“What exactly do you mean?”
Sign your soul over to me, or the cops.
How can I pick between my nightmare and the devil that torments me?
What does he expect me to do? It’s an impossible choice. But then again, so is the problem that drove me into this situation in the first place.
This feels like one of his cruel tricks, the same as his soccer buddies baiting me with dollar bills on fishing wire at school. Or last year, when he let me sit at his lunch table alongside Gemma because Lucas wanted her there, but the price was Devlin toying with my lunch tray and dumping it on the floor in front of everyone.
Devlin waves off my question. “I’ll give you what you came here for.”
That gets my attention. I sit up as much as I can on the narrow stool, swallowing.
“I don’t follow.” My forehead wrinkles. “You’re going to let me drive off with your car? Just like that?”
The corner of Devlin’s mouth quirks up and a dimple appears in his cheek.
“Not at all. You’re never to touch my car again.” He points at me to drive that decree home. He studies me with cunning curiosity. “No, what I mean is if you play my game, I’ll forget all about tonight. And if you do that, I’ll give you the money you obviously need.”
My lips part, lured by the temptation for a minute.
Reality catches up with me a second later. I snap my mouth shut as I seek out the part where he laughs in my face. Because what he’s offering? It sounds too fucking good to be true. He’ll just give me money? There’s a catch, I know it.
Devlin? Fine with helping me?
We hate each other.
“This offer expires before you leave here.” Devlin’s grin is smug. “So…ready to play a game, little thief?” He slinks closer, like a beast hunting me down for sport, drowning me in the rich, earthy scent of leather and spice. He wraps a lock of my hair around his finger while the smile dances on his lips, the dimples on display. “I’ll explain further. The rules are simple: my way is law.”
“That’s it?” I purse my lips to the side.
Things with Devlin are never simple. There are always layers, cruel pranks lurking beneath his punch line. I have a hard time believing what he’s offering is as straightforward as he puts it.
“It’s a one time bargain.” Devlin leans in to whisper against my ear—because what’s a ringmaster without the theatrics? “You might say it’s a real steal.”
Icy hands grasped my shoulders and ankles as I was lifted onto another surface. Fighting the sedation, I pried my eyes open as much as I could. The images were fuzzy, and voices unfamiliar. My vision was blurred, and I couldn’t focus. My head spun like a Tilt-a-Whirl.
“Sir, was she conscious when you arrived on the scene?”
The ground rumbled beneath me as I was being wheeled.
“She’s been in and out,” a man’s panicked voice replied.
“Sir, you can meet us at the hospital.”
“No, I’m not leaving her.” His voice was stern as his hand grabbed mine.
“How are you related to the patient?”
W-who? W-what’s happening?
“Fine, sir, you best come with us, then.”
Doors slammed and sirens blared as we started to move.
Where am I?
My eyelids were pulled up, a bright light was shined in one eye and then the other.
“Are you with us, sweetheart?”
“Paige, her name is Paige.”
A warm hand slid up and down my arm, comforting me, before holding my hand again.
“Are you with us, Paige?” My eyes opened to an EMT leaning over me.
“Yes.” It came out a raspy whisper.
My memory came rushing back.
“Where’s Ana?” Panicked, I tried to push my body up.
“Woah.” A gentle hand pressed me back to the gurney.
“You need to lie back and let us take care of you. We’ll be at the hospital soon.”
An uncomfortable squeezing was increasing against my bicep. The blood pressure monitor tightened as the air was pumped through.
“Ana,” I moaned.
“Your sister is gonna be alright,” warm breath whispered in my ear before giving my hand a small squeeze. His voice was soothing. It calmed the trauma that was running through my mind in waves.
She’s going to be alright.
I tried so hard to keep my eyes open. I needed to see his face. The man who saved me. Emerald eyes bore into mine with worry written across his fading face as the darkness took me back under.
“Paige, stay with me…”
I never would have thought that a stretch of land could say, Go away, you’re not wanted here, but I get the message loud and clear.
I click my tongue, and Jareth breaks into a trot.
There’s a cottage up ahead, and over the sound of Jareth’s clopping hooves I hear a deep voice raised in a shout. Then a high-pitched scream. I clench the reins, drawing Jareth back to a walk, and peer through overgrown bushes to a crumbled and untidy house.
A side door flies open, and a girl with a long, straw-colored plait and a blue sundress dashes outside. She’s barefoot, and she races across the muddy yard and disappears into the stable. Barely a second later, a pale gray horse bursts out into the sunshine, the girl astride its back. Her eyes are wild and she’s clinging to the horse’s mane. For a moment I’m certain she’s going to fall off, because the horse wears no bridle or saddle, but as she races out of the front gate she’s more than secure atop the animal’s back. She gallops straight past me and up the road.
A middle-aged man in a stained T-shirt and with a grizzled gray beard stumbles out the front door, holding a shotgun and yelling at the top of his lungs, “Come back here, you lazy bitch!”
