be there. “How long do I have?”
“‘Til the end of our stay here. Three weeks. After that, we’re headed for the Compound with a new Ringmaster.”
Rilla nodded. Winter was almost on them; they were due a rest. “Has there been a Mark named yet?”
Christoph shook his head. “Maybe there won’t be. We’ll be busy dealing with this. Maybe the Carnival will give us a break.”
“We can’t count on it,” said Rilla. “Tell Joey to keep an eye out, and let me know as soon as something happens. We can’t lose focus just because we’re in the middle of a crisis.”
“Listen, Rilla, no one expects you to—”
“What? Do what I’ve been trained to do? This wouldn’t have stopped my father, and it won’t stop me.” Rilla banged her fist against the wall. Glass rattled in the ancient trailer, and she scowled. It might be the biggest trailer in the Carnival, but it sure wasn’t the newest.
“Christoph, what happened to the Mark he fell for?” she asked.
“Last I heard, Blago married her.”