Sparks Fly with the Billionaire
The brooding banker and the Amazing Miss Mischka!
Banker Mathew Bond is more used to boardroom antics than circus ones. The king of emotional detachment wouldn't normally foreclose on a loan in person, but Sparkles Circus meant a lot to him once….
Big mistake! Because feisty Allie (aka the Amazing Mischka) has more acumen than her pink-spangled bodysuit suggests. She won't allow a man in a suit to evict her family, no matter how gorgeous he is!
Yet underneath the cold exterior, Allie's about to discover this brooding billionaire's heart of gold.…
He was hoping for a manager, someone who knew figures and could discuss bad news in a businesslike environment.
What he found was a woman in pink sequins and tiger stripes, talking to a camel.
'I'm looking for Henry Miski,' he called, stepping gingerly across puddles as the girl put down a battered feed bucket and turned her attention from camel to him. A couple of small terriers by her side nosed forward to greet him.
Mathew Bond rarely worked away from the sterile offices of corporate high-flyers. His company financed some of the biggest infrastructure projects in Australia. Venturing into the grounds of Sparkles Circus was an aberration.
Meeting this woman was an aberration.
She was wearing a fairy-floss pink, clinging body-suit—really clinging—with irregular sparkling stripes twining round her body. Her chestnut hair was coiled into a complicated knot. Her dark, kohled eyes were framed by lashes almost two inches long, and her make-up looked a work of art all by itself.
Marring the over-the-top fantasy, however, was the ancient army coat draped over her sparkles, feet encased in heavy, mud-caked boots and a couple of sniffy dogs. Regardless, she was smiling politely, as any corporate director might greet an unexpected visitor. Comfortable in her own position. Polite but wary.
Not expecting to be declared bankrupt?
'Hold on while I feed Pharaoh,' she told him. 'He's had a cough and can't work today, but unless he thinks he's getting special treatment he'll bray for the entire performance. No one will hear a thing for him.' She emptied the bucket into the camel's feed bin and scratched the great beast's ears. Finally satisfied that Pharaoh was happy, she turned her attention to him.
'Sorry about that, but the last thing I want is a camel with his nose out of joint. What can I do for you?'
'I'm here to see Henry Miski,' he repeated.
'Grandpa's not feeling well,' she told him. 'Gran wants him to stay in the van until show time. I'm his granddaughter—Alice, or The Amazing Mischka, but my friends call me Allie.' She took his hand and shook it with a shake that would have done a man proud. 'Is it important?'
'I'm Mathew Bond,' he said and handed over his card. 'From Bond's Bank.'
'Any relation to James?' She peeped a smile, checking him out from the top down. It was an allencompassing scrutiny, taking in his height, his bespoke tailored suit, his cashmere overcoat and his classy, if mud-spattered, brogues. 'Or is the resemblance just coincidental? That coat is to die for.'
To say he was taken aback would be an understatement. Matt was six feet two, long, lean and dark, as his father and grandfather had been before him, but his looks were immaterial. Bond's Bank was a big enough mover and shaker to have people recognise him for who he was. No one commented on his appearance—and he had no need to claim relationship to a fictional spy.
Allie was still watching him, assessing him, and he was starting to feel disconcerted. Others should be doing this, he thought, not for the first time. He should have sent the usual repossession team.
But he was doing this as a favour for his Aunt Margot. This whole arrangement had been a favour and it was time it stopped. Bankers didn't throw good money after bad.
'Your grandfather's expecting me,' he told her, trying to be businesslike again. 'I have an appointment at two.'
'But two's show time.' She tugged a gold watch on a chain out from a very attractive cleavage and consulted. 'That's in ten minutes. Grandpa would never have made an appointment at show time. And on Sunday?'
'No. Henry said it was the only time he was available. I told you, I'm from the bank.'
'Sorry, so you did.' Her cute pencilled brows furrowed while she watched him. 'Bond's Bank. The bank Grandpa pays the mortgage into? He must be just about up to the final payment. Is that why you're here?'
Mortgage? There was no mortgage. Not as far as he knew. Just a pack of geriatric animals, eating their heads off.
But he wasn't about to discuss a client's business with an outsider. 'This is between me and your grandfather,' he told her.
'Yes, but he's not well,' she said, as if she was explaining something he really should have got the first time round. 'He needs all his energy for the show.' She glanced at her watch again, then wheeled towards a bunch of caravans and headed off with a speed he struggled to keep up with. He was avoiding puddles and she wasn't. She was simply sloshing through, with her dogs prancing in front.
