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Maddy Green was finding it hard to breathe. She lengthened her stride, eager to reach the rehearsal studio. She could almost feel the familiar smoothness of the barre beneath her hand and almost see the glint of bright lights in the mirrors and hear the regular scuff and thump of other dancers leaping and landing and twisting and turning around her.
She needed the comfort of the familiar very badly right now.
The double doors to the Sydney Dance Company's rehearsal studio A came up on her left. She pushed through them and the scent of warm bodies, clean sweat and a dozen different deodorants and perfumes and aftershaves wrapped itself around her.
Home. She was home.
"Maddy! How did your doctor's appointment go?" Kendra asked the moment she spotted Maddy.
The other dancers turned toward her, faces expectant. Maddy forced herself to smile and shrug casually.
"It's all good," she said. "No problems."
She couldn't bring herself to say the other thing. Saying it out loud would make it real. And for just a few more minutes, she wanted to lose herself in the world that had held her enthralled since, at the age of four, she first saw a picture of a ballerina.
Kendra flew across the room to give her a hug, her slender arms strong around Maddy's back.
"Fantastic. Great news. The best," she said.
The other woman's gauzy rehearsal skirt flared around her legs as she returned to her place in the center of the room. Kendra was only twenty-two. She had her whole career ahead of her. She was a beautiful dancerpowerful, delicate, emotional, intense. She would soar.
Maddy felt someone watching her and lifted her gaze to find Stephen Jones, the choreographer, eyeing herclosely.
She turned her shoulder, breaking the contact. Stephen had been watching her a lot lately, checking her range of movement, testing the capabilities of her injured knee. Had he known, or guessed, what she'd been told today? Had everyone known except her that she was over? That she would never dance again?
Her heart pounded against her ribs and again she couldn't quite catch her breath.
She threw her bag into the corner and slid off her street shoes, bending to tug on a pair of slippers with shaking hands. The ribbons whispered through her fingers as she wrapped them around her ankles and tied them neatly. She shed her skirt to reveal tights and leotard and took a place at the barre to begin warming up.
Pliés first, then some rond de jambes, keeping her head high and her arms relaxed. Every time she rose up en pointe, she felt the seamless, fluid glide of her body responding to her will, saw her reflection in the floor-to-ceiling mirror, posture perfect, form ideal.
Her heartbeat slowed. She was a dancer. Always had been, always would be.
She tore her eyes from her own reflection to find Andrew McIntyre, the company director, standing behind her. He, too, had been studying her perfect form in the mirror.
"Why don't you come to my office?" he said. His voice was gentle, as was the light in his eyes.
He'd spoken to Dr. Hanson. Of course he had. Hanson was the company's doctor, after all. When she'd come on board four years ago she'd signed a contract agreeing that the company could access all health matters pertaining to her career.
"After rehearsal," she said. "I'm warm now. And the rest of them are waiting for me."
"I think we should do this now, don't you?" he said.
He was frowning, as though what she'd said pained him in some way. He moved closer, reached out a hand to touch her.
She took a step backward. Rising en pointe on her bad leg, she lifted her right leg in grand battement to the side then up, up, up, until her toe was pointing toward the ceiling, her thigh straight beside her ear.
She held the position in a blatant display of skill and strength, her eyes daring Andrew in the mirror.
He held her gaze, never once looking away. And when her muscles began to scream and shake from the pain of holding such a demanding, strenuous position, he stepped forward and rested his hand on her shoulder.
"Enough, Maddy. Come to my office."
She let her leg drop and relaxed onto her flat feet. Her knee throbbed, as it always did these days when she demanded too much of it. She hung her head and stared blindly at the polished floorboards.
She felt Andrew slide his arm around her shoulders. Then he led her toward the door. The other dancers stopped mid-rehearsal to watch her. She could feel their silent stares as she and Andrew stepped into the corridor. Andrew didn't let her go until they were in his office.
"Sit," he said.
He crossed to the wooden built-ins that spanned one wall of his office and opened a door. She heard the clink of glass on glass as he poured something.
Brandy fumes caught her nose as he lifted a glass to her lips.
