Chapter Two

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Seven years, she thought to herself. Seven years ago, she had danced with Luca Durante.

As an apprentice member of the American Ballet Company, she had taken classes with him for months, but she'd rarely spoken to him. He had always been a little too far above her, and a bit too charismatic to spend time on a quiet thing like her.

While she stood in the back, never putting herself forward, never making waves, he did everything he could to be seen as well as heard. She'd watched him argue with company directors, with dancing partners, even nearly coming to blows with the conductor of the local philharmonic orchestra when Luca threatened to shove the man's baton where only a surgeon would be able to retrieve it. He had a reputation as a hotheaded perfectionist, a reputation he took great care to defend.

Of course, when he wasn't picking a fight with someone, he was charming them. Especially women. He knew exactly what to say, how to act, and most of them—the ones who hadn't already sworn off ever standing in the same room with him again—melted like butter when faced with that gorgeous smile.

Well, all except for her. She'd seen him flirt and laugh with the other girls, watched him layer on the compliments so thick that she'd rolled her eyes at his behavior. But never once had he tried any of it on her.

And it had stung, she had to admit. She'd been eighteen years old, a brand new apprentice plucked from a round of national auditions, and her self-esteem didn't take kindly to the fact that while he sweet-talked all her fellow dancers, he hadn't bothered to send even a hint of a smile in her direction.

Therese shook her head at the memory, her morning cup of coffee clutched in her hand. She raised the rim to her nose and breathed in the scent of it as she shouldered her way through the glass doors, cutting her off from the wind and light snow that whirled across the sidewalk.

Only twelve hours had passed since Luca's arrival the evening before as Therese made her way to the office amid groups of kids huddled inside their sweatshirts, yawns stretching their sleepy faces, some of them even using their dance bags as makeshift pillows as they curled up for a quick nap before their first Saturday class.

The office was bright with artificial light, while the hum of a microwave oven was the first thing to reach Therese's ears.

"Morning!" Audrey, one of the administrative assistants—and one of the few to agree to work on a blustery Saturday morning—piped up from her place in front of her computer. "Do you want some oatmeal? I'm heating up water for a second cup."

Therese shook her head and brandished the steaming cup of coffee in her hand. "No, thanks. Breakfast of champions, right here." She sidestepped around boxes of printer paper, stacks of posters and old programs, and a broken desk chair to get to the wall of cubbies that housed the teachers' mail and various bits of paperwork. She picked up her paycheck, dropped it into her bag, and was about to leave the office when Audrey waved her over to her side of the room.

"So, have you seen him yet?" Audrey's eyes gleamed as she stirred her instant oatmeal.

Therese took a sip of coffee and winced when the hot liquid scalded her tongue. "Who?" The moment she said it, she regretted it. She could play stupid all she wanted, but everyone here knew she had a history with Luca. "Oh, you mean Mr. Durante? Um, yeah. He was here last night, I think."

"I heard he's taking class today," Audrey said, her words carried on a dreamy sigh.

"Is he?" Therese's fingers tightened around her cup. Not her class. Please, not her class...

"Not until later this afternoon, though. He and Julia have rehearsal with Vasily at the end of the day."

Therese released a breath she hadn't realized she was holding. "Ah, well then. I have rehearsals with the beginner and intermediate groups all afternoon, so I guess I'll miss him."

"Shame, that." Audrey shook her head as she blew across a spoonful of steaming oatmeal. "But do you think he's going to be difficult?"

"Who? Mr. Durante?"

"Yeah, you know his reputation. And I heard he's not with the National Ballet Company anymore. Rumor is they refused to renew his contract."

Therese cleared her throat and took another sip of superheated coffee. "No,"she said around a mouthful of pain. "I hadn't heard that."

"And I saw him talking with Bruce last night," Audrey went on, referring to the ballet school's director. "Whatever they were discussing, it seemed pretty serious."

"Maybe Bruce was asking for advice about expanding the school," Therese said. "You know he's been talking about adding on, growing into a professional company attached to the school for years now. Luca would probably have some advice about that."

"Maybe." Audrey straightened in her chair, a dollop of oatmeal sliding off her spoon and plopping back into the bowl. "But you've worked with him before, right? So... what was he like?"

Therese glanced at the office door, only a few steps away. She knew this would happen. As soon as the announcement came that Luca Durante would be their guest artist for this season's production of The Nutcracker, she knew she would spend half her time fielding questions about what it had been like to dance with him, to have known him while he was still a rising star.

"He's..." She cleared her throat again, finished it with half a shrug. "He's a perfectionist, that's all."

"Is that all?" Audrey slumped down again and began stirring her rapidly congealing breakfast. "Oh, before you go, I need your RSVP for the fundraiser next week."

"Next week?" Therese blinked, feeling stupid. "It can't be time for that already, can it?"

"Seven days from today." Audrey tilted her head towards the calendar pinned to the wall. "I expect to see you in high heels and something sparkly. And your hair cannot be pulled back into anything that even slightly resembles a ponytail."

Therese sighed. Every year, in the weeks leading up to the Nutcracker, the school and the local theater joined forces to raise money to help support their projects for the future months. For the last two years, Therese had managed to wiggle out of attending, but the administrative staff—Audrey in particular—were not going to allow her to make it three for three.

"I'll be there," Therese said, as if the words were pulled out of her with a pair of tongs.

"Good." Audrey settled back in her chair, satisfied. "And no scrunchies!" she warned, before shoving a spoonful of congealed oatmeal in her mouth.


I'm being dreadfully slow with all of my updates. This is what happens when something in my life changes (move, new job, in this case a new baby) and I overestimate the time I think I'll have to put towards writing and Internet things. So, apologies. 

And thanks to all who are being so terribly patient with me. Things are slowing down and settling into a routine, but it is taking its sweet time to do so!

Quenby Olson

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