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Ballroom blitz, p.1
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       Ballroom Blitz, p.1

           Lorelei James
 
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  Dedication

  To my antho buddies, Jayne and Jess, it’s always great fun working with you fab ladies!

  Thanks also to Barb Hill-Kidd for sharing her insider knowledge about the world of competitive ballroom dancing with me. You got rhythm, darlin’.

  Chapter One

  “You cut your hair.”

  Jon White Feather pocketed the keys to his Land Cruiser and followed the sound of his niece’s voice. She was sprawled on a concrete bench in an alcove between the driveway and the flower garden. He kissed the top of her head. “Raven, Raven, you been misbehavin’?”

  “That is so lame, Uncle Jon. I’m not four anymore.”

  “True.” He sat beside her. The last time he’d hung out with his niece, he realized she’d morphed into the too-cool-for-anything teen. As the fourth kid in a family of eight, she sometimes faded into the background.

  It didn’t help that Raven had entered that awkward stage, sporting acne, wearing braces on her teeth, glasses on her face and carrying baby fat. In the last year the normally outgoing kid had retreated into the world of books and video games. His brother and sister-in-law were concerned. Jon remembered Raven’s older sisters had both gone through this gawky phase and now were pretty, confident young women. But Raven believed this was her final transformation and she’d always be the ugly duckling in a family of swans. And that broke his heart.

  “So why did you cut your hair?” Raven persisted.

  He shrugged. “I needed a change. Got tired of the braid. Needed something hipper.” He exaggerated, tossing his mane like a supermodel. “So? Whatcha think? Is it rad?”

  “No one says rad anymore, dork face.” Raven brushed his hair back and inspected the ends that now touched his shoulders. “Actually, it looks good. Makes you look younger. Cooler.”

  Jon cocked an eyebrow at her. “Okay. What do you want? ’Cause you never give your old Uncle Jon compliments.”

  When she didn’t answer, he patted her leg. “I was kidding.” She finally raised her head and her soft brown eyes held such guilt Jon’s heart sank. “Hey, little bird. What’s really goin’ on?”

  “Don’t get mad, but you’re right. I do want something from you. But I didn’t say that stuff about your hair to butter you up, because you really do look more like a rock star than you did with that old-man braid.”

  He didn’t point out that her father wore a braid. Then again, his brother Jim was old. That made him smile. “What do you need? If it’s money, I’ll have to ask your folks first—”

  “It’s not money. It’s…” Her finger swirled around the hole in her sweatpants. “I signed up for a dance class at the community center.”

  “Raven, that’s great!” Her parents would be thrilled their daughter had taken an interest in something besides video games.

  “But it’s a couples’ dance class.”

  “You want me there when you tell your parents about the boyfriend you’re taking a dance class with?”

  Raven rolled her eyes. “Do I look like the type of girl who’d have a boyfriend?”

  “Not with that scowl.” Jon kissed her nose. “Tell me how I can help you.”

  “I need you to take the class with me,” she said in a rush.

  He went still. Not what he’d been expecting. At all.

  Before he could say no, she rattled off, “It’s a three-week class, two hours a night, four nights a week. It’s the really cool kind of dancing you see couples on TV doing, in those fancy dresses, all classy and romantic. I want to do it so bad, more than anything I’ve ever wanted in my entire life. I signed up before the class filled up, hoping I’d find someone to go with me before it started. And I haven’t. I didn’t tell anyone in my family because I thought they’d laugh at me.” Her eyes were glossy with unshed tears. “You never laugh at me, Uncle Jon. You always tell me I can do anything I put my mind to. So please. I need you to be my partner.”

  Like he could deny her now. “Fine. Twist my arm. Make me say uncle.”

  Raven sighed. “You’re such a dork.”

  “That’s dancing dork to you, little bird. But I gotta warn you, kiddo. I am a shitty dancer. Like a scarily shitty dancer.” When Raven opened her mouth to protest, he held up his hand. “I promise you, it’s true. So I’ll be your partner as long as you know it’s at your own risk of broken toes.”

  “Same goes. Although I have been practicing some moves.”

  Jon watched as she popped off the bench and did some gyrating thing with her hips that he’d seen in strip clubs. Did all girls aspire to dance like that these days?

  She held out her hands. “Come on. Let’s go tell Mom and Dad.”

  “When does the class start?”

  “Ah. Tonight. In an hour.”

  Shit. “Raven—”

  “I would’ve asked you sooner, but you haven’t come over. And we’re not allowed to call you in case you’re recording.” She folded her arms over her chest, giving him an imperious look. “How long have you been home from your last tour?”

