Excerpt – Counterpointe

Chapter One

 

Counterpoint

Multiple melodic lines played at the same time

 

Clare Eliason escaped the crowded reception and slipped into a deserted studio. Lips curving into a smile, she leaned into an arabesque penchée. Her hair, usually tightly controlled for rehearsal and performance, brushed against her cheek. She leaned further still, then slid into fourth and pirouetted, imagining other dancers weaving through the room in response to the allégro playing in her head.

“Hiding, are we, Clare?” The sharp words bounced and echoed.

She turned to find Zachary Showalter lounging in the doorway, arms crossed. Damn! She thought he’d left already. Usually he couldn’t be bothered to spend more than ten minutes at a company get-together.

“I never took you for a coward, Clare, but having Delores make the announcement…that was cold. ‘And I have one other bit of news.”’ His mimicry of the artistic director’s nasal twang was spot-on. “‘Clare is leaving us to join Danse Classique. I’m sure I speak for all of us when I say I wish you much success, Clare. We will miss you.’”

He straightened and strolled toward her, moving with what one critic had branded a panther’s grace. “Don’t you think,” the words were spoken in the low purr she used to find appealing but now found ominous, “that, oh, I don’t know, you might have told your partner before announcing it to the rest of the world?”

He reached for her, but she stepped away. Away from that touch that had once been so welcome, had once been what she lived for.

He dropped his arm, giving her a thoughtful look, and she closed her eyes to block out the sight of him. This man who had once dazzled her with his beauty, his charisma, his unexpected regard.

“You’re right to leave, of course.” His tone had changed again. Now it was careless, dismissive. “We are too good for Cincinnati. But we’re a team. Mannie, you know who Mannie is, don’t you, Clare? Manuel Ortega, the artistic director of the American Ballet Theater? Mannie is this close,” Zach held up two fingers pinched together, “from a contract offer. For both of us. That was my news. News you upstaged with this ridiculous announcement about going to Boston.”

Clare lifted her chin and pulled in a slow breath, hoping it would steady her voice. “You have no right to negotiate for me.”

“No right? Aren’t we being a wee bit precious?” He held out his hands as if balancing two balls. He mimed flipping the balls and catching them. “ABT? Danse Classique?” Then he smiled—a predator’s smile. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Isn’t it obvious? I didn’t want you to know.”

“Oh, ho. Afraid I might change your mind?”

“No.”

“Clare, Clare. After what we’ve shared? Just like that, you walk away?”

“Just like that.”

“You said you loved me.”

“I was mistaken.” It pleased her that she’d managed to pull off a dismissive tone of her own.

A brief expression flitted across his face. Regret? No, the Zach she knew didn’t do regret.

“You’ll never find another partner like me,” he said.

“I certainly hope you’re right about that.” Standing up to him was getting easier with each exchange.

Zach blinked, his lip curling in irritation. “Lest you forget, I’m the reason you’re a principal dancer. You owe me, Clare.”

And she’d paid, with pieces of her heart. Still, knowing she’d never dance with him again brought with it an ache. All that power and grace, his sure hands supporting her. The two of them moving together, one perfect entity.

Without the offer from Danse Classique, she would never have found the strength to give that up.

“In actual fact, you’re rather ordinary, you know,” he said.

The sharp edges of those carelessly tossed words sliced at her composure, and her throat tightened. Carefully, she pulled in another slow breath seeking the discipline that underpinned her every performance. And perhaps if she viewed this as a performance, she could survive it. “Odd you singled me out, then. If you thought me merely ordinary.” Good. She’d managed to sound calm, in control.

“You’ll see, Clare. Without me, you’re nothing.”

She straightened her spine and lifted her head, going for a disdainful look. “Wouldn’t it be funny if it turned out to be the other way around. That without me, you’re nothing.”

“How dare you.”

