“You don’t look like you got much sleep.” Ingrid handed Annie a mug of something black and hot. “You’ve hardly touched your breakfast.”
Annie wrapped her fingers around the plain blue mug and stared at the bowl of protein flakes in front of her. “Too much to think about, I guess.”
Cody was already in the hold with the horses, and Dhabi was checking the engine. Annie placed the mug against her lips but didn’t drink. After a few more seconds, Ingrid sat down next to her.
“What is it? Are you nervous about performing tonight?” She seemed to study Annie’s face.
“I don’t know.” Annie set the cup down without taking a sip. “How can you tell if someone is honest?”
Ingrid pressed her lips into a thin line, giving Annie the impression that she was hesitant to answer. “There are signs. Some people don’t make eye-contact. Some stammer or change the subject.” She shrugged. “Things like that. Are you worried about someone in particular?”
Annie faced her squarely. “Last night Jake said something. Well, I think I might’a heard something.”
“When you went to give him the jacket?”
“But you’re not sure what you heard?”
Annie sighed. “I know what I heard him say, but I don’t know what it means. If it means what I think it means, we could all be in a lot of trouble.”
Ingrid took a deep breath and nodded. “But now you think you might have misinterpreted it?”
Annie nodded. “He was on a call, so I only heard his half of it.”
Ingrid nudged Annie’s cup toward her. “You should drink it while it’s hot.” She paused until Annie took a sip. “I think you should just ask him about it.”
Annie almost spit out the coffee. “I can’t do that! He’ll know I was listening.”
“And that’s worse that what you suspect of him?” She handed Annie a napkin.
“No. I don’t know. What if it was an innocent remark?” Annie looked at Ingrid, hoping for answers.
“What if it wasn’t?” Ingrid stood up and carried the breakfast dishes to the basin to wash. “I don’t know what he said, and I don’t know what you think it meant. I don’t have to. But you have a choice to make. There are consequences whether you confront him or not. Which would you rather face?”
Annie grimaced. The worst thing that could happen if she confronted him and was wrong? He would be angry. Maybe angry enough to cancel their show. If she were right, then they would have it out and be looking for a way to escape. But if she said nothing, well, the more she thought about it, the more she realized that wasn’t really an option. Not performing was better than being dragged back to earth, going to prison, and losing her horses.
She looked up at Ingrid, who had been watching her work out her decision. “Thanks. You’re really good at advice, you know?”
“I’ve had a lot of practice.” She smiled and turned back to her work. “And I’ve made plenty of the wrong decisions in my life. I can spot them from miles away.”
Annie laughed. “You don’t look like you’ve made many bad decisions.”
Ingrid turned to face her again. “Sometimes it’s hard to tell just from looking at someone. That’s why I always suggest asking.”
“You can ask me anything you like, Love.” Jake’s voice startled both women as he stepped into the mess. “I’m an open book.”
Annie wondered how long he’d been listening from the corridor. “What are you doing here so early?”
Jake shrugged and regarded the leather jacket folded over his arm. “Had to come and get my skin. Seems I left it ‘ere last night.” He nodded toward Ingrid. “And I thought I might take you both out for a little shopping.”
Annie handed Ingrid the rest of dishes from the table. “Shopping?”
“Like I said, Love, you need some stage clothes. And I thought Ingrid might enjoy coming out with us.” He raised his brow.
“You don’t need me in your way.” Ingrid shook her head.
Annie jumped to her side. “Please,” she insisted. She lowered her voice to a whisper. “If you come, I won’t chicken out.”
Ingrid nodded. “Alright. I’ll let these soak for a bit.” She turned to face Jake. “Are we leaving right away? Do I have time to speak with the captain for a moment?”
Jake smiled so broadly that his eyes nearly disappeared behind his ruddy cheeks. “Of course.”
Ingrid winked at Annie and then disappeared down the hall.
Annie quickly began scrubbing the dishes so that Ingrid wouldn’t have so much to do later. “Where shall we shop?” She glanced over her shoulder to see what Jake was doing.
He was staring at her with a confused expression. “What are you doing?”
“I’m washing the dishes.”
“Isn’t that Ingrid’s job?”
Annie tossed a damp cloth to him. “Wipe down the table, please. If we get them done now, she won’t have to do them later.”
“It’s the decent thing to do. Shopping with us isn’t her job, and it will take away from the time she has for her own duties.” She scrubbed the last cup and placed it carefully in the drain, then turned to watch him finish with the table top.
“Your mother raised you to look out for others.” He handed her the cloth.