'Isn't this weather ghastly?' she said over her shoulder. 'We had major problems trying to get the big top up last night. Luckily the forecast is great for the next two weeks, and we have most of the crowd in and seated now. Full house. Look, you can have a quick word but if it's more than a word it'll have to wait till later. Here's Grandpa's caravan.' She raised her voice. 'Grandpa?'
She paused and thumped on the screen door of a large and battered van, emblazoned with the Sparkles Circus emblem on the side. Matt could see armchairs through the screen, a television glowing faintly on the far bench—and mounds of sparkles. Cloth and sequins lay everywhere.
'Gran's overhauling our look for next season,' she told him, seeing where he was looking. 'She does colour themes. Next season it's purple.'
'But pink this year?'
'You guessed it,' she said, and hauled her overcoat wide, exposing pink and silver in all its glory. 'I kinda like pink. What do you think?'
'I… It's very nice.'
'There's a compliment to turn a girl's head.' She chuckled and banged some more. 'Grandpa, come on out. It's almost show time and Mathew Bond is here from the bank. If you guys want to talk, you need to schedule another time.'
'Grandpa?' Allie pulled the screen wide, starting to look worried—and then she paused. Henry was coming.
Henry Miski was a big man. Looking closely, Matt could see the telltale signs of age, but they were cleverly disguised.
This was Henry Miski, ringmaster, tall and dignified to suit. He was wearing jet-black trousers with a slash of gold down each side, and a suit coat—tails—in black and gold brocade, so richly embroidered that Mathew could only blink. His silver hair was so thick it seemed almost a mane. His outfit was topped with a black top hat rimmed with gold, and he carried an elegant black and gold cane.
He stepped down from the caravan with a dignity that made Matt automatically step aside. The old man was stiffly upright, a proud monarch of a man. All this Matt saw at first glance. It was only at second glance that he saw fear.
'I don't have time to speak to you now,' Henry told Matt with ponderous dignity. 'Allie, why are you still wearing those disgusting boots? You should be ready. The dogs have got mud on their paws.'
'We have two minutes, Grandpa,' she said, 'and the dogs only need a wipe. You want us to give Mathew a good seat so he can watch the show? You can have your talk afterwards.'
'We'll need to reschedule in a few days' time,' Henry snapped.
But the time for delay was past, Matt decided grimly. A dozen letters from the bank had gone unanswered. Registered letters had been sent so Mathew knew they'd been received. Bond's didn't make loans to businesses this small. It had been an aberration on his grandfather's part, but the loan was growing bigger by the minute. There'd been no payments now for six months.
In normal circumstances the receivers would be doing this—hard men arriving to take possession of what now belonged to the bank. It was only because of Margot that he'd come himself.
'Henry, we need to talk,' he said, gently but firmly. 'You made this appointment time. We've sent registered letters confirming, so this can't be a surprise. I'm here as representative of the bank to tell you officially that we're foreclosing. We have no choice, and neither do you. As of today, this circus is in receivership. You're out of business, Henry, and you need to accept it.'
There was a moment's silence. Deathly silence. Henry stared at him as if he was something he didn't recognise. He heard a gasp from the girl beside him—something that might be a sob of fright—but his eyes were all on the old man. Henry's face was bleaching as he watched.
The ringmaster opened his mouth to speak—and failed.
He put his hand to his chest and he crumpled where he stood.
To Allie's overwhelming relief, her grandpa didn't lose consciousness. Paramedics arrived reassuringly fast, and decided it seemed little more than momentary faintness. But faintness plus a slight fever plus a history of angina were enough to have them decreeing Henry needed hospital. Yes, his pulse had stabilised, but there had been heart pain and he was seventy-six and he needed to go.
Allie's grandmother, Bella, summoned urgently from the ticket booth, was in total agreement.
'You're going, Henry.'
But Henry's distress was obvious. 'The circus…' he stammered. 'The tent's full. All those kids… I'm not letting them down.'
'You're not letting them down.' Allie was badly shaken. Henry and Bella had cared for Allie since her mother left when she was two. She loved them with all her heart, and she wasn't risking Henry's health for anything. 'We'll cope without you,' she told him. 'You always said the circus isn't one single person. It's all of us. Fluffy and Fizz are keeping the audience happy. You go and we'll start properly.'
'You can't have a circus without a ringmaster,' Henry groaned.
He was right. She was struggling to think of a plan, but the truth was she didn't have one.
They could lose an individual act without it being a disaster. Given notice, one of the clowns could step into Henry's shoes, but they were down to two today because Sam had flown up to Queensland to visit his new granddaughter and Fluffy and Fizz were already costumed, prancing in the ring, warming up the crowd.