Calm settled about her like a cloak. She raised her eyes to meet his angry gaze. Motionless, they stared at each other, dust motes dancing in the space between them. Then with all his trademark elegance, Zach bowed. A surreal moment that left Clare frozen, until carefully, slowly, she stepped past him and through the door, pausing only for a glance back to see he hadn’t moved. Then she was running, with quick, light steps, faster and faster, away from the past, toward the future, a smile breaking through.

So T.S. Eliot had it right. It was better to end with a bang than a whimper.

~ ~ ~

You’ll see. Without me, you’re nothing.

Clare shook herself, trying to dislodge the echo of Zachary Showalter’s words as she climbed out of a taxi in front of the Danse Classique practice center. The building’s facade, slices of glass caught between columns of concrete, was an anomaly in this neighborhood with its tired row of storefronts and triple-decker houses.

She walked through the main door and into an atrium ringed with greenery. Her pulse picked up as she tiptoed down the hall to the right, peering into studios both large and small.

Nothing…you’re nothing.

Annoyed she couldn’t keep Zach from intruding on this her first day with her new company, she stopped short of the doorway to the last studio. The music in her head switched to pizzicato, as did her nerves. Like every dance studio she’d ever known, this one was bare and workmanlike—its beauty residing in the possibility of what would be created within its walls.

A flow of light through clerestory windows banded the floor and illuminated a piano, which sat casually pushed into one corner. The portable barres and rosin boxes needed for company class were clustered in the back, and dancers were scattered around the room, multiplied into a daunting number by the mirrored walls.

Joining in would be like stepping into the territory of a pack of dogs without knowing if their greetings would be wagging tails or snarls and snaps.

She hesitated one last moment on the brink of that discovery. Okay, Eliason. Enough dithering. Just go for it. The petite blonde in mid-stretch? Think Pomeranian. The redhead with the thick orange leg warmers? Irish setter. As for the two guys by the piano… definitely golden retrievers.

So…perhaps a grand jeté followed by a series of fouettés?

Indeed. And wouldn’t that make the perfect first impression. Laughter bubbled up, but in an instant, nerves snuffed it out. Okay, no jetés or fouettés. Instead, she would simply walk in and take her place in the center of the room in the space reserved for principal dancers.

“Clare. Wow! We heard you were coming. Welcome to Boston.”

She turned to find Denise Ross, who’d been in the Atlanta company with her.

“It’s terrific you’re joining us.”

Clare returned Denise’s enthusiastic hug feeling a wave of giddiness at reconnecting with someone she knew and liked.

“Hey, people, this is Clare Eliason. Just wait until you see her dance. She’s amazing.”

The pack rearranged itself into individuals, most dressed in the drab garments reserved for company class and rehearsal. Some were beautiful, some plain, but all had the lean, muscular physiques that were the dancer’s hallmark. Each greeted Clare with outward graciousness, but she could see the wariness in the eyes of the women who were principals or soloists. She was the competition, after all. The one whose coming would affect their opportunities to advance or to dance the best roles.

With the social niceties satisfied, everyone except Denise drifted away to take their chosen places.
“I saw you on television, the night you and Zachary Showalter danced at the Kennedy Center Honors,” Denise said, holding the barre and stretching out her other arm. “You two were amazing together.”

“That was a special night.”

“A dream partnership like that…how could you give it up?”

“It was easy, after he turned into a nightmare.”

Denise, straightening out of a plié, looked startled. “Really?”

Uh-oh. “Well, no question, he’s a marvelous dancer.” And she’d once thought him the answer to her dreams—at least in the beginning when he was determined to charm her. She did a plié of her own, holding it, avoiding Denise’s gaze, but when she checked, Denise was still eyeing her.

“So is he the reason you left Cincinnati?”

Although Denise’s unruly brown curls suggested poodle, she was in reality more terrier, for let Denise get her teeth into a scrap of information that interested her, and she would hold on and shake it until she was satisfied she had all the details.

“I left for a number of reasons, the main one being I couldn’t pass up a chance to join a company that had a more classic repertoire.” She moved her arm into second position, going for nonchalance. “Why don’t you tell me something about Stephan Orsini.” Orsini was the most senior of Danse Classique’s male principals. Even better, he was a change of subject.

