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The rhythm of Little Havana pulsed through Jen Miller as she parked her car on one of the side streets of Calle Ocho and made her way to Luna Azul. Blue Moon they were rare in real life, almost as rare as second chances, and she was glad for the one that the Stern brothers had offered her by hiring her to be the salsa teacher at their Miami-based nightclub.
The club itself was a rarity. The Stern brothers had created a scandal when they'd purchased the old cigar factory in the heart of Little Havana and turned it into one of Miami's hottest clubs ten years ago. Something that still outraged certain members of the Cuban-American community today.
She pulled the strap of her large Coach bag higher on her shoulder as she walked through the grand entrance of Luna Azul. She stopped as she always did to catch her breath. Nothing said glamour the way the club's Chihuly chandelier and ceiling installation did. It was a depiction of the night sky filled with a large blue moon. It was also the basis for the club's logo and the colors of the uniform of the entire staff.
Walking through the door each night made her feel as if she was a part of something lasting, and she was very happy to be working here.
The fact that she got to dance again made her even happier. Three years earlier, when she'd made a bad decision based on her heart instead of her head, she'd been banned from competitive dancing.
But now she was back at the barre so to speak and teaching her favorite of all the dances she knew. The salsa.
The dance was created by Spanish-speaking people from the Caribbean and even though she was about as white-bread-American as one could be, the dance felt as if it had been created for her.
As she headed into the club, she saw that the main stage was being set up for tonight's performance of XSUthe British rock band that had taken the American pop charts by storm the year before. Her sister and her best friend had both begged Jen to get them tickets for tonight's event and she'd managed to.
She was hoping for a glimpse of the rockers as well but she'd be working during their first set.
The club was divided into several different areas. The main floor in front of the stage was a huge dance area surrounded by high-stooled tables and cozy booths set in darkened alcoves. On the second floor, where she spent most of her time, was a rehearsal room with a small bar and then a mezzanine that overlooked the main club. But the real gem of the second floor was the balcony that opened off to the left and the stage set in the back.
It was there that every night Luna Azul re-created the famous last Friday celebrations held on Calle Ocho. Up there every night was like a feast day for Latin music and dancing. The hottest Latin groups performed there. Regulars and celebrities mingled to the sexy salsa beats of the Latin music.
And she was at the heart of it, Jen thought. She taught the customers how to do the salsa, giving them a little knowledge to help them enjoy the music that much more.
As Jen walked into the rehearsal room, her assistant greeted her with, "You're late."
"I am not, Alison. I'm right on time."
Alison lifted one eyebrow at her. She was funny most of the time but she had a thing for punctuality that Jen simply didn't.
"You're lucky no one has stopped by to check on the classroom."
"Alison, chill. The classroom is ready and we are ready. I brought a new CD with me."
"Just a compilation of some of my old favorites. I want to have something different for tonight's class."
"What's special about tonight's class?" Alison asked.
"We have T. J. Martinez signed up."
"The third-base player for the Yankees?"
"Yes. And since he's good friends with Nate Stern, I thought we needed to make a good impression." Keeping the club owners and their friends happy was the name of the game.
"Maybe you should have arrived earlier."
"Alison, I don't mind a little ribbing, but you have to drop that. We have thirty minutes before class starts."
"I know. Sorry, I'm bitchy today."
"Marc is leaving for Afghanistan for another deployment."
"When?" Jen asked. Marc was Alison's brother and they were very close. Alison often said that he was all she had.
"Three weeks. I "
Jen went over and hugged her friend. "He'll be fine. He always is. And I'll help you through it."
Alison hugged her back and then stepped away. "You're right. Now tell me more about the songs we are using tonight."
Jen knew that Alison needed to lose herself in the music so she could forget about her life for a while. Jen wasn't sure she could be as brave as Alison. Having a brother who was a warrior and would always be called to a battle somewhere in the world was hard. She saw it on her friend's face every time Marc got deployed.
The music soon echoed through the empty dance hall as Alison and Jen began their routine. Alison was an okay dancer, though she would never have made it in the competitive world of dance as Jen had. But for Luna Azul she was more than competent.
"I like this," Alison said.
"Great. I want you to add a little more hip twist at the end of the sixth beat like this," Jen said, showing her. "Very nice, Ms. Miller."
Jen stumbled and glanced toward the door to see Nate Stern standing there.
He was tallat least six feet in heightand had thick blond hair that he wore cut close to his head. He had the kind of deep and natural tan that everyone wanted and wore his clothes with a stylish panache that she honestly admitted she envied. He had a stubborn-looking jaw with a small scar on his chin from a baseball accident when he was ten.
Why did she know these things? She shook her head. One of the reasons she'd applied for this job was that she'd always been attracted to him. She'd seen his picture in the paper when he'd been a rookie for the Yankees and she'd been smitten.
"Thank you, Mr. Stern. Is there something I can do for you this evening?" she asked.
"I'd like a private word," he said.
"Alison, will you leave us?"
"That's not necessary," he said. "Please join me on the balcony."
She took a deep breath. She hated following orders or letting anyone else be in charge. "Keep practicing."
Alison nodded as Jen led the way out of the rehearsal room and out to the balcony. She tried to be nonchalant but she couldn't help her nerves. This job was literally her last chance in the dancing world. If this didn't work out she was going to have to stop dancing and take Marcia, her sister, up on that secretarial job at her law office. And that was the last thing she wanted to do.
"Is something wrong?"
"No, quite the contrary. I've heard nothing but good things about you and I wanted to come and see for myself."
"So you'll be attending my class tonight?" she asked.
"Yes, I will be."
She almost scowled at him but years of performing for judges enabled her to keep her smile on her face. "That will be wonderful. I believe one of your former teammates is signed up for our class as well."
