...at remembering to post here, (as evidenced by the nearly one year since the last post) I decided to share a free story I wrote a while back. I hope if anyone's still around to read it, that you like it :)
Dust tickled my nose and I wiggled it, trying to stay focused. I wanted to get this damn critter out of there and get back to work before—
“Is there a problem?”
The deep voice behind me made me jump, but I managed not to move my hand as, at last, the creature I was rescuing minced it’s eight-legged way into the cup I held.
“No,” I replied, turning from the musty corner as I secured the strawless lid over the clear plastic juice cup. “Thanks.” I glanced up—and up—from my crouch to peer at the man standing behind me. He was blond, I thought, and thin, but beyond that, too blurry from this distance for details. I slid my glasses back up my nose to see him better. Chiselled features filled my vision. And yes, he was blond, in that dirty, but sinshine-streaked delicious way. Muscled arms crossed over his chest and the sight made my mouth dry. I wasn’t quite sure if it was in the good way, or the good-God-that’s-scary way.
“You the new cleaner?” he asked.
“Um.” I rose, awkwardly, because he was closer than necessary, and I didn’t have a lot of room to maneuver out from under the bars running across the center of the floor-to-ceiling mirrors. “Yes.” I held out my free hand, elbow bent awkwardly to keep the hand between us in the tight corner. The man didn’t seem to have a sense of personal space and my dry mouth syndrome was leaning towards the scary end of the spectrum.
“Dusty,” I told him, and winced, braced for the inevitable. A cleaner named Dusty. I’d already heard all the variations there could possibly be, even in my three short months in this new job.
Great. This was the boss. The guy who owned the ballet studio the company I worked for had been hired to clean. I’d heard he was a true hard ass. He took my hand in his. And good God, he had strong hands. “Dusty?” He asked.
“It’s short for Dustin” I told him, pulling my hand back and wrapping it, along with the other, around the cup. It would come in a moment. The comment. Something about a mistake on my birth certificate. My mother being drunk, or a rabid fan of the actor, or some other insulting jibe about my unusual name.
“People often call me Connie.” He shook his head. “Or they ask if I’m related to Theodore.” He made a grim face. “Because of course I’m related to a dancer who died in the fifties, because I have the same last name and I dance, too. Makes sense, right?”
I nodded, then realized he was being sarcastic, and shook my head so vigorously my glasses nearly flew off. I pushed them up my nose with a finger and blinked up at him. I barely came to his shoulder. Good God. He was tall.
“You’re lucky,” he went on as he eyed the cup I was holding. “Dustin is a cool name. Unusual, but I like it. What do you have in here?” He tapped the lid of the cup then lifted my hand with two fingers under my wrist. His eyes narrowed as he squinted past the “Starbucks” logo to see the little critter crawling about inside.
“A s-spider.” I pulled the cup against my chest. “She was building a web in the corner. I thought the little girls might be…not like her. So I was just going to put her outside.”
He actually smiled. “Sweet. Here.” He gripped the top of the cup. “I’ll take care of her. You get the rest of the floor swept. Class starts in fifteen.”
I kept my hold on the cup, but so did he.
“I won’t hurt her. I’ll put her out in the garden. I need the floors clean.”
“O-of course, sir, Sorry.” Relinquishing my rescuee, I snapped up the broom I’d left on the floor. “I’ll get right on it.”
“Relax, Dusty.” His firm hand landed on my shoulder and he squeezed. “It’s all good. Just get it done so the girls can come in and warm up.”
“You don’t have to call me sir.”
“No, sir.” I winced. “Um. Mr…” Shit. I’d forgotten his last name. “Oh God. I’m sorry.” Mortified, I ducked my head and focused on the wide swath of the broom as I pushed it quickly away.
Behind me, I heard a soft chuckle, then softer footsteps as Conrad walked out of the studio.
Ten minutes later, he was back with my empty cup, which he held out. “Did you need this back? I know some people like to recycle. I can put it in the kitchen to be washed if you like. I was headed that way. Do you drink coffee?” This last he called over his shoulder as he headed for the door again. “I’m making a cup, but I can make a pot, if you want some.” He was still talking as his voice faded behind the wall and closing door.
