Three years later
Conner thought he honestly should be used to this by now. After three years of performing with the carnival, he should be used to the screams of the crowd and the smell of the popcorn, but he wasn’t, not really.
He still got the jitters before every performance. It made his guts twist and turn, and he didn’t know if he wanted to cry or throw up, or possibly both.
This time was worse.
After years of trying to patch up her relationship with her folks through letters and telegrams, Conner’s wife, Ellie, was finally ready to have a face-to-face meeting with them. Today was the day. Right now, Mr. and Mrs. Patterson were sitting in the audience in the huge white tent, and they were waiting to see what kind of man had married their daughter.
“You’re looking green,” Ellie said, stepping from the tent they shared. Their little blonde girl followed her and smiled up at him. Angela was two years old and the apple of Conner’s eye. She had been born what felt like moments after they were married.
She was dressed in a little puffy-sleeved dress that made her look ever so sweet. She was too small to perform, but Ellie dressed her up for each show anyway and let her stand backstage with some of the crew to watch her parents perform.
“Okay, you’re up,” Ellie said.
Pierce was introducing him, and Conner swallowed down his nerves and ran out into the brightly lit ring. He smiled and waved to the cheering crowd. He wore his guns in holsters on his hips and knew his act well.
A range of targets had been set up around the ring, and he would shoot each one of them. Some of them moved, some were stationary, and then his own wife, his darling Ellie the songbird, who had started off as the Siren, would come into the ring, standing in front of the last target, and he would shoot around her, blindfolded.
Conner was that good. He’d always been that good at shooting. He had what his sister Louisa called amazing spatial awareness. Not only did he know instinctively where he was in space, but he knew where other objects were, too, even if he only looked at them for a moment. It made shooting at things easy.
After Conner finished with a tuck and roll up to shoot a moving target with his blindfold on, he bowed and left the ring. Now it was Ellie’s turn to wow the audience.
She came on, and she sang and played the guitar. She sang songs she had written and some that everyone knew. People in the stands sang along to the ones they knew or swayed in time to the ones they didn’t. It was a lovely way to end the show, and she always brought down the house. Ellie was a true talent, good enough to sing on Broadway. But she was happy moving from town to town and singing for pennies.
This was largely due to her mother. When Ellie was little, her mother started grooming her to be a singer. Ellie had gone for singing lessons, dance lessons, music lessons, and so much more. She had been rehearsing in theatres instead of playing outside with friends. Ellie hadn’t had a happy childhood, and she blamed her mother for it.
Today would be interesting.
Ellie’s folks had traveled from New York City to this little town outside Chicago as a gesture that they wanted to get to know her and her little family. They said they wanted to make things right, and Ellie was finally ready to let them try.
Still, a lot of anger burned inside her, and Conner suspected that he would have to put out a few fires before this day was over. But then what were husbands for if not to smooth things over between warring family members?
Little Angela was in his arms as they stood backstage watching Ellie perform. The little girl swayed her head and clapped her little hands in time to the music. She had uncanny rhythm for someone so young. Perhaps she would be musical like Ellie. It was far too soon to tell.
The audience erupted in applause.
“She’s good, Mama,” little Matthew said. He was three years old now and quite a somber little fellow. His mother, Ming-Na, stood beside him, holding his hand.
“She certainly is,” she said. “I see Ellie is bringing down the house again. We should charge more for tickets when she sings. I’ll bet people would pay a lot more than we’re asking to hear her.”
“That’s up to you and Pierce,” Conner said. He left all such things up to the leader of the carnival, Pierce Anderson, and Ming-Na, his wife. “I wouldn’t say no to a few extra pennies in the purse.”
Ming-Na nodded. “I’ll speak to Pierce. I think it’s time to increase the ticket price. Mama needs a new pair of boots.” And with that, she picked up Matthew and strode off.
Ellie played the final notes to a song, and the audience broke out into applause loud enough to raise the tent’s roof. She smiled and bowed as around her the air rained roses. Bending down, she picked one up, smelled it, and then threw it back into the crowd.
Someone caught it. Someone always did, and they would clutch it to their breast and smile happily. Ellie had real star quality. Perhaps it was all that hard work that her mother had put into training her. Maybe it was her natural talent and the freedom to express it her way. There was no way of knowing. All Conner knew was that he was proud of her.
Leaving the ring to more applause, Ellie came backstage and smiled. She was so beautiful that Conner’s heart skipped several beats.
“I am such a lucky man,” he said.
“You won’t be if we’re late to my mother’s dinner reservation at the hotel,” she said. “You’ve never seen a tantrum until you’ve seen Isabella in action.”
Conner nodded. “We’d better go and change.”
“Is Ming-Na okay to watch Angela for us this evening?” Ellie asked.
Conner had forgotten to ask. This wasn’t the time for honesty, so he nodded and rushed off to speak to Ming-Na. He found her in the tent that she shared with her family. She was getting Matthew ready for bed.
“So, I was wondering,” Conner began.
Ming-Na chuckled. “Yes, Angela can sleep over tonight. I’ve already made a bed for her.”
Angela squealed in delight and wriggled free of his arms. She darted over to Ming-Na on her pudgy toddler legs and hugged the little woman’s leg. Angela loved her auntie a lot.
Conner left his daughter with Ming-Na as the two little ones settled down to hear a story. Ming-Na had a lot of them and all from China, where she had grown up. She’d only come to America when she was eighteen. All her stories were strange and new, and Conner loved to listen to them too. But there was no time tonight.