"Yes, Martinez. I thought I'd tag along and see how you handle having a celebrity in your class."
She almost rolled her eyes. Honestly, did he think she was going to treat T. J. Martinez any differently than she did her other students? "Do you think I can't handle it?"
"I have no idea," he said. "That's why I'll be dropping by."
She was furious but kept calm. "I'm a pro, Mr. Stern. That's why your brother hired me. You don't need to attend a salsa class to ensure I do my job."
He tipped his head to the side. "Did I offend you?"
"Yes, you did."
He gave her a quick grin, which changed that arrogant-looking face of his into a very charming one. "I'm sorry. That wasn't my intent. Celebrities are the key to our continued edge over the other clubs in Miami, and I don't want to chance anything disrupting that."
She nodded. "I understand your concern. I can promise you tonight's class isn't going to damage Luna Azul's reputation one bit. And I will enjoy having you in my class."
"Yes," she said, turning on her heel and walking back toward the rehearsal room. "Because afterward you will owe me an apology for doubting my skills."
His laughter followed her into the hallway and she smiled a bit to herself as she entered the classroom. She had to be in top form tonight and she had absolutely no doubt that Nate would be as challenging in the classroom as he'd been beforehand.
Nate watched her leave, wishing he'd come up here a long time ago. She was funny, spunky and very cute.
Her legs were longso damned longand her body was lithe. She was quite a dancer and that was apparent in the graceful way she moved.
He stayed where he was on the patio and stared out at the sky as it darkened into twilight. It was February, and there was a light chill to the night air. The scent of the Cuban food that the patio kitchen was preparing carried on the breeze.
He'd done what he needed to do to keep up the club's image. After all, he was the face of Luna Azul. Funny that a non-Latino would be the face of the hottest club in Little Havana, but the Stern brothers had turned to what they knew best when they'd started their business nearly ten years ago.
Nate was the youngest of the three Stern brothers, Justin the middle one and Cam the oldest. It had been Cam's idea to take the failing cigar factory and turn it into a club. Justin was a finance whiz kid and he'd looked at the numbers and decided if they invested their trust funds into the club, it could make them money.
At the time, Nate had been more interested in his budding baseball career and had merely signed a paper agreeing to the terms. But when a shoulder injury forced him out of the game two years later, he'd been very glad for Cam and Justin's decision to buy this place and open a club. And Nate had quickly found that he had something to contribute to the business.
His A-list contacts from the celebrity world.
As much as he loved to play baseball, he was also a Stern through and through and he loved to socialize. Something that the society pages had noticed when he'd first gone to New York to start his career. And Nate had been careful to make sure he stayed in the news.
He used his celebrity to bring attention to the club and to stay current. Even though he hadn't played in over six years he was still one of the top-ten most recognizable baseball players.
"What are you doing up here?" Justin asked as he came out of the kitchen area. He was two inches taller than Nate and had dark brown hair. They both had their mother's eyes and their father's strong jaw, a feature all the Stern men had.
"Talking to the salsa teacher. T.J. is going to be in her class tonight and I wanted to make sure she could handle it."
"Jen must have loved that."
"Do you know her?" he asked, feeling a twinge of jealousy at his brother's familiarity with Jen.
"Not well. But I interviewed her for the job and she's very confident of herself. She doesn't like to be questioned."
"Who does?" Nate asked.
"Not me. I have a meeting downtown with the community leaders tomorrow. They want to have their say about our tenth anniversary party."
"How many times are we going to have to prove ourselves before they accept that we are a part of this community now and not going anywhere?" Nate asked.
"They'll never be satisfied," Cam said as he joined his brothers on the patio. "What are you two doing up here? I need you downstairs to talk to the band when they arrive."
"I'm on it," Nate said. "I've got the society reporter from the Herald coming. And I'm positive we are going to see Jennifer Lopez tonight. She's in town and her people said she'd drop by. I've got calls in to the internet celeb-site stringers so we should get some good coverage."
"Great. I like the sound of that," Cam said. "I know you do, that's why I spend all night partying."
"Ha. You do it because you like it," Justin said. "Indeed, I do. I guess the Stern genes run true in my case. I'm not meant to settle down."
"Like Papa?" Justin asked.
"Yes. I think that's why he and Mom were so miserable," Nate said.
"That and the fact that she was so cold," Cam added.
Nate turned away from his brothers. Their mother had never wanted children and had done her best to spend as little time with them as she could. It had affected them all in different ways. For Nate, it was that he didn't trust women to really know their own emotions. He always knew that women were going to leave and they always did.
"I guess we all know what to do tonight," Cam said. "How are your talks with the community leaders going?"
"Slow. I invited a few of them to join us for tonight's show so they can see how much a part of Calle Ocho we are."
"Good. Keep me posted," Cam said. "I will."
Nate and his brothers went back downstairs. Standing in the nearly empty club, Nate glanced around at the decor. It was hard to tell from looking at the place that this had once been a cigar factory.
As a boy, he'd never thought about the future. Once he became a professional baseball player, he'd always just assumed that he'd continue playing until he was in his thirties and then transition to a sportscaster career. But when he'd been injured so young.his dreams had changed and morphed into this.
He wasn't bitter about it. To be honest, he figured he'd ended up exactly where he needed to be and he was very happy about that.
He turned to see T. J. Martinez standing in the foyer under the Chihuly glass ceiling. "T.J., my man. How was your flight down here?"
"Good. Very good. I'm ready for some action tonight. Ready to mix it up with you."
"Me, too," he said, shaking hands and giving the other man a one-armed hug. "I heard you signed up for dance lessons."
"Mariah insisted that I take them. She said the teacher is the best and that I'd be an idiot to miss out on the classes. Of course, Paul said the teacher was hot."