Annie nodded. “And my daddy, too. Treat others the same as you like to be treated. That’s what he always said.”
Jake’s smile softened, and he took a couple steps toward her, dropping his jacket on the back of a chair. “Wise words, indeed.” He placed his hand on the edge of the basin and leaned close to her face. “He sounds like a good man, Love.”
Annie swallowed hard. She hated that he was just inches away from her, and somehow she liked it, too. She wanted to let everything she heard last night fade away, but she knew that she had to bring it out. She realized that he was looking at her lips, and for a second she couldn’t breathe. She forced herself to say something.
“You keep calling me Love. My name is Annie.”
“What?” He blinked.
“My name is Annie, not Love.” She took a step back and turned toward the hall.
He followed. “It’s a thing. A nick-name. It’s not an insult.”
“You don’t call Ingrid by anything but her name. Nor Cody or Dhabi. Not Bart, neither.”
“Well, technically, Bart is a nickname for Bartholomew.”
She spun in her tracks and Jake nearly bumped into her. “You know what I mean.”
“I do.” He plastered a crooked grin onto his face as he noticed the others watching them. “It’s just something I say.”
Annie felt a swell of courage rise. “So you don’t always mean what you say?” The volume of her voice rose with her emotion.
“No, well, yes. I don’t know which is right.” Jake’s typically cool façade seemed to crumble around the edges.
Annie couldn’t think straight. It was going to come out now, right here in front of everybody. She had intended to wait, but this was it. “Which is right? That’s what you’re wondering? Which is right?” Her face flushed. “Who were you talking to after you left here last night? I heard your call. I heard you tell them that if they wanted us, they had to get here right away. You’re turning us in. Is that the right thing to do? Is that right?” she exploded.
Everyone stared at her with open mouths. Annie gasped once she finally said it.
Jake took a step back and shoved his hands in his pockets. He dropped his chin to his chest and began to shake his head.
Dhabi and Cody marched to either side of Annie, their faces solemn. Ingrid folded her arms and offered a proud nod in Annie’s direction.
Annie was glad she had said it. With Jake’s embarrassed reaction, it was obvious to her that she had been right. She didn’t know what to do now, but she felt confident that Cody would. He could handle anything.
“What do you have to say for yourself?” Cody asked.
Dhabi clenched his fists, appearing ready to land one in Jake’s mouth if necessary.
Jake lifted his head to face them, and his smile was back. He looked like he was on the verge of laughing.
“We’re a joke to you?” Cody took another step in between Jake and Annie.
“No, man.” Jake placed his right hand on Cody’s left shoulder, and Cody pushed it off.
“My sister asked you a question. Did you turn us in?”
Jake held up both hands in surrender. “No. I didn’t turn you in. She overheard me talking to a friend. He’s the biggest ferry-guild producer there is.” He finally laughed. “I told him to come and see you. This ferry has two stops before the show tonight. I told him to get ‘ere today if he wants to see your act because this will be your last show before you’re famous. An act like yours will literally make a producer’s career.”
“You were talking to a producer, and not Authority?” Annie let her arms fall limp at her sides.
Dhabi unclenched his fists. Cody relaxed his stance. Ingrid kept a steady gaze on Annie, who looked to her for direction.
“Well, then,” Ingrid said, “this was just a misunderstanding. It’s good to get the air clear after something like this.”
Jake’s laughter turned into a scoff. “But you don’t trust me, Lov—Annie. You still think I’m willing to sell you out.”
Annie swallowed hard. Her pride tasted bitter and scratchy as it inched down her throat. “I ‘pologize.” She wanted to say more. She felt that she had a good defense, with plenty of reason. She also remembered her momma’s words. I’m sorry is all the explanation you need.
Jake turned and walked slowly toward the hatch door.
Annie had let her emotions get the better of her, and now they would all suffer because of her outburst.
Ingrid put her arm around Annie’s shoulder. “You said what you needed to say. You did the right thing.”
Jake stopped at the hatch and turned back to face them. “Are you birds coming?”
“What?” Cody knit his brows together and crossed his arms.
Jake shrugged. “I’m taking the ladies shopping.”
“After all that?” Dhabi asked.
Jake sighed. “Listen, I understand that you all are wary of strangers. I don’t blame Annie for thinking the worst. I’m not offended, and I don’t see why anyone else would be.”
Everyone stared in silence. Annie could hardly believe he wasn’t mad.
Jake continued. “But we are on a schedule, so we need to go soon. Cody, can you and Dhabi handle getting the animals and such ready. I want Ingrid to join Annie and me.”
