Finding Your Feet (A Toronto Connections Novel)
This title is part of the Toronto Connections universe.
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While on holiday in Toronto, Evie Whitmore planned to sightsee and meet other asexuals, not audition for a dance competition. Now she’s representing Toronto’s newest queer dance studio, despite never having danced before. Not only does she have to spend hours learning her routine, she has to do it with one of the grumpiest men she’s ever met. Tyler turns out to be more than a dedicated dancer, though—he might be the kind of man who can sweep her off her feet, literally and figuratively.
Tyler Davis has spent the last year recovering from an emotionally abusive relationship. So he doesn’t need to be pushed into a rushed routine for a dumb competition. Ticking major representation boxes for being trans and biracial isn’t why he went into dance. But Evie turns out to be a dream student. In fact, she helps him remember just how good partnering can be, in all senses of the word. Teaching her the routine, however, raises ghosts for him, ones he’s not sure he can handle.
Plans change, and people change with them. Learning a few steps is one thing; learning to trust again is another entirely.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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This was potentially the most stupid thing Evie had ever done.
She looked at the status board above the baggage carousel and sighed. Delayed. Of course. She was overcaffeinated, underslept, in a city very far from home, and somewhat uncertain about her accommodation arrangements, so of course the airline was sending her luggage the long route to the carousel. One m ore thing between her and a bed.
She stretched her arms out to ease the stiffness from the flight and caught a whiff of ten hours’ sweat and three mugs of airline tea. Delightful. So she could add a shower to the list of things between her and rest. Evie closed her eyes. I must be mad. How did I end up here?
A whim. That was how she had ended up in a Canadian airport at nine o’clock in the morning instead of looking for work at home in rain-ridden Blighty. A whim suggested by Sarah, sure, but Evie had made the decision to indulge it.
Thing was, she’d forgotten she didn’t do whims. When she did, she planned. She liked plans. She’d had a great plan, actually. One that had started out wonderfully about two months ago: an acceptance into the master’s course she wanted at the University of Toronto. Superb. The logical next steps had been quitting her job in a few months’ time, allowing for the notice period and the couple of weeks necessary to pack her things, cancel her lease, and say good-bye to her friends, family, and country. Then she’d start her degree in Canada, arrange a few internships, perhaps do the touristy stuff, and see what the new qualification would bring. That had been The Plan.
But then The Plan had gone to shit. Her company had gone into receivership and kicked everyone to the curb. Evie had found herself facing four months of summer in York waiting for the settlement payout because she couldn’t formally move to Toronto while her student visa was still processing. Her parents had called her every other day asking for updates. Her brother, Richard, had teased her about being an unemployed bum. Her options, she’d been told, were hanging around at home living off her savings, travelling for a while (on those savings), or working a scummy retail job to build up her savings.
Or moving back in with her mother and stepfather for the summer and not touching her savings. Not even an option.
So here she was. Only for two weeks, because of visa issues, but at least she was out of York and away from her family’s questions and fuss. Two whole weeks of getting away from life. Two whole weeks to see if Toronto was all she hoped it would be.
Evie scowled at the empty carousel. Sarah would be waiting for a while. If she was waiting.
It felt weird calling her Sarah. They were Tumblr friends, and Evie knew her better as her username, gaybeard-the-great, or simply Gaybeard. Despite having emailed each other for a few years now, it was dawning on Evie that while she knew Sarah’s favourite food, and the actors she’d bang if she was at all interested in doing so, and her personal journey to queerdom, Evie didn’t know that much real-life stuff about Sarah. She did something vague for a law firm, lived with Bailey, her long-term queerplatonic artist partner, was originally from some “asshole hick town in the asshole hick wild,” liked bad movies, and her last name was Delaney.
Sarah had also been super supportive; she’d gushed her sympathies about the job and suggested Evie come over early for Pride, because Toronto did Pride amazingly well and they could finally meet in person and Evie could totally stay with Sarah, who’d introduce her to the city. Yes, all very well and good, but now that Evie was thinking about it, agreeing to stay with someone from the internet whom she didn’t know that much about was pretty dumb.
Oh God, this was a mistake.
