Chapter Twenty-One

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SIX MONTHS LATER

Michelle stepped off the curb, immediately realizing she had misjudged; her ankle boot top was lower than the crust of snow over the slush puddle. Cold water rushed in, drenching her sock and causing her to shriek and hop across the intersection. She arrived on the sidewalk cursing Monday mornings—and herself for sounding like a Garfield cartoon.

But by the last block of her commute, past the opening shops and familiar faces shovelling snow, she'd settled into a more acceptable low-level grouch. Even her sodden sock couldn't keep her that angry for long. She'd laugh about it later.

The Creampuffs sandwich board already sat on the sidewalk, its jaunty arrow pointing out the location down the alley, which hadn't been cleared or salted—she'd have to do that pretty soon—letting her that Dolores was already in but still setting up.

Every time Michelle opened the door on Creampuffs 2.0, she felt a glow of warmth. She'd never put much faith in the expression "coming home" before, but now she understood. Their gym was a retrofitted dance studio—large enough for two small classes, or one large class and some solo weight training. A bouncy wooden floor, much easier on the knees, and a proper reception desk with a little wall around it. Cosy. Mirrors along one wall, which Dolores didn't like, but they'd had fun with some washable markers and now the mirrors were littered with doodles and funny quotes.

At the jingle of the bells, Dolores emerged from the changing room, a towel draped over her shoulder. "Bom dia!" she called out, cheerfully drying her hands. "Como vai?"

Michelle's Portuguese wasn't competent enough to complain about wet, cold socks, so she replied with a halting "tudo bem, obrigada" instead, and hopped around the entryway while she pulled off her boot. Then: "Lousy winter. Lousy snow. Lousy boots!"

"What happened, you fall?"

At the sound of her brother's voice, Michelle let out a squawk, whirling in place on her balancing leg, and crashing into the wall in a tangle, her damp boot half-off.

Bryan stood up from behind reception, peering down at her with concern. "You okay?"

"You scared me." She tried to maintain dignity while her exposed wet sock dangled over her toes. "What are you doing here?"

"Good morning to you too."

"You know what I mean."

He offered a hand, hauling Michelle upright. She dusted herself off, still on one leg like a flamingo. Bryan raised an eyebrow.

"Slush puddle."

"Oh."

She pulled her sock off, nose wrinkling, as Dolores approached, frowning in confusion. "Slush puddle. Sock's soaked."

"Ah." Dolores nodded in commiseration. "You can drape it over the radiator in the change room."

"That's a good idea."

"How's the course going, Lola?" Bryan asked, pleasantly, while Michelle fought with her dry boot.

"Oh, it's going very well, thank you," Dolores replied, beaming. "It's a lot of book studying too, I didn't realize. I thought it would be just... active, you know. But I am doing well."

"Getting your certification soon?"

"Yes, hopefully!" She bent down to take Michelle's coat off the floor while Michelle tidied her footwear onto the mat. "I already have some people who want to be clients, but you know, I want to do this by the book. So we have to wait until after the last exam. But I am not worried. Not too worried," she amended, thoughtfully, then broke back into a smile. "We'll see."

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