Authors: Susan Mallery
Tags: #Romance, #Fiction, #Contemporary
Families crowded around them. She recognized one of the women from the brunch yesterday morning, but couldn’t remember her name. She was a pretty blonde, with an adorable toddler in her arms. Her husband held a baby boy.
The little girl pointed to the tree slowly rising from the truck bed. “We have one like that?” she asked.
Her father chuckled. “Sorry, Hannah. Our ceiling isn’t that high. But we’ll pick out a good tree. You’ll see.”
The woman leaned into her husband. They shared a look—one that spoke of love and promise. Aware she’d caught a glimpse of something private, Evie turned away.
Back when she’d still been young enough to believe in miracles, she’d assumed she would find love and have a family. That one day a man would promise to be with her forever. She would belong, and that belonging would finally heal her.
Several bad boyfriends later, she was less sure love was something she could count on and more convinced people who were supposed to love you usually didn’t. She wanted to tell herself it could still happen, but she had a feeling that was just the Christmas tree talking.
She glanced toward Dante. “Thanks for your help yesterday. For getting me home and everything.”
“No problem. Families can be complicated.”
“My mom’s a nightmare.”
“It’s not just her.”
“You mean my brothers?”
Dante looked into her eyes. “Sure, they hold part of the blame, but so do you.”
If they hadn’t been in the middle of a crowd, she would have taken a step back. But more people had stopped to watch the tree put in place, and there was nowhere to go.
“Me? I’m the kid here.”
“You were,” Dante told her gently, his voice low. “You’re an adult now, and if you want things to work out with your family, you have to make a little effort. Does keeping your mom at bay really make you happy? Don’t you want more? A connection?”
She wanted to say no but remembered that he didn’t have anyone. No doubt he would tell her to be careful what she wished for. He was the kind of man who would take care of people, only there wasn’t anyone to watch over in his life. Right now, she had the benefit of his instincts.
“I like the theory of family,” she admitted, “if not the practice. It was so bad for so long, I don’t know how to let go of the hurt.”
“You take baby steps.”
“I’d rather leave.”
“Is that the plan?”
She nodded. “I like teaching dance. I think I want to continue that. I’m going to stick around for a while and learn all I can, while saving money. Then go open a studio somewhere else.”
She braced herself for Dante’s judgment, but he only nodded slowly. “That’s an option.”
“My family doesn’t know.”
“I won’t say anything. How long’s ‘a while’?”
“Maybe a year.” She wrinkled her nose. “Okay, okay, I get your point. That’s long enough to try to work things out with my family. I should give them a break, or at least credit for trying.”
He leaned in and kissed her nose. “See, it’s like I said. Smart
She shoved at his chest. “It’s not a compliment when you’re being annoying.”
He chuckled and put his arm around her. They both watched as the tree was pulled upright, then slowly lowered into place. Everyone cheered.
Evie leaned into him, enjoying being a part of the happy crowd more than she would have thought.
When the tree was secure, Dante led her back toward the booths. “We need hot chocolate.”
She shivered slightly. “I could use something warm.”
He bought them each a cup and they checked out the rest of the booths. One of them was selling ornaments in bright colors.
“They come with your name painted on them,” the woman in the booth said with a smile. “How about a lovely star?”
She held up a red one.
“We’ll take it,” Dante told her, then spelled Evie’s name.
“I don’t have a tree,” she said.
“We’ll get one of those later. You need an ornament with your name on it.”
“Only if you get one, too.”
“You going to let me put it on your tree?”
She laughed and leaned close. “Yes, but why does that question sound dirty?”
“Because it was supposed to.”
They both laughed.
He paid for both ornaments and tucked the small bag into his coat pocket. They continued to wander through the center of town, then turned back toward their neighborhood.
Somewhere in the distance, a church clock chimed the hour. She could hear Christmas music. There were a thousand stars in the sky, and her breath made puffy clouds in the cold air.