“He’s a terrific dancer. Not as charismatic as Zachary Showalter, but close. Has a very classical approach. Good stage presence, tremendously athletic. Lisa,” Denise gestured toward the petite blonde stretching across the room from them, “claims he’s the perfect partner. You’ll want to watch your back with that one, by the way. The Wicked Witch of the West could take lessons.”

Clare exchanged a grin with Denise. “I was thinking Pomeranian.”

Denise shook her head. “Don’t you believe it. There’s absolutely nothing warm and fuzzy about Lisa. You’ll see. Sooner rather than later, probably.”

~ ~ ~

Lisa waited until the end of the day when most of the women had gathered in the changing room before addressing Clare directly. “We did think it a bit strange. You know, that Justin would hire someone so…senior? Usually he brings in young dancers and develops them himself.” Definitely a Pomeranian-type snap, and with a bit of tooth in it.

Clare straightened from tying her shoe. I’ll just see your snap and raise you a tooth. “Perhaps he didn’t find that approach as successful as he’d hoped.”

Denise grinned in appreciation while two other women suppressed smiles.

“Our schedule is much more rigorous than Cincinnati’s.” Lisa’s tone was condescending. “I do hope you won’t find it too difficult to keep up with us.”

Clare forced her lips into a smile. “From what Justin told me about his plans for the season, I expect we’ll all be kept on our toes.”

One of the women snickered, which earned her a glare from Lisa.

“Didn’t I tell you,” Denise said, as they walked to the trolley stop afterward. “Lisa, principal witch of Danse Classique. You handled her perfectly. I’d forgotten that about you.”

“What?”

“You can put someone down so gently, they don’t even realize you’ve done it until they find they’re flat on their tush.”

Clare placed an arm around Denise’s waist and gave her a brief hug. “Did I happen to mention how glad I am we’re dancing together again?”

Denise giggled. “Little old moi?”

“Still a fan of Miss Piggy, I see.”

“Hey, you know me. I like what I like.”

“Of course you do.” Definitely a terrier.

 

 

Chapter Two

 

Relevé sur les pointes

Rising to the tips of the toes

 

 

The company gathered in one of the smaller studios for the meet-and-greet with the stager for the season’s opening ballet. Colin O’Connor, on loan from Toronto, entered and took a seat on a folding chair, and dancers settled on the floor around him—rather like children waiting for story time.

“I expect you think this ballet is old hat, hmm?” With his balding head and spectacles, O’Connor appeared mild and unassuming, avuncular even, but he had a reputation for pushing dancers to their artistic and emotional limits.

“You all know the story, of course. Peasant girl falls for peasant boy, but when she discovers he’s an aristocrat in disguise, not to mention already engaged, she goes mad.” He placed his hands over his heart and tipped the chair. “And dies.”

Laughter gusted through the room.

“So the guy in the piece is simply another sterling example of your garden variety frog,” Clare whispered to Denise, who chuckled in response.

“Ah, but what are we to make of this woman, this Giselle, who would die for mere love?” O’Connor leaned forward, his arms on his thighs. “Are we sympathetic? More important, will our audience be?” He paused dramatically. “You, my dear.” He pointed. “What’s your name?”

“Lisa.”

“What makes you care about Giselle, Lisa? You do care about her, right?”

“Well…sure. I suppose because she was treated so badly, and…her heart was…broken.”

“How many of you have had your hearts broken? No. No, that’s all right.” He lifted both hands in a stopping motion. “No need to confess your sins.”

Laughter again.

He stood and gestured as if he were conducting an invisible orchestra. “You see, my dears, you know how it feels to love and to lose. To be joyful, to be anguished, to be conflicted.”

One of the men rolled his eyes. “Yeah. But we don’t go bonkers.”

“Ah, perhaps not. We’re too civilized, eh? But loving deeply and losing…we do go a bit mad, hmm? Giselle only a more dramatic example.”