The girl and her horse are already a hundred yards up the road and moving fast.
Realizing he’s too late, the man heads for the stables, still clutching the shotgun. When he heaves down a saddle, the gun catches on the railings and it almost topples him.
I clench my knees around Jareth’s middle. “Yah!”
My horse transitions from walk into a gallop, and we race along the road toward the girl. She’s a gray and blue speck on the road ahead, but Jareth is a much bigger, more powerful horse, and soon we’re closing on her. We must sound like thunder bearing down on her.
The laneway curves and the girl disappears from view. When we round the bend, I see her standing up on the horse’s back while it canters, and my mouth falls open in surprise. She’s as sure-footed as Elke and Anouk are on their horses under the big top. The girl holds herself steady for a moment, arms spread, and then vaults up to catch the branch of a tree. She scrambles onto it and disappears into the leaves. The gray horse slows, and at the girl’s whistle it trots away from her hiding place and is hidden among the trees.
I walk Jareth just off the road and wait.
A few minutes later, there’s another whistle. Jareth’s ears swivel toward it as my head turns. Back trots the gray horse and the girl slithers onto its back, all bare legs and wisps of blonde hair.
“Miss,” I call quietly.
The girl tenses and turns frightened eyes on me. She spies Jareth and me standing in the shadows, and tenses to flee.
“Your father is saddling up a horse, and he’s carrying a shotgun. Do you have someplace to go?”
The girl stares at us, frozen with indecision. When I don’t move she relaxes slightly, and her eyes travel over me. “You’re from the circus that passed by a few hours ago.”
I look down at myself. My clothes are plain enough. Black shirt, black jeans, dusty black boots, black jacket. Jareth’s saddle and bridle are decorated with the same gold and crimson trim as the wagons. Even without Jareth I find myself drawing stares when I enter towns and villages, as if people can sense there’s something unusual about me. I’m weathered by the elements and my black hair is down to my collar. I haven’t seen a proper bed or the inside of a house in five months. Maybe it shows.
“Yes,” I say.
She looks longingly up the road in the direction the circus has passed.
I swing my leg over the saddle and slide to the ground. “Dismount and walk a little into the woods with me. We should get out of sight of the road.”
The girl bites her lip, unsure whether she can trust this stranger. As I pat Jareth’s neck, he nuzzles my shirt with his velvet lip. Affectionate, but also curious about whether I’m carrying any sugar cubes.
“Your horse likes you,” the girl says.
I stroke Jareth’s nose. “I like him.”
She leaps lightly down from her horse, as if Jareth’s judge of character is good enough for her. We head into the woods, the girl walking easily over the leaf litter and bracken with bare feet, as if she’s done this dozens of times before. She’s petite and slender, barely coming up to my shoulder, but she possesses wiry strength. Her arms in her short sleeves are well defined, and her legs are muscular. I wonder who taught her acrobatics.
I draw Jareth to a stop in a little clearing, and the girl turns to me. She hasn’t led her horse. It’s followed her, as obedient as a dog.
“The circus was in the field on the other side of the village last night,” she tells me, her eyes flickering over my face.
I nod. Tonight, it will be in another village further south, and in a few weeks more it will be a hundred miles away. We’re crisscrossing our way down the country all summer and will turn back as the season changes.
“Can I come with you?” she asks suddenly. Her fingers are threading through the horse’s mane, tight and anxious. “I can look after horses. I’ve grown up with them all my life. I can be useful.”
She doesn’t seem to know she might be good enough on her horse to perform. As well as being strong and athletic, she’s beautiful, with high cheekbones and wide-spaced, sparkling blue eyes. The only mar to her beauty is a nasty swelling beneath her left eye, which is rapidly turning black.
“How old are you?”
She glances furtively at me, and then away again. “Nineteen.”
“How old are you really?”
“Did he give you that?” I ask, nodding at the angry purple bruise beneath her eye.
The girl tenses. Other people have asked her this, and if she tells the truth, he’ll hit her again. I wonder if that’s why she’s learned to run and hide. I clench Jareth’s leather reins in my fist. “I won’t let him—”
There’s a crashing sound up ahead in the woods, and the gray horse tenses. A furious male voice echoes through the trees. It’s all too much for the horse, and she suddenly rears and bolts.
“Dandelion!” the girl cries in anguish. She puts two fingers in her mouth and whistles, but this time the horse doesn’t obey. Horses sense evil, and Dandelion seems like she wants to put as much distance between herself and this girl’s father as possible.
I can see the man now, mounted on a bay horse and fighting his way through the underbrush to get to us. The girl wraps her arms around her shaking body and starts to cry. She doesn’t even try to run. It’s like she’s got nowhere to run to.
I put my foot into a stirrup and swing up onto Jareth. I reach down my hand for her. “Come on.”
