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The sound of eight tiny reindeer had nothing on a half-dozen eight-year-olds clog dancing, Dante Jefferson thought as he held the phone more closely to his ear.
"You'll have to repeat that," he yelled in to the receiver. "I'm having trouble hearing you."
The steady thudding above his head paused briefly, then started up again.
"What's going on there?" Franklin asked, his voice barely audible over the banging that nearly kept time with the damned piano music. "Construction?"
"I wish," Dante muttered. "Look, I'll call you back in a couple of hours." The stupid dance class would be over by then. At least he hoped so.
"Sure. I'll be here." Franklin hung up.
Dante glanced at the bottom right of his computer screen. The ever-present clock told him it was seven-fifteen. In the evening. Which meant it was eleven-fifteen in the morning in Shanghai. He'd stayed late specifically to speak to Franklin about an international business deal that had developed a few glitches. The clog dancers had made the conversation impossible.
He saved the spreadsheet and went to work on his email. He and his business partner had plenty of other projects that needed his attention.
Just before eight, he heard the clog dancers going down the stairs. They laughed and shrieked, obviously not worn out by an hour of misstepping practice. He, on the other hand, had a pounding pain right behind his eyes and the thought that he would cheerfully strangle Rafe first thing in the morning. His business partner had been the one to rent the temporary space. Either Rafe hadn't noticed or didn't care about the dance school parked directly above. The offices were in an older part of Fool's Gold and had been built long before the invention of soundproofing. Rafe didn't seem to mind the noise that started promptly at three every single afternoon and went well into the evening. Dante, on the other hand, was ready to beg the nearest judge for an injunction.
Now he got out of his chair and headed for the stairs. He made his way to the studio. He and whoever was in charge were going to have to come to terms. He had to spend the next couple of weeks working out the problems of the Shanghai deal.
Which meant needing access to his computer, contracts and blueprints. Some of which he couldn't take home. He needed to able to use his phone, in his office, while speaking in a normal voice.
He paused outside the door that led to the studio. It was as old-fashioned as the rest of the building, with frosted glass and the name of the businessDominique's School of Dancepainted in fancy gold script. He pushed open the door and entered.
The reception area was utilitarian at best. There was a low desk, a computer that had been old a decade ago, backless benches by the wall and several coatracks. He could see through into the studio itselfa square room with mirrors, a barre that was attached to the wall and, of course, hardwood floors. There wasn't a piano, and he realized the endless, repetitive song that had driven him insane had come from a compact stereo.
He rubbed his temples and wished the pounding would stop, then walked purposefully into the studio. He was a coldhearted bastard lawyer, or so he'd been told endlessly by those he bested. He planned to reduce the dance instructor to a blob of fear, get her to agree to lay off with the dancing and then go back to his phone call. All in the next ten minutes.
"We have to talk," he announced as he came to a halt in the center of the room.
He realized there were mirrors on three walls, so he was seeing himself from unfamiliar angles. His shirt was wrinkled, his hair mussed, and he looked tired, he thought briefly, before turning his attention to
Dante swore under his breath as he took in the tall, slender woman dressed in nothing more than a black leotard and tights. Despite the fact that she was covered from collarbone to toes, the clinging outfit left nothing to the imagination. He almost felt as if he'd walked in on a woman undressing. A sexy woman with big green eyes and honey-blond hair. A woman who was completely untouchable, for a host of reasons.
He ground his teeth together. Why hadn't Rafe mentioned that his sister was now working here? But even if his business partner didn't kill him for looking, Dante had a firm list of rules that were never broken. Not getting emotionally involved was number one. Anyone who taught little kids to dance had to be softhearted. Nothing got him running faster than a hint of emotion.
"What are you doing here?" Evangeline Stryker asked.
Yes, he thought as he stared at her. Rafe's baby sister. She was responsible for the nightmare that was his life. She and those unbelievably loud mini-dancers she taught. So much for reducing the dance instructor to anything.
"Sorry," he said, doing his best to keep his voice from growling. "I didn't know you worked here."
Evie gave him a wide-eyed stare, then a strange half laugh. "Right. I work here. I teach dance. Lucky me."
Dante knew Evie had broken her leg a few months ago, but he didn't remember hearing anything about a head injury. "Are you all right?"
"No," she snapped and put her hands on her hips. "Do I look all right?"
He took a step back, not wanting to get in the middle of whatever she had going on. "I came upstairs because I can't work like this anymore. The pounding, the same piece of music playing over and over again. I have to talk to Shanghai tonight, and instead of peace and quiet, there were clog dancers. You've got to make it stop."
He held out both hands, palms up, speaking in what he knew to be his most reasonable tone.
"Make it stop? Make it stop?" Her voice rose with each word. "Are you kidding?"
Evie knew she sounded shrill. She was sure she was wide-eyed, flushed and more than a little scary, but right now she didn't care. She was in full panic mode and now Dante was stuck listening to her rant.