Clare looked down as O’Connor’s gaze swept over them. Mad indeed. Certainly, it was one way of viewing what had happened with Zach. The mad excitement when he’d singled her out. Falling madly in love—or so she’d thought. All that madness…it had blinded her to his essential nature.

“You okay, Clare?” Denise whispered.

She shook herself and gave Denise a distracted smile before focusing her attention back on O’Connor’s introduction.

“You will see, my dears. You have that inside you. And for this ballet, you will tap into that emotion. For this ballet, I will not tolerate merely pretty dancing. Or, indeed, any halfhearted efforts.”

Again, he looked from one face to the next. This time Clare managed to meet his gaze. Then he turned and picked up the clipboard he’d leaned against the mirror when he first entered the room. “All right then, let us begin. Clare, Ramon, Stephan, and Lisa, to the front please. The rest of you may go.”

As the other dancers trickled from the room, O’Connor pinched his lips with one hand and peered at the four of them. Two of them blonde—Lisa and Stephan-two brunette—Ramon and Clare. So, would O’Connor mix or match?

While he pondered, Clare examined Ramon and Stephan’s reflections. Ramon, dark and intense, had impressed her in company class with his explosive athleticism. Stephan was a more elegant dancer, with a style reminiscent of Zach’s, actually. In fact, Stephan and Zach were men who physically mirrored each other. Both tall and lean. Both with the regular features prized in romantic leads—Zach the black prince, Stephan the golden one.

“Lisa, next to Ramon, please.”

At O’Connor’s crisp command, Lisa’s face registered shock that quickly morphed into a mulish expression. “Stephan and I are partners.”

“My dear, perhaps it has escaped your notice that I am the one in charge, eh?”

Lisa took the place by Ramon looking angry, but with the four of them standing in the new arrangement it was clear, at least on an objective level, O’Connor had it right. The petite Lisa was the perfect size to partner with Ramon, while Clare was a better match for the taller Stephan. That wouldn’t help Lisa to accept it, of course, and Clare already knew that when Lisa didn’t like the way things were going, she channeled her “inner evil stepsister,” as Denise put it. A shame it seemed to be a law of the universe that every company have at least one Lisa.

Good, though, that O’Connor had been firm with her, and good, that his approach was to seek out the emotion in this piece. For despite its bizarre storyline, Giselle was an emotional piece and one of Clare’s favorite ballets. She especially loved the part when Giselle and her ghostly sisters sought out the men who’d deceived them in order to dance them to their deaths. With the right staging, the lyrical, delicate choreography could be magical.

~ ~ ~

“Bitch!”

Like an anonymously honking horn, the word, laden with venom, drifted by Clare’s ear as she pulled on a skirt. She turned her head to find Lisa glaring at her.

“Don’t think you can just waltz in here and take over.”

Clare turned away and continued to change into street clothes.

“Did you hear me? Stephan is off-limits.”

“I’m only intend to dance with him.”

Lisa snorted, the sound, full of disbelief. “Like you danced with Zach Showalter?”

Clare’s heart rate kicked up a notch, and her mouth went dry.

“I heard all about it from a friend of mine.” Lisa’s tone was the taunting one children use in the schoolyard. “She said you and he were an item. Except Zach couldn’t keep his dance belt on, and it pissed you off.”

Clare took a calming breath, not that it did any good. Slowly she turned to face Lisa, aware that other dancers had halted what they were doing to watch. It meant her response would affect not only her ongoing relationship with Lisa, but her standing with the other dancers.

She sucked in a quick breath and prayed her voice wouldn’t shake the way the rest of her was. “You know, that’s quite a clever way of putting it. But I fail to see your point in bringing it up.”

“My point is you keep your grubby hands off Stephan.”

Clare almost sagged with relief that Lisa’s focus had shifted away from Zach. “I’ve already assured you of that.” She zipped her duffel and swung it onto her shoulder. “Now you’ll have to excuse me. Places to go, things to do, you know.”