“I’ll admit it,” she told him. “There is something just a little magical about this place. The tree, the hot cocoa, the window decorations.”
He stopped and faced her. “It’s going to get worse.”
“What do you mean?”
“Your family at the holidays? There are going to be a lot of get-togethers.”
She could only imagine. “I tend to stay on the fringes. It’s easier that way.”
“You’re assuming they’ll let you. I think the easiest solution is practice.”
She had no idea what he was talking about, but it didn’t matter. Staring into Dante’s blue eyes was kind of a nice way to spend an evening. She didn’t even care that she was freezing.
“For example,” he continued, his gaze locked with hers. “What if there’s mistletoe somewhere? We’ll be expected to kiss.”
She felt herself smile. “Oh, right. That could be awkward. We barely know each other. What if we bump noses?”
“Our timing could be off. People would talk. I know you wouldn’t want that.”
“I wouldn’t.” Anticipation tiptoed through her stomach, warming her from the inside out. She tilted her head. “So you think we should practice?”
He sighed heavily. “It’s probably for the best.”
“You’re such a giver.”
With that, he lowered his head and pressed his mouth to hers.
His lips were warm and tasted faintly of chocolate. He kissed gently, lingering as if he’d been waiting for this his whole day and planned to enjoy every second of it. She put her hand on his chest while he held her lightly by the waist.
They were on the edge of the main square, neatly tucked in a doorway to a closed shop. Around them twinkle lights flashed on and off. It was like something out of a Christmas movie, she thought, letting her eyes flutter shut as she concentrated on the heat burning through her.
They stayed there for what felt like a long time. While part of her wanted to deepen the kiss, another part was content to leave things as they were. Uncomplicated, with just enough zing to make her thighs tighten. The perfect combination, she thought hazily.
Dante drew back and rested his forehead on hers.
“I’d give us a B.”
She opened her eyes and glared at him. “Excuse me?”
He grinned. “Kidding. That was nice. But we probably need more practice.”
“What did you have in mind?”
“We have a month until Christmas. That gives us time to work out the kinks.”
She laughed and linked arms with him. “You’re the strangest man I know.”
“That’s what all the girls say. Admit it. You like me.”
She laughed again, and they started for home. In truth, she did like Dante. She wasn’t an idiot—she knew he was a player and that expecting anything but a little fun was a mistake. But he was exactly what she needed right now. In the midst of preparation for the Christmas Eve performance and having to deal with her family, Dante was a distraction. One any girl could appreciate.
ante walked into the Fool’s Gold fire station with a list and an idea for a plan. He spotted Charlie by her rig and called out to her.
She turned to him and raised her eyebrows. “You’re wearing a suit.”
He glanced down at his clothes and then back at her. “Yes.”
“I’m used to it.”
Charlie was tall, over five-ten, he would guess, with broad shoulders and plenty of muscle. He didn’t know much about what it took to be a firefighter, but he knew physical strength was a part of it. Still, at that moment, she had the happy, glowing smile of a woman in love.
“You didn’t come here to model clothes,” she said. “What’s up?”
“I heard you spoke to Evie about a work party for her sets. I wanted to talk to you about that. How do I get something like that organized?”
“Know which end of a hammer hits the nail?”
“I’ve done construction.”
She looked him up and down. “I have my doubts.”
“It’s how I got through my fancy college.”
“Was it fancy?”
“There were bows and lace.”
She grinned. “Okay, I like a man who can take a little teasing. Now, about the work party. Do you know Patience McGraw?”
“She’s a hair stylist, and her daughter is in Evie’s class. Which means nothing to you. Okay, the point is she mentioned the work party, as well. So we’ve been coordinating. Let me get my notes.”
She disappeared out a side door, then reappeared a minute later, carrying a piece of paper. There were a couple of dozen names and phone numbers on it.
“Evie has a supply list,” Dante told her. “We put that together when we went to see the sets.”
