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Blinding lights. Aching lungs. Thunderous applause. The final show concludes the same way we rehearsed for months, the same way we performed for weeks. My muscles know the movements better than they understand rest. The prospect of after, of what comes next, makes my breath catch. Even as the primas take their bows, relief echoes around the stage. Vacations are planned. Relief for strained muscles. Everyone needs a break, even professional athletes. I’m the only one onstage dreading it.
We bow and curtsey with practiced grace. The curtain descends to the floor. Almost to the second we break formation—a flock of crows startled from the woods. The more exuberant among us, the young ones, the new ones, the ones using steroids, prance and jete toward the dressing rooms. Most of us limp our way out. One hundred percent of NFL players are injured every season. Professional dancing is the same. We hurl our bodies through the air, forcing massive impact through tired joints night after night. I catch my friend Marlena in my arms. Her face is white with pain.
“Ice,” she says. “Or better yet—tequila.”
I push my shoulder under hers as we exit the stage. “Don’t sell yourself short. You can have both.”
A delicate snort. “Not likely. We have to smile and flirt with the old men with big, fat wallets. And for what? I won’t be here next season. You won’t be, either.”
The reminder clangs inside me like a copper bell. I won’t be coming to the New York City Ballet after the break. We fall into our creaky chairs in the dressing room. “Are you going to miss it?”
“Miss it? Of course I’ll miss it.” Marlena turned twenty-eight last month. It’s comfortably retirement age for a dancer. “When the little children do their terrible pirouettes, when they sneeze and throw up and cry all over my leotard, I’ll think fondly of the beautiful art I left behind. Then I’ll be able to walk home. That won’t happen if I try to dance another season.”
“You’ll make a wonderful teacher. You know you were mine.” She didn’t teach me to dance. It was my first love, before I learned to flip and contort myself. Before I ever leapt from a trapeze bar.
Marlena taught me the ropes of the ballet company when I joined two years ago. Most of them thought I wouldn’t last a week. Some of them didn’t want me to. It’s a rigid world, the hierarchy stacked with graduates of Juilliard or the John Cranko school.
I don’t have a pedigree.
All I have is a body that does what it must, no matter how much it hurts.
Which means changing out of my sweaty leotard into a fresh one. We’re contractually obligated to attend the ball. Like Marlena said, we should smile and flirt with the high society people who attend. Both the male and female dancers have to do it. It’s what convinces the sponsors to write checks that will fund the next season. By the time they’re rehearsing The Nutcracker I’ll be in New Orleans, the place I swore I’d never return.
“Tell the others we’re going.”
She nodded, then winked. I grinned back as Ethan pulled me away. We hurried through the crowd, Ethan leading the way as he gripped my hand. His long legs were striding and I struggled to keep up.
“You in a hurry?” I asked.
He turned to me but didn’t smile. Instead, he kissed me, and my toes curled.
When he closed the door, he stood in front of me and pinned me to the car with his hips as he kissed me again. I could kiss this man forever. His strong, steady rhythm was demanding, and I willingly followed his lead. I put my hands in his hair, loving the soft feel of it between my fingers. Like on the dance floor, our kiss took on a life of its own.
When he buried his face in my neck and sucked right below my ear, I wondered if I would survive. “Ethan, honey, you’re killing me. I hope you have a lot of condoms.” He chuckled at my neck. “I’ll buy a box for next time.” It took me a moment before I realised he wasn’t moving anymore. “Ethan?” I whispered.
“Do you want a next time?” His voice was rough.
He shifted to look at me, and I didn’t know if it was a trick question. “Of course.” I smiled, although the protracted silence had my stomach starting to drop.
Realization hit me like a slow-moving truck.
“I can only give you tonight.”
“Why?” I didn’t like the sound of my voice. It was small and fragile. He didn’t answer, but he looked haunted. He wasn’t going to answer me. “You only want tonight?” I still hoped I was reading this wrong.
When he nodded, I felt something break in me. Something I had pretended was strong and secure.
“I can’t do that,” I whispered. “Not with you.” My voice cracked under the weight of unshed tears. I couldn’t let it happen again. I wanted more.
“Mia…” He moved back, his hands still on my hips.
We were still close, but not.
“I don’t do well with one-night stands. There isn’t anything wrong with them, but I’m not built that way. Especially when I… care. I can’t turn my feelings off and I don’t think I should have to. I like you, Ethan, and I want to be with you like this and like we were today. I want more than sex, and I thought you wanted that, too.” By the end of my speech, any effort to hide my tears was futile.
“I can’t give you that.” He moved back, breaking our connection completely.
“You mean you won’t.”