Evie felt light-headed. She sank down on her heels and hugged her backpack tightly. Working scummy retail for a summer suddenly looked quite sensible, despite the teasing she’d have received from Rich. Save a bit more money before she moved to Canada properly, keep herself busy, do the adult and responsible thing. She was twenty-six for Christ’s sake. Why hadn’t she done that? What was she doing? How was this a good idea? What the hell had she been thinking? How was she sitting on an airport floor in bloody Toronto at the age of twenty-six without a job or a plan or her luggage or a definite place to stay?
She needed a cup of fucking tea.
The carousel alarm sounded. The belt started moving. Bags emerged.
Right. She could do this. New plan: she was going to collect her suitcase, walk out, and see what happened. If Sarah was there, great. If not, she had the address of a hostel written in her diary. There. Things would be fine. Just fine. She would deal. Because that was what adults did. They dealt. They didn’t sit on the floor and bemoan a lack of tea.
She collected her suitcase and turned towards the exit, hoping that . . . that . . . well, that whatever happened, there would at least be a café selling tea in Arrivals.
Coming out of Arrivals, she discovered there was no café. There was, however, someone standing in an oddly wide gap in the crowd with a massive, glittery purple and black sign screaming WELCOME QUEEN EVAZILLA over a stencil of Godzilla. Queen-evazilla was Evie’s Tumblr name. The dark-haired woman holding it bounced up and down at the sight of her, waving furiously. Aha. That would be Sarah. The dapper person standing a few feet away from Sarah—a stuffed Godzilla toy in hand and a stoically blank expression on their face—had to be Bailey.
No one had ever met her at an airport like this. Not with glitter.
A small thrill ran through her. Sarah and Bailey were real. Evie waved and headed towards them.
“Oh my God,” Sarah shrieked as Evie reached them. “I can’t believe you’re here!”
“Hey, Gaybeard.” Evie extended her hand, only to find herself engulfed in a massive hug. Sarah was tall, her long arms crushing Evie to her. “Pleasure to meet you,” Evie choked into Sarah’s shoulder.
“You too! Oh wow, it’s so great to finally see you in person!” Sarah released her and turned to Bailey. “This is Bailey.”
Sarah had described Bailey Girelli as “sweet and wonderful and a good dresser.” Obvious bias aside, Evie had dutifully followed Bailey on Tumblr but hadn’t ever emailed or seen pictures of them, so she wasn’t sure what to expect. They’d certainly delivered on the outfit score: a dandy pinstripe suit; shiny brogues; half-shaved, gel-slicked do of violet curls visible under the brim of a derby hat; and purple eyeliner. Evie felt like a grubby mess next to them.
Bailey raised one hand. “Hey.”
“Hello.” They held out the toy, and Evie took it, smiling at the asexual flag badge on Godzilla’s chest. “Thank you.”
“I saw it in a shop and I had to get it for you.” Sarah waved the glittery sign. “Bailey did the sign.”
“Yeah,” Bailey said. They ducked their head so their face was hidden by their hat brim; whether out of shyness or embarrassment wasn’t clear to Evie. “It was fun.”
“I love the sign. Very, uh, distinctive.” It was certainly growing on her.
“Listen to that accent!” Sarah’s eyes were wide. “You sound so polite. ‘I love the sign,’” she mimicked. “‘Very distinctive.’ Oh my God. You sound like the Queen.”
Evie had to laugh. She lived in York now but had been born and raised in Devon. Her accent was an unholy mongrel of two very different English counties with the odd London twist tossed in. “I assure you, I sound nothing like the Queen.”
“I can’t wait for you to meet everyone.” Sarah took Evie’s suitcase in hand, and they turned towards the exit. “They’re going to love you. This is going to be the best Pride ever. I’ve talked to some of the other Tumblr aces and we’re doing a meet-up next week and you’re totally, like, the British representative. Plus I can’t wait to take you around your new city. Oh my God, I can’t believe you’re gonna live here.” She skipped, giddy as a little girl. “We have so much planned for you. Wow, I am so excited you’re here!”
Evie could well believe it.
“You look so fresh! Did you sleep on the plane?”
“That’s a shame. Oh hey, we can take you to Timmies!”
Sarah looked at her, aghast. “You don’t know Tim Hortons?”
“They sell coffee,” Bailey supplied.
“And doughnuts,” Sarah added.
“And Timbits,” Bailey said excitedly.
“They’re the doughnut holes.” Sarah said it as if that explained something.
