Chapter Five

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Therese stood inside the hotel's main entrance, still huddled in her coat and scarf. Behind her, the doors swung open, letting in a draft of cold air that raised a fresh layer of goose bumps on her bare legs.

She could be at home, she thought. Warm and cozy in her fleece pajamas, while she ate take-out Chinese food and watched a marathon of mind-numbing action movies. But instead she had braved the sub-freezing temperatures, in a little black dress she'd dragged out from the back of her closet, and a pair of strappy high heels that had still boasted the original price sticker from when she'd bought them over a year ago.

After checking her coat, she made her way toward the banquet room, further into the hotel. She passed several other doors, and one room that appeared to have housed a wedding reception earlier that day. The space rented out by the ballet school was decorated with twinkle lights, Christmas trees that bore ornaments boasting various donors names, and displays of antique Nutcrackers and wooden toys.

Therese dodged a waiter carrying a silver tray of empty champagne flutes, and sidestepped her way toward a table of edible delicacies. She nibbled on a piece of marzipan, and eyed a tower of petit fours made to look like miniature Christmas gifts.

The room buzzed with conversation, but Therese kept herself off to one side. She didn't know most of the people here, these wealthy patrons of the arts. She had never been one to socialize much, her evenings and weekends eaten up by her teaching duties at the school. Grabbing another piece of marzipan and a glass of champagne from a different waiter, she began a slow circuit of the room, her gaze sweeping over the mingled guests.

"Oh, you made it!" came a voice from behind her, and she turned to see Audrey, decked out in a gorgeous gold cocktail dress with ruby drop earrings glittering from her ears.

"You look great!" Therese said, after quickly swallowing the last of her marzipan.

"You mean this old thing?" Audrey did a little half-turn and raised her hand to her head to primp her curled hair. "How often do we get to dress up, honestly? I wasn't going to pass on an opportunity to show off my best duds." She stepped back, and looked Therese over from head to toe. "But what about you? I can't remember the last time I saw your legs. And your lipstick! I just love that color on you."

Therese ducked her head before a blush could flood her cheeks. She didn't realize that so many years of wearing nothing but sweatshirts and scrunchies would be enough to make people goggle at her when she swiped on a bit of mascara. "Thanks," she said. "So, have I missed anything important?"

"Not at all," Audrey told her, and took a sip of champagne from her own glass. "Unless you find listening to other people talk about their golf vacations to be scintillating conversation."

Therese made a face. "No, I think I'll pass."

"Good idea. But there is the auction coming up in a few minutes, and I know Bruce is planning some sort of announcement or presentation about the school. Something to do with Mr. Durante, I think."

Therese pulled in a sharp breath. In the back of her mind, she had known that Luca would be here tonight, but it wasn't something she had allowed her thoughts to dwell on for any length of time.

It had been a week since their demonstration in Vasily's rehearsal. For an entire week, she had not spoken to him. And yet he seemed to seek out her classes, never drawing any attention to himself, keeping to the back of the room, working silently, and then leaving again as soon as she dismissed her students.

He wasn't avoiding her, if he made a point to take one of her classes every day. But he hadn't made any attempt to speak to her, and she had to admit she wasn't doing much to approach him, either.

And what was she supposed to say if she did? Gee, Luca. When you touch me, it's like the world stops and I can hardly breathe for wanting to feel more of your skin against mine. Why do you think that is?

She closed her eyes for a moment and drained the last of the champagne from her glass. Classical music had begun to play from somewhere, and just when she thought about sneaking back to the hors d'oeuvre table for another handful of treats, she caught a glimpse of Luca, all the way on the other side of the room.

He was dressed in an impeccable suit, all black, with only the hint of a white dress shirt peeking out from beneath his buttoned jacket and tie. The tailoring accented his height, along with the breadth of his shoulders and the lean lines of his hips and thighs.

Therese watched him, all smiles and easy confidence as he chatted with Bruce Jordan, the school's artistic director. He gestured with his hands, and she imagined the movement of his muscles beneath the layers of fabric, the patterns of the tattoos that he kept hidden away under his everyday clothes.

For a moment, she thought he had spotted her across the room, but she ducked behind Audrey and turned her face away before his dark gaze found her.

"Excuse me for a minute," Therese said to Audrey, and plopped her glass on a waiter's empty tray as he whisked past her. "I'm going to use the ladies', and then I'll..." She waved her hands in a vague gesture, hoping Audrey would finish the thought with whatever she liked.

"Of course. See you at the auction!" Audrey called out as Therese slipped behind a group of older guests and began to make her way toward the doors.

Once outside of the banquet room, she took a moment to breathe. She should be able to face him, she thought. It wasn't her fault that her body had gone traitor and decided to become infatuated with Luca after only a few minutes of dancing together.

But that wasn't exactly true, she reminded herself as she walked through the hotel. She passed the ladies' room and ducked into the deserted banquet room she'd seen earlier, the one that still boasted swathes of tulle and a mass of crepe paper bows and leftover wedding favors.

The room was dark, but the light that poured in from the hall behind her was more than enough with which to see where she was going. Round tables were still set up throughout the room, and she moved through them quickly enough, until she arrived at another set of doors that opened onto an empty brick courtyard.

She checked to make sure it wasn't an emergency exit before she pushed through the doors and into the cold, outside air. The chill was a shock at first, but she ran her hands up and down her bare arms, while her breath escaped from her mouth in puffs of steam.

The hotel's lights were too bright for her to see any of the stars, but she tilted her head back anyway, the thought of knowing they were there helping her to breathe more easily.

Her mind had been a jumble of confused thoughts ever since Luca had arrived. For so many years, she'd successfully managed to push him to the back of her mind. Except when her knee twinged. Or when she heard a bit of Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet playing somewhere. Or when...

Okay, so not quite as successful as she'd hoped.

The first time she'd danced with him was a memory so vivid, it was as if it had burned into her mind. From the first moment he had touched her, it was nothing short of electric. But yet it had been more than that. She'd only been eighteen at the time, but she recognized the attraction she felt, how it left her breathless every time his hands moved over her body.

"Juliet," she sighed. To Luca's Romeo.

And then, two days after the performance, she'd twisted her knee while taking class. What was supposed to have been a minor injury sidelined her for months. And that was before the physical therapist's final prognosis was delivered.

The joint couldn't handle the strain of a full-time career in dance. She would either have to quit, or risk a surgery that would guarantee she'd never be able to set foot in a classroom, even to teach. And so she quit, and she didn't see Luca again.

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One more chapter to go! Getting towards the end of this reminds me that I'd love to focus on more shorter pieces such as this one.

And thanks to all who read and vote and add and follow!

Quenby Olson

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