“It isn’t like that.”
He reached for me, but I moved to the side.
“It’s exactly like that. I should’ve known better.” I righted my clothing and pushed off the car.
I’d made it two steps before he grabbed my elbow and turned me around.
“Trust me. I don’t want to hurt you.” His expression was full of pain and grief.
“Too late.” I pulled out of his hold.
This time, he let me.
“Thank you.” She closed her eyes and took several large gulps, the cool liquid a balm to her throat.
“My name’s Niall O’Hagan.”
His deep and pleasant voice sounded different, lighter than the sultry bedroom voice she was used to from her dreams.
“I’m the Braithwaites’ attorney.”
Lark paused in midsip and lowered the bottle in her hands. “You—no.” She glanced at him.
His mouth lifted at the corners as if it dawned on him he was the butt of a joke he wasn’t aware of. “I…what?”
Oh, the irony of dreaming about her father’s lawyer this whole time. Oh, God. She giggled like a madwoman. This was it; she’d officially lost it. She rose and walked to the top step of the porch, put a hand over her face, and plunked down. “I am so messed up.”
An unwanted flash of Gemma’s flirtatious “darlin’” to Charles yesterday surfaced, and tears stung her eyes. She went silent and willed them not to fall. Nice try, but no use.
Niall sat on the step beside her. “I’d offer you a drink, but I quit ten years ago.”
Lark laughed, despite the tears. “An Irish attorney who doesn’t like Guinness is like an Englishman who doesn’t like fish and chips.”
“I know; shameful,” he said with mock contrition. “Don’t hold it against me. I’m doing the world a favor. Trust me. I was a horrible drunk. Are you okay, miss?”
Lark scoffed and gesticulated with her hands to the sky. “It’s Lark. And what a loaded question.” She couldn’t look at him, not after what happened. She clenched the edge of the step on either side of her and stared out at the trees.
“Well, since we’ve already nailed second base, we might as well be open with each other. Forgive me if I’m candid, but it seems you were in the throes of an alleged, eh, intense dream, and you awoke and believed I was him. Is that right?”
Horror dawned on her at what she’d done, and her jaw dropped. “No!” Yes. She glanced at him, and his knowing expression begged to differ.
“I see,” he said, his tone careful but persistent. “Then why did you kiss me like that?”
“I-I don’t have to answer.” She lifted her chin with defiance.
He scooted closer to her. “No, you don’t. But I wish you would.”
A Moment of Clarity
She looked in the mirror at the result of eight years of self-neglect and self-hatred, and she didn't like what she saw. She wished Freddie could have looked at her and seen that she had improved over the years. It didn't even need to be about her physical appearance. If she would have had three Master's Degrees and a PhD to her name, or a Pulitzer Prize, or an Oscar for Best Screenplay, or a byline in The New Yorker, that would have been something. But she had nothing to show for all the intervening years.
She wondered if Freddie had said the words out of spite, calculating that Henry and Louis would repeat them to her, or they were merely said honestly, not thinking that they might get repeated back to her. She could only assume that Freddie expected the hurtful words to reach her ears. Freddie had not forgiven her.
Well, could she blame her? Her feebleness of character, her inability to stand by her loved one in the face of adversity, wasn't something Freddie would respect. Being in a relationship with a soldier in military service took dedication and courage, not weakness and timidity. Anne couldn’t blame her for being hurt, even disgusted. She was not worthy of the love Freddie had offered her.
The eyes that looked back at her in the mirror confirmed what she already knew. She was going to have to change. It was too late with Freddie, but she needed to be a person she could respect. She wanted her self-respect back.
As I approached the room, my grandmother’s door inched open. I waited a minute, but no one emerged. I stepped to the side, letting the social worker finish up, trying not to tap my foot in impatience and envision how many digits my inbox had soared to.
I wondered if this was the social worker Grandma always talked about. The thought alone caused me to laugh and my foot to still. For years Grandma had matchmaking aspirations between me and the social worker. Then again, Grandma always had matchmaking aspirations, really bad matchmaking, take one look and run the other way kind. We’d never met but had e-mailed many times. I contemplated taking another step to the side to avoid any additional matchmaking attempts when the door opened further. A female with familiar blond curly hair backed out of the room. She waved to my grandmother and closed the door. Before I could chastise my dick on the urges the hair created, I found myself face to face with Nica.
She froze, an expression of pure bewilderment that I surely mirrored. Eyes wide enough that white surrounded her irises. On the lapel of her pink button-down shirt she had an ID badge. Her picture was on the badge, under the logo for Independent Senior Services, with her name: Veronica Anders.