The others exchanged glances and nodded. Soon the trio was out in the market square in the heart of the ferry.
Annie had never been in such a busy place. People barked from all around her, selling clothing, gadgets, cookware, food, and even antique books. She stopped and stared at a leather bound book entitled Encyclopedia L-M, but Jake pulled her on.
“You can’t afford books. And we have to get you dressed for tonight.”
Annie stared back over her shoulder at the bookshelves filled with volume after volume. “Maybe after we get paid from our show?”
Jake laughed. “You’ve obviously never shopped for books. You might be able to afford one after a dozen performances.” He pointed toward a shop with every sort of dress in the display window. “This is our destination for now.”
Annie’s disappointment must have shown on her face because Jake added, “You know, I have an old com that’s filled with stories, digitals from real books, and I hardly ever use it. I’ve read everything on it a dozen times, at least. It’s yours if you’d like it.”
Annie beamed with delight. “Are you serious?”
Ingrid smiled at their exchange and began searching the store’s racks for something appropriate.
Jake held up a few blouses and a vest. “Something like this. And, Ingrid, I’d like you to wear a dress the same color as Annie’s outfit.” He handed Annie a long pair of wide-leg pants and scarf. “These look right, and they will keep you covered when you do your flip.”
“Too long.” She wrinkled her nose. “They’ll get caught in my stirrups, and they’ll cover up my boots.”
“She has a point.” Ingrid nodded. “Her boots are her signature. You can’t cover them up.”
Jake’s chin developed a crease, which made his thin beard seem darker in the center. He examined the fabric of the pants and then smiled. “Not a problem. We’ll cut them shorter, and then we can slice the bottom edge into a fringe. More authentic, and the crowd will love it. We can do the same with the vest.”
Ingrid picked up a matching scarf. “This can work.” She winked at Annie. “You’ll look great.”
Another hour of shopping and the trio had purchased four costumes for each woman, plus a few coordinating bandanas for Cody, Dhabi, and Jake.
“But if we’re only doing one show with Bart, why would he pay for us to have several costumes?” Annie asked. Ingrid seemed pleased that Annie asked the question.
Jake did, too. “That’s something I wanted to speak to your brother about, Love.” He cocked his head to one side. “Annie.” He paused and then started again, carrying all the shopping bags for the women. “I talked to Bart this morning, and he’s agreed to let me travel with you and manage your act if you’re amenable to it all.”
Annie exchanged a confused glance with Ingrid. “I don’t know. I guess you should talk to Cody. I don’t right know what he’ll say.”
Jake shrugged as he nodded for the ladies to lead the way back to the ship. “The clothing is yours, whatever you decide. But if you, Annie, don’t want me to work with you, I won’t ask Cody, and that will be the end of it. I won’t even mention the idea.”
Annie wasn’t used to being the decision maker. Her heart pounded fast. She looked to Ingrid, who gave a slight shoulder shrug. She drew a deep breath and walked ahead. “I’ll think about it for a little while. Can you wait until after our show tonight for my decision?”
Jake smiled. “I’ll wait for you as long as I need to, Annie.”
His words wrapped around her softly and pushed through her skin. She wanted to look into his eyes and see if he meant more than just waiting to talk to Cody. She didn’t dare. Either way, she was swimming in deep water. Nobody had ever placed her wishes above Cody’s before, and she wasn’t sure how to process this feeling.
Back at the ship Ingrid and Annie went to work on adjusting the outfits for the show. Cody and Jake worked out the details of moving the horses from their ship to the stage efficiently. Dhabi studied space maps while he tuned his sitar.
“I applied with the Ferry Master to be at the top of the list for fueling after the show. I explained that we’ll have the expedition fee once the show was over, and he said that Bart had already advanced it to him.” Dhabi smiled as Annie and Ingrid emerged from their cabins dressed for the performance. “Someone has certainly been promoting this show.”
Annie tossed a bandana to her brother, and Ingrid brought one to Dhabi. She carefully tied it around his neck and arranged the ends to lay flat on his shoulder. Annie approached Jake, who made a twirling motion toward her with his finger. She spun in a circle, causing the fringe on her pants and vest to fly in every direction. As she finished her rotation, she threw his bandana into his still-clapping hands.
He caught the fabric square and then offered it back to her. “Could you please help with this? I don’t usually wear this type of accessory.”
Annie gulped a quick breath of oxygen and reached around Jake’s shoulders to tie the ends of the bandana. “I’m leaving yours loose at your neck. I figure with your scruffy beard, you kinda look like a bad guy.”