Evie’s head was spinning already, and it was only nine—she checked—thirty. “Coffee would be wonderful.” She wondered if this Tim place also served tea and if that was an acceptable alternative to coffee in Canada. They stepped out of the terminal into the tepid morning air, and Evie took a deep breath. Toronto tasted damp and urban and new.
“This is your first time in Canada, right?” Sarah asked as they walked to the slab of a car park towering next to the terminal building.
“Yes.” Evie scanned the area. Apart from the currency denomination and the word choice, everything around the terminal looked fairly . . . familiar, actually. Airports were the same everywhere.
Sarah paid for the parking, took the slip, and walked out into the darkness of the concrete slab, chattering the entire way. In the middle of promises to visit Niagara Falls and eat poutine, “Hungry Eyes” chimed thinly from Sarah’s purse, and she reached in with one hand. She cut the call and glanced at Bailey. “Tyler.”
“I’ll call him back later. So, Evie, you vegetarian or vegan?”
“Neither, but flexible.”
Sarah laughed at that for some reason. “You’re in good company.” They reached a two-door hatchback that had seen better days, perhaps back in the early nineties. Sarah put her suitcase in the boot of the car while Bailey opened the car door and pushed the seat forward.
“Now,” Sarah said, rounding the car and pointing at what Evie assumed was the backseat under a pile of jumpers and discarded chocolate wrappers, “sit your tush down and we’ll get this show on the road.”
Evie squeezed in and gingerly sat in a clearish space. Things rustled. Something squeaked. Sarah and Bailey settled into the car and turned on the radio. The melodious notes of Tom Waits drifted through the car as Sarah screeched into reverse.
Evie made more space among the jumpers as they left the car park, and tried to relax. So far so good. When Sarah took a corner sharply, Evie excavated the seatbelt, hugged Godzilla tight, and allowed herself to feel optimistic. It was, at the very least, an improvement on uncertain.
* * * * * * *
Tyler shifted in his chair and took another sip of coffee. Just after nine o’clock, which meant Derek was officially late to his own meeting. Again. The other dancers and instructors milled around the studio, stretching and showing off—those that weren’t still waking up in their seats like Tyler. Gigi was trying to out-fouetté Eddie in the corner, which was never a good start to any day. Carmen sat next to him, looking as awake as Tyler wasn’t. He shrank deeper into his hoodie and curled his hands around his coffee cup.
Derek’s wife, Jean, checked her watch and pulled out her phone, then strode out the door. Carmen leaned over to Tyler. “He’s in trouble now.”
Like Tyler had any sympathy for the guy. “It’s my day off. Jean’s not the only one who’s going to ream Derek’s ass if he’s not here soon.”
“Ohhh, who’s a grumpy baby?” she cooed, pinching his cheek.
He jerked his head away from her hands. “Knock it off.”
“Watch your fingers, Carmen, he bites.” Gigi plunked himself into the chair next to Tyler. He looked annoyed, which meant Eddie had pulled off a ridiculous number of fouettés again.
“How many this time?” Tyler asked.
“Ten doubles from a grande plié.” His lip curled. “I don’t understand why Monster Thighs Eddie can do it and I can’t.”
“She’s got more leg muscle than you and me combined, that’s why,” Carmen said.
“She’s actually good,” Tyler said.
Gigi glared at him. “Oooh, someone woke up on the asshole side of the bed this morning.”
Couldn’t anyone give him a break? Weren’t these clowns meant to be his friends? He slouched further into the chair. “It’s my day off. I’m not supposed to be awake, man.”
“I am good.” Eddie leaned on the back of Gigi’s chair, her red hair dark with sweat. “So, anyone know why Derek called this meeting?”
“Maybe he ordered more classy merchandise.” Gigi held up his key ring, which said QS Dance in gaudy rainbow letters.
Those keyrings had proved to be an epic marketing disaster. Derek and Jean had set Queer Space Dance up as an integrative, diverse, and LGBTQ-friendly dance company and school, but as it turned out, that didn’t necessarily mean their dancers and students wanted that friendliness screamed from their keys.
“I saw five boxes of those in the stationery cupboard,” Carmen said.
“I’m supposed to be rehearsing,” Eddie moaned.
“I’m supposed to be in bed,” Tyler said.