I strained to hear what he was saying, but didn’t dare stop mopping to go find out. I relied on this job and the last thing I needed was a complaint that I hadn’t finished it in a timely manner, or that I’d interfered with the running of his business. My boss was a less than forgiving little Italian man who took his cleaning very seriously.
“Sorry, cream and sugar?” he asked, poking his head back into the room.
I jumped, glancing up and catching his reflection in the wall of glass. He had, literally, stuck his head back through the door and was watching me in the mirror.
“In your coffee,” he clarified. “Because I have milk and cream upstairs. I can go get it, if you want some. And I have sugar or honey. Can you hang around and mop the floor up after class? I’ll pay extra. But if you have another job to go to, you can maybe do it tomorrow. Did you want coffee?”
He was extraordinary. I’d been told he was a bit of a grumpy man, and a severe instructor, but as I blinked at him and pushed my glasses into place, I was struck more by his constant babble. He didn’t seem at all unfriendly.
“Um,” I said, feeling heat once more creep up my neck. “Coffee. Yes. Please. Black. With sugar is fine. Don’t put yourself out. I can—”
“I’ll get cream.” The door swung shut as he withdrew.
With a sigh, I resumed the broom pushing. I liked cream in my coffee, sure, but I could do without. It was nice of him to make the effort.
I was finished in the studio and had moved on to the kitchen to wash up the pile of drinking glasses left from the last class when he returned with a carton of cream and a ceramic coffee mug.
“Not fond of drinking from the paper cups,” he said as he set the mug down beside another next to the pot. “Brought one for you too. So. You new with Marcello’s company? I haven’t seen you before. Usually he sends Tiffany, which is fine, though she doesn’t get into the corners and refuses to wash up after the girls. Not that I blame her. That really isn’t part of the job, you know. Not necessary.”
“It’s fine,” I said. “I don’t mind. I like it here, and it’s my last job for the day. I’ll stay and help with the floor after, if you like.”
“You sure? Because if you have something to do, I can manage. I usually do it again after Tiffany is done, just to be sure. I don’t want anyone saying I don’t run a clean studio. Besides, she doesn’t use enough soap. I prefer the smell of the floor cleaner to the smell of dancers’ feet.” He grinned and handed over a cup of coffee. “You think hockey gear stinks, you should smell a studio after a dozen ballerinas take off their pointe shoes.” He made a face. “Something else. Sorry. Did you say you were new?” A pleasant pink infused his cheeks. “You didn’t. Because I didn’t shut up long enough for you to even open your mouth.” He put his coffee to his lips and whispered a small “Sorry” into it as he blew.
“You are not what I expected,” I confessed.
His head tilted and he sipped. “Really? Do tell.”
Now it was my turn to blush and hide behind the coffee cup. “Oh.” My voice came faint and I swallowed scalding coffee. “Nothing. I shouldn’t have said—
He laughed. “Don’t worry. I know what the girls say. I’m a hard-ass.” He winked. “And I am. They need the discipline. Ballet is a hard life. Tough, nasty business. If I scare them away, they never would have made it anyway. The ones who like me are the ones who might have a chance. If they have the right body and an appetite for self-torture.” He paused for a sip, then sighed. “And want it very, very badly.”
“Did you?” I asked, and immediately wished I hadn’t. Good God. How was that any of my business? “I’m sorry.”
Instead of being angry, though, he smiled, maybe a little bit sadly. “I did. Very badly. But I don’t have the right turn out, and I hurt myself trying to get it.” He shrugged. “So now I teach. And I’m good at it.”
He shrugged. “I was, too. But I’m not now. I’m happy here. Do you need more coffee?”
“No. Thank you. I’ll just finish up in here and you can let me know when you’re ready for me to finish the floor.”
His smile was brilliant. “Okay. I have to go teach.”
“Okay.” I know I sounded soft and bewildered. It didn’t really matter, because he was a bewildering sort of man. All angles and planes and harsh lines of him, filled out by all that talking, were utterly fascinating. His voice, though incessant, was smooth and low, and really, I could listen to it all day.
In reality, I spent most of the hour and a half class in the kitchen where I couldn’t hear what was going on in the studio. There was enough to organize and tidy to keep me occupied. I suppose it said something about me that I was perfectly content—happy, even—to be bringing some semblance of order to the teenage-girl/bachelor-pad chaos of the kitchen counters.