"No," she said, turning her head away.
Andrew held the glass there, waiting. Finally she took a token mouthful.
"And again," he said.
She took a bigger mouthful this time. The brandy burned all the way down her throat to her belly. She shook her head firmly when he offered a third time.
He took her at her word and placed the glass on the coffee table in front of her. Then he sat in the armchair opposite her.
In his late fifties, he was a former dancer, his body slim and whippet-strong even after years away from the stage. His tanned skin was stretched tightly across high cheekbones, and thin lines surrounded his mouth from smoking. His eyes were kind as he studied her, a rarity from a man who was known throughout the dance world as a perfectionist first and a human being second.
"We will look after you, Maddy. Please know that. Retirement pay, any teaching work you wantyou name it, you can have it. You've been one of our greatest dancers, and we won't forget you."
Maddy could feel the sweat cooling on her body in the air-conditioned chill.
"I want to keep dancing," she said. "That's what I want."
Andrew shook his head decisively. "You can't. Not for us. Not professionally. Your spirit might be willing, but your body is not. Dr. Hanson was very clear about that. We always knew that complete recovery from such a significant tear to your cruciate ligament was going to be a long shot. It's time to hang up your slippers, Maddy."
She stared at him, a storm of words closing her throat.
Anger, grief, resentment, denialshe didn't know what to say, how to react.
"I want to keep dancing," she said again. "Give me more time. I'll show you I can do it. I'll do more rehab work, more Pilates. Whatever it takes."
Andrew's face went slack for a moment, and he leaned back and closed his eyes, rubbing the bridge of his nose with his hand. He looked defeated, sad.
"Maddy. I know how hard it is to give it up. Believe me. It nearly killed me. But I made a second chance for myself." He paused a moment to let his words sink in. "You're a beautiful, smart, resourceful woman. There's another life out there waiting for you. You just have to find it."
I don't want to find it.
She almost said it out loud, but some of the numbness and shock were leaving her as the brandy burned its way into her system.
The doctor had handed down his decision, and Andrew had made his, too. She was broken, old. They had no use for her anymore.
"We'll throw you a party. A real send-off. And we'll help you any way we can. Retraining, or, as I said earlier, if you want to teach ?"
The thought of a party, of standing in front of her peers while people made toasts to her former talent made bile rise up the back of her throat.
"No. No party," she said.
Suddenly she didn't want to be here anymore. When the doctor had given her the news an hour ago, the company had felt like home, like the safe place to be. But now she knew it would never be her home again.
"People will want to say their goodbyes, pay their due respects," he said.
"I'm not dead," she said, standing abruptly.
She strode to the door. She hesitated for a beat outside the rehearsal studio, then braced herself to duck in and collect her bag. Head down, she did just that, not responding when Kendra asked if she was okay.
They would hear soon enough. Another dancer would be promoted into her role in the latest production. Maybe Kendra. Maybe one of the other soloists. Life would go on.
Outside in the warm summer air, she took deep breaths and fought tears.
She had never been more alone and scared in her life. Her entire world had crumbled around herthe discipline and passion that had formed the boundaries of her days and nights had dissolved into nothingness. She had no future, and her past was irrelevant. She was the owner of a broken body and broken dreams and precious little else.
She found her car keys in her handbag, but she had nowhere to go. No current lover to offer his shoulder, and no former lovers to call on, because her affairs never ended well. Her mother was miles away in America, enjoying the fruits of her third marriage. Maddy had never known her father. All her friends were dancers, and the thought of their ready sympathy had the bile rising in her throat again.
Where to go?
Where to go?
Out of the depths of her subconscious, a face rose up. Clear gray eyes, dark hair, a smile that offered mischief and fun and comfort and understanding in equal measure.
Yes. She needed Max. Even though it had been years. Even though their friendship had been reduced to occasional e-mails and Christmas cards.
He would understand. He always had. He'd hold her in his big, solid arms, and she'd feel safe, the way she always had with him.
And then maybe she could think. Imagine a world without dance. Construct a way forward.
