Anything For You
The words elephant and wedding really didn’t belong in the same sentence.
Even if the wedding in question was being held in a barn.
At least, that was Jillian Powell’s experience. But what did she know? She spent most of her life in the Mexican circus where the word elephant and pretty much any other word in English or Spanish would have been perfectly normal. Possibly mundane, even.
At her current location, in central Pennsylvania at the wedding of her good friend and dubious relation, Avery Williams, though, elephant definitely did not fit.
“What did you say that noise was again?” Avery leaned over and whispered in Jillian’s ear.
The brass ensemble that had been playing in the background while the guests had started eating had taken a break. The low murmurs of the guests had jerked into stunned silence when Heidi, the elephant, had trumpeted just a few seconds ago.
Jillian’s palms started to sweat and her heart shivered like leaves that had been blown from a baobab tree by the lonely and sad trumpet of an African bush elephant.
“It’s Heidi,” Jillian whispered back, surprised her voice only shook a little. Heidi and her sister, Hazel, had been part of Jillian’s act when she’d been in the Mexican circus. Not that she was going to go into her history with the elephant that currently stood below them in the long-unused barnyard.
That wasn’t exactly the most pressing question on anyone’s mind, anyway. ‘How did the elephant get here, might be the top question in most peoples’ minds.
Jillian, however, was more concerned about the best man.
No, she wasn’t attracted to McKoy Rodning, although with his square jaw, strong nose, and broad shoulders, he probably was attractive. Maybe she did spend more than the average amount of time thinking about him. Only because of her recently opened dog kennel. Or maybe because of her general distrust of government employees.
But her current level of apprehension stemmed from the fact that McKoy Rodning was the animal control officer, and it was pretty much his job to question why an elephant would be trumpeting, independent of the brass band, at Avery and Gator’s wedding.
And there she had it. Elephant and wedding in the same sentence, once more, sounding no more harmonious than they had the first time.
“And you know…Heidi?” Avery whispered, the pucker between her brows not matching the bright smile she flashed the curious guests who had slowly started conversing in lows tones, throwing occasional concerned glances up at the wedding party table.
“Yes.” Jillian rubbed her wet palms together, trying to remember she was wearing satin and not denim, and could not wipe her hands down her legs like she longed to do. Hopefully, the sweat that gathered in her armpits wasn’t noticeable as long as she kept her arms pressed firmly against her sides.
The musicians began filing back to their seats. Avery pushed her half-eaten piece of cake away from the edge of the table and gave Jillian a nervous smile.
“If you leave before this dance, it will be noticeable, but I think once it ends, you could slip out and take care of whatever you need to. Maybe I can get Gator to distract McKoy.”
“You two just enjoy each other. I can handle it.” It’s not like she hadn’t learned plenty of survival skills growing up in the circus. Although how one would “take care” of an elephant problem in central Pennsylvania presented a quagmire she wasn’t sure her skill set could handle.
Avery squeezed her hand, her shiny pink nails sparkling in the romantic barn light. “Thank you. Thank you for spending this day with me.”
Jillian’s smile was genuine as she squeezed back. Avery had been a great friend to her.
“Guess this is where I try not to step on your toes,” Gator spoke, and Avery’s head swiveled to him.
He had stood and held his hand out to her, his eyes full of love and admiration, even if his request to dance had been less than romantic. His jeans and plaid shirt looked new, though they weren’t typical groom attire. They suited the barn wedding, and they suited Gator even more.
Just as the lacy white dress suited Avery.
Unfortunately, the coral satin dress Jillian wore might look fabulous next to her brown skin and black eyes and hair, but she would feel slightly more comfortable in a bikini standing at the South Pole than she currently did in the dress and the four-inch heels.
She wore outfits like this when she performed in the circus. Well, maybe not with the full skirt that fell below her knees. But definitely with heels this high. She could hold a hoop for the dog act, hang by her hair above the audience, twist herself into a pretzel, perch a monkey on her shoulder and ride the lead elephant’s trunk around the show ring with no more nervousness than if she were sitting in bed, reading a book.
But somehow she felt she needed the security of comfortable jeans, worn sneakers, and a soft T-shirt to face Mr. McKoy Rodning, animal control officer and the only one currently in attendance at this wedding who had the power to remove Heidi before Jillian could figure out where she came from, who brought her, and what she was going to do with her. If he knew the secret that her hosts, the Finkenbinders, didn’t know…Avery didn’t even know…he could have her sent back to Mexico.
But she didn’t have the security of comfortable clothes and he stood beside her, one hand behind his back, one hand held out to her, bowing slightly. The manners in his posture were impeccable, but the look in those powerful blue eyes was speculating.
Their relationship was not exactly harmonious.
They didn’t belong in the same dance together any more than elephant and wedding belonged in the same sentence.
With a lift of her chin and a glint of her own eye, she met the challenge in his gaze, placing her hand in his.
Like sticking her fingers in a light socket.
Jillian fought to hold steady as shockwaves ricocheted up her arm, past her elbow, and slammed into her shoulder.
Her eyes flew to his, even as her automatic brain took over and her performing smile slid easily into place on her face. The net might have broken, but she would smile all the way to the ground.
Her fingers, long and slender like the rest of her body, rested lightly in his large, calloused hand.
The touch was light, but that crazy electricity that zapped between them felt stronger than the poles that held the big top up.
Her performance mask solidified on her face.
“Thank you,” she said as she rose gracefully.
Something flickered in his eye as she straightened to her full height, her eyes square with his chin. Her stomach jumped in answer. Nervousness. It had to be. Had he recognized that noise for what it was?
