Carnival of Hearts: BBW Paranormal Shape Shifter Romance

BOOK: Carnival of Hearts: BBW Paranormal Shape Shifter Romance
4.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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Carnival of Hearts

By Scarlett Rhone
Copyright 2015 Enamored Ink
Table of Contents

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

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Carnival of Hearts: Part 1

By Scarlett Rhone

Chapter 1

Clara’s date had never been taught not to talk with his mouth full, and it was driving her nuts. She wasn’t one overly preoccupied with good manners most of the time, but talking with one’s mouth full was just one of those things that completely ruined her appetite and her mood in one go. And before the food had arrived, the whole thing had been going surprisingly well for a Tinder date. But there was always, always a catch; there was always something wrong with him, with all of them. No matter how many times Clara’s friends told her that she was being unrealistic and ridiculous, and even when they insisted she was self-sabotaging, Clara remained convinced that she had already met her soul mate, and that someday she would find him again. And that he wouldn’t talk with his mouth full or stab at his salad like he was trying to kill it. She pretended to get an emergency text from her mother and left the restaurant before their entrees had even arrived.

The evening was thick with humidity and sea salt, a crush of sweltering heat and sweat and the cry of gulls wheeling overhead. It was a quintessential North Carolina coastal summer night, a chorus of insects serenading her as Clara walked across the restaurant parking lot towards her car. She climbed in and put the key in the ignition, but then sat back against the seat for a minute and let her shoulders slump, disappointment washing over her for what felt like the millionth time. She glanced in the rearview mirror and saw her date trudging to his own car, and tried to sink a little in her seat so that if he glanced in her direction he might not see her. Her reflection in the windshield stared wide-eyed back at her as she hid there, and she saw a girl with wild black hair, big brown eyes and a round face, and barely recognized herself. When had she started to look so scared of everything?

Of course, she knew when. Almost exactly two years ago that night, when her heart had been crushed to smithereens. All of her friends told her that she should be over it by now, that it was
two years ago
and that it couldn’t possibly have been as bad as she was making it out to be. They’d only known each other for a few days. Five in total. It was a fling. Why could she just let it be the torrid affair that it was meant to be and move on? But Clara knew in the broken bits and pieces that were left of her heart that it had been real.

Her pocket gave off an insistent chirp and she pulled out her iPhone. A text from Mariel, of course, asking how the date was going.

Over
, Clara replied.

That was fast.

Yeah.

Clara Reynaldi, you didn’t even try.

Clara tossed the phone into her bag on the passenger’s seat before she typed something mean that she’d regret a few minutes later. She knew Mariel was only trying to help, in her own pushy way. Date after date after date, Mariel remained optimistic while Clara sank into the dour certainty that she was going to be alone forever.

She turned the key in the ignition and drove out of the restaurant parking lot once she was sure that her date had already left, but instead of driving home, she found herself on auto-pilot, driving somewhere else entirely. The paved highway gave way to the sand and gravel of the marsh side roads, until the trees, bent over under the heavy weight of Spanish moss, gave way to the campground clearing of a wide field, just half a mile from the beach. In the little town of Sandy Isle, it was a popular spot for county fairs and cookouts, low country boils and Cub Scout overnights. She pulled up to the little parking area and turned the car off, staring at the high, untended grass and the distant line of dogwood trees that encircled the clearing. This was also where, two years ago, she’d met Marcus, the love of her life, and lost him.

On a night unlike this one, the campground had been alive with light and noise when a traveling carnival had passed through and set up shop. Clara closed her eyes. She could summon up so easily the sights and sounds: the beautiful canvas banner announcing that the CARNIVAL D’ORFEO had arrived, flapping in the breeze from the nearby beach. It loomed overhead, held up by two pillars engraved with twisting, dancing creatures, half-naked sculptures that were part-human and part-animal, which made Clara blush as she passed between them with Mariel and Daniel, arm-in-arm-in-arm. A giant Ferris wheel that turned in the distance, the big top splashed at its feet in bright red and orange and black, and the grounds, a wild labyrinth of booths and games and sideshows. Water pistol challenges and skee ball, a bearded lady and various feats of strength, a myriad of performing animals, and the scents of cotton candy and funnel cake so thick in the air as to almost obscure the smell of the sea itself. It was more adventure and romance than Sandy Isle saw in a lifetime.