  Two weeks. Two blissful weeks where he hadn’t seen anyone. No one asking him questions. He’d slept in his own bed. Cooked in his own kitchen. Messed around in his studio until the wee hours. He’d needed to decompress after living on a tour bus for the last three months. So yeah, he’d avoided his brother and his large brood. Not because he didn’t adore them, but he hadn’t been the laidback, fun uncle they expected. He’d been a grumpy dick, so he’d stayed away for their own good.

  “I know you’re trying to come up with a plausible lie,” Raven said with a sniff.

  Jon grinned at his precocious niece. “I haven’t been in hiding as long as you’ve been hiding your secret dance lessons from your parents.”

  Raven grinned back. “Busted. Now we hafta keep each other’s secrets.”

  He draped his arm over her shoulder and they walked toward the house. “Please tell me I don’t have to wear a damn leotard to this class.”

  She giggled. “A leopard-printed leotard. Like Tarzan. But you won’t be able to pull it off with your short hair now. Maybe you can borrow a long-haired wig.”

  “Smart aleck. Seriously, what’s the dress code?”

  “The sheet said comfortable and casual. What you’re wearing is fine. I’m gonna change.”

  Part of him wanted her to ditch the baggy clothes; part of him was glad for them because if she followed in her sisters’ footsteps for the next teenage girl phase? She’d be wearing cleavage-baring shirts.

  Once they were inside the house, a little person shouted, “Uncle Jon!”

  Kids raced out of every corner, jumping like eager puppies. Six-year-old twins Jace and Hannah, ten-year-old Stephie and twelve-year-old Garth all talked a mile a minute.

  The house was chaos central and the oldest three kids weren’t home. “Where are Micah, Bebe and Cecily?”

  “Micah is supervising at the youth forestry camp all summer. Cecily is lifeguarding at the community center pool.” Garth peeled Jace off his back. “You’d know all this family stuff, Uncle Jon, if you ever called any of us.”

  “Ouch. You know that making me feel guilty ain’t the way to change that, right?”

  Garth snorted and threw a squealing Jace on the loveseat.

  “What about Bebe? Doesn’t she have her driver’s license? I thought the two of you would be ripping it up, looking for trouble,” he said to Raven.

  “Bebe’s working at Dairy Queen part-time and she’s got a full-time boyfriend, so I never see her. Been a boring summer since I’ve been stuck babysitting.”

  “You babysitting for anyone besides the White Feather brat pack?”

  “No.” Raven stood off to the side, arms crossed, watching her siblings with the look of a put-upon older sister
. “Dealing with them is enough.”

  “I smell food,” Jon said.

  When they reached the kitchen, Jon’s sister-in-law, Cindy, exclaimed, “Jon White Feather. You chopped off all your hair!” She hugged him before she removed her oven mitts. “It looks great. Maybe you can convince your brother to do the same.”

  “I heard that.” Jim rose from the table and hugged Jon. “Happy to see you, little bro.” He held him at arm’s length and studied him. “The hair does look good. But I ain’t cutting off my war braids.” He gave Jon a sly grin. “We’ve already got one good-lookin’ rock star in the family. I’d hate to get a cool new hairdo and steal your thunder, eh?”

  Jon laughed. “I missed you, old man.”

  “How long you back for?”

  “Awhile. I’m burned out and need a serious break.”

  Jim’s eyes went comically wide. “Wow. Never heard you say that before.”

  He shrugged. “Guess I’m finally ready to make some changes.”

  “I, for one, am happy about that. So can you stay for supper?” Cindy asked.

  “That’d be great. But first Raven and I have something we want to talk about with both of you.”

  Jim and Cindy exchanged a look. “That sounds ominous.”

  “It is. Because I don’t know any other way to break it to you.”

  “What?”

  Jon hung his head. “Raven and I have been infected with boogie fever. And the only cure is to put on our dancin’ shoes and head on down to funky town.”

  Chapter Two

  Maggie Buchanan looked around the community center gym. No barre or mirrors, but the large wooden floor was excellent for movement and would accommodate all the couples that had signed up for class. By the time she’d finished warming up, her mentor, friend and official dance partner, Seth Fordham, wandered in, looking fantastic, as usual. Seth was a handsome, well-built man and his charm was evident, especially on the dance floor.

  Seth grinned. “You ready for this?”

  “I guess.”

  “What’s the plan?”

  It was weird for her instructor to ask her for direction. “I figured we’d stick to the basics. Jitterbug. The waltzes. Tango. Foxtrot. Two-step. Polka. Schottische. Line dancing.”