He led her to the dance area, where Avery and Gator already danced to the dulcet tones of the brass ensemble.
She’d have to distract him so he wouldn’t ask about the noise. But how? All she knew about McKoy she’d heard from the town gossips. He was the “dog catcher.” Straight-laced. Followed the law to the T. Solid. Dependable. Still lived in the house he grew up in. Boring.
She could try to talk about stocks and bonds. That sounded boring enough to suit his personality. Except she couldn’t hold even a remotely intelligent conversation about that. Maybe he was the kind of man who dominated conversations and tried to show by his verbosity how erudite he was.
It was too much to chance.
He stopped and she turned, her skirt billowing out, brushing his leg. Something about the soft satin of her skirt brushing the rough denim of his pant leg mesmerized her, and she watched as the material seemed to flow, smooth as cream over strawberries, across his strong leg.
She’d been required to do a lot of things in her time as a performer, but talking wasn’t one of them. Her brain seemed to freeze as his large hand came up to settle with a whisper on her waist.
His lips didn’t turn up, and he looked as serious as a pallbearer at a funeral. Apparently he wasn’t any more eager to dance with her than she was with him. She’d just opened a dog kenneling business here on the farm, and so far he’d left her alone, but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t be visiting.
All of her paperwork was in order. Her business paperwork. Fink, who owned the farm with his wife Ellie, had filed it for her.
Her personal paperwork, on the other hand, was nonexistent. From what she’d heard of McKoy, he wouldn’t hesitate to turn her in, but he shouldn’t have any idea that she wasn’t legal, unless she managed to stuff her high heel in her mouth in the next three minutes. Because of the different nationalities in the circus, she’d grown up speaking four different languages—Slovak, Romanian, Spanish, and English. Her Slovak and Romanian were rusty, but she was fluent in the other two languages. She’d been told her accent was faint.
Would he notice?
All of her upbringing had been focused on giving the audience a performance that made them feel their money was well-spent. It was time to put her talent to use.
He tilted his head, as though listening, then opened his mouth. He was going to ask about that noise, she was sure of it. She had to speak first. She had to distract him.
“Did you know that all monarch butterflies winter in one general area in Mexico?”
His mouth froze halfway open. His brows slowly formed a V, and if she read the look in his eyes correctly, he had just decided she was eccentric, if not slightly nuts. Perfect. He wasn’t thinking about elephants anymore.
“It’s beautiful to visit in the winter and see them almost covering every tree or bush within that certain square mile or two.”
The circus had been playing a week-long show near the mountain on which the butterflies spent the winter, and she’d gone with her mother and several others to see it. “There’s a lot of deforestation going on near that area, and scientists are afraid the monarchs will lose their home.”
“Surely Mexico has laws in place to prevent that from happening,” McKoy said with typical American naivete. Americans thought Mexico was like America.
“In Mexico, the person with the biggest bribe wins.” She remembered just in time she wasn’t supposed to sound bitter.
“Sounds like a nice vacation,” he said. Ignoring the uncomfortable idea that monarchs might become extinct. Not surprising.
They swayed gently to the music. McKoy wasn’t trying any fancy dance moves, which fitted exactly what she’d heard about his personality. He seemed uncomfortable in front of the guests, too.
She’d exhausted her monarch trivia, and he had that look in his eye, like he might be asking about the noise that had sounded suspiciously like an elephant trumpeting.
McKoy might not be her favorite person, but normally she wouldn’t purposely do something that made someone uncomfortable. For Heidi, she felt she had no choice.
“Did I tell you I used to be a dancer?”
It was a rhetorical question, since they’d never spoken before five minutes ago.
He shook his head, his mouth still slightly open.
She gave him a little smile that might have had just a hint of deviltry in it. “I’m going to spin. Hang on.”
A look very close to panic flashed across his face before she moved, grabbing his hand and stretching out their arms, then spinning herself up next to him. Their faces were only inches apart before she spun out, bending backward. She wasn’t quite as flexible as she used to be, and her head was less than a foot off the ground, rather than the mere inches it would have been in her circus days.
The guests clapped.
She straightened slowly and twirled under his arm, turning completely around several times. Her skirt billowed out, but she refused to acknowledge it brushing his jeans. It wasn’t herself she was trying to distract.
This time, as she twirled into him, he caught her, probably on accident, with his arm around her waist.
Her unconventional childhood had also taught her never to waste an opportunity.
She bent over his arm, careful not to lift her leg up too high. She hadn’t been expecting this and her undergarments were not sufficient for that kind of show.
The song faded out on a low chord, she bent backward one last time, seeing Avery and Gator smiling before they kissed. The guests clapped.
McKoy offered his arm, which surprised her for some reason. His cheeks were red under his tan, and he didn’t look her in the eye as she took it and he led her back to her seat.
She’d been trained since birth to be in complete control of her body at all times. So McKoy would never guess when she tripped and spilled the punch sitting on her table down the front of her dress that it wasn’t an accident.
“Oh, no!” Jillian said with a glance at Avery and Gator, who were oblivious, wrapped up in each other’s arms. “I’d better go blot this so the stain doesn’t set.”
She had plenty of experience in the circus of sewing costumes and getting stains out, and it didn’t matter how much “blotting” she did, that stain was never coming out of her dress. But she was willing to sacrifice her pretty bridesmaid dress on the altar of saving Heidi.
McKoy jerked his head up and stepped back so she could go around him.
The restrooms in the renovated barn were around the corner at the far end in what used to be granaries. There were no windows in the small single user bathrooms, but there was a window at the end of the hall between them.
Jillian opened it, hitched her dress up, and climbed out.