Gigi’s glare turned into a concerned frown. “You know, you really don’t look so great. I don’t know why I’m even asking, but were you out last night?”
Tyler shook his head. “Stayed in.”
Maybe that was the problem. He stayed in too much now. He hadn’t been out as much since breaking up with his girlfriend, Lucette, a year ago. At first it had felt necessary to keep to himself and focus on work, but maybe he was too used to it now. The thought of barhopping with friends was starting to have its appeal again, but those same friends were adamant he meet someone new. His stomach turned at the thought. Friends from his transgender artists group understood, but Gigi and Sarah, friends from college, alas, did not.
Gigi scowled and opened his mouth, but whatever he was going to say was interrupted by the studio door opening. The buzz died as Jean and Derek came into the room, Derek carrying his own cup of coffee and Jean looking pissed. She sat down immediately, arms crossed and back absolutely straight.
Derek waved for attention. “Sorry I’m late, everyone!” The dancers stretching along the barre at the back of the studio eased up. He grinned at them all. “Thanks for coming to this meeting on such short notice.”
“Thanks for showing up,” someone muttered audibly in the back.
“I just wanted to tell you I’ve put QS Dance forward for a new, very last-minute event. It’s really exciting, and I wanted you all to have a chance to participate.” Derek paused, building anticipation.
He threw out his hands, coffee sloshing in his cup. “QS Dance, in direct competition with Cherry Studios, is having a dance-off at this year’s Pride!”
Tyler sank down further in his chair. Oh Lord, no. No way in hell was he competing against dancers from the biggest dance school on this side of Toronto. Around him, he could see others reaching the same conclusion and avoiding eye contact with Derek.
“But there’s a twist!” Derek continued. “The dance-off is partnered. Three instructors will each be paired with a member of the public, teach them a routine the week before Pride, i.e., next week, then perform at the dance-off. The couple with the best moves wins. Three dancers from each school. You get to showcase your moves and your teaching skills!”
Everyone looked aghast. Tyler pulled his hood over his face. Teach some random yahoo to dance? In a week? Against, never forget, one of the biggest dance schools in Toronto? Normally Tyler was all for dance competitions, but this was a mistake waiting to happen. What was Derek thinking?
“Public auditions are being held the day after tomorrow, so you need to decide now if you want to join in,” Derek said. “Anyone can do this. Anyone at all. Given it’s for Pride, it’s going to feature LGBT people; that’s literally the only condition for the couples. You can dance any style you like.” He glanced around the room, taking in the reaction. An eyebrow quirked. “You will, of course, be paid one and a half your going rate for your time.”
Tyler noticed a few people nearby instantly looking more thoughtful.
“It’s a great opportunity to show Toronto what our little school can do,” Derek said, apparently moving on to the inspirational part of his speech. “We’re progressive! We’re forward-thinking! We’re diverse and dedicated! Not even Cherry Studios offers the focused classes and talent that we have. Frankly, we can win this. I have no doubt that we can. So,” he scanned the room, “volunteers?”
Next to Tyler, Gigi’s hand shot up.
Tyler stared at him as Derek gave a one-handed fist-pump. “Gigi, awesome! Who else?”
“Are you kidding me?” Tyler hissed at Gigi.
Gigi’s eyes went big and innocent. “What do you mean?”
“Cherry Studios. Cherry Studios. They’re going to cream us.”
Gigi leered. “Not if I cream them first.”
Carmen also volunteered, and Jean wrote down her name. Tyler was sitting between Carmen and Gigi, and Derek’s eyes almost naturally latched on to his. Almost. Tyler’s stomach plummeted. Derek grinned wolfishly. “Tyler! Good man!”
Everyone was looking at him. Tyler stared back at Derek. “You can’t be serious.”
“Write his name down, Jean,” Derek said, ignoring him. Jean’s pen flickered.
Tyler turned to Eddie. “He can’t be serious.”
Eddie’s expression said she was reluctantly impressed. “Oh, he is.”
“Fantastic, everyone! Thank you so much!” Derek beamed at the crowd, and Tyler felt like throwing his coffee into the guy’s face. “Time to rock on with our day. Gigi, Carmen, Tyler, stay after, please.”
Tyler closed his eyes and leaned his head back. “This is supposed to be my day off,” he groaned as people gathered their things and left.