Not that anything was actually dirty. Just…haphazard, with things piled so high on the countertop the appliances—toaster, microwave and coffee maker—were next to useless. And the cupboards were practically empty.
So I spent the time wiping the cobwebs and dust off the cupboard shelves and arranging the cups and bowls in neat rows, finding the most convenient place for the coffee, filters and sugar, and rearranging the counter space to make the best use of what little of it there was.
When I was done, everything would be plugged in and ready for use, and no one would have to shove piles of dishes and napkins and empty towel tubes out of the way to get to them.
Besides. It all gave me something to do other than obsess over Conrad’s biceps, spine-tingling height and gorgeously severe features. Sure he looked scary, but it was all backdrop for the exuberant chatter that so didn’t jive with the tales of terror I’d been told about the man.
And then one of his dancers scrambled through the studio door and into the kitchen in a frantic shuffle, hyperventilating in that way that only someone trying hard not to cry did.
“Are you all right?” I asked. I moved from the sink toward her, then thought better of it when her face crumpled and she lost the battle with her tears. Instead, I filled a cup with water and held it toward her, as though it could shield me from the heart-stopping awkwardness of the moment.
She nodded and hiccupped as she took the water, gulped a sip down then let out another soft, crumpled wail.
“Oh. Dear.” I bit my lip and searched for a napkin, which I handed to her. She took that too, without looking me in the face.
She shook her head and dabbed at her eyes.
“Clara?” Another young lady exited the studio and followed her sobs to the kitchen. “Clara, you’d better come back. He’s going to close the door.”
Clara hiccupped again, swallowed more of the water and handed the cup and soggy napkin back to me. “Thanks.” She still hadn’t lifted her gaze from the geometric pattern of the floor rug under my feet.
“Sure,” I replied, uncertain if there was something else I should be doing.
She didn’t stay, but followed her friend back into the studio. I trailed after, going to the wall of windows between studio and office to see what was going on inside.
A line of girls, hands laid delicately on the bar, studiously did not watch Clara and her friend retake their places. The music trickled through the studio door and thin walls and Conrad clapped his hands.
“Again!” He had a log stick in his hand and he banged it on the floor as he counted to eight. “Pliè, Relevè!” he swooped an arm into the air on the last word. “Clara, Clara! Stop!”
The poor girl froze, one arm raised in a graceful arch over her head, her chin lifted, her weight balanced delicately, but firmly on the very tips of her pink shoes. In fact, all the students remained immobile in the exact same pose, some straining not to wobble, others rolling their eyes as the music trickled to a halt and the piano player shook her head.
“Turn out Clara, and pull that stomach in!”
She shifted her foot the barest hint of a turn and sucked her stomach up under her ribs. It was a barely perceptible change, but it seemed to satisfy Conrad because he nodded. “Continue. And one and...”
The music began again and the students resumed their sequence. Clara faced straight ahead, ignoring the fading tracks of the tears on her cheeks and the scrutiny from her teacher. She focused on the movement and maybe didn’t even notice when Conrad examined her final pose and nodded slightly in satisfaction.
“Thank you, ladies,” he said after another ten or so minutes of what looked like torture for the girls, and a short but lovely sequence of arm movements that ended in synchronized, elegant bows to where he stood in front before the mirrors.
Everyone smiled and clapped, including Clara, and she offered him another, extra curtsy as she minced from the studio.
I hurried back to the kitchen before the flood of giggling young women swamped the office.
They all cleared out in a relative hurry after that, and I was left in the suddenly very quiet building with Conrad who was straightening his awkwardly piled CD collection and gathering abandoned drinking cups from the studio floor.
He brought them to the kitchen and smiled when he saw me.
“You’re still here.”
“Well.” I frowned. “Yes. I thought we were going to mop the studio floor. You asked for help.”
“Yes. I did. I thought you’d come back after class. I didn’t expect you to hang around…” His gaze travelled over the cleared countertop and the polished appliances. “What on earth? Did you do this? That wasn’t necessary, Dusty. I never expected.” He swallowed and offered me a crooked, but uncertain smile. “Please. Let Marcello know I’ll pay for the extra time. I—”
“No!” I held up a hand. “Please. Don’t say anything to him. Please.” Marcello would not take kindly to the thought I might have tried to pad his bill. He prided himself on his honesty and the integrity of his workers. He would see this as me trying to squeeze more money than he had contracted out of the studio owner, and that would get me fired.