Jake’s steely eyes smiled without disturbing the shape of his lips at all. “Do you think I’m a bad guy?”
Annie pulled her hands back from around his neck more quickly than she intended. “No. I don’t think that.”
“But I look like one?” His smile reached down to the corners of his mouth now.
Annie took a half step back. She was acutely aware that the others were watching. Her stomach fluttered, and she grasped for the right words to say. “Not in a bad way.”
“I look bad, but in a good way? Maybe sometime you can explain that one to me, Love.”
Annie was almost glad to hear him call her Love again. “When will we leave?” She wanted to change the subject quickly.
Jake raised his arms and gestured to the whole room. “When you have everything gathered and ready, we can go.”
Cody held up his scarf. “Sis, help me with this first. I don’t know how to do it.” While Annie knotted the bandana at her brother’s throat, he whispered, “Watch out for Jake, Annie. I can see you like him, but he’s just a one-time thing, you know?”
“What do you mean?”
“We’re doing this show for him tonight. Afterward, we’ll leave and never see him again. He’ll have other stars. You’ll meet other men.” He stared for a few seconds as Annie waited. “Don’t give him anything you can’t get back. That’s all I’m saying, okay?”
Annie nodded and swallowed hard. She couldn’t decide whether to defend Jake, the man she had accused only hours earlier, or herself. She had the right to her feelings, didn’t she? And she wasn’t handing her heart over to anyone. Not yet, anyway.
“Don’t worry about me.” Annie patted his chest. “You’re the one who ain’t never been on stage before.”
“That’s not,” he started, but Annie held up her hand to stop him as Jake approached.
“Let’s get going,” she said.
The troupe began the short trip from the Nightengale to Bart’s theater without incident. Jake towed the handcart containing the sitar, Cody’s vet bag, and a few other props for the horses. Behind him was Cody, leading Nero, followed by Ingrid and Jefferson. Dhabi led Liza Jane, and Annie brought up the rear with Stubbs.
Once out in the common areas, the crowds began to gather and follow them.
“What is it?”
“Are they real?”
“Bartholomew always brings in the best shows.”
Annie heard the same things over and over. Jake had advised them not to say anything to anyone. Just smile and nod and keep walking. She had been worried that people might try to touch the horses and scare them, but everyone seemed to keep their distance.
Bart welcomed them at the door, and once they were inside, he went out to greet his guests. Annie could hear him announcing the show times and ticket prices to the crowds.
As they ran through their routine, Bart counted down the hours and then minutes until showtime. Five minutes to go, and Jake motioned for Annie to come and see.
Annie peered from behind a curtained wall onto the wide stage and beyond. She allowed her eyes to adjust to the bright lights and the darkness beyond, and then she saw the audience. Every seat was filled. People chattered and leaned forward. Jake smiled and kissed her cheek.
Annie could hardly think a single thought. One second before she had been nervous and excited and anxious to take the stage. Now her brain felt empty. Erased with one gesture.
Bart took the stage and began welcoming his guests. Within seconds, he was saying her name and reaching toward her.
“Why did you do that?” she asked.
Jake shook his head. “Get going, Love. It’s time.” He nudged her out to the stage.
Dhabi followed and took his place with his instrument. Annie pasted a smile on her lips, and the audience burst into applause. As if on auto-pilot, she began her song.
Is a cowboy still a cowboy
When all the cattle’s gone?
Does he wear his hat and spurs
When there’s no horse to ride upon?
For dusty trails, his heart is longin’,
He yearns to sleep under the stars.
For open skies his voice is songin’,
With his lonesome guitar.
Is what makes a man a cowboy
His boots and hat and weathered hands?
Is it just his trusted horse
Or riding cattle ‘cross the land?
When they take his horse away,
When they take his cows and land,
Is a cowboy still a cowboy?
Is he less of a man?
Is a cowboy still a cowboy
When all his cattle’s gone?
Does he have a place in this world
When there’s no horse to ride upon?
For crackling fires his heart is longin’,
He loved to hear the dogies bay.
But now the cattle has all been taken,
And his old life has passed away.
The crowd erupted with cheers before Dhabi could finish his last chord. Annie took a quick bow and then, as they rehearsed, she welcomed the horses to the stage. Each animal was led out and took turns with a deep bow. Annie began with Nero’s counting, moved on to Jefferson’s march, Liza’s prancing, and then to Stubbs’s set of tricks. At one point the whole audience was standing, cheering on the horses and singing She’ll Be Coming Around the Mountain with Annie.