He hurried to the tent he shared with Ellie and changed into a suit. Ellie was in her good yellow dress, and they set off for a late dinner at the Lakeside Hotel. It was about as rural as Isabella would ever go; Ellie had said so when making the reservation for after the show.
“Now, remember we’re mending fencing tonight, not burning the whole village down,” Conner said as he and Ellie walked to the hotel.
“I know,” Ellie said. “This is for Angela. She deserves to know both of her sets of grandparents. Anyway, my father is a wonderful man. You’re going to love him.” She beamed. “I have missed him.”
“I can see that,” Conner said. “But don’t ignore your mother. She is part of this too.”
Ellie nodded. “I know.” She had snapped. She sighed and licked her lips. “I’m sorry. I’m just waiting for her to rip my performance apart and tell me how I missed a note here or got the timing wrong there.”
There was nothing to say that hadn’t been said a million times by now. Conner believed in a water off a duck’s back approach to such things, whereas Ellie believed in ripping things open and stomping on them.
The Lakeside Hotel’s dining room was full, and it took them a moment to find Mr. and Mrs. Patterson. They had been given a good table outside on the balcony that overlooked the lake. It was lovely this time of year; mid-summer was always pleasant here.
Mr. Patterson was a tall, dapper man in a nice suit. Ellie got his smile. Conner noticed that right away as they smiled at each other while shaking hands. Then, turning to Mrs. Patterson, Conner saw where Ellie got her looks from.
Mrs. Patterson was a classical beauty. She had high cheekbones and large eyes that she accentuated with makeup. She wore her years exceptionally well and looked every bit like the star she was.
“I’m so glad to finally meet you,” Conner said.
“Ah, but where is your daughter?” Mrs. Patterson asked.
“She’s two years old,” Ellie exclaimed.
Mrs. Patterson waved her daughter’s words away. “You came out with us when you were little. It’s part of learning about life.” She spoke in a modulated voice as though she would be judged on her pronunciation later.
Ellie glared at her mother. “Well, I’m not raising my daughter the way you raised me.”
“Should we sit?” Conner asked.
“Yes, let’s,” Mr. Patterson said.
They ordered drinks from the waiter, and Conner thought things might get better when they came. He hoped they might lubricate the women enough for them to remember that they really did love one another.
“I was impressed with your shooting skills,” Mr. Patterson said as he sipped his whiskey. “Have you always been good with a gun, or did you have to learn the skill to stay in the carnival?”
“He was always a good shooter,” Ellie said, smiling proudly at Conner. “Weren’t you?”
“Yes, I don’t know how, but it was always easy for me,” he said.
“How wonderful,” Mrs. Patterson said. “Your performance was good, dear.”
Ellie stared at her mother. “Oh, don’t hold back just because we’re in public. I can see you have a whole review in mind.”
Conner tensed. This was not the kind of thing he thought they should discuss. It was a sore point for both women.
“Actually, you did well considering the material you have to work with,” Mrs. Patterson said. “It’s not Mozart, but it seems popular with the riffraff.”
“They’re not riffraff, Mother,” Ellie said. “They’re just normal people. You used to be one, remember?”
Mrs. Patterson took a sip of her wine and nodded. “Of course, dear. After all those lessons we paid for, I just thought there would be more to your act. Why don’t you add a dance number to it?”
“Because I don’t want to,” Ellie said. “Ballet was never my favorite.”
“But you were so good at it, so graceful and elegant,” her mother said, gesturing with one delicate hand. She waved it around as though it had no bones in it, and she was listening to some song in her head as she moved.
“No,” Ellie said.
Mr. Patterson changed the subject to something else, and Conner let out the breath he’d been holding. He kept waiting for one of the women to explode and scream at the other, but they managed to order without incident.
It was clear that the women were trying very hard to get along. It wasn’t easy. Both had a lot of pent-up feelings, a lot of anger, and hurt that they had been carrying around for a long time. Conner didn’t think that one dinner and a few letters would fix that, but he hoped this dinner would pave the way to more. More might grow into a relationship, and then his daughter, Angela, could have a relationship with all her grandparents and grow up knowing that she was loved by more than the carnival folks and her parents.
Having grown up with family all around him, Conner knew how important it was to be and feel loved. Perhaps it was the thought of their daughter that helped Ellie get through the dinner. However, by the time they had finished eating, Mrs. Patterson had had quite a lot to drink and was starting to lose her grip on her tongue.
“I honestly think that you need to try wearing your corset tighter,” Ellie’s mother said.
Ellie’s face darkened. She opened her mouth.
Conner shot to his feet. “Well, it’s late,” he said. “Thank you so much for the dinner invitation. We should get going.” He hauled Ellie to her feet. “Come on, dear.”
Ellie sighed. “Good night, Mother. I am glad we did this. Let’s do it again soon.”
“Please, don’t forget to write and send me pictures of Angela,” her mother said. “Maybe next time I can meet her?”
Ellie nodded. “Next time.”
As they walked back to the carnival, Conner put his arm around Ellie’s shoulders. “Well done, I’m proud of you.”
“You are?” Ellie asked. “I was starting to get angry with her. It was nice to see my father, though.”
“Yes,” Conner said. “He’s a good man. But let’s take this in baby steps. We’ll write more letters, send more pictures, and meet up when we can. It’s going to take time to fix this relationship, but I’m willing to put in the work if you are.”
Ellie smiled at him. “I’m so lucky to have you.”
“Yes, you are,” he said.
She kissed him, and Conner felt his world turn just that little bit brighter. The future was unknown, but with Elle by his side, it would be anything but dull. They had come through so much together, and he was relieved to know that they could grow and change as people. After all, life was change, and so long as she was with him, he could weather anything that came his way.