CHICO WONDERED if it was possible to be lost while knowing exactly where you were. He stared at the exterior of Winters Dance Studio with its fresh coat of white paint and huge flowering rosebushes, and thought about what the hell he was doing here.
The last place he belonged was somewhere like this, even if he had no intention of dancing. The building was midcentury, but not in that 1950s plastic sense. It had been built with sturdy grace, almost like a church among the redwoods.
The trees provided some shade, although there weren’t as many around the studio as there were farther up the road, where the tail end of town became the coastal mountains and forest again. He hadn’t ventured out that far and wasn’t sure he would. Chico liked the trees, but he liked having houses nearby too. If he walked back the way he’d just come, but stuck to the road, he’d end up in the main part of the little town known as Brandywine. But to be honest, that sounded about as exhausting as spending his free time volunteering, or whatever, at Winters Dance Studio.
The studio was larger than some of the other buildings in town. He noticed three separate entrances as he walked up. One was probably for deliveries. The other was a huge set of french doors, currently closed. The door at the front must be the main entrance.
Of course, Chico couldn’t see the other side of the building, but he was guessing it had at least one more door. Signs were up everywhere advertising the school’s annual “graduation” performance, and more posters for a ballet called The Clockwork Dancer, which Chico had never heard of. Not that he knew much about ballet besides once seeing The Nutcracker.
Although only early May, the afternoon sun and his short walk had him sweating and tired. He used to walk everywhere in the city if he couldn’t get John to drive him, which was most of the time. Chico never drove himself in the city because he was terrible at parallel parking, especially on a hill, especially in a hurry. But even walking the steep hills of San Francisco every day didn’t used to leave him this worn out. Maybe his cousin was right, and he’d been spending way too much time inside.
Cars lined the already narrow road. That might be why some people were pulling up to the front and letting their kids out before they either drove home or, if they lived farther away as many of them likely did, went to look for a place to park and wait for their kids to be done.
He should have brought his car or maybe stopped to change out of his work clothes before heading over here. A black dress shirt and black pants weren’t exactly comfortable in the heat or appropriate for whatever work he would end up doing. But he’d been focused on getting this over with and not what it meant to do it.
He made a beeline for the main entrance and sighed when a cool breeze greeted him once inside. The foyer wasn’t large, but it seemed spacious somehow, despite the cabinets and shelves along the walls displaying an obscene amount of trophies and award statues. Those took him by surprise. While Brandywine had a long history as a vacation spot among the redwoods for San Franciscans, it wasn’t where anyone would expect an award-winning dance studio to pop up. The city itself, maybe, or somewhere in the surrounding Bay Area seemed more likely locations. And yet a sign outside proclaimed the studio had been there since 1952.
He saw framed newspaper articles too, as well as photographs and a few items in shadowboxes. He thought one was a pair of satin toe shoes, and he felt even more out of place, because something like that reinforced the idea this place was serious. It wasn’t just a small-time, small-town dance studio where toddlers learned jazz tap and seniors took swing dancing lessons.
A teenage girl exited a room on his left and floated down the hall, completely unconcerned with his presence. They were about the same height, maybe five feet five inches, until she stood up on her toes for a moment, bouncing as if testing her shoes.
Chico stopped to let her pass, then changed his direction. No way was that girl going to wherever the rest of the volunteers were. He paused at a door covered in fliers for dogsitting and a sign-up sheet, and then knocked.
No one answered. He mentally yelled at his cousin, then put his hand on the knob and knocked again. If this place had an office, it had to be close.
The door cracked open.
Chico waited, but when no one yelled at him, he stuck his head in and saw that the room was indeed some kind of office. It held a messy desk, a calendar on the wall, a small whirring desk fan, an empty bench seat opposite the desk, and a sign on the floor that must have fallen. It read “Please Leave Office Door Open During Regular Studio Hours.” Straight ahead was another door, also closed, although he could hear voices coming from the other side of it.
He propped open the door and stepped inside. He could wait on the bench. Or he could leave. Or he could see if his cousin was on the other side of that door, ready to tear him a new one for being late. Davi was convinced Chico would do anything to avoid leaving his apartment, and though his cousin wasn’t entirely wrong, Chico didn’t want to deal with Davi’s expression if he went back to his little converted space above Davi’s garage.
With a sigh, he picked up the sign and left it on the bench. Then he crept forward to the other door. The murmur of many voices on the other side got louder. The people in this town were very serious about their activities and volunteering. He supposed small towns had to be, in order to survive, or maybe it gave the residents something to do. Brandywine wasn’t isolated from the rest of the world, but it didn’t make getting there easy.
