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Loose gravel coursing through the gutter slid and crackled beneath Ryder Fitzgerald's shoes as he slammed shut his car door.
Through the darkness of late night his narrowed eyes flickered over the uneven footpath, the barred windows of the abandoned ground-floor shopfronts, past big red doors in need of a lick of paint, up a mass of mottled red brick, over deadened windows of the second floor. The soft golden light in the row of big arched windows on the third floor was the only sign of life on the otherwise desolate street.
He glanced back at his car, its vintage curves gleaming in the wet night, the thoroughbred engine ticking comfortingly as it cooled. Since the closest street lamp was non-operationaltiny shards of broken glass pooled around its base, evidence that was no accidentonly moonlight glinted off the black paint.
And he silently cursed his sister.
Glowering, Ryder pressed the remote to double-check the car alarm was set, then he glanced at the pink notepaper upon which Sam's happy scrawl gave up a business name and a street address, hoping he might have read the thing wrong. But no.
This run-down structure in one of the backstreets of Richmond housed the Amelia Brandt Dance Academy. Inside he would find the woman hired by his sister, Sam, to teach her wedding party to dance. And considering in two months' time he'd be the lucky man giving her away, apparently that included him.
A wedding, he thought, the concept lodging itself uncomfortably in the back of his throat. When he'd pointed out to Sam the number of times she'd done her daughterly duty in attending their own father's embarrassment of weddings, she'd just shoved the address into his palm.
"The instructor is awesome!" she'd gushed. Better be, he thought, considering the price of the lessons he was bankrolling. "You'll love her! If anyone can get you to dance like Patrick Swayze it's her!"
Ryder, who'd had no idea who Sam was talking about, had said, "Life-changing as that sounds, there's no way I can guarantee my attendance every Thursday at seven for the foreseeable future so you'll have to have your dance lessons without me."
Lucky for him, Sam had gleefully explained, the dance teacher had agreed to private lessons, any time that suited him. Of course she had. Sam had probably offered the doyenne enough to lash out on a six-month cruise.
"Your own fault she's so damned spoiled," he grumbled out loud.
A piece of newspaper picked up by a gust of hot summer wind fluttered dejectedly down the cracked grey footpath in response.
Ryder scrunched up the pink note and lobbed it into an overflowing garbage bin.
He tugged at his cufflinks as he sauntered up the front steps. It was a muggy night, oppressive in a way Melbourne rarely saw, and he was more than ready to be rid of his suit. It had been a long day. And the very last thing he wanted to do right now was cha-cha with some grand dame in pancake make-up, a tight bun and breathing heavily of the bottle of Crème de Menthe hidden in the record player. But Sam was getting antsy. And he'd spent enough years keeping the antsy at bay to know revisiting the high-school waltz would be less complicated than dealing with one of his sister's frantic phone calls.
"One lesson," he said, wrenching open the heavy red door and stepping inside.
A Do Not Enter sign hung askew from the front of an old-fashioned lift with lattice casing. His eyes followed the cables to their origins, but all he saw were shadows, dust, and cobwebs so old they drifted lazily by way of a draught coming from somewhere it structurally ought not to.
Less impressed by the second, Ryder trudged up the steep narrow staircase that wound its way around the lift shaft, the space lit by a string of lamps with greentinged glass so pocked and dust-riddled the weak glare made his eyes water.
And the heat only grew, thickened, pressing into him as he made his way up three floorsthe ground floor apparently untenanted, the second floor wallpapered with ragged posters advertising student plays from years past. As it tended to do, the hottest air collected at the top where a faint light shone through the gap at the bottom of the door, and a small sign mirroring the one downstairs announced that the big black door with the gaudy gold hinges led into the Amelia Brandt Dance Academy.
Ryder turned the wooden knob, its mechanism soft with age. Stifling heat washed against his face as he stepped inside. He loosened his tie, popped the top button of his dress shirt and made a mental note to throttle Sam the very next moment he saw her.