“I’m sure he’ll want to know—”
“It’s just, I would have had to bicycle home and then back. It wasn’t worth it to go, so I stayed. I didn’t want to sit around and do nothing. I would have been bored. Besides, it looks better. More functional. And I didn’t mind doing it. It was something to do. Really.”
Now I was the one rambling, and Conrad was staring at me, eyes wide and mouth open slightly, like he was trying to say something, just waiting for me to give him an opening long enough to interject.
I stopped for a breath and it was enough for him, because he jumped in. “Then thank you. I’ve been meaning to get to it, but I’m down here seems like twenty hours a day, and by the time I’m done teaching, I just want to be away from this place for a few hours before I fall into bed, and the clean up always seems to end up at the bottom of the list of things to get done. Hey. I have a toaster? When did I get a toaster? Was this here?”
He had wandered over and now he depressed the lever on the appliance and chuckled when it flipped back up again. “Well I’ll be. Lindsay will be pleased. She’s always complaining about having to eat her tomato sandwiches on raw bread. And you cleaned the coffee maker, too. You didn’t have to do that. I would have done that after class. It’s the one thing I’m sort of religious about. Clean coffee maker. You want another cup? Where is the coffee, anyway?”
I held up a hand and he pulled back a fraction.
“Oh. I’m doing it again.”
“Sorry. How many questions did I not give you a chance to answer this time?”
I couldn’t help a smile. “Just a few. Yes, you have a toaster. I don’t know when you got it, but it was here, under a few bags of napkins and paper plates and there was a note to Lindsay on it”—which I handed him—“and I did notice the coffee maker was rather pristine. No, thank you, I don’t need another cup, but I can make you one if you like. The coffee is in the cupboard above the coffee maker.” I reached up and took it down for him, prepared to make another pot, but he took the canister from me.
“I’ll do it.”
“I don’t mind.”
He looked slightly uncomfortable as he shook his head. “I’ve got this. How about you get started in the studio? I didn’t quite get everything off the floor. Once I’ve got this going, I’ll bring the bucket and a couple of mops.”
I shrugged. “Okay.”
“I’m sorry. It’s a thing with me. I’m sort of anal about my coffee. It isn’t personal.”
“It’s fine.” I smiled and pointed to the filters, which he took down.
“Thank you,” he said, his voice low and soft. “I appreciate this.”
“It’s nothing. I sort of like bringing order to the chaos. Makes me feel”…Needed. Useful. Competent at something… “accomplished.”
I beat a hasty retreat before he could say anything to that, because to me, it sounded as pathetic as all the things I hadn’t said.
I had cleared everything off the floor when he finally joined me, two cups of coffee in hand. He handed me one with an apologetic shrug. “Just in case.”
It was warm and the smell, hazelnut, I thought, was heavenly. I accepted and sipped. “Thanks.”
His smile was radiant, and he practically skipped to the stereo. “We need cleaning music,” he announced. “Beethoven? Bach?”
One brow dashed up, but he nodded. “Something light.”
“Fantasia!” I said suddenly, remembering the scene with Mickey Mouse and his brooms gone wild.
Conrad stopped in the act of opening a CD and stared at me.
Good God. I’d done it again. Completely let my idiotic weirdness spill out all over the room.
But he grinned wide and clapped. “Perfect!” He put away the CD he’d been opening and rifled through his collection until he’d found the one I’d asked for, which he put on.
Music blared through the room and he pirouetted off to fetch the bucket and mops, admonishing me to stay put and finish my coffee while it was still hot. I finished getting everything up off the floor that I could and by the time he was back, I’d managed to ready the room for the chore ahead.
I was used to working in soothing silence. I liked my job well enough, and the quiet of closed office buildings and schools was calming. Tonight, though, there would be no such relaxing calm. Tonight, there was constant chatter under the music, a stream of what I quickly realized were rhetorical questions and incidental comments that didn’t really require more of a response than the simple acknowledgement that I was listening. I got the feeling Conrad prattled like this whether he had an audience or not, and when he occasionally looked up and caught my eye, there was such a look of contentment on his face I thought maybe he wasn’t quite used to having an audience.