  “Sounds good. With the exception of spending too much time on the schottische. No one ever gets that. We should touch on it, as far as form and technique, but move on to something else.”

  “What do you suggest?”

  “Extend the jitterbug class another night since it’s so popular. And…” Seth wore an amused expression. “Add a hip-hop class.”

  Maggie shook her head. “No hip hop.”

  “Why not?”

  Because I’ll look like an idiot hopping around, trying to be hip. “Because I’m not comfortable teaching a dance style I’m not familiar with.”

  “Which is exactly why you should do it. Dance is dance, Maggie.” Seth bumped her with his hip. “Come on. It’ll be good for you.”

  “Can you really see me popping and locking?”

  “We’ll see, won’t we?” Seth scrolled through his MP3 player and plugged it into the sound system. Then he faced her. “Assume the position.”

  “You’re serious.”

  “Completely. I know you’re a fast learner.” He performed some side-to-side movement with his upper body that looked like a funky robot while his bottom half slid the opposite direction.

  “Where did you learn that?”

  “Gay dance clubs.”

  Maggie groaned. “Unfair advantage.”

  “When we compete in a big city, I’ll let you be my fag hag and we can hit the clubs. The way we dance together will blow their minds.”

  “Show off.”

  “So we’ll work on some hip-hop moves to loosen you up at rehearsal tonight.”

  Part of the reason Seth had agreed to help her teach this class was to rehearse afterward. Their first competition was coming up in a little over a month. “All right. I’ll set up the registration table.”

  As Maggie tracked down pens and nametags, she thought about how much her life had changed in the last six months.

  She hated the term corporate downsizing, but it’d happened to her. After college graduation, she’d spent five years traveling the U.S. as a troubleshooter at a top Midwest computer security company. When the company was parted out, she was transferred to a smaller division at an Air Force base in South Dakota, where she’d spent the last four years.

  Then six months ago…poof. Unemployed. At age thirty-two.

  The economy sucked and full-time jobs were scarce in her field. Maggie probably could’ve found something if she’d been willing to relocate, but her grandmother had died suddenly and her brother and sister-in-law were having their first baby. Since Grandma Ingrid had left Maggie the small family cabin outside Spearfish, she’d sold her condo in Rapid City and moseyed up the road fifty miles to be closer to her family.

  She’d found a half-time position at a doctor’s office, computerizing decades’ worth of medical records. She was overqualified, but the position offered health benefits and she didn’t mind being jammed in a small cubicle. She’d also picked up a part-time gig teaching computer literacy in the afternoons at the library, both community centers and the senior center.

  Without the grind of a fifty-hour workweek and very low living expenses, Maggie had time to reflect on her life. What she’d accomplished. What she was missing. What would make her life better.

  And that answer had been a no-brainer.

  Dancing.

  She’d missed dancing. The physical exertion; the stretch and pull of her muscles. The pure exhilaration of performing; the rush when she and her partner were in perfect synch.

  Until she’d lost her job, Maggie hadn’t realized how much of herself she’d left behind when she’d given up competitive ballroom dancing in college to focus on finishing her degree.

  She’d understood her brother Billy’s logic—career first, hobby second. But what he’d never understood; dancing hadn’t ever been “just” a hobby to her during her formative years. She’d lived it, breathed it, dreamed it. While other girls had posters of teen heartthrob stars on their walls growing up, Maggie had pictures of Baryshnikov. Martha Graham. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

  During the summer before her senior year of high school, her father had died, leaving Maggie with her crazy, grief-stricken mother. Dance became her refuge. She’d been proficient enough to earn a dance scholarship to a small private college in New York City. But after a year of living with her sister Lacy and seeing firsthand all the dancers waiting tables while awaiting their big break, she fled the big city and the cynicism.

  So Maggie had returned to her home state, enrolled in a technology program at the local university. But a funny thing happened sophomore year on the way to her statistics class—she accidentally wandered into the fine arts building and a competitive ballroom dancing class.

  Over the years Maggie had watched the major competitions on TV, sighing over the beautiful costumes, the glamor and grace of the couples. So it’d shocked her when the instructor chewed her out for being late, demanding she get in line for a partner.

  Rather than calling more attention to herself, she’d obeyed.

  In retrospect, wandering into the wrong building had been the best mistake she’d ever made. Turned out, the years she’d spent learning ballet, tap, jazz and modern gave her a great foundation for ballroom dancing. The teacher had been so impressed that he’d introduced her to Booker White, the owner of the biggest dance studio in the area.

 
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