I can't imagine moving on
And giving up everything
Just to be more alone

-Jason Walker, More Alone

The warm up stretches did nothing to relax Jade.

By show time, she was still stiff as a board, on the alert.

"Come on Jade," Iliana wrapped an arm around her as the music started. "There's nothing to be worried about. Just a week—an uneventful week—and we'll be out of here. On the road again."

Her friend's reassurances did nothing to ease the foreboding in Jade's gut. Something was going to go terribly wrong. And be it paranoia or prophecy, Jade was loathe to just ignore it and perform.

But she got through it. No unwelcome faces entered her line of sight, not a sign of trouble lurking.

-0-

Mary-Lynnette walked through the circus grounds. Her circus grounds.

Sure, the actual equipment and funding was all Thierry Descoudres's doing, but the circus was still hers. It was hers to plan, hers to show.

Which was why when she saw the head of blond hair, and the pig that wore it, sidling up to Poppy (her employee) in a very ungentlemanly fashion, she felt her hair stand on end.

Poppy, fending off the unwanted attention while also managing to keep up the jig she had going on her massive accordion, caught Mare's eye and scowled.

Translation: get this hunk of masculine arrogance off of me.

Mare started forward, catching the man by the arm. "Sir, this is a circus, not a brothel." A bit severe, as he wasn't so much into Poppy's personal bubble, but it definitely got his attention. And, if Mare was being honest, there was something distinctly sour about this man. She hated him on sight.

He grinned. "Are you sure? Everywhere I turn, I see pretty ladies."

The compliment was lost on Mary-Lynnette. "If you're looking for a cheap hookup, I suggest looking for someone else. My ladies are all off limits."

"Your ladies?" He raised an eyebrow.

"Mine," Mare confirmed.

"Actually, I'm not here for a hookup, I'm here for information." Ash said, a prompt Mary-Lynnette did not acknowledge. When she said nothing, he continued. "Jade Redfern, do you know her?"

"I know her," Mary-Lynnette answered, more on guard than she was before, if this man was looking for Jade, someone who'd lived in this town (but swore no one would recognize her). Jade, who was as much hers as Poppy was.

"Where is she," he said.

"Why do you want to see her? Are you an old friend?" Mare asked.

"You could say that," He answered.

"Well, get lost." Mary-Lynnette told him. "She said she didn't want to see any old acquaintances, so unless you're looking for some very beefed-up trouble or a possible restraining order, I suggest you stop your search and head home."

"Big words for a little lass like yourself." He mused.

"Is that a threat," Mary-Lynnette challenged. She was a bit surprised with herself. She was usually non-violent and clearheaded, but something about him… it made her angry. Something in the way he held himself, maybe.

"Merely a statement," He answered, backing away.

He soon disappeared into the crowd.

Good riddance.

-0-

Gillian was approaching Angel, working at the concession booth, when a man with a shock of red hair slid a considerable amount of cash across the counter.

"Who was that?" Gillian asked when he'd left. "More importantly, what was that for?"

"I gave him a lemonade," Angel shrugged.

"That much for a lemonade?" Gillian asked incredulously. "I may be new to the circus, but even I know drinks at a circus aren't that expensive."

Angel just laughed. "Rich people," He pocketed the money. "So strange. Maybe he thought it was customary to tip me."

"That much for a tip?" Gillian shook her head, but smiled through her doubts.

"Who knows." Angel shrugged again. "With all that money, his view of the world must be extremely skewered."

"Must be."

-0-

As it turned out, it was not during show hours, but after that the premonition came to pass.

Jade, quite certain now that the grounds were empty, that she was in the all clear, was backstage with some of the other performers, splitting a pretzel with Thea.

The flap of the tent slid open, and she turned, expecting Eric, who'd promised to get them something to drink, but got something that made her entire body go cold.

"Ash," She wasn't quite sure what it was. A question, a gasp, and a cry all at once.

"Jade," He strode toward her.