Sandy Isle was just a sleepy beach town and had never before warranted a visit from a traveling anything at all, so of course everybody had gone, out of curiosity’s sake if for no other reason. And it wasn’t a circus, or even nearly the size of one, but it had boasted several performing bears and one trained lion, and that was quite a thing for Sandy Isle. The mayor had proclaimed he was going just to be sure that none of these creatures escaped to harry the county.

Clara had tried to stay with Mariel and Daniel, but eventually they’d been separated. Mariel had wanted to ride the Ferris wheel and Daniel had wanted to see the Siamese twins, so Clara had been left wandering through the carnival with a funnel cake all to herself, making a mess of her daisy-dotted sundress with powdered sugar.

She didn’t mind exploring the carnival by herself. She lived by herself but never spent much time alone. She was a bartender at the local beach bar, and that kept her talking to people with enough frequency that some time to disconnect and just be surrounded by people who had no reason to ask her for things was actually relaxing. Clara needed space from people sometimes, despite her chosen profession. She’d gone to college and graduated with a business degree and then had a complete mental breakdown and discarded that plan altogether. Naturally just nervous and often plagued by crippling anxieties, she’d moved to the beach. Her parents still didn’t understand. She didn’t need them to. The air was easier to breathe down here, and life moved at a slower pace, one that she was more comfortable moving with.

When she decided that she was so covered in powdered sugar that she couldn’t actually be seen in public another moment, she found the edges of the carnival grounds where the porta-potties were stashed. She hoped to find a working water spigot or at least a bottle of antibacterial hand sanitizer to get the white powder smears off her hands with, but as she approached the dingy little line of porta-potties, instead she saw the most gorgeous man she’d ever laid eyes on, spraying himself down with the hose attached to one of the carnival trailers.

He was incredibly tall, with broad shoulders and an exposed, barrel chest that tapered into a narrower waist and hips that were just barely managing to hold up the pair of soaking wet jeans he was wearing. Clara was entranced by the miles of smooth, sun-bronzed skin and the etched ridges of his abdomen and pectoral muscles, the generous bulge of biceps, and the masculine trail of dark hair that led from his chest down to, well, down. He lifted his head, tossing shoulder-length black hair back from his face, and then froze with the hose still splattering water on the ground. His golden-hazel eyes met Clara’s, and she felt her whole body heat up as they stood there staring at each other.

A long moment passed, during which Clara alternately forgot how to talk and what her name was and maybe even where she was, actually, because her entire world narrowed down to nothing more than this beautiful man and his bright eyes. Eventually, he tilted his head a little, an embarrassed smile coasting onto his perfect mouth.

“Lost, miss?” he asked, voice a warm honey baritone.

He was talking to her.
He was talking to her
.

“Sorry,” she blurted. “I was looking for somewhere to wash my handsome—I mean my
hands
…” Her face felt like it was on fire.

He arched a sharp, dark eyebrow. “Just your hands?”

She wanted to
die
as she looked down at her dress, more or less a mess of white handprints, smudges and streaks, like she’d gotten into a fight with a rampaging baker.

“There was,” she muttered, “an incident with a funnel cake…”

He laughed, brushing hair back from his face, and waved her closer as he adjusted the strength of the hose. “C’mere. Use this. The water’s clean.”

Despite the instinct to turn and run, Clara marshaled her senses and nodded, walking dejectedly over to the hose. She managed not to look at him, just approached and held out her hands, and he let the water spill against her palms.

But not without further comment. “So did someone throw a funnel cake
at
you?”

