Ending 1 (Alaina Stays in Cincinnati)
My birthday luncheon’s over. Everyone’s gone home. Aidan and I take the stairs up to his second floor apartment above the stage.
“I’m still awestruck by what you and your mom are doing with the opera house,” I say. The Hawks Opera House is vintage eighteen hundreds with ornate wood box seats and plush red velvet drapes. It looks like pictures of Ford Theatre, where Lincoln was shot.
When we step inside Aidan’s apartment, everything looks modern, so different than the old world look one floor below. There’s a tripod in the center of the room with a camera locked on its top.
Holding hands, Aidan and I crash on the couch and sit side-by-side, saying nothing. A fire he’s started earlier crackles in the fireplace. I feel suddenly self conscious, like I’ve come home with one man but ended up with a stranger. The camera, I notice, is pointing toward us. That makes me feel even edgier. After the past few days, and my close call with Megalo Don, I’m jumpy. I slide my gaze sideways. We’ve just made crazy love in his Ferrari’s front seat, but how well do I know him? Is Aidan a stranger?
“I’ve one more birthday gift for you,” he says, pulling my foot into his lap and rubbing my scars, a tender gesture that should help me relax, but doesn’t.
My little black dress, having survived the Ferrari ride—and Aidan’s passionate advances—and carried me like a princess through the charity auction luncheon, rides up. I start to relax, feel the sensuous jersey caress my bare thighs, but I keep a wary eye on the camera. “What’s the gift?” I say, feeling spoiled, and not happily so. What’s going on here? What’s he up to?
“I know making your jump-the-line video is important to you,” he says, nodding toward the camera. “I want to help you do it.”
The catch in my throat, the breathless feeling I’ve had all day, releases. Along with it, I feel twenty-two years of worrying, of feeling like a displaced alien child who’ll never find my place in the world, also begin to release. He cares whether or not I enter the competition. Someone really, really cares about what matters most—
I again gaze at Aidan. My feelings have changed since I met him. Is the competition truly that important? Is becoming a Rockette what I really want? Is it a dream I’ve chased because I want it with all my being? Or has my self-confidence been so low I’ve spent my life setting up challenges I know I can’t meet?
“This is difficult for me to express,” Aidan says, missing the adoring look I give him. “I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but—”
I tense. What’s wrong? “But . . . what?”
He hides a frown, and I soften, feel my knees buckling. Surely, he wouldn’t treat me like a princess, like he’s been doing all day, and then give me the kiss-off?
“If you decide to stay here after you graduate,” he continues, frowning, “that is, if you decide not to go to New York . . .
“Oh, hell. I’m asking if you’d like to teach dance at the opera house—if you’ll stay. It pays,” he adds. “More than you’d make as a Rockette. A lot more.”
“Hmmm, what would I be doing?”
“Teaching underprivileged teens dancing and—”
He is nearly choking on his words.
“—and you’d be teaching them how to build self confidence.”
How should I take such a generous offer? Doesn’t he think I can make it as a Rockette? Doesn’t believe in me? And what’s this “self confidence” crap? Does he think I don’t have any?
Or . . . does he selfishly want me here with him instead of in New York?
“I need time to think it over.”
I give myself a mental pat on the back. Now that’s self-confidence, my taking time to think over an offer for a paying job. “I’ve applied at CUNY, too,” I add, watching his face for any change in expression. “I’m waiting to see if they admit me.”
“I know, Alaina. I’ve no doubt they will.”
I see it, the pain, but he hides it. “I don’t want you to go,” he says, “but I’ll understand if you do.”
“That’s—That’s . . . good,” I say, feeling the lump in my throat but, like Aidan, hiding my anxiety. How can I leave now? I’ll lose him if I do, and I know it. I won’t be a princess anymore. I’ll just be another struggling student at City University in New York, trying to earn a Master’s in Criminology. I smile and kiss him. “I appreciate your understanding,” I say, swallowing. “Meantime, I can use all the help I can get making my jump-the-line video.”
I rise from the couch and slowly begin to dance. “Join me?”
He does, and I feel him leaning into me, his warmth so achingly familiar, his scent tantalizing, as we slow dance for a while.
I’m listening to the music playing inside my head, my heartbeat relaxed, and I think—wow. It’s gone, the frenetic rhythm of my old dream to become a Rockette. Instead of Mas Que Nada, I’m hearing the strangely reassuring lines from Tammy Wynette’s Stand By Your Man.
If you love him, oh be proud of him, because after all he’s just a man.
Mentally letting go of Tammy’s song’s clunky beat, I let Aidan lead. I lean into him and follow, while he dances me over to the camera.
“We could do a test run of your jump-the-line routine,” he says, gently slipping the soft jersey sleeve of my dress down off my shoulder, and then leaning down and leaving a little trail of kisses on my bare skin.
“Turn on the camera,” I say.