The town was about twenty minutes of long, winding road from the coast, or a different thirty minutes of meandering down the mountain to the freeway and the next big town. Surrounded by trees and cabins—with a weird mix of tourists and residents with money, and tourists and residents as broke as Chico—the town got its name from an inn and bar that had once been its largest building.
The scenery was lovely. The name was charming. The people were nice enough. In different circumstances, he might have wanted to vacation here. Some of his old friends used to visit another town nearby for parties once or twice a year. He’d like to see that when he was in a better mood.
But he wasn’t visiting, and Davi thought it was time he met people. So here he was, walking toward a group of volunteers so slowly he might as well have been stuck in cement. He made a small sad sound when he reached the door, but pushed it open to poke his head inside.
The people on the other side of the door froze with him, although distantly he realized this was likely because he had stopped like a deer in the headlights at the sight of so many people—people who were obviously not the group of volunteers.
Somewhere, other people were still chattering excitedly over quiet strains of classical music.
Chico blinked a few times, suddenly, extraordinarily aware once again of how not-small-town he was, not even this one with its hordes of summer tourists from around the country. His wasn’t the only dusky face in a room of pale ones, but there were so few of them he still stood out. Then there was his look—his undercut with glossy loose dark hair on top, the piercings at his ears. At least he hadn’t worn any of his many rings today, not on a workday. Not even to sell men’s shoes at a department store part time.
He hadn’t thought about his rings in a while. Except for the studs currently in his ears, his jewelry was packed away somewhere from his hurried move out of the city. His hair was neat for work, and the earrings he could leave in, but if he hadn’t been forced to leave the house today, he would have been in the shorts he’d slept in for the past four nights.
Oh God, he was a disaster.
“There you are.” A low, husky voice broke through Chico’s moment of self-awareness, but he was still so stunned it took him a second to understand the welcoming words were directed at him.
He couldn’t think of who would say something like that to him, and he turned his head to find out, only to go dry-mouthed when he identified the speaker. He hadn’t gotten this parched and shaky since a sixth grade spelling bee. Not even for coming out to his parents, but he’d had Davi to take some of the heat, since the year before, Davi had announced he was trans, and the family had collectively lost their shit.
At the other side of the room stood a man with a calm manner, dark hair, a clean-shaven face, and a dancer’s body. Chico didn’t know much about dancers, but he instantly identified the slim but muscular figure, the strong shoulders and arms, and the ridiculous thighs in his fitted pants. The man wore an athletic shirt in navy blue, but otherwise wasn’t dressed how Chico had imagined a dance teacher would dress.
But he was definitely the instructor. For one thing, he didn’t have a partner. For another, everyone else in the room turned toward him when he spoke, before looking back at Chico.
Chico would have liked to say he didn’t know the man, but he remembered only too well how he’d run into him on his first day in town. Brandywine proper had about six streets, but the tiny roads through the trees that led to the houses outside of town could be difficult to find. Chico had gotten thoroughly lost and finally parked his little hatchback covered in rainbow flag stickers in front of the grocery store and begged for directions from the first person he’d found.
That man. Of course Chico had picked that man when exhausted to the point of tears by the move and the long drive and then getting lost, wearing a tight pair of shorts John had hated, and a lavender mesh T-shirt Chico bought to be ironic and then put on because he hadn’t cared about anything anymore. He had picked a handsome, clean-cut man with hazel eyes and dark brown hair slivered with gray to practically cry on as he tried to explain how he was looking for Davi’s house, could someone please tell him where Alberi Lane was, please, he just wanted to go home. And that man had come over and told Chico that he lived on Alberi Lane, and he could tell him how to get there, no problem, don’t worry, and Chico had felt like an idiot for being on the verge of a breakdown over something as simple as directions.
He had tried to block out the memory, but the man’s calm manner was a painful reminder of what a fool Chico had made of himself. The dance teacher was probably in his late thirties and gorgeous and controlled, and, shit, he could have been one of the Winterses who owned this place. No one like that would understand how someone could be Chico’s age and yet such a complete failure at life.
He had also started moving toward Chico in the time Chico had been gaping stupidly at him.
“Come on,” the man said, and extended his hand in a graceful movement reminiscent of a Disney prince. He stopped in front of Chico and smiled at him so warmly Chico almost turned to look behind him to see who else was there.
“Don’t be shy,” the man added, when Chico couldn’t remember how to make words come out of his mouth. He shook his head, as if part of him wanted to deny being shy, and the man took that as a sign Chico needed more of that soothing tone directed at him. “Don’t worry about being late or not having a partner. You can still learn.” He put a hand over the one Chico had on the doorknob and pulled it gently away.