Lisa’s chest heaved. She started to speak, stopped, huffed out another breath and narrowed her eyes. “You. You—”

“Bitch? I know, I heard you the first time. You really do anger outstandingly well. It’ll be fascinating to see if you can also manage pathos. I’m guessing not.” She waited a beat, then, as if this were a simple stage-right exit, left the locker room, head high, steps unhurried, trying to give no hint of the agitation she was feeling at Lisa’s easy and unexpected breach of her defenses.

She slipped into the first room she came to, pulled the door shut, and sank to the floor. Then she buried her face in her hands and waited. Waited until her racing heart slowed and the trembling eased. Waited until both Lisa’s and Zach’s words stopped playing in an endless loop. Waited until everyone had to be gone for the day.

~ ~ ~

“Do you ever think about what you’re going to do after…you know, after you can’t perform anymore?” Denise posed the question as she and Clare sat waiting for a rehearsal to begin.

“Of course. Doesn’t everyone?” Actually, Clare avoided thinking about it, even though she knew her time as a principal was limited to another five to seven years max—if she stayed healthy. But right now any ending still seemed too distant to give it serious consideration.

“And…” Denise waved a hand. “What conclusions have you reached?”

“I want to stay involved with the dance world. I simply can’t imagine my life without it.” After all, the ballet had been her focus since age seven, and it had replaced all the ordinary, everyday experiences of being young and silly with friends, falling in love with the captain of the football team, running out the door to go on class trips or to the prom.

She wouldn’t change any of that, although she did occasionally awaken in the middle of the night to find niggles of regret keeping her company. Regret that she’d not managed to fit in more. More relationships that were about something other than dance. More time to read or sew or garden, or whatever it was other people did in their leisure hours. Just…more.

Denise sighed as if Clare had spoken aloud. “I’ve already been a soloist six years. I don’t think I’m ever going to make principal.”

Clare rested a hand on Denise’s arm. “You’re a wonderful dancer. Don’t even think about it not happening. You do know there’s a possibility Justin will add another principal next year. It could be your shot.”

“You’re not just saying that?”

“What? You think I’d pander so I can spend the night occasionally? No way. Please, promise me…promise yourself you won’t give up. Not yet.”

“I’ve decided if I don’t get promoted this spring, I’ll stay one more year. Then that’s it.”

Clare felt relieved, although she was uncertain exactly why it seemed so important that Denise not quit anytime soon.

“What I’d really like to do is get married,” Denise continued. “Have a couple of kids, do the mommy thing for a few years.” Her tone was wistful.

“You have a daddy in mind?”

“Doesn’t look like that’s going to work out either.” She shook herself. “Sorry. Enough of the doom and gloom, okay?”

Clare watched Denise more closely after that. It didn’t take long to figure out that the man Denise didn’t expect it to work out with, but wished it would, was Stephan Orsini.

~ ~ ~

“Excellent work, Clare, Stephan. Go ahead and take a break.”

As they walked to the corner of the room, O’Connor motioned to Lisa and Ramon. Clare sat on the floor and wiped her face with a towel. Then she shook out her hair before pulling it back and refastening it at the nape of her neck. Stephan sat next to her, taking a long pull from a water bottle. They were both sweaty, but thank God Stephan wasn’t a smoker. She’d once had a partner who smoked, both pot and tobacco, and his breath and body odor had been nauseating.

“How’re you doing?” Stephan asked.

“Fine. I was ready for a break, though.”

“Yeah. These first weeks are brutal.” He took another swig of water, then wiped his mouth. “You know, there’s something I’ve been wanting to ask you.”

She glanced at him, taking a drink of her own.

“What color do you call your eyes?”

“What?”

“They aren’t exactly either green or blue. So I’m wondering what you call them.”

“According to the State of Massachusetts, they’re gray.”

“Gray, hmm. But with a bit of jade swirled in.”

Oh, no! Stephan was hitting on her. “My goodness, we’re poetic today.”