“Good. We’re thinking next Saturday. It’s early enough in the season that not everyone is busy.” She waved the names and phone numbers. “How many people are you willing to call?”
“As many as you want.”
“I like that. You have potential.” She tore the paper in half and handed one of the pieces to him. “Oh, and make sure Rafe, Shane and Clay are there. I keep meaning to mention it, but I haven’t yet and I’m working a double shift.”
“I’ll get them there.”
Charlie glanced at the list, then back at him. “Why are you helping Evie?”
A seemingly simple question with a complicated answer. Because the more he learned about her past, the more he wanted to knock a few heads together. As he couldn’t do that, making her current dance crisis better was the other option. Because she was dynamite in tights and he was a man who enjoyed a beautiful woman. But maybe, most honestly, because this time of year he always missed his mom and he knew that helping out Evie would make his mother proud.
“Christmas is my thing,” he said instead.
“Why do I think there’s more to that story?”
* * *
VIE PUSHED THE
play button on the CD player and waited for the familiar music to begin. She’d warmed up already, and her first class wasn’t for an hour. While there was plenty of paperwork to do and she still had to decide on the last transition in the show, she was restless. Her muscles nearly twitched, and her brain was fuzzy. She knew the solution. The question was, would her body cooperate?
She banged the box of her toe shoes against the floor a couple of times to make sure she’d tied them on correctly. The music surrounded her as she raised her arm. She silently counted to eight in her head, then, as the familiar notes filled the studio, moved both her feet and arms.
She’d never performed the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” although she’d been an understudy twice. Now she kept time with the music, landing in
effacé en fondu
. Her body wobbled slightly, but she kept on.
. Up. With ballet, the dancer was always lifting. In modern dance, she would go down first, as if scooping from the earth before going up, but in ballet, the goal was the sky. A turn and—
Pain ripped through her leg and her hip. Ignoring the fiery sensation, she raised herself again, her pelvis tucked, her body a perfect line from her head to her toes. Arms extended, her fingers curved delicately. The music guided her, the count pulsing in rhythm with her heartbeat.
She risked a glance in the mirror and immediately saw everything that was wrong. The sloppy extension, the bend of her elbow, the slight tilt. Voices echoed in her head. Calls for more crisp footwork, faster beats. Precision, perfection. The room seemed to bend and fade as time shifted. She was seventeen again and walking into class at Juilliard.
The dance continued, and when the last note was silent, she came down on her feet and walked to the remote to start it again.
By the third time through, her leotard was damp with sweat. By the fifth, every muscle trembled and the fire in her leg had become a volcano of pain. She was both here and in her past. Remembering how eager she’d been, how full of dreams. How six months into her first year at the prestigious dance school she’d been told she didn’t have what it took. Yes, she worked hard, was disciplined and determined. But she lacked the raw talent. The best she could hope for was the corps, with a second-rate company. They offered her the chance to leave rather than to be thrown out. A testament to their affection for her.
Evie’s right leg gave way. Still-recovering muscles had reached the point of exhaustion, and she went down hard on the wood floor. She lay there, panting, shivering. After a few minutes she sat up and untied her shoes, then tossed them across the room and rested her head against her knees.
There were no tears. Nothing to cry for. She couldn’t complain about what had been lost. Not when she’d never had it in the first place. Slowly the pain became manageable. She forced herself to her feet and limped over to the CD player to silence it before heading to the small restroom in the back of the studio.
She washed her face and made sure the braids around her head were still secure. She could see the sadness in her eyes, the lingering shadows of the pain, but doubted anyone else would notice. Her girls were excited about the performance. They all wanted to do their best.
She remembered what it was like to feel that way—back before she’d known that those kinds of dreams were impossible to hold on to. But maybe one of her students would have what it took. Maybe one of them would make it onto the stage and dance with a major company. They were on a journey, and she wanted to offer whatever guidance she could.
* * *