She sighed. “No, I just…am kind of a messy eater.”

To her surprise, he reached out with his free hand to help rub some of the sugar off one of her hands. That brought her eyes up to his face, and she froze again when she found him smiling down at her. Bright white teeth in a dusky, handsome face.

“I’m a messy eater too,” he said, nodding. “Get it all over myself. Should wear a bib at every meal.”

A laugh startled out of her throat. “Is that why you’re using the hose too?”

“Not this time,” he admitted. “I work for the carnival. Just trying to cool off.” He twisted her hand in his until she realized that they were now shaking hands. “I’m Marcus.”

“Clara.” She smiled back at him, at a loss. “Nice to meet you.”

Clara came back to herself in the car before she let herself remember the rest. She’d spent months and months replaying those five days in her head, over and over again, and they were never less than perfect…until the end. Until the morning she’d gone to meet Marcus at the campground and he’d been gone. The entire carnival had been gone. No warning, no word at all, just…gone. He’d vanished and taken her heart with him and she’d never been able to get it back or find even a trace of him ever again in almost two years.

She looked out at the deserted campground now and felt her stomach twist into an ashamed knot. It wasn’t that she didn’t
want
to move on; it was like something wouldn’t let go of her just as much as she wouldn’t let go of the memory of Marcus. Some indelible, mystical
thing
had its hooks in her and she couldn’t get free of it. She felt caught, trapped. Alone. Tears stung the backs of her eyes, as they always did when she came here, but still she came back over and over again. Before she succumbed to another round of gut-wrenching sobs, she turned the car back on and backed out of the parking area, driving back to the highway to head home.

Mariel said her problem was that she’d made Marcus into this perfect ideal that she held all other men up to, and it was just a fantasy. Of course no one could ever measure up to a fantasy. She said Clara needed to adjust her expectations if she wanted to find someone, but Clara thought that was bullshit. Her expectations weren’t the problem. And she wasn’t so desperate to find someone to love her that she’d take just
anyone
. She did fine on her own. And only after meeting Marcus had
on her own
become less satisfying. Mariel thought it was a sign that Clara was lonely. Clara thought it was a sign that Marcus was
the one
, if such a thing could really exist.

Daniel was more practical about it all, trying to side with Clara while not really understanding her. But Daniel had been married to his high school sweetheart for ten years and he didn’t really understand what it was like to meet someone out of the blue who could be so perfect for you. Love was a long-nourished and fought-for thing for him, and his wife Amy was as much a handful as she was his perfect foil. He’d been lucky, and Clara didn’t resent him for it, but she was well aware that he didn’t get it. He wanted her to be happy. They
both
wanted her to be happy, but neither one of them knew what happiness really looked like for Clara. And after Marcus, Clara couldn’t have said she even knew anymore herself—unless it looked like Marcus.

It had been that way for a year. In the second year, Clara had started dating again and while none of that had gone anywhere at all, she’d started at least to feel like she was making progress. She didn’t think of Marcus every night before she went to bed anymore. She didn’t cry whenever she remembered the feel of his arms around her. She just remembered it, or she remembered the way his lips had felt when she kissed them, or the way his body had fit to hers as they made love on the beach beneath the stars, but she didn’t cry. She just put the memories swiftly away and carried on. And that had to be an improvement. That had to mean she was getting over it, slowly but surely. It had to.

She lived in a little apartment above the beach bar. It was small and there was no central air, but it was right on the beach and that made up for just about all of its faults. As she got inside and tossed her keys on the kitchen counter, her phone went off again. With a sigh, knowing it was Mariel, she grabbed a half-drunk bottle of pinot grigio from the fridge and yanked the cork out with her teeth, filling a glass for herself. Then she took the glass and the phone over to her sofa, collapsed down onto it, and checked to see what Mariel had to say now.

I wasn’t even going to send you this but Daniel said I was being a bitch.

BOOK: Carnival of Hearts: BBW Paranormal Shape Shifter Romance
4.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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