“That was good, wasn’t it?” His voice was smug.

“Weird, though.”

“I’m taking a creative writing class.” He sounded hurt. “We’re being encouraged to think poetically.”

She bit the inside of her cheek to keep from smiling and nodded toward Lisa and Ramon. “You know, I think those two could be something special.”

“Too bad Lisa is determined not to let it work.”

She looked at Stephan in surprise. “Is she?”

“See that?”

Clare looked back as Ramon lifted Lisa. Lisa’s lips pinched together.

Frowning, O’Connor signaled a halt. “I want to see that lift again.” He moved to the side and watched as Ramon lifted a wincing Lisa.

“Stephan, to me.” O’Connor spoke in a quick staccato. “If you would, please, the lift sequence with Lisa.” He nodded at the accompanist as Stephan took Ramon’s place.

Clare watched Lisa and Stephan go through the steps—two beautiful people moving beautifully together. They turned in unison, arms and legs in perfect alignment, and the lift, when it came, was executed flawlessly. Misgivings about how well her own partnership with Stephan was going nudged at her.

“All right, good. Now, Clare and Ramon. Same sequence.”

Ramon wasn’t as tall as Stephan, but he was powerful. After a run-through to adjust to each other, the second time they moved more in sync, and the lift felt good. Ramon had gentle hands that tightened on Clare’s waist only enough to make the lift appear effortless, but without any of the pinching or rough handling Lisa’s grimacing had hinted at.

O’Connor pursed his lips and looked them over, as he had the first day.

Lisa cocked her head and gave O’Connor a satisfied look.

“You, my dear, have been trying to fool me.” O’Connor’s expression hardened. “I suggest you not do it again. Now, with Ramon again, if you please.”

Lisa looked stricken.

Clare retreated to the corner, and Stephan joined her.

“I wish we didn’t have to be part of that,” she said. In order not to watch the drama in the middle of the room, she pulled a new pointe shoe out of her bag and began working with it. She couldn’t block out the sounds, though. The music starting then stopping, interspersed with O’Connor’s crisp commands as he corrected an arm placement here, a leg position there. “Lisa hates me enough already.”

“Trust me, that’s better than if she likes you.”

She glanced at Stephan, to see if he was joking. He didn’t appear to be.

“I slept with her because she said it would make us better partners, more physically attuned to each other. That part worked, as a matter of fact. Girl can dance, that’s for sure. You know, we could try that.”

“Absolutely not. I do not sleep with men to improve my dancing.” Despite how it might have appeared with Zach.

“Oh, well, worth a shot.” He shrugged, with a sheepish look. “Hey, if you won’t sleep with me, will you at least have dinner with me?”

She shook her head, relieved Stephan was proving to have such a sunny personality she could turn him down without making an enemy of him. “Look, let’s just agree we’ll work as hard as we can during rehearsals to improve our technique.”

He started to grin.

“Our dancing technique.”

“And outside of rehearsals? Am I supposed to ignore you?”

“Of course not. You can be…friendly.” She finished fussing with the shoe, debating. Then decided, why not. “Would you rather be Lisa’s partner?”

“God, no. Dancing with Lisa, it’s got to be all about her, all the time.” He shuddered. “It’s exhausting. But enough Lisa. About that dinner. Saturday work for you?”

“Sorry. No.”

“What? Ah, come on. We can’t let one bitchy ballerina dictate what we do.”

“That bitchy ballerina can make life miserable for us both. I say we cool it.”

“As long as that wasn’t your final answer.”

She smiled, going for an inscrutable look, because of course it was. Final. No way would she allow for even the slimmest chance of reprising her relationship with Zach, and especially not when a friend’s heart was also in the mix.

