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What was I thinking? Darcy O'Connor fought down butterflies as she looked out over the dance studio filled with eight preteen girls who'd signed up for the Belly Dancing for Girlz class. The normally tranquil room had been transformed into a scene of chaos. Dressed in everything from blue jeans and T-shirts to ballet leotards, the girls, ranging in age from nine to eleven, took turns preening and posing in the full-length mirrors lining one wall, draping themselves in the various scarves and costumes that hung around the rest of the room, all talking at once.
Darcy had taught dozens, even hundreds, of women to dance in her four years as a belly dance instructor, but she'd never attempted a class just for girls. When she'd come up with the idea, she'd thought of it as a good way to make children part of her life, but now she wondered if she was really ready for this.
"My aunt Candace took a pole dancing class last summer. Is this anything like that?"
"We saw belly dancers at the Renaissance Festival. My dad stuck a dollar in one of the dancer's bras and my mom got mad."
"I want to dance like Shakira. How long will it take you to teach me to do that?"
"Girls, girls!" Darcy held up her hands. "I'll answer your questions as we go along, but right now let's get started. First, let's line up in rows. Everybody stand where you can see yourself in the mirror."
She moved one of the taller girls, Debby, into the back row, and called forward the smallest of her new students, a delicate child with large brown eyes and a mass of dark brown hair. "Sweetie, you come up here on the front row. What's your name, again?"
"Taylor," the girl said eagerly. She grinned up at Darcy.
"Taylor, you stand next to me. Hannah, you come up on my other side." Darcy surveyed the neat double line of girls in the mirror and felt more in control of the situation. "That's better. Now we can start." She pressed the play button on the remote for the stereo and the first notes of a pop number filled the room. "The first thing we're going to learn is to move our hips from side to side, while the upper part of our bodies stays still."
"My brother says I can't learn to shake my hips because I don't have hips yet," one of the girls, Zoe, volunteered.
"You do too have hips," Kira protested. "Everybody has hips."
"Brothers are just that way," Debby said. "Once mine told me"
"Now let's try making a circle with our hips," Darcy said, recalling the girls' attention.
"What's this move called?" Liz asked.
"Is it okay if my circle is more of an oval? " Taylor asked.
Darcy smiled to herself. Yes, this class was going to be a challenge, but maybe a challenge was exactly what she needed. "All right, girls. See if you can do this next move. I want everyone to be quiet and listen to the music. Think about how the music makes you feel."
The soaring notes of an Egyptian mizmar filled the air, accompanied by a pounding drumbeat. The music vibrated up through the soles of Darcy's bare feet, soothing her like the caress of a friend. She hoped the girls felt it, too. She wanted to pass on to them more than the mere mechanics of movement.
She caught Taylor's eye in the mirror and was rewarded with a smile that made Darcy's heart skip a beat. There was so much joy and innocence in that smileso like the smile of her son. A smile she ached to see.
She pushed the sad thought away and struck a dramatic pose as the last notes of the song hung in the air, holding still until someone in the back of the class giggled. Then all the girls dissolved into laughter. Darcy joined them, reaching out to pull Hannah and Taylor close. She'd missed the sound of children's laughter since she'd lost Riley two years ago.
"That was fun." Taylor looked up at her, still smiling. "You're really pretty," the girl said. "Did it hurt when they pierced your nose?"
Darcy laughed. "A little."
Taylor wrinkled her own button nose. "I hate needles."
The fierceness in the child's voice both surprised and charmed Darcy. She patted Taylor's back. "There will be no needles in this class. I promise."
"Are we going to learn to dance with swords?" Kira pointed to the pair of curved scimitars that hung over the mirrors at the front of the room. Darcy danced with a sword as part of her professional routine sometimes, but the thought of these girls anywhere near those sharp blades made her blanch.
"You're going to learn a special routine," she said. "We'll spend the next eight weeks learning it and you'll perform it for your parents and friends at my student show in April."
"Will we get to wear costumes?"
"Real belly dancing costumes?"
"I want a pink costume!"
"Can we have bells on them and everything?"
So much for thinking she was in control, Darcy thought, as the girls crowded around her. But she no longer felt nervous or panicky among them. She clapped her hands. "We'll talk about costumes more next week. For now, let's dance some more."
For the rest of the class they played games where Darcy showed a move and each girl did her best to imitate it. The last five minutes they simply danced. She encouraged the girls to be as silly and uninhibited as they liked, and their excited comments echoed off the walls of the small studio until Darcy's ears rang.
By the end of the hour, everyone was tired but happy, including Darcy. She'd taken an important step today toward putting her life back together. These girls didn't make her miss her son less, but they made her heart less empty.
The girls gathered around the door of the studio to greet arriving parents. Hannah's mother, Darcy's friend Jane, was one of the first to arrive. "How did it go?" she asked.
"It went great, Mom." Hannah held up her cell phone. "I was just texting Kelly all about it. She's going to be so sorry she chose soccer over this." She moved past them out the door, furiously thumbing away.
Jane turned to Darcy. "Well? What do you think?"
"It was a blast," Darcy said. "I was worried at first because the girls seemed so scattered, but they really got into it after a bit."
"I'm glad. This was a big step for you." Jane squeezed her hand.
"It was time." For months after Riley's death even the sight of a child on television was enough to cause a flood of tears.
Jane lingered, her eyes fixed on Darcy. "Is something wrong?" Darcy asked.
