Blood Thorn by A.S. Green

1

Someone was watching.

This wasn’t totally unusual for Ainsley Morris. After all, her job at the Renaissance fair required her to wear an eighteenth-century tartan dress that laced so tightly, her breasts looked like they were going to explode out of the neckline. On top of that, her mane of long red curls was equally outrageous. (She’d never been the perfectly coiffed Cinderella at the ball. More like a curvier version of that crazy little redheaded chick from Brave.)

So yes, she was used to people looking at her, but she’d never inspired such prolonged, individualized scrutiny. Why should she? She was just one small part of the larger spectacle. Seriously, if whoever was staring at her wanted a peep show, most of her neighboring vendors showed more cleavage than she did. And that included Donny, the middle aged man who sold leather vests and whips to motorcycle folks and dominatrixes.

Ainsley casually looked down to check for any wardrobe malfunctions. Maybe she’d slipped a nip and hadn’t noticed. But nope. Nothing too scandalous there.

Still…Someone was definitely watching her. She could feel it like a sixth sense, an itch between her shoulder blades.

She scanned the evening crowd, sifting through the paunchy men with their Minnesota Vikings T-shirts, college kids in their Saint-Whatever sweatshirts, and Girl Scout leader moms with gaggles of tired kids. Nothing seemed out of the norm, but there it was again—heated, intense, the itch turning into a burn.

She tried to diffuse her unease by straightening the vials of perfumes, herbal remedies, and floral-scented notepads on her shelves. Wafts of rose water, peppermint, and lavender filled her nose.

She’d first applied to work at the fair when she was eighteen, hoping to get cast as a villager. But when she’d mentioned she was going to study botany in college and showed them some of the essential oils she’d made from plants in her own garden, she was given Ye Olde Apothecary booth and told she could supplement the wares with creations of her own, taking a higher commission for those, of course.

That was three years ago, and now she had a sizable collection of her own home remedies for sale—peppermint oil for headaches; palmarosa and frankincense for wrinkles; chamomile for muscle aches. Not that she was getting rich off it. Most people spent their money on beer and turkey legs, or on some of the “sexier” vendors—like her friend Julia who did tarot and palm reading.

So much for trying to distract herself. The weighty gaze was still there, making her hand shake so much she toppled three bottles.

Stupid. She had to be imagining it. Who would want to watch her when there was so much else going on? Within thirty feet of her booth she could spot two fire jugglers and three scantily clad village harlots.

But she couldn’t fully convince herself. The man’s energy—yes, she was quite certain it was a man—was heavy, hungry even. His intensity followed her every movement, burning into her skin as she re-arranged the tiny vials and tried to look busy.

A welcomed breeze lifted strands of her hair, tickling her bare arms and raising goosebumps. Her nipples went hard as cherry pits under the thin chemise.

The man’s attention made her feel awkward and virginal, which was exactly what she was. Ainsley knew what kind of damage a man could do. She’d seen it first hand, and that’s why she swore she’d never flirt with her own disaster. Besides, she preferred the botany lab to Friday night keggers and hookups, and she could take care of her own…um…physical needs just fine, thank you very much.

Dependable, trust-worthy, honest men were about as real as the love potions she hawked to lure in buyers.

“How’s it goin’, Ainsley?” asked a throaty feminine voice.

Ainsley’s head jerked up, thankful for the diversion. The tightness in her chest eased at the sight of Julia, who had a colorful head scarf tied around her long, Afro blowout. Her neck was draped in a half dozen gold bangles, and her turquoise eyes—courtesy of colored contacts—were mesmerizing. She looked every bit the mystic, which was why, when Julia told your fortune, you bet you believed it. The girl made bank.

“What’s up, Jules?”

“All my male customers,” Julia teased. “I swear something’s in the air today. One guy seriously bent over and licked my hand when I was reading his palm.”

“Oh my god. Ew.”

“I should have kicked him under the table. How have sales been for you?”

“Got enough in commissions for a few drinks at an overpriced bar,” Ainsley said, touching the leather satchel she wore around her waist.

“Oooo. Got big plans tonight?”

“For once. Yeah. It’s my best friend’s bachelorette party, and I,” Ainsley paused for dramatic effect, “am finally twenty-one.”

“That’s right!” Julia exclaimed, her necklaces jingling. “Happy birthday!”

There was a high-pitched laugh from the far side of Ainsley’s booth, and they both looked. A group of middle schoolers were uncorking the sample bottles and dabbing them on each other’s necks.