~ ~ ~

Boston Globe: Danse Classique opened their twenty-fourth season last night with Giselle. First performed in 1841, Giselle has none of the splashy choreography that is the hallmark of more modern ballets. What carries this piece is subtlety, and in the hands of artist-in-residence, Colin O’Connor, and his principal dancer, Clare Eliason, this version is dark and devastating. Ms. Eliason, in her first appearance with Danse Classique, danced an incandescent Giselle with a tenderness that was heartbreaking in its intensity. It was a performance that brought tears to the eyes of many seasoned balletomanes, including this one, and it earned Ms. Eliason a rare standing ovation.

Abruptly, Clare stopped reading. It had loomed so large for so long—her first performance and how it would be received. Now it was done, and the review was…fantastic! Zach was wrong. Without him she was something. Something special.

Her butterflies last night had been world class, and the performance had required her to tap into the anguish of Zach’s treachery, which had been exhausting. Afterward, she’d endured the reception for donors in a fog of fatigue. As further proof of her weakened state, she’d even let Stephan drive her home, and here he still was, drinking coffee and waving the newspaper at her when she came downstairs.

“You haven’t finished, have you?” He poked at the paper. “Go on, read the part about us.”

Worthy of mention, as well, is the felicitous pairing of Ms. Eliason and Stephan Orsini. In the past, Orsini has given only hints of the proficiency, depth, and élan on display as he partnered Ms. Eliason. It will be fascinating to watch as these two challenge each other to even greater heights.

Fascinating indeed.

He’d insisted she shouldn’t be alone when the newspaper and its review arrived. Ultimately, she’d judged it easier to hand him a pillow and blanket than to argue with him.

“It’s you and me, girl,” he said. “The next Baryshnikov and Farrell.”

“You do realize they never danced together.” She put the paper down and stuck her head in the refrigerator.

“Just think if they had.”

“How about I scramble you some eggs before you go home?

“I figured I’d stick around, drive you to company class.”

“No thanks.” Bad enough she’d accepted a ride last night. “I have an errand I need to run first.”

“I don’t mind taking you.”

Good Lord, the man was dense. She tried again. “Don’t you need to get home and shower, change clothes first?”

“Okay. I got it the first time. But you can’t blame a guy, especially one with élan, for trying, can you?”

She rolled her eyes. “Tell you what. Why don’t you join Denise and me for dinner after Saturday’s performance?”

He stood for a moment with a thoughtful look. “Okay. Sometimes a guy has to take what he can get.”

“Well, that was certainly gracious.”

He grinned. “I’d be thrilled and honored to escort two such beautiful ladies to dinner.”

“Good. So, eggs before you leave?”

“Naw, I’ll just pick up something on the way.”

“I do appreciate the ride home last night.”

“My pleasure. Anytime.”

Nope. Never again. And that was her final answer. He might not know it yet, but Stephan was taken.

~ ~ ~

Although they had one ballet left to close out the season, the artistic director had begun conducting annual reviews, and today was Clare’s turn.

Justin sat back rubbing his hands together. “An excellent first season, Clare.”

She sighed with relief. Justin always gives it away, Denise told her in preparation for the review and, hopefully, contract renewal meeting. If he rubs his hands together, you’re golden, but if he peers at you over steepled hands, you’re toast.

“You and Stephan are progressing nicely.”

Clare started to respond then, remembering the rest of Denise’s advice—don’t babble, whatever you do, Justin hates babbling—let her breath out without speaking.

“I’ve been waiting for a dancer with just the right combination of artistry and emotional fearlessness to dance Swan Lake the way it should be danced. You are that dancer, Clare. I’ve known since I saw your Giselle that you had to be my next Odette/Odile.”

Justin propped his head on his hands and grinned. “You may want to start breathing again.”

Startled, she realized she’d stopped when he said the words “Swan Lake.” It was every dancer’s dream, or at least it was hers, to dance the dual role of Odette, the white swan, fragile and vulnerable, and Odile, the black swan, strong and seductive.

“You will be returning to us next year?” Justin said. “Because if you have other plans, I need to know now. Before I make the announcement.”

She straightened and looked Justin in the eye. “There’s no place I’d rather be than Boston.”

And nothing she wanted more than this role.

 

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