“Quit whining,” Eddie said, patting his shoulder. “It’ll be fun.”
“And for me,” Gigi said dreamily. “Maybe I can teach some scruffy bear cub how to tango.”
Carmen snorted. “And you wonder why you’re still single.”
Tyler opened his eyes and watched the other dancers leave. A few of them smirked at him, and he glared back.
Eddie poked Gigi on her way out. “Take this seriously.”
Gigi gasped with mock outrage. “Since when don’t I?”
“Since always, Gigi,” Derek said, approaching them.
Carmen stood, elegant in her bun and favourite red flamenco skirt. Noticing her poise and easy femininity, Tyler felt a bite of old conflicted feelings that eased into gentle reassurance and admiration. She caught him staring and smiled. He smiled back and turned to Derek as Jean closed the door and joined them.
“I’m so glad you three volunteered,” Derek began.
“Hey.” Tyler leaned forward. “I didn’t—”
“It’s a crazy good opportunity,” Derek continued, “for you and for QS. The publicity alone is going to be worth it. I’m so excited it’s you three, honestly.”
Jean passed out three sheets of paper. “This is more information from Pride about the event and this year’s theme. It should help you with the choreography.”
“Remember,” Derek said, “you’ll be working with people who’ve never danced before. It’s between you and them how much time you devote to this, but you only have a week to learn a routine.”
Gigi’s hand shot up. “What about our classes and other jobs?”
Jean pulled out another set of sheets. “Completely up to you. As long as the classes at QS are covered, I don’t care how you manage your time. You will be paid for your rehearsals, though, if that helps you prioritize things. I will expect a log sheet from each of you.” She handed those out too.
“These auditions,” Carmen asked, “do we get to choose who we’re teaching?”
Derek shook his head. “You get input, but no, Justine from Cherry Studios and I will be overseeing the auditions. You need to be there to meet and organize schedules with your partners, but we’ll have final say over who’s chosen. You might end up with someone completely different than you or,” he eyed Gigi, “someone very similar to you. Pride said they want to see queer people on the stage. They want representation and diversity.”
Tyler figured they’d certainly have that. Gigi was white but had never seen the inside of the closet, Tyler was half black and transgender, and Carmen was Spanish Canadian. Tyler wasn’t sure of her orientation and was fairly certain she was cisgender, but she was a nice person who would work with anyone and everyone.
Time to pin Derek to the wall. “Derek?” he asked. “A word? Outside?”
In the corridor, Derek crossed his arms and leaned against the door. Tyler took a moment to calm his anger and nerves. He opened his mouth to tell Derek that this wasn’t a good time for him, that partnering was a bad idea, that this was going over a line, that he just wasn’t ready—
“I’m sorry, Tyler,” Derek said, taking the wind out of Tyler’s sails.
Goddamn it. The worst thing about Derek, far worse than his lack of punctuality or misunderstanding of the word volunteer, was how genuinely nice a person he could be.
“That was a shit thing to do, man.”
“Yeah. But I mean it—you’re perfect for this. You’re exactly what this competition needs. And it would be an excellent opportunity for you.”
Tyler was unconvinced. “If it was any other school, maybe. Cherry Studios? I say this with total respect, but are you high?”
Derek grinned. “It’s a challenge, but you and Carmen are up for it.” He glanced at the door to the studio. “Gigi would be too if he could stop flitting around for five minutes and focus.”
Tyler drew himself up and stared Derek straight in the eye. “I don’t want to do it.”
Derek leaned towards him. “I get it, Tyler. You know Lucette’s no longer with Cherry? Justine said she found work with another dance company in Vancouver. So, no worries, she won’t be one of the Cherry dancers, and oooh, wait, before you get that look on your face—”
What look? What fresh bullshit is this?
“—yes, that look, I’m certain this will be a great thing for you.” Derek put a reassuring hand on Tyler’s shoulder. “You have talent, Tyler. You need to put yourself out there and show everyone else that. Put Lucette behind you. I know it’s been a rough year for you, but I think this could help.”
Fuck. Trust Derek to deliver the solid emotional goods. He knew the mere potential of Luce’s presence would be an issue. Damn him for thinking of everything. Tyler was almost convinced this was an okay idea now.
Derek’s hazel eyes burrowed into his. “I know you can win this thing. I know it. And here’s the thing Tyler: I think you know it too. So how about it?”