The mopping up was quick, though, and I was sorry to see the task end.
Conrad, however, looked exhausted by the time we were done.
“Are you all right?” I asked as he slumped into his office chair.
I had squeezed out one mop and was headed back for the other as he opened his laptop.
“Long day.” He smiled at me, and the expression was genuine, it seemed. “Most days are. It’s a great job, but demanding. Harder on days like today when I get those glimpses, like with Clara, that they can do something if they just make that extra effort.” He had logged into his computer and glanced at me. “You on Facebook?”
For once it wasn’t a rhetorical question, I realized, when he held my gaze, calmly waiting for my reply, and I nodded. “Dustin Jordanson,” I replied automatically. “One of those Disney brooms from Fantasia is my user pic.” A soft heat crept into my face.
Conrad grinned wide and turned his attention back to the computer.
“It’s frustrating, you know,” he said as he typed and clicked, “seeing how close they are to getting it, and how they just don’t push that extra little bit to get there.” He was talking about the dancers again, I realized, even as he typed and scanned the computer screen. “And then I think, that’s what my teacher did. Pushed and pushed until I hurt myself…” He shook his head. “But I know she can do it if she focuses. It’s tough at that age. Stuck between this huge, impossible dream and school and parents and a cute boy.” He winked at me. “I can sympathize with that last one.”
I flushed. The heat didn’t crawl, or seep up my neck, this time. It thundered, right up under my hairline and I grabbed the handle of the bucket, the mop, and scurried for the kitchen sink.
I was cleaning up the mess of the water I’d splashed all over the floor in my haste when I felt his presence at my back.
“No. It’s fine. I’ll be out of your hair in just another minute, sir.”
“I told you not to call me sir. Call me Conrad. Or Connie, if you like.”
“You didn’t tell me it was your birthday.”
“It isn’t. Wait. What?” I set the rag I’d been using down and turned to face him. He was leaning in the kitchen doorway, arms crossed over his chest, a lazy smile on his face. Good God, but he was a beautiful man. “It’s the tenth. My birthday is on the tenth. Saturday.”
“Today is the tenth.”
“No, I…is it?”
“You forgot your own birthday?” His smile slipped, slumped into a frown. “Didn’t anyone wish you a happy birthday, Dustin?”
I shook my head, pushed my glasses up my nose, because they had slipped, making him fuzzy again. His expression was hard to read.
“That is unacceptable.”
I shrugged. Who would wish me a happy birthday? Sure a few people had probably posted something on my wall on Facebook, but I’d been working all day. I hadn’t really had an opportunity to look. My family had long ago stopped trying to wish me straight, stopped trying to talk me into being one of them, stopped trying, period. My coworkers thought I was a bit odd, and I hadn’t had this job long anyway. I usually took the individual jobs. I liked the peace and quiet. My friends—well. I took a sharp breath, my nostrils flaring at the sudden pain in my chest.
“No one called?” He wasn’t leaning in the doorway anymore, but was gliding across the floor, arms still crossed, face stern.
I shook my head again.
“It’s just. Nothing.” I tried to duck past him out of the small room, but he stopped me with a hand on my arm. It was a firm touch, but not a forceful one.
“Happy birthday, Dustin.”
I nodded and shoved my glasses into place. “Thank you. I should go.”
He let me go and I collected my coat and shoes, even though he followed my every move and stood over me as I bent to tie the laces. “Wait,” he said at last just as my fingers came into contact with the door handle.
“I really should—”
“Do you dance?”
“Good God, no.” I flushed again, pushed my glasses into place and looked back at him. “You don’t have to do this. It’s just a birthday. No big deal.”
“Come and dance with me.”
I shook my head. “I don’t. Can’t.” I backed against the door, against freedom from his smouldering gaze, but for some reason, I didn’t take the escape.
“I’ll play Mozart for you, if you like.” He smiled, a soft, happy expression. “Or the bit from Fantasia with the centaurs.”
Full on blushing commenced. “You know no one knows anything other than the dancing hippo and the brooms, right?”