"Hey," Jez stepped in front of him. "Show's over. Come back tomorrow night if you want more."

"I'm not here for a show," He said, looking past her at Jade. "I'm here for my sister."

"You're…" Jez trailed off, her attention caught between the two of them, studying them. "Oh." She said at last.

"Yeah, 'oh'." Ash mimicked. "So, if you don't mind…" He pushed past her and continued on his path to Jade.

"I don't want to go," Jade protested as he got nearer, hopping up from her spot next to Thea.

"Yeah? Well, you're going." He reached her, standing a good six or seven inches taller.

"How did you even find me?" Jade asked, hoping maybe that in stalling, there would come an answer to this predicament.

"I was with you when we came with Auntie B, I had to listen to you talking about it every day for a week afterward, and I was also there when you bought that book on circus… whatever it was."

"Everything." Jade told him. "It was a book on everything there is to know about the circus."

"Well, as darling as this little adventure of yours has been, I do think it's time to put an end to it. I didn't tell anyone my hunch," Ash said. "You could go back, and not a name on the Redfern tree would be tarnished. No one would have to know."

"Always about the family name," Jade sneered. "Is there anything else you care about?"

"I care about you," Ash said. "Which is why I'm here."

"If you really cared about me, you'd let me be." Jade huffed, looking quite cross. "You'd know that this is what I really want."

"This isn't just about you, though," Ash said. "Everyone is worried sick."

"Oh, please." Jade snorted. "Mother's probably played this up to her garden club friends—wringing as much attention from them as she can get."

"And what about Rowan. How do you think she feels?" Ash reminded her of her eldest sister. "What do you think she's made of your disappearance?"

Jade faltered, and Ash latched onto that weakness.

"Even Kestrel is concerned, and Kestrel isn't easily bothered with things like worry." Ash went on. "Then, of course, there's—"

"I don't care what you say." Jade warned, deciding no amount of Ash's forced guilt could make her go anywhere. "I've made my mind up on this. Nothing will convince me."

"Nothing? Are you sure?" Ash asked mildly.

"Completely certain." Jade held her head up.

"Well, that's a shame." Ash said. "I'd hoped this would go smoother." With that, he reached for her arm.

"Oh, no you don't!" Jade cried, trying to avoid him, but he was faster.

"Jade, I hate to pull this card, but you're too young for this!" Ash said, dragging her toward the door.

"Shut up, Ash!" Jade tugged at her arm, her struggle for freedom failing at her brother's firm grip.

"You," a new voice entered the squabble. All eyes turned to Mary-Lynnette. Hands on hips, eyebrows raised, she looked terrifying. "I thought I told you not to touch my employees. What is going on here."

"I'm taking my sister home," Ash fumed. "Where she belongs."

"I don't belong there!" Jade protested. "I can hardly breathe there!"

"You are coming with me," Ash dictated, "like it or-"

"Shut up." Mare commanded.

He looked astonished. "What did you just say to me?" From his sister, it was expected, but from this stranger… unacceptable. He would not be talked to in that manner. "I'll have you know-"

"No," Mare interrupted again. "I'll have you know I will not entrust my employees to men who waltz in, grab their arms, and threaten to make them leave."

"I'm her brother," Ash sneered. "I have no sinister motives, as you seem to be implying."

"We will go about this my way, or not at all," Mary- Lynnette admonished.

"And what is 'your way'?" Ash huffed, clearly thinking this was all a waste of time. That he would win in the end. That he would get Jade no matter what.

"We sit down and talk this through. In a civilized manner." She added with a pointed look at Ash's hand on Jade's arm. "If you're even capable of such a thing."

"Of course I'm capable." He glared.

"Then, come along." Mare yanked the tent flap wide open with an exaggerated jerk. Ash walked away, following Mare out of the tent with a miserable looking Jade trailing behind him.

Poppy shot her a thumbs up—Best wishes! Good luck!—but it was hardly noticed.

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