His smile glinted in the sun like the gilded lettering on the wagons he passed. Several clowns dropped their juggling pins to stare as he strode through the practice rings toward the rope corral where several handlers were currying the ponies. The dust settling on his boots only slightly marred their highly polished surfaces, and he was careful to sweep his cape out of the way of several suspicious piles on the ground. Peter Petruchion was no stranger to the dirty side of circus business, but saw no reason to wallow in it like the workers he saw gathering as he passed.
“Could someone direct me to Monsieur Minola?” Peter asked politely, allowing more than usual of his French accent to curl through his words.
The clowns were fumbling with their pins. Several men who had been pitching the tents shouldered their hammers and edged nearer. The rag-tag gathering seemed more interested in gawking at his fine clothes than helping him. Petruchion stroked his moustache and struggled to keep his eyebrows from raising.
“Monsieur Minola?” He asked again, clearly enunciating each syllable.
Finally, a worker pointed toward the most gilded wagon, painted in violent orange that was chipping in a few places.
“Old Batty’s in there, ‘e is.”
Petruchion nodded and touched the brim of his bowler in acknowledgement.
As he neared the wagon, he heard the worker call out. “Ye’d best be wary, sir, if ye’re expectin’ to sign on with Minola’s Magical Exposition – ye’d likely soil them fancy duds ye’re a-wearin’.”
At that moment, the wagon door burst open, and a large mustachioed man stepped out. “Peter Petruchio, world-famous tamer of big cats of all varieties, I presume?”
Peter tried to look modest but failed. “Monsieur. Minola, it is indeed an honor.”
“Come in, come in, no need for formality,” the man insisted, sweeping him inside.
The interior of the ringmaster’s wagon was in dissarray. Several top hats were tumbled over a pile of capes of varying hues. A stack of posters proclaiming the sideshow’s merits lay in a wrinkled stack on the chair. The heavy odor of hair tonic nearly singed Peter’s nostrils.
“Now, we’re obviously in need of a good lion-tamer, but that’s not my only reason for requesting you.” Minola cleared his throat. “I hear you're in the market for a well-dowried wife.”
Petruchion inclined his head in assent,.
“I have a daughter, one of the finest bareback riders in the kingdom and handsome to boot. She’s in need of a strong hand – something I trust you can give.”
“You said as much in your letter,” Petruchion leaned forward, nearly touching noses with Minola in the wagon’s close confines. “Am I guaranteed the dowry I seek?”
“At least two thousand pounds by the end of the summer.”
Petruchion smiled. “Done, Monsieur. May I see the lady?”
“She’ll be in the ring, practicing, I expect,” Minola said, wiping his forehead with a rather obvious sigh of relief. “You won’t have any trouble picking her out. We’ll finalize everything after you’ve seen her.”
There was a slight twinge of remorse for the lady as Petruchion stepped from the wagon. Still, if the reports of her beauty were true, it would be a battle he would enjoy. She would be no different than any other tigress he had tamed.
There was a pony in the ring, its rider standing carefully balanced on its back. Petruchion moved closer as the rider threw herself to the left, now hanging on only by a hooked leg, her arched body dangerously close to the ground as the pony cantered in a wide circle. He clapped, giving a low whistle of appreciation.
The girl dropped off the pony with a grunt. She rolled once and came to her feet in one motion, blue eyes blazing as she pulled a piece of straw from her fiery hair. She was a small woman, but the sight of her charging at him almost made Petruchion retreat.
“You dithering fool! You could have gotten me killed!”
The husky timbre and broad accent of her voice were as intriguing as the rest of her. Petruchion bowed and flashed his grin.
“Peter Petruchion, dear lady. And you are?”
“Kalliope Minola, and none of that ‘dear lady’ rubbish from you.” The words fairly blistered the air. She slapped his proffered hand. “Don’t think I don’t know why you’re here.”
Before he could gather himself to answer, she had turned back to catch her pony. Petruchion whistled again.
“Minola, you have yourself a deal.”
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