He smiled wider. “You know.” He winked. “I know.” Turning to the stereo, he zinged through the music and watched the timer until he reached the point he wanted. “Here.” He pressed play and held his hand out to me. “Please. One dance.”
Guys like this did not ask me to dance. He was being nice because I clearly had no friends on my birthday. I had organized his cupboards and mopped his floor as social entertainment. On my birthday. How lame was that?
“Please, Dustin. I have no one who’s birthday I can celebrate. Let me do this with you?”
Well. Didn’t that put things in a different perspective suddenly. I gave him my hand and kicked off my shoes, stumbling over the one I had already forgotten was laced .
He chuckled as he caught me, and soothed the ruffle to my ego with a smooth glide of his hand down my back until it rested on my waist. The music swelled around us and he took a long stride backward. I’m sure I was meant to follow. I stood, rooted to the spot and we both stumbled and crashed, less than gracefully, into one another as we caught our balance.
“Are you all right?” he asked as he struggled to contain real laughter.
I burned with shame and tried to extricate my hand from his. “Fine. I told you I can’t do this.”
“Then I will teach you.” He gripped my fingers harder and planted his hand on me more firmly, sliding it around to cradle the small of my back. “It is what I do, after all.”
There was very little space between us, with his hand on my back like that, and I was sure he would feel the sweat trickling down my spine any moment. It would disgust him. I squirmed to get a step away, to get that hand safely back on my hip, but he smiled and moved his head closer to mine.
“Relax, Dustin. Dancing is a dirty business.” His breath brushed at the hair over my ear, disturbing it, sending a shiver over my skin. “If you aren’t breaking a sweat, you aren’t doing it right.”
“Good God,” I whispered. “Conrad, please…” I had no idea what I was asking for.
His lips brushed the upper shell of my ear. “Please what, Dustin?”
I closed my eyes and fought the urge to melt into him. “I—”
His cheek pressed firmly to my temple. “I don’t know, either, Dustin, I promise you that. Just dance.”
I’d get fired. Marcello would have my ass in a sling if he found out about this. I’d lose the last job anyone was likely to hire a guy like me to do. I’d lose my room, my food stamps. I’d have nothing. Panic closed my throat and I whimpered for lack of breath.
“Why are you shaking?” He didn’t move away, but his body language changed from swaying sensual sweeps to guarded, more contained.”
“Please. I have to go,” I whispered. “I can’t do this.”
“You are so afraid.”
“I can’t dance. I can’t lose my job.”
His hands tightened on me and I felt a smile press to my temple. “You are no longer working. The day is over. Now, this is me, a man, very attracted to you, and the attraction, I think, is mutual?”
Good God, yes. I swallowed hard.
He stopped dancing and took one small step back so he could look down on me.
My glasses had slipped again so I couldn’t make out the details of his expression, but the smile he wore seemed hazy even without the fog of my poor vision. “What?” I asked him. “What’s wrong?”
“Is it mutual?” He asked.
“Yes!” I swallowed another shocking retort and softened my voice. “Yes. It’s mutual. But…I can’t take the chance. Marcello is so—”
His smile grew, flashed across his face and fell away again. “I know about Marcello. He will have a fit. But he will not fire you. He is not an ogre.”
I was skeptical, and he must have read that because he touched the corner of my mouth with the fingers of his hand, still joined to mine.
“We understand each other, he and I, Dustin. He called this afternoon and told me he was sending a new cleaner. One I might find more agreeable than Tiffany. One I wouldn’t mind if he didn’t clean the corners.” He snickered softly. “When I asked him what he meant, he said to wait and see when I met you, and I would understand.”
“I’m good at my job,” I protested. It didn’t matter that it was a menial one. It gave me pleasure to do it, and to do it right. He’d see that, if he gave me a chance.
“I have no doubt you are. Marcello has very good instincts. He was right. If you never cleaned a single cobweb from my studio, I wouldn’t care. He’s a very smart man. I don’t think that’s why he gave you this contract.”
But Conrad was smiling slyly and pulling me back close to him again.
“You mean he was trying to set us up?”
“Perhaps he was acknowledging your birthday in his own belligerent Italian way. And reminding me there is more to life than dancing.”
And as he said that, he swung me around that studio floor and for those few, precious moments, it was like my feet didn’t even touch the ground.