Ainsley knew they wouldn’t be buying anything. They’d obviously spent whatever money their parents had given them on charcoal caricature drawings and those stupid floral crowns with the streamers. Any minute now…yep. Great. They’d gone and spilled the eucalyptus. A whiff of mint and menthol hit the air.

“I hate middle schoolers,” Ainsley muttered with a sigh. “I hate that they think they’re cooler than me. Age should give me the upper hand.”

“You’re plenty cool,” Julia said reassuringly.

“Really? I’m a Renaissance cos-player whose career ambition is to someday be named a Distinguished Fellow of the Botanical Society of America."

“Uh-huh,” Julia said, her expression flattening. “I don’t know anything about that but—”

“I skipped out on a spring break trip with my friends to work on a research project in the botany lab.”

“Honey…”

“My best friend calls it the lobotomy lab, and I can’t tell if she’s kidding or not.”

“Okay. So maybe not super cool, but that’s no way to feel when you’re about to hit the town with your girls. Look at me.” Julia gestured at her necklaces. “What you need is a little bling to brighten your mood.”

Julia glanced around. When her gaze landed on something to her left, her expression turned mischievous. Ainsley followed her gaze and saw that one of the middle schoolers had accidentally left her floral crown behind. The flowers were sad and limp from a full day in the sun.

“Julia, no.”

Julia’s smile widened. She grabbed the wilted wreath and placed it on Ainsley’s head. “Yasss, queen!”

Ainsley’s eyes shifted to the crowd, still feeling the elusive man’s heated stare. In fact, her whole body was hot. There was a burning sensation in her stomach that rose to her chest and shot down her arms, making her fingers tingle.

When she looked back, she was surprised to see that Julia’s jaw had gone slack, but her eyebrows had hit her hairline. “Julia?”

“Whoa. Ainsley. Go look at yourself.”

Confused, Ainsley left her booth and stepped in front of Donny’s full-length mirror. Same exploding cleavage, same outrageous hair, but the floral crown, it had…bloomed? The sad little carnations had nearly tripled in size. “What the heck?”

Her neck prickled. Was she imagining things, or had the stranger’s gaze just gone from heated to electric? She spun around, looking for the source, and thought she saw a blur of color ducking behind the blacksmith stall.

Julia jumped back. “What’s wrong?”

“I just felt… I don’t know… Maybe I’m going crazy.”

“It’s those flowers that have gone crazy. Did those kids put one of your potion things on them? Miracle-Gro, or something?”

“Of course not.” She didn’t know of anything that would affect cut flowers like that. It defied the laws of nature.

“Fifteen minutes to close,” Donny said from where he was crouched by his table, packing up his inventory. “Time to get outta my space, girls.”

“No one’s in your space, Donny,” Julia said. “Go about your business.”

“No. He’s right,” Ainsley said. “I gotta close up and get changed for tonight.”

“Yeah, okay.” Julia’s eyes went up to the crown again, and she frowned. “Well, have fun. And if you figure out what caused…that,” she swirled her finger in the air, pointing at the crown, “maybe give some to the garden lady. She could sell some for you in her booth.”

Ainsley took off the crown and tossed it in the trash. “See you tomorrow, Jules.”

“I’ll be here with bells on.”

“Probably literally.”

“Yeah. Probably.”

As soon as Julia was gone, Ainsley slipped behind the curtains that formed the back wall of her booth and double-checked to make sure there were no gaps. Satisfied, she quickly changed into the outfit she brought for Harper’s bachelorette party—a soft blue, short-sleeved silky blouse, white skinny jeans, and sandals—shoved her costume into her bag, then headed out.

The belly dancers were finishing their final set for the day on the King’s Stage near the exit of the park. Most of the patrons were watching the show, except for one, who was standing under a shade tree and staring directly at Ainsley.

He was too shadowed for her to detect anything more than the broad shape of him. She couldn’t see his eyes or expression, but his focus on her was unwavering. Even when the music changed and the last dancer hit the stage, the man didn’t turn to watch.

Ainsley’s skin prickled as she walked by, head down, her thoughts racing. Perhaps she should have followed her mother’s advice and taken the summer off. She’d definitely earned a break after killing herself all spring with those six extra college credits. Maybe this paranoia was simply a delayed reaction, and she was finally cracking under the pressure.

Or it could just be the effects of too much sun. She should have found a cushy gig in an air-conditioned office building. Some job where she could wear normal clothes and her co-workers were reasonably well-adjusted human beings.

Once Ainsley cashed out and got past the employees’ exit gate, a weight lifted from her shoulders. She took a deep breath, filling her lungs. Then, with one last glance over her shoulder, she took off like a shot and ran for her car.