Sparks Fly with the Billionaire

By: Marion Lennox

CHAPTER ONE

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 all-encompassing 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 clea**vage 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.’

Silence.

‘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.’

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