"You want to talk to me about your troubles?" she continued. "Fine. Here are mine. In approximately six weeks it's Christmas Eve. That night, the town of Fool's Gold expects yet another chance to see their annual favoriteThe Dance of the Winter King. You've never heard of it, you say? I know. Me, either. But it's a huge deal here. Huge!"
She paused for breath, wondering if it was possible for her head to actually explode. She could feel a sort of panicked pressure building. It was as if she was in a nightmare where she was going to be naked in front of a room full of strangers. Not that being naked in front of a room full of people she knew was any better.
"I won't go into the details about the storyline," she continued, her chest getting tighter and tighter. "Let's just say it's a lot of students dancing. Oh, and the dances they're doing this year are different than the ones they did last year because, hey, they move up. Which wouldn't be a problem because there's always Miss Monica, who's been teaching here for the last five-hundred-and-fifty years."
She was getting shrill again, she realized, and consciously lowered her voice. "The only problem is Miss Monica has run off with her gentleman friend. The woman has to be pushing seventy, so I should probably be impressed or at least respectful that she has a love life, except she took off with no warning. She left me a note."
Evie pointed to the piece of paper still taped to the mirror.
"She's gone," she repeated. "Left town. Flying out of the country first thing in the morning. Which leaves me with close to sixty girls to teach dances I don't know for a production I've never heard of, let alone seen. There's no choreography to speak of, I'm not sure of the music and I heard the sets are old and need to be completely refurbished. In the next six weeks."
She paused for air. "It's up to me. Do you want to know how long I've been teaching dance? Two months. That's right. This is my first ever, on the planet, teaching job. I have sixty girls depending on me to make their dreams come true. Their dreams of being beautiful and graceful, because you know what? For some of them, this is all they have."
She knew she was skating uncomfortably close to talking about herself. About how, when she'd been younger, dance had been all she'd had. She might not have any teaching experience, but she knew what it was like to want to be special and, by God, she was going to make that happen for her students.
She stalked toward him and jabbed her finger into his chest. More specifically, she felt the cool silk of his fancy tie. It probably cost more than she spent on groceries in a month. She didn't know very much about Dante Jefferson beyond the fact that he was her brother's business partner and therefore disgustingly rich. Okayhe was reasonably good-looking, but that didn't help her right now, so she wasn't going to care.
"If you for one second think I'm going to stop having practice here," she told him, "you can forget it. I have a serious crisis. If you want to have a conversation with Shanghai, you can do it somewhere else. I'm hanging on by a thread and when it snaps, we're all going down."
Dante stared at her for a long moment, then nodded. "Fair enough."
With that, he turned and walked out of the studio.
She glared at his retreating back. Sure. He got to leave and go back to his fancy life. Not her. She had to figure out what to do next. While running in circles and screaming might feel good in the moment, it wasn't going to get the job done. Nor was railing at the unfairness, kicking something or eating chocolate. She might have failed in other areas of her life, but she wasn't going to fail her students.
"You have to rally," she told herself. "You're tough. You can do it."
And she would, she thought as she sank onto the floor and rested her head on her knees. She would figure out The Dance of the Winter King and teach her students and let them have one magical night.
First thing in the morning. But now, she was going to take a few minutes and feel massively sorry for herself. It was a small thing to ask, and she'd earned it.
The next morning, Evie started her day with a heart full of determination. She had survived worse than this before and probably would have to again. Mounting a production she'd never seen with no help might seem daunting, but so what? Her pep talk lasted through her first cup of coffee, then faded completely, leaving the sense of panic to return and knot her stomach. Obviously the first step was to stop trying to do this all alone. She needed help. The question was, where to get it.
She was new in town, which meant no support network. Well, that wasn't totally true. Her brothers had taken a surprising interest in her lately. Rafe had even prepaid for her townhouse, against her wishes. But they would be useless in this situation, her mother wasn't an option and going up to strangers to ask them what they knew about The Dance of the Winter King seemed questionable at best. Which left the women in her brothers' lives.
She had one sister-in-law and two sisters-in-law to-be. Of the three of them, Charlie seemed the easiest to approach. She was blunt but kindhearted. So after a quick routine of stretching to overcome the stiffness of her still-healing leg, Evie got dressed and started out for the center of town.
Fool's Gold was a small town nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadaon the California side. The residential areas boasted tidy lawns and well-kept houses while the downtown held nearly a half-dozen traffic lights, making it practically metropolitan. There were plenty of pumpkins by front doors and paper turkeys in windows. Orange, red and yellow leaves flew across the sidewalk. It had yet to snow at this elevation, but the temperatures were close to freezing at night, and the ski resorts higher up the mountain had opened the previous weekend.
The whole place was one happy small town postcard, Evie thought, shoving her hands into her coat pockets and longing to be somewhere else. Los Angeles would be nice. Warm and, hey, big enough that nobody knew her namewhich was how she preferred things. She just wanted to live her life without getting involved with other people. Was that too much to ask?
A stupid question, she reminded herself. She was here now, and responsible for a holiday tradition. She would get it right because she knew what it was like to be disappointed, and there was no way she was doing that to her students.