'We'll manage,' she said but her head was whirling. Without a ringmaster.
'Without a circus master the circus is nothing,' Henry moaned. 'Get me off this thing and give me back my hat.'
'No,' Allie said more forcibly. 'We'll manage. Maybe I can do the announcing myself.'
But she couldn't. She knew she couldn't. Apart from the fact that a girl in pink sparkles didn't have the same gravitas as her grandfather, she could hardly announce her own acts.
What they needed was a guy. A guy in a suit.
Or. Or. She was clutching at straws here, but a guy in a cashmere coat?
The banker had picked up Henry's hat from the mud. He was standing on the sidelines looking almost as shocked as she was.
He had presence, she thought. He was tall, dark and forceful, he had a lovely deep voice and, in his way, he was almost as imposing as her grandfather. Maybe even more so.
She looked at the hat in his hands—and then she looked fully at him. Not seeing a banker, but…something else. 'You're Grandpa's size,' she whispered.
'With his jacket and hat…you're perfect.' This was a lifeline—a slim one, admittedly, but she was clutching it hard. Maybe they could run the circus without a ringmaster but it'd be a sad imitation of what it should be—and Henry would know it and worry all the way to hospital and beyond.
'He can do it.' She turned back to Henry, stooping over the stretcher, taking his hands. 'Of course he can. I'll write out the introductions as we go. The thing's a piece of cake.'
'The banker?' Henry whispered.
'He's already in a suit. All he needs is the trimmings. He's Mathew Bond, a close relative of James, who does so much scary stuff that ringmaster pales in comparison. He made you collapse two minutes before show time and he's happy to make amends. Aren't you, Mathew? Have you ever seen a circus?'
'What on earth are you talking about?'
'Have you seen a circus?'
'Then you know the drill. Dramatics R Us. Ladies and Gentlemen, announcing the arrival all the way from deepest, darkest, Venezuela, the Amazing Mischka…' Can you do that? Of course you can. Grandpa's coat, hat and cane…a spot of make-up to stop you disappearing under the lights. Surely that's not so scary for a Bond.' She smiled but her insides were jelly. He had to agree. 'Mr Bond, we have a tent full of excited kids. Even a banker wouldn't want them to be turfed out without a show.'
'I'm no circus master,' he snapped.
'You hurt my grandfather,' she snapped back. 'You owe us.'
'I'm sorry, but I owe you nothing and this is none of my business.'
'It is. You said you're foreclosing on the circus.' She was forcing her shocked mind to think this through. 'I have no idea of the rights and wrongs of it, but if you are then it's your circus. Your circus, Mr Bond, with an audience waiting and no ringmaster.'
'I don't get involved with operational affairs.'
'You just did,' she snapped. 'The minute you scared Grandpa. Are you going to do this or am I going to march into the big top right now and announce Bond's Bank have foreclosed and the head of Bond's Bank is kicking everyone out right now?'
'Don't be ridiculous.'
'I'm not being ridiculous,' she said, standing right in front of him and glaring with every ounce of glare she could muster. 'I'm telling you exactly what I'm going to do if you don't help. You caused this; you fix it.'
'I have no idea.'
'You don't have to have an idea,' she said. She'd heard the hesitation in his voice and she knew she had him. No bank would want the sort of publicity she'd just threatened. 'You wear Grandpa's hat and jacket and say what I tell you to say and there's no skill involved at all.'
'Hey,' Henry said weakly from his stretcher and Allie caught herself and conceded a smile. To her grandpa, not to the banker.
'Okay, of course there's skill in being a ringmaster,' she admitted. 'This guy won't be a patch on you, Grandpa, but he's all we have. We'll feed him his lines and keep the circus running. We'll do it, I promise. Off you go to hospital,' she said and she bent and kissed him. 'Mathew Bond and I are off to run the circus.'
'If you agree to my requirements,' Mathew said in a goaded voice. 'We're foreclosing; you'll accede quietly without a fuss.'
'Fine,' Allie said, just as goaded. 'Anything you like, as long as this afternoon's show goes on.'
How had that happened?
He couldn't think of any circumstances—any circumstances—that'd turn him into a ringmaster.
He was about to be a ringmaster.
But in truth the sight of the old man crumpling onto the dirt had shocked him to the core. For a couple of appalling moments he'd thought he was dead.
He shouldn't be here. Calling in debts at such a ground roots level wasn't something he'd done in the past and he wasn't likely to do again.