Chico found his voice at last. “Oh.” That hand was as warm as the man’s voice, as controlled and sure, and Chico couldn’t remember ever fixating on a hand this much. But it had been nearly six months since the last time anyone had touched him in something other than a hug. “Okay,” he agreed blankly, then shook his head. “No, wait. I’m lost again. I’m not here for a—”
He wheezed to a stop when the man clasped both of his hands around Chico’s suddenly much smaller hand. The dance teacher was about five or six inches taller than Chico, and he carried himself with the kind of posture that gave him height, or presence. Or maybe that was his body, toned and sunkissed and casually strong.
Chico didn’t realize he’d been led away from the door until he was in the center of the room.
The people in the class had all stopped dancing and talking and were facing him—facing their instructor. Chico glanced quickly around at the framed posters on three of the walls, the mp3 player and speakers, the windows opened to catch the breeze, and then the last wall, almost entirely mirrored from floor to ceiling. It even had one of those barre things ballerinas used in movies.
He caught sight of his slight figure, absolutely dwarfed by the heavy black shirt and pants required for work. Even his wrists seemed too thin, reminding him once more of Davi accusing him of giving up, telling him he needed to get out more, to eat, to at least buy groceries once in a while.
His eyes were huge, and he parted his lips to take a deep, fast breath, unsure when he’d gone from looking like an aging twink to someone so waifish and lost. His skin was golden brown, though nowhere near as dark as he normally got in the summer when his Portuguese heritage made itself known. Black was not his best color, although he couldn’t help that part. The department store required he dress in black, and it had been the first place to offer him work in his weeks in Brandywine. Chico needed the paycheck.
He glanced up at the reflection and watched the dance teacher come around to stand behind him. A moment later he felt the heat of him. He quickly turned away from the mirror, almost afraid to find out what he looked like with that man at his back.
He felt like he was shaking, but maybe that was only inside where no one could see. Then a strong hand pressed against his side, and he stopped breathing. He was shaking all right, and he thought the hand was meant to calm him. As if Chico was only anxious about a dance class. The last time someone had touched him without it being purely friendly had been just before Thanksgiving.
Before that… before that there hadn’t been much, something Chico hadn’t let himself think about until it was too late not to. The thought of his last fuck with John usually left him cold and sick, obsessively worrying over every moment, every silent lie, wondering if everything had been pity by then.
But the hand at his side dropped to his hip and splayed out wide, and the instructor stepped in until they were almost pressed together. Chico lifted his head, and the instructor’s breath tickled his neck when the man lowered his head to whisper in his ear. “Don’t be nervous,” he advised, attuned to Chico’s mood but not understanding the cause. He seemed so concerned. “Everyone here is a beginner, and I’m here to help.”
“O… okay,” Chico agreed, although he hadn’t come here for a dance lesson. He couldn’t move his feet away. That hand was firm at his hip, and he liked it there. He hadn’t felt anything like desire in months, and now his body was making its needs known. It didn’t help that every time he trembled or lifted his head, the man was there, trying to reassure him, as if he could read Chico’s body better than Chico could.
“I’ll show you what to do,” the instructor promised, possibly the greatest teacher in the world, and Chico wet his lips and nodded along. Despite himself, he glanced back to the mirror and could barely breathe at how tiny he seemed, how delicate to be held in place by one hand.
The teacher raised his head. “Everyone, this is Francisco.” He introduced Chico to the group while also making Chico jump at the sound of his given name. “If he agrees, I’ll use him to show you the proper arm positions again. Is that all right, Francisco?”
In a town like this, of course he would know Chico’s name. Everyone would know. But Chico returned to his senses at the sound of those hated syllables and he tilted his head up. “Chico,” he corrected, with a trace of rudeness in his voice he didn’t mean. He made sure to soften his tone, and his pronunciation, so the word was Portuguese and not Spanish. “Sheeco. Nobody calls me Francisco but my mother and bill collectors.” The breathless note in his voice would have been alarming if he hadn’t already been shaking over everything else.
The instructor squeezed Chico’s hip, perhaps in apology, and took his hand away. Chico clenched his jaw to keep anything else breathless from slipping out, and shivered wildly when that hand returned to him. This time two hands curled around his ribs. They slid up, slowly, too slowly to be real, and then came up to raise his arms. He was arranged just so, lightly, with care, and then the teacher withdrew his presence at Chico’s back and walked around in front of him.
Chico met his gaze for a few seconds. The teacher’s lips parted, and he pulled in a breath before he faced his class again. “There’s a reason we start our summer dance classes with the waltz. It’s easy and there’s absolutely no pressure.”