The place appeared uninhabited but for the scent of something rustic and foreign, and the incongruously funky beat of some familiar R&B song complete with breathy sighs and French lyrics.
His eyes roved over the spacehabitually calculating floor space, ceiling height, concrete cubic metres, brick palettes, glazier costs. The tall wall of arched windows looking out over the street appeared to be original and mostly in working orderhe only just stopped himself from heading that way to check his car was still in situ. From above industrial-size fans hung still. A string of old glass chandeliers poured pools of golden light into the arcs of silvery moonlight streaming across a scuffed wooden floor.
Speckled mirrors lined the near wall, and to his right, in front of ceiling-to-floor curtains that made his nose itch, reclined a sad-looking row of old school lockers with half the doors hanging open, a piano, a half-dozen hula hoops in a haphazard pile on the floor, a row of bookshelves filled with records and sheet music in piles so haphazard and high they seemed in imminent danger of toppling, and lastly a pink velvet loungethe kind a woman would drape herself over in order to be painted by some lucky artist.
Ryder took another step, his weight bringing forth a groan from the creaky old floor.
The music shut off a moment before a feminine voice called from behind the curtains, "Mr Fitzgerald?"
He turned to the voice as his earlier prediction shimmered to dust. In place of a grand dame past her prime, Scheherazade strolled his way.
Long shaggy dark hair, even darker eyes rimmed in lashings of kohl, skin so pale it seemed to soak in the moonlight. A brown tank top knotted at her waist, showing off a glimpse of taut tummy. An ankle-length skirt made of a million earthen colours swayed hypnotically as she walked. Feet as bare as the day she was born.
Ryder straightened, squared his shoulders and said, "I take it you're the woman whose job it is to turn me into Patrick Swayze."
She blinked, a smile tugging briefly at one corner of her lush mouth before disappearing as if it had never been. "Nadia Kent," she said, holding out a hand.
He took it. Finding it soft, warm, unexpectedly strong. And so strikingly pale he could make out veins beneath the surface. Warmth hummed through him, like an electrical current, from the point where their skin touched and then she slid from his grip and the sensation was gone as if it had never been.
"You're early," she said, her voice rich with accusation, and, if he wasn't wrong, shot with a faint American accent.
"A good thing, I would have thought, considering the late hour." He caught the spicy scent again, stronger this time, as she swayed past.
"And whose idea was that?"
Light as a bird, she perched on the edge of the long pink chair, her dark hair tumbling over her shoulders in dishevelled waves, her exotic skirt settling about her in a slow sway. And Ryder wondered how a woman who looked as if she'd been born right out of the earth had ended up in a gloomy corner of the world such as this.
With a flick of the wrist, she hiked her skirt to her knee, revealing smooth calves wrapped in lean muscle. She slid a pair of beige shoes with small heels from under the couch and buckled herself in. And without looking up she said, "You look hot."
"Why, thank you." His instinctive response echoed through the big room. The only evidence she'd even heard him was the brief pause of her fingers at the last buckle before she slid her hands up her calves to swish the skirt back to the floor.
Was he flirting? Of course he was. The woman was something else. She was riveting.
While she didn't even spare him a glance as she pressed herself to standing, poked a small remote into the waist of her skirt, and, shoes clacking on the floor, walked his way. "If I were you I'd lose the jacket, Mr Fitzgerald. It gets hot in here, hotter still once we get moving, and I don't fancy having to catch you if you faint."
He baulked at the thought, and for a split second thought he saw a flare of triumph in her eyes, before it was swallowed by the eyes so dark he struggled to make out their centres.
Calling her bluff, he slid his jacket from his shoulders, and, finding nowhere better, laid it neatly over the back of the velvet chair. Moth holes. Great. He tugged his loosened tie from his neck and tossed it the same way. Then rid himself of his cufflinks, and rolled his shirtsleeves to his elbows. Moves more fit for a bedroom than a dance hall. Her gaze was so direct as she watched him losing layers it only added to the impression.