Jane shook her head. "No. I was just wondering would you like to go out this weekend?" she asked.
"Go out where?"
"I don't know," Jane said, with studied casualness. "Maybe out to dinner. There's a new steak place over in Kittredge I hear is nice."
"You want to take me out for steak?" Darcy asked.
Jane fidgeted. "Eric has this friend "
Ah. "No fix-ups." Darcy shook her head.
"He's a really nice guy," Jane persisted. "His name is Mitch and he"
Darcy didn't cover her ears, though she wanted to. Instead, she put one hand on Jane's arm. "I appreciate the thought, but I'm not interested."
Jane's brown eyes filled with sadness, and her smile vanished. "Okay," she said. "But let me know when you're ready."
That would be never, but Darcy didn't try to explain. Some people, like Jane, who'd been married to Eric for twenty years, were made for happily-ever-after relationships. Others, like Darcy, who came from a family with so many exes and halves and second, third and fourth marriages that they'd have to hire an arena if they ever held a reunion, weren't the long-term-relationship type. Darcy had tried to buck the odds when she'd married Riley's father, Pete, but as much as she'd loved him, things couldn't have turned out worse. She wasn't going to take any more chances.
"Excuse me. Ms. O'Connor?"
Both women turned at the sound of the deep, masculine voice. A broad-shouldered man with dark, curly hair, dressed in an expensive overcoat, greeted them. If Darcy had been asked to use one word to describe the man, she would have chosen "imposing." He had the demeanor of a man used to being in authority.
"I'm Darcy O'Connor," she said, drawing herself up to her full five feet four inches and looking him in the eye, though she had to tilt her head slightly to do so.
Jane squeezed Darcy's arm and waved goodbye, at the same time giving the stranger an appreciative once-over.
"I'm Dr. Mike Carter. Taylor's father."
Darcy saw the resemblance now, in the thick dark curls and brown eyes. Those eyes appeared troubled. She didn't ordinarily have much sympathy for doctors. Her dealings with the medical profession since Riley's death had been mostly unpleasant.
"Hey, Daddy." Taylor joined them, swinging on her father's arm. Dr. Carter looked down at his daughter and smiled, his face so transformed that Darcy caught her breath.
"Hey, sweetheart," he said. "How are you feeling?"
"Great. The class was awesome."
"Are you sure you're okay? You seem flushed."
"Dad!" Taylor's voice rose. "I'm fine."
"Is something wrong?" Darcy asked. Taylor's cheeks were a bit pink, but that was normal after an hour of dancingwasn't it?
Dr. Carter's gaze remained on his daughter, who was giving him what Darcy could only describe as a warning look. Finally, he said, "Taylor's fine. She's fine now."
Now? "Is there something I need to know?" Darcy asked. Had this man sent his daughter to class sick, possibly exposing a room full of childrennot to mention herself?
He shook his head. "I just don't want Taylor to overdo it. Her mother assured me belly dancing wouldn't be too strenuous, though how she'd know that, I have no idea."
Darcy had a vague recollection of a telephone conversation with an enthusiastic woman. "Your wife is the one who signed Taylor up for the class," she said.
"Ex-wife, actually. We're divorced."
"I have custody of Taylor, but Melissa sees her as much as possible," he continued. "Her work takes her out of the country quite often."
"My mom's a flight attendant," Taylor offered.
"I'm the one who'll usually be picking up Taylor from class, so I wanted to introduce myself." He looked around her open-concept studio. Wood floors, white walls and windows on three sides. Framed photos of dancers between the windows. Merely stepping into this space was enough to relax Darcy. This was her hard-won sanctuary where grief and fear were absolutely not allowed. She wondered what the doctor, with his expensive coat and patrician air, thought of the humble space. She wouldn't call his expression disapproving, but he was a difficult man to read.
"Do you have children?" he asked.
She stiffened. An innocent enough question, but his tone bothered heralmost as if he was grilling her. I had a son, she might have answered. But that was none of his business. "No," she said.
"Do you have experience working with children?"
"Not especially. But I've taught dance full-time for four years and I've danced professionally longer than that." It annoyed her to have to defend herself to this man. She didn't blame him for wanting to know more about the adult who'd be teaching his daughter, but his tone was accusational, as if he suspected her of something.
"Do you have any first-aid training?" he asked. "Do you know CPR?"
Having been the mother of an active boy had taught her plenty of first aid, and she had, in fact, taken a CPR course three years ago. But why did Dr. Carter want to know about that? "Is there a point to all these questions?" she asked.
"I'm concerned for my daughter's safety, that's all."
"I assure you Taylor is perfectly safe here." Did he really think belly dancing was dangerous?
"Dad!" Taylor's tone was anguished. "You're embarrassing me."
His face flushed, and he gave Darcy a look that might have passed for apologetic. "I've tried to tell Taylor it's a father's job to embarrass his child, but she doesn't agree." He took out his wallet and handed her a card. "If you should need to get in touch with me."
She took it. Michael Carter, M.D. Pediatric Specialist. He wasn't just any doctorhe was a children's doctor. Was he so cautious with Taylor because he spent his days seeing everything that could go wrong with children? "Thanks," she said, and started to add the card to the pile of papers on the table just inside the door.
"Wait a minute." He stopped her. "Just in case." He took the card back and scribbled on it. "My cell number." He returned it to her. "Nice meeting you," he said, and took Taylor's hand.