The despair in the girl’s eyes changes to elation. Gasping in relief, she clutches my hand and I pull her up behind me.
The man sees us, and roars and raises his shotgun, but we’re out of range. I watch him for a moment, committing his face to memory. Letting him see me, too, the man who’s taking his daughter.
I want him to see me.
Then I wheel Jareth around. We canter though the woods, my horse finding natural paths through the trees. Friesians were bred to be warhorses, and while they’re big and strong enough to carry a knight in full armor, they’re also swift and sure-footed.
“I thought you were going to leave me behind,” the girl gasps, wrapping her arms around my waist and holding on. We emerge from the trees onto a laneway, and I turn Jareth southwards and urge him into a gallop.
“What’s your name?” I call over the sound of Jareth’s thundering hooves. That clumsy bastard will still be fighting his way through the bracken.
Ryah. What a pretty name. I look down at her small hands encircling my waist.
“What’s your name?” she asks.
“Cale. Cale Hearn of Meriful’s Traveling Circus.” Cale Hearn who’s just snatched a teenage girl right from under her father’s nose. I wonder if this is kidnapping. I wonder if he’ll send the police after me or arrive to take her back himself. He’s welcome to fucking try.
Ryah nestles closer and rests her cheek against my back. “Pleased to meet you, Cale Hearn of Meriful’s Traveling Circus. Thank you for helping me run away.”
I find myself smiling as we thunder down the road. “My pleasure, Ryah.”
Jazzi, her cousin Jerod, and her husband Ansel are preparing to renovate a charming house that reminds her of an English manor. Before purchasing it, they had inspected the house for structural issues, but now when they do a more thorough walk-through, they discover a teenage girl’s bedroom that clearly hasn’t been touched in years. Dust covers the pink canopy bed, clothes still hang in the closet, and a hope chest remains full of journals and memorabilia. They’ve stumbled on a shrine to a dead girl.
They learn Jessica was killed in the middle of her high school graduation party. The murderer was never identified, but the brother-in-law of Jazzi’s friend, who went to school with Jessica, was suspected and never lived it down. He implores Jazzi to review the cold case and finally prove him innocent. Now it’s up to the house-flipper to nail a killer who will do anything to close the door on the past . . .
Jazzi Zanders has promised everyone, including her sweet husband that she will absolutely, positively stop getting involved in solving murders! With nothing but good intentions, Jazzi, Ansel, and Jerod make their way towards their latest project, a wonderful English cottagesque home they are flipping for resale. Though the work is going to be intense and difficult, at least this time, Jazzi hasn’t run across a dead body somewhere in the house.
Unfortunately, Jazzi doesn’t have to literally trip over a dead body to become involved in a case. When she and Ansel’s good friends call to ask about the new house they’re working on, they also reveal a chilling story that has haunted the small town for years! Though Ansel doesn’t want Jazzi to become involved, he is also kind and caring and finds it hard to refuse helping their friends. According to their friends, on the night of their graduation party, a young girl, Jessica fell to her death from the second-floor balcony of her own home. While the town gossips have been vicious in their tongue-wagging, the police have never been able to close the case.
With the case having been cold for so many years and out of her detective friend’s jurisdiction, Jazzi isn’t sure what she’s going to be able to discover that the police haven’t. Like Ansel, Jazzi is kind and wants to see her friend’s suffering end. With the help of the young girl’s diaries, Jazzi is able to piece together the story of a bright, outgoing young girl who was constantly hounded and belittled by her father. Her brother was seemingly quite protective of her and her mother often tried to defend her daughter, but Jessica’s home life wasn’t great, and she was looking forward to leaving home after graduation.
Each diary entry gives Jazzi more insight and the name of another person she needs to speak with. Thankfully, Jessica had a core group of friends loyal to her and willing to do anything to help bring justice to their friend. Jessica’s friends help Jazzi understand more about Jessica’s life and, most importantly, the night their friend plunged to her death. As always, not every encounter is pleasant and Jazzi quickly discovers a few truly horrible humans who care nothing for the loss of Jessica or what her loss has done to others. Marking suspects off the list is proving harder than expected considering the coldness of the case. That is, until fresh bodies start dropping!
The Bottom Line: I didn’t quite love this Jazzi book as much as the previous four, BUT I did very much appreciate the novel approach taken in this book. It isn’t often that Jazzi doesn’t have a fresh body and crime scene to deal with and while I liked the novelty of it this time, I sure hope it doesn’t become a standard part of this series. With that bit out of the way, I was, once again happy with the other aspects of this book. Jazzi and Ansel’s circle is widening with every book and it really does enhance to spirit of friendship and community that has been a part of the entire series. Of course, there is also loads of good food, dialogue, and evolution among all the characters, old and new alike. I find these books to be solid, well-crafted reads that are populated with people I like to revisit regularly. For my money, that’s exactly the kind of book I want to continue reading.