Then with no apparent regret, she looked away, leaving him to breathe out long and slow. She pulled her hair off her face and into a low ponytail, lifted her chin, knocked her heels and Scheherazade was no more. In her place stood Dance Teacher.
Which was when Ryder remembered why he was there, and really began to sweat.
"Can we make this quick?" he said, recalling the reams of architectural plans curled up in the shelves by his bespoke drafting table at home. More awaited his attention inside the state-of-the-art computer programs back in his offices in the city. Projects of his and projects headed up by his team. Not that he had his father's trouble in settling on one thing; he simply liked to work. And he'd rather pull an all-nighter than spend the next hour entertaining this extravagance.
Nadia Kent's hands slid to her lean hips, the fingers at the top of her skirt dragging the fabric a mite lower. The faint American twang added a lilt to her voice as she said, "You have somewhere else to be at ten o'clock on a Tuesday night, Mr Fitzgerald?"
"There are other things I could be doing, yes.
"So it's not that you're simply too chicken to take dance lessons."
His eyes narrowed, yet his smile grew. "What can I say? I'm a wanted man."
"I'll take your word for it. Now," she said, clapping her hands together in such a way that the sound echoed around the space and thundered back at them. "Where are your tights?" Excuse me?
"Your dancing tights. Sam told you, I hope. If we are going to get any kind of indication of your aptitude you need to have the freedom of movement that tights allow."
He knew she was kidding. Okay, so he was ninety per cent sure. But that didn't stop hairs on his arms from standing on end. "Miss Kent, do I look like the kind of man who would have come within ten kilometres of this place if tights were required?"
He'd given her the invitation after all, yet when those sultry dark eyes gave him a slow once-over, pausing on the top button of his crisp white shirt, the high shine of his belt buckle, the precise crease of his suit trousers, his gut clenched right down low. Then her answer came by way of a smile that slid slowly onto a mouth that was wide, pink, soft, and as sensuous as the rest of her and the clench curled into a tight fist.
His voice hit low as he said, "If this is how you play with clients who are early, Miss Kent, I'd like to see how you treat those who are late."
"No," she said, "you wouldn't."
She slid the remote from her skirt, flicked it over her shoulder, and pressed. The sound of a piano tripped from hidden speakers, filling the lofty space; a husky feminine voice followed. "Now, Mr Fitzgerald, you're paying premium to have me here tonight, so let's give you your money's worth."
When she beckoned him with a finger, moving towards him all the same, saliva pooled beneath his tongue.
He held up both hands. "There is another option."
There, he thought as a flash of anticipation fired in the depths of her eyes before she blinked and it was gone. But now he knew he wasn't the only one sensing awareness? Attraction? Definitely something
"What do you say I pay you the full complement of lessons, and we call it a day? Sam needn't ever have to know."
"Great. Fine with me. But when you hit the dance floor on Sam's wedding day, and all eyes are on you as you trip over Sam's feet, what shall we tell her then?"
He wondered for a fanciful fleeting second if the woman might well be a witch. Less than five minutes and she'd struck him right in his Achilles' heel.
"You done, Mr Fitzgerald? Because honestly, I teach two-year-olds who put up less of a fuss. You're a big boy. You can do this."
She lifted her arms into a graceful half-circle in front of her, an invitation for him to do the same. But when he did little more than twitch a muscle in his cheek, she sworeand rather colourfullybefore she walked the final few paces, took his hands, and, with a strength that belied her lean frame, lifted them into a matching arc.
Up close he caught glints of auburn in her dark hair. A smattering of tiny freckles dusted the bridge of her nose.
Though his thoughts dried up as she fitted herself into the space between his arms and dropped his right hand to her hip. His palm found fabric, his fingers found skin. Smooth skin. Hot skin. Her skin.
She slid her right hand into his left and the heat of the night became trapped between them.
"Yes, Ryder," she said, mirroring his serious tone.
"It's been a while for me."
The teeth that flashed within her smile were sharp enough to have his skin tighten all over.