Max shut the flap on the box and held it down with his forearm. He reached for the packing tape and used his thumbnail to find the leading edge.
"I'm all done in here. How about you?" a voice asked from the doorway.
He glanced up at his sister, Charlotte, taking in her smug expression and the way she'd planted her hands on her hips.
"Don't even think it," he said, tearing off a piece of tape and sticking the flap down.
"My room's finished. Technically, that means my work here is done," Charlotte said.
Max tossed her the spare roll of packing tape. So far, he'd only managed to pack away half of the books in his late father's extensive collection.
"The sooner you start helping, the sooner we can both get out of here," he said.
Charlotte propped herself against the door frame.
"Should have picked an easier room, Max," she teased.
"I was being gallant. Giving you the kitchen and taking on this Herculean task to save you hours of hard labor. In case you hadn't noticed."
Charlotte's smile faded a little as she straightened.
"Where do you want me to start?" she asked.
Max glanced at the solid wall of books that remained unpacked.
"Pick a shelf. Any shelf," he said.
Charlotte busied herself assembling a box as he started stacking books into another carton.
Dust hung in the air, dancing in the weak winter sunlight filtering through the dirty windows of his father's apartment.
It felt strange to be back here, and yet he'd only been gone two months. The whole world had shifted in that time.
His father was dead.
He still couldn't quite believe it. Ten weeks ago, Alain Laurent had succumbed to a bout of pneumonia, a constant hazard for quadriplegics. After a week-long battle, he'd died quietly in his sleep. Max had been out of the room, taking a phone call at the time. After eight years of constant care and devotion, after being there for so many of the major crises of his father's illness, Max had missed the most important moment of all.
Had his father known that he was alone? Or, as his sister contended, had his father chosen that moment to slip away for good, sparing his son the anguish of witnessing his final moments?
"Stop giving yourself a hard time," Charlotte said from across the room.
He frowned. "What?"
"You heard me. Don't pretend you weren't sitting there, thinking about Dad again. You did everything you could. We both did," Charlotte said firmly.
He made a dismissive gesture and packed more books.
"It's true, you know. What you just said. You are gallant. Which is charming on one level, but bloody infuriating on another."
He smiled at his sister's choice of words. They were half-Australian, half-French, but he always thought of Charlotte as being essentially European, with her dark hair and elegant fashion sense. Then, out of the blue, she'd toss out a bit of Aussie slang and remind him that they'd spent their teen years in Sydney, Australia, swimming and surfing and swatting flies away from backyard barbecues.
"I'm serious, Max," she said. "You're always riding to the rescue, thinking of everyone else except yourself. You need to learn to be selfish."
He made a rude noise and continued to work.
"The day you think of yourself first, I'll give it a go."
Charlotte pushed her hair behind her ear, frowning. "That's different. I have a family. I gave up the right to be selfish when I became a parent."
Max dropped the book he was holding and pressed a hand to his heart. Moving with a quarter of his former grace and skill, he half staggered, half danced to the side wall, playing self-sacrifice and martyrdom for all he was worth.
"Very funny," his sister said.
He dodged the small book she flung his way.
He tossed the book back and she shook her head at him. They packed in silence for a few beats, busy with their own thoughts.
He wondered who was looking after Eloise and Marcel today, Charlotte's children with her merchant banker husband, Richard. He knew Charlotte was between babysitters at the moment. It was hard finding people competent to deal with Eloise's special needs, but having them here hadn' t really been possible. Any disruption to Eloise's routine inevitably led to distress.
"I never really thanked you, did I?" Charlotte said into the silence.
He pushed the flaps shut on another full box of books. The secondhand dealer was going to have a field day with their father's collection. Everything from 1960s dime-store novels to Proust and Dante.
"That's because there's nothing to thank me for."
"Do you miss it? Dancing?" Charlotte asked quietly.
He started assembling another box.
"Sometimes. Not so much anymore. It's a long time ago now."
"Only eight years. Perhaps you could"
"No," he said, more sharply than he'd intended. "Eight years is a lifetime in dance, Charlie. I'm too old now. Lost my flexibility, my edge."