Tyler’s mouth twisted. Derek maybe had some reasonable points. And it would be a fun challenge, provided he got the right person. Oh, fuck it. “Fine.”
The guy actually victory-punched the air. “Yes!”
“On one condition: no girls.”
Derek’s eyebrows flew up towards what was left of his hairline. “Huh?”
Tyler meant it. “No girls. I want to teach a guy.”
“Not sure I can promise that, Tyler. Can’t discriminate like that.”
“But it’s not—” His brain caught up with his mouth. “Fuck, I mean, not like that, no, just not—”
Derek nodded, uncharacteristically serious. “I know what you meant. I can’t guarantee anything, because honestly? I think what you need is another female partner. You need to get over Lucette and whatever she did to you. Get back on the horse, as the saying goes.”
Tyler knew that, but it was somewhat humiliating to hear it from his boss of all people.
“Sorry, buddy, but you can’t control this. Just roll with it. Read the sheet.” He tapped the papers in Tyler’s hands. “Get some choreography down ahead of time. And none of that interpretive shit you like—do something for the crowd.”
Derek smiled encouragingly at him, then went back into the studio. Tyler stared down at the information sheet in front him. Auditions: 9 a.m.–1 p.m., University of Toronto St. George Campus, Front Campus (King’s College Circuit). Dance styles: any suitable for performance in public with a partner. Please keep the abilities of your partner in mind. PrideTO hopes to raise awareness during the event for the PrideTO charity fund for homeless LGBTQA2S teens. Theme: Fierce.
What the hell? Would anyone actually go for this? His heart sank. Fuck. He was going to end up with a fifteen-year-old who was more flexible than him and would flake after two sessions. Or a creeper. Or a fortysomething in the middle of a life crisis. Like hell he’d let himself be paired with someone like that. There were only so many crises a guy could handle at once.
He pulled out his phone—venting was needed. He scrolled through his list and went straight to Sarah. The woman was made of sunshine and empathy, and she hated Lucette more than he did. He dialled, but she didn’t answer. A memory wormed into place from the last time they’d spoken. Something about a friend? Going to the airport? She was picking someone up. Damn it.
Derek opened the door. “Get back in here. I’m not done talking.”
Tyler bit his tongue and silently made peace with the fact that the next two weeks of his life were going to be crappier than normal. At least it couldn’t get worse.
He re-entered the studio, only to be presented with another form from Jean. “What’s this for?” he asked, scanning it. Personal Release Form? What does that mean?
Jean said blandly, “Katie asked that I distribute these to you.”
“The director of the documentary team.”
Documentary team? Tyler looked over at Gigi, who was scribbling his name on the form while Carmen read hers carefully. “People will be filming us?”
“Yup,” Derek said. “Katie is Justine’s daughter. She’s doing a film degree at U of T and wants to document the practice sessions and performances for a project.”
Tyler stared at the form. He wanted nothing more than to shred all the paper in his hand and throw it over Jean and Derek.
“Remember, one-and-a-half times your going rate,” Jean murmured to him, holding out a pen.
He looked into her sympathetic eyes.
“This ridiculousness will be over by next Saturday. That’s what I’m telling myself. I’ll let you take the following week off from teaching. Paid.”
Okay, now he just wanted to throw everything over Derek. He sighed, took the pen, and signed.
Evie had heard all the stories of Canadian weather: the perpetual cold and snow and apparently inadequate summer. Thus far she’d found that the summer part at least was completely wrong. She and Bailey were having late-morning coffee in the greenery near the University of Toronto, basking in the sun and enjoying a small, warm breeze. She was wearing fewer layers than she ever had in the UK, while Bailey had made a deference to the warmth by wearing tailored, cuffed shorts and rolling up their sleeves. Hardly inadequate at all.
In fact, nothing she’d seen so far could be described like that. Here in the greenery was downright pleasant. There was a small market at one edge of the park, with pastry stands, farm groups offering vegetable deliveries, and one stall offering a free go on a dance machine. She could see the banner asking passersby, So You Think You Can Dance?
Bailey tipped their coffee at the stall. “Not sure how legal that is.”
“It’s not the official dancing show?”