“Waltz?” Chico noticed the classical music all over again. How had he wandered into a ballroom dancing class? He wasn’t old, or half of a bored married couple, or a straight groom worried about the first dance at his wedding. Although he belatedly realized the class was mostly younger people, and the senior citizens in attendance probably already knew the steps and were taking the class for exercise.
“A slow waltz, for now anyway.” The teacher carefully picked up Chico’s hand, where Chico had obediently left it poised in midair, and placed it on his shoulder. The skin there was bare, hot, either from the weather or all the dancing the man had done already. He pulled Chico’s other hand up a little higher while Chico blinked at him in stunned surprise, then opened his hand so Chico’s fingers curled around his palm.
Chico was dancing the girl’s part, but no one was laughing or saying shit about it. They were all taking similar positions, as if this was a cue.
“Wait.” Chico’s word caught in his throat when hazel eyes focused on him. They were mostly brown with flecks of dark green, yet somehow clear. “Uh. This isn’t… I don’t know how.”
That got him a curved smile and a whispered answer, just for him. “No one else here does either. They’re learning right now. You’ll be fine.”
He was so certain. Chico nodded before he remembered himself. “What do I do?”
“Aren’t you a brave one?” No one should be able to put that much encouragement and confidence in their voice and still sound gentle. The dance teacher was some kind of sexy dancer whisperer. “You’re going to move backward without looking behind you, which might make you nervous, but I’ve got you. I promise I won’t let you fall or bump into anything. Okay?”
His smile was like cinnamon coffee. People probably took these classes just to see that smile. In another life, Chico might have been one of them. Before John, maybe, or sometime in the future, when Chico wasn’t a wreck who could barely dress himself for work.
The teacher gripped Chico’s hand tighter for one brief moment and then raised his voice.
“Everyone, remember what we talked about. This is a simple box step. Traditionally men are the top of the box, but if you want to mix that up, feel free.” Some people let out a small laugh at that, especially the two women dancing together. Chico wanted to laugh too, but he knew it would come out too loud, too desperate, like any kind of top and bottom joke he could have made. Innuendo-laden flirting had never been his style, and he didn’t know what he was thinking to even vaguely contemplate flirting with anyone.
He stared up without saying a word, wishing he knew the right thing to say or do, and the instructor inclined his head toward him. He acted as if he was still addressing the class, but Chico felt like this instruction was for his benefit. “It’s called the box step because we’re moving our feet in a square. I’m going to show you the movements one more time, and then you get to practice for a while.”
He pulled their clasped hands up higher, a move that brought him closer to Chico by barely an inch but felt like much more than that. Maybe it was the way it forced Chico to stand up straight, with his shoulders back. Their chests were nearly touching. He took a deep breath, and his other hand fell from the instructor’s shoulder to his bicep.
“That’s it.” The man had the gentle, patient teacher tone down perfectly. The words should have been impersonal, professional, but Chico shivered all over again and lowered his gaze to the man’s collarbone. Then he looked right back up to his face in disbelief when his teacher moved forward and nudged Chico’s shoe with his.
“This is ridiculous.” Chico managed a full sentence, but moved his foot in response to the hint, and for a moment they were close again, closer than before. He dragged in a breath and then stepped to the side when led that way. He was a second behind, but he went, following when they came forward again and then to the side once more before stopping. That was when he stumbled, surprised they were no longer moving.
“He’s a natural.” The teacher angled his head up to tell the crowd. He said it easily too, like he meant it. Unlike everyone else in the room, he wasn’t looking at his feet or thinking about what his body was doing. He was staring at Chico and complimenting him.
Chico unexpectedly felt himself warming up and was grateful a blush would hardly show in his features.
“No, no, no,” he argued earnestly. “I’m really not. Not a natural at this or anything.” He tugged on their joined hands, then skittered back a step when that only brought their bodies closer to together, as if he’d been leading that time. He glanced around in total embarrassment, but the others seemed to be focused on their own foot placement and hand positions. “What am I doing? Oh my God. I’m sorry.” He tugged on his hand again, and this time it was released. “I didn’t actually come here to dance.”
“But you’re here now.” The reasonable answer was the most confusing sentence Chico had ever heard in his life. It was so simple and logical his brain wouldn’t process it for a moment.
He tossed his head. “The last thing I need right now is….” Chico wisely stopped there, and took a moment to swallow and wet his mouth. “I have to go. I was supposed to find—” He decided against asking this man for directions yet again, considering the way the last time had turned out. “Uh, thank you for the lesson,” he finished, stilted and impossible and kind of hating the person he’d turned into for the few seconds it took him to take his other hand from that warm skin and hurry to the door.