Mouth Full of Ashes: Part 10

Callie had almost expected them to take her to a tent, so when they led her to a group of camper vans, she was pleasantly surprised. The embers of a campfire glowed in the center of the group of vans. Metal folding chairs with mesh backs surrounded the fire and a red-sided cooler sat against one of the chairs. A few cigarette butts littered the ground and Callie skirted around them as Elijah and the others led her toward the chairs.

Elijah motioned at Jabari and he went to the fire without further prompting. He knelt, took out a lighter, and poked the embers with a stick. Tahlia and Maeve lowered themselves into adjacent chairs. Elijah remained standing with Callie. He seemed taller somehow, shoulders thrown back, chin raised, eyes blazing. Callie felt a twinge of nervousness as he looked her over again.

“It’s quiet back here,” she said. The campground was far enough from the carnival grounds that it was almost tucked into the forest and the chirping cicadas drowned out the sounds of people and machinery. They were also far from the carnival’s floodlights, and the only illumination came from the moon and amber string lights on some of the campers.

The moonlight glanced off the sharp planes of Elijah’s face and cast shadows under his cheeks, across his mouth. Still, when he smiled, it was impossible to miss.

Callie unclenched her jaw and let her shoulders slump. If they planned to hurt her in some way, they would have done it already. They’d been nothing but friendly so far—except for Jabari, but Elijah would keep him from being weird to her again.

“How are your injuries?” Elijah asked.

Callie’s brow furrowed. His gaze drifted down her legs, hesitated at her knees, then jumped back up to her face. Realization dawned on her. “Oh, the scrapes from where I fell. I guess Jabari told you.”

“It’s a small carnival. Word travels fast. Not much else to do but talk.”

“I’m fine. I mean, it’s nothing major. Bled a little, but not too badly.”

“Blood doesn’t bother you?” The corners of Maeve’s mouth twitched.

“Not really.” Callie looked from Maeve to Jabari, who had lit the fire and worked to get it going. She couldn’t focus on anything but the fire. Their eyes… something in their eyes made it difficult to focus, and she had to keep her wits about her. “Can’t say I’ve ever been squeamish.”

“Good to know.” Elijah lowered his voice, smoothed it in a way that gave her chills. How the fuck did he do that? Maybe he worked as a ventriloquist or something? Come to think of it, she had no clue what any of them actually did, how they made their living at the carnival. All she knew was that they worked there.

“So, what do you all do for work? What do you do at the carnival?”

She felt, rather than saw, Elijah’s smile falter. “We’re jacks of all trades. Renaissance people.” He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, and the movement caught Callie’s attention. His boots were heeled, and high—how had she not noticed that before? “We float from one job to the next, never settling down. Whatever is needed.”

“We work in the show,” Tahlia said. “Most of us are performers.”

“I work backstage,” Jabari chimed in. “Used to be a fire-eater, but it got too tough for me.”

“Elijah’s being modest. He’s the ringmaster.” Maeve winked. “He puts all his charisma to good use onstage.”

“Guilty as charged.” Elijah gestured at the empty chair beside Maeve. “Callie, please. Sit.”

She moved to the empty chair and sat before she realized what she was doing. Something in his voice compelled her to obey, made it too easy to go along with whatever he asked. Thank God he hadn’t told her to do anything dangerous.

Yet. The word hung like a threat in the back of her mind. She chased it away with more questions.

“What about you, Maeve? What do you do?”

“Tahlia and I have an act together.” She smiled. “We’re acrobats. Aerialists.”

“We flip through hoops and shit,” Tahlia added.

“We’re all magicians, too,” Elijah said. “Well, I’m the magician, and the girls are my assistants. They make me look good.”

“You already look good, babe. We make you look better.” Maeve bit her lip, fluttering her eyelashes. Her change in demeanor took Callie aback.

Elijah winked at her. “It’s an honor to share the stage with both of you beautiful ladies. You know that.”

Were Elijah and Maeve together? He’d had his arms around both the women, but Maeve was the one openly flirting with him now. And she’d called him “babe.” That had to count for something. He didn’t seem like he’d let many people call him that.

Of course, Elijah was checking Callie out again, and all her theories went out the window. If he was with Maeve, would he be looking at other women so blatantly? She doubted it.

Callie flushed. It wasn’t that she typically shied away from male attention, but there was an intensity to Elijah’s focus that frightened her. He looked at her like he could see inside her, like he wanted to figure out what made her tick. On the other hand, maybe she was reading too much into the situation. Maybe Elijah just thought she was hot and wanted to fuck her sometime. Callie wouldn’t hate it if that were the truth.

She tucked her hair behind her ears. Let him look at her. She had nothing to hide, and it felt nice to be admired.

“You should come sometime,” Elijah said.

In the wake of her theorizing, the double entendre stunned her. As her blush deepened, she reassured herself he hadn’t meant it that way. He had to be talking about the show, right?

“I’d love to see it. Does it happen every night?”

“Every night around nine, and seats fill up fast.” Elijah’s gaze flitted to Callie’s mouth, even though she wasn’t speaking anymore. “Suppose we could save you one, though, if you wanted.”

“I’d like that. Thank you.”

“It’s my pleasure, Callie. Our pleasure.” He spread his arms to indicate that included the rest of the group, and the others looked at her like she’d given them a gift. Callie couldn’t let them down now. She had to go to the show.

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