Cody, Ingrid, and Jake kept the horses moving and calm while Dhabi played a background theme. For the finale, Annie kicked off her boots and climbed onto Stubbs’s back. The crowd went wild as she began to sing while standing in the saddle. Stubbs trotted the perimeter of the stage, bringing Annie closer to her fans. She sang I’ll Fly Away with her arms outstretched. As Stubbs ended at center stage, Annie lowered herself to his back and rolled herself into a backflip over the saddle, landing on her feet beside the horse.
As the audience demanded an encore, Jake helped her back into her boots. She took a deep bow, and when she came up, Jake swept her into his arms and danced her around the stage—not as they rehearsed.
“What are you doing?” she asked as they danced.
“This is bigger than even I imagined, Love.” He spun her once more and then released her for another bow.
The others brought the horses forward to bow as well, and the crowd began cheering and jumping in their seats. Bart came out to settle them all down, but was interrupted when the stage lights flickered, and an alarm sounded.
Silence fell heavy. The audience knew what it meant, even if Annie didn’t.
Jake turned to face them. “GO! Get the horses and get back to the ship. The ferry is being boarded.”
The theater emptied quickly. Bart gestured to his house managers to clear everyone out. He nodded to Annie and the others. “Good show, now go!”
They all hurried as fast as they could without panicking the horses. Back in the Nightengale, Dhabi raced to the bridge while the others secured the horses. Jake was on his com with one person after another, trying to see what was happening.
“Look, I don’t know how to help. You should have your fuel soon.” He shrugged.
“We have it. The ferry is coming to a full stop in two minutes.” Dhabi nodded to the others. He checked one control panel and then another. “Authority is docking on the other side of the ferry, and the Ferry Master will release our dock at the same time. He says we can disengage and clear before they can scan for us. We just gotta be ready right now. Everybody get braced.”
He gestured to Ingrid. “Come to the bridge with me.”
Jake looked at Annie. “Don’t worry about me. I won’t let them come after you.” He kissed her and then ran to the hatch door. “Goodbye and good luck.”
“Wait!” she called after him.
Cody shook his head and then threw his hands up in surrender. “Come with us, Jake. There’s no time.”
Jake turned to face them both. “Are you sure?”
Annie yelled and motioned to the jump seat at the wall. “Get your butt strapped in now or you’ll be plastered to the floor.”
“Locked and sealed.” Dhabi’s voice sounded from the com speakers. “Disengaging from dock.”
The ship lurched and then steadied, floating free from the ferry port. Annie heard Dhabi’s voice reciting numbers as he communicated with the Ferry Master. In an instant, the numbers turned into curses, and Annie could hear Ingrid scream. The ship lurched again, and the horses shifted quickly to avoid falling against each other. Annie’s stomach jumped and pressed hard into her lungs. She could feel her heart pound as the engine surged and a loud bang sounded just beyond the hull, followed by an echo of thunder.
“Oh, no. Oh, no.” Annie could hear Ingrid repeating behind Dhabi’s swearing.
“What’s happening?” Annie cried. Cody and Jake exchanged glances and shook their heads.
The ship rocked from side to side for another minute, and Annie knew there was something pounding the outside of the Nightengale.
“Ho,” Cody instructed the horses. “Shhh, now.”
Annie tried to calm them, too, but her stomach was passed the point of no return. She knew that if she opened her mouth for anything, she was going to vomit. She tried dry-swallowing to help.
The ship stabilized, and Dhabi ordered Cody to the bridge. As soon as Annie unsnapped her harness, she grabbed one of the horse buckets and puked. When she looked up, she saw Jake doing the same.
The two of them checked the horses before joining the others. Liza seemed to have a tender leg, but the others looked fine. Their sedatives were kicking in, and Annie could finally let herself breathe.
They got to the cockpit and crowded in with the others. “What happened?” they asked simultaneously.
Annie saw that Ingrid had been crying. Dhabi’s face looked permanently etched with anger.
“They were waiting for us. Authority had two ships standing by for us to detach,” Dhabi growled. “They shot, and I don’t know how they missed us.”
Jake frowned and searched the stars around them. “You outmaneuvered them.”
Dhabi nodded. “They hit the fuel arm on the dock.”
“The ferry?” Annie asked.
“Gone. Exploded. Along with all the ships that were still docked.” Dhabi punched a few buttons on his screen. “There was maybe a couple of dozen ships that escaped. Maybe thirty.”
Tears poured from Annie’s eyes. “But there were hundreds of ships on that ferry.”