Wait, hadn’t Sarah mentioned something about this? Evie’s jet lag was minimal, but the last two days had been an absolute whirl of activity. Sarah and Bailey couldn’t be better hosts, and Evie wanted to smack her paranoid airport self for doubting them.
The first day had been a feat in keeping Evie awake long enough to offset the jet lag. After dumping Evie’s luggage at Sarah’s flat, Sarah and Bailey had delivered her to the promised Tim Hortons—which turned out to be a coffee shop chain selling okay coffee and amazing doughnuts—then walked her around the centre of Toronto.
Yesterday they’d toured more of the city, and Evie was all walked out now. They’d visited Casa Loma, various art galleries, strolled down Church Street and eyed all the rainbows, passed through Yonge-Dundas Square into the largest, most decadent shopping centre Evie had ever seen outside of London, through the financial district, dipped by the waterfront, walked along Queen Street (which apparently had the longest streetcar—not tram, she had to remember that—route in the world, a fact Evie intended to google), up through Chinatown and Kensington Market.
She liked Toronto very much.
The city horizon ranged beyond the boundaries of the university park. Evie pulled her camera and Godzilla from her backpack to take a picture of him with the Toronto skyline. The toy had become something of a mascot for her trip pictures. Bailey snuffled in amusement as she took the photo and reviewed it. The buildings were huge, shiny things that reminded her of the City in London. Like London, the architecture varied dramatically from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, getting smaller and more residential the farther one travelled from the city centre. Unlike London (and pretty much anywhere in the UK) the roads were huge and so were the pavements. Evie was used to tiny roads modernized from carriage paths; here there was just so much space. Everything about this new, big city demanded similarly brave, shiny things from her. Things like moving away to a new country to try a different, maybe better life in a place she could barely take in, and being independent and positive about it despite being an ocean away from nearly everyone she knew. She could do it. Maybe. She had to, because this was a promise to herself to try for brighter things.
The dance stall still nagged at her. Why? What was it?
Yesterday, while staring at the art car in Kensington Market, Sarah’s phone had rung: “Hungry Eyes” again. She’d turned away to answer. “Hey, Tyler.”
Evie had briefly wondered who Tyler was, because he—or she, because wasn’t Tyler a girl’s name too now?—seemed close to Sarah and kept calling her. Perhaps he or she was another Tumblr ace.
“Jeez, honey, that’s rough,” Sarah said sympathetically. “I know, I know, days off are like super rare for you. Wait, what? A documentary crew?”
Evie’s attention had been caught by the window display of a nearby souvenir shop. For some reason, it had a few shelves dedicated to British goods, stocking things like Twinings and Doctor Who placemats and, to her delight and Bailey’s wry amusement, Jelly Babies. They’d gone in. Sarah had followed them in, still on the phone, and found them crouching before a Downton Abbey board game.
“What the hell are you doing?” Sarah had asked, before turning back to the phone. “No, not you, Ty, my crazy British friend and Bay.”
Evie hadn’t really had an answer for her. She’d just left England. Perhaps it had been the novelty of seeing standard brands from home available here as strange imported goods; it had thrown her a little. It’d emphasized how not home she was.
“Audition? Well, okay, sure,” Sarah had said. “I’ll see you then. Bye, honey.”
And that was it. An audition. Evie frowned at the stall. Was this why Sarah had asked to meet them here? She’d left for work early this morning without saying much more than to meet her at the campus green. Bailey had made Evie pancakes and maple syrup and they’d walked here, enjoying the sunshine.
“When’s Sarah meeting us?” Evie asked them.
Bailey checked their watch. “Soon.”
She lay back, tucking Godzilla into her arms, and stared up at the sky. The late-morning sunlight fell warm on her skin, and the sky was clear and deep blue. When had she last seen a sky that blue? This was what life should be about. Coffee and warm weather and good people and new experiences. Why had it taken losing her job and flying across the Atlantic to remember that?
Evie sat up to see Sarah, red-faced and breathless, plunk herself next to Bailey. She pecked them on the cheek.
“Sorry I’m late, honey. Work is killing me right now.” She turned to Evie. “The sushi place is just around the corner, but do you mind if I say hi to a friend of mine first?”
“Not at all.”
“‘Not at all.’ Jesus, you crack me up.”
They stood and ambled over to the dance machine stall. Two people were currently on the machine, stomping in time to the instructions on the screen, while four people with weary expressions sat watching. Two students—judging by the U of T cap one of them was wearing—with a camera filmed the guys on the machine from the edge of the crowd. Sarah went up to three lithe-looking people waiting at a table at the front of the stall. Other lithe-looking people chatted at the back of the stall, but Sarah ignored them.
Evie and Bailey hung back to watch the guys on the machine. One of them was doing well, but the second one lagged woefully behind, messing up further in his haste to catch up.
“You ever do this?” Evie asked Bailey.
“No way.” They even wrinkled their nose; clearly the idea didn’t impress.
“My friends and I used to. Back at uni, I mean.” Evie smiled at the memories. “There’s nothing like dancing on that thing after four Jägerbombs. I can’t believe they still make these.”
They watched until the end of the song. The lagging dancer sagged at the end, relieved it was over.
“Man,” he said to the one who’d passed with a reasonable score. “You owe me big time.”
A girl in the crowd next to Evie clapped loudly. “Mark! That was amazing! You were awesome!”
The winner, waved happily at her. “Thanks, baby.”
Two of the judges whispered intently while the other two scribbled notes. Or what looked like notes; Evie saw one of them pull out a folded piece of newspaper from behind a sheaf of papers and place it on the table in front of her, a half-finished sudoku puzzle prominent on the top. The two whispering judges stopped talking and the one wearing a blazer shrugged as though she couldn’t care less.
“Mark,” called the other judge, a lean man with a receding hairline. “You’re in.”
Mark’s girlfriend shrieked wildly while Mark victory-punched the air, then high-fived his exhausted friend.
Sudoku Judge sighed and began assembling papers from under the puzzle. The one next to her smirked at something on his phone.
As Mark and his friend left the dance machine, Sarah came up to Evie and Bailey, hands wringing guiltily. “Um, guys, sooo, Tyler is my friend, and he’s one of the dancers doing this competition thing, and he was saying that they’re short on people and well . . .”
Bailey held up their hand. “Hell no.”
Sarah’s eyes went big and puppyish. “Please. I said we’d go on the machine once, just to draw some people in. I want to help him out, please?”
“Your friend is a dancer?” Evie looked around Sarah at the dancers she’d been talking to. They were all gorgeous: a woman with a sweet face talking on the phone, a vest-clad, sparkly guy staring in shocked disbelief at Mark, who approached him with forms in one hand and the other held high, and a grumpy-looking lean black guy next to the sparkly guy. Grumpy caught her staring, and Evie felt something like an electric shock go through her. Oh. What was that? He scowled, then turned to his friend.
Hmm. Pleasant. She couldn’t imagine Sarah being friends with someone negative, so clearly Tyler had to be the sparkly guy.
“—do you mind?” Sarah asked her.
Evie pulled herself back to reality. “What?”
“Going on the machine with me?”
Evie looked at the dance machine. Dance on that thing with Sarah? Well, if Bailey wasn’t willing, it was a no-brainer. “Of course not. I can do those things in my sleep.”
“You can, eh? Go easy on me.”
Minutes later, when they were standing there eyeing the countdown on the screen, Evie remembered that university was five years ago and that she hadn’t danced on one of these since her second year of uni, which really meant six years of not doing this. Also, she’d never done this sober.
New experiences, Evie. Dancing on a machine in front of a crowd of strangers. No sweat.
The beat started, and she focused on the arrows in front of her. A tinny Britney Spears track trilled from the machine, but she barely noticed as she caught the first few arrows without a problem. Step. Step. Too lightly and the machine wouldn’t register, too hard and it would slow her down. Stomp, stomp, step.
The song kicked into the bridge, and a flurry of arrows started scrolling. Evie stomped, her arms flying in time to the rhythm while her feet struggled to coordinate with the arrows and the beat. She missed a few and joined back in on an easy step, carelessly swiping at the sweat on her face. Christ, when had this ever been fun?
Oh, right. After four Jägerbombs.
Four frantic minutes later, the song finished and she sighed in relief. Her score ran across the screen, pleasingly high considering she hadn’t done this in years. She looked over at Sarah to see her panting and wide-eyed.
“Holy shit-snacks.” Sarah pointed at the screen. “Look at that score!”
“Eh, it’s all right.” Evie became aware of a low roar behind her, and she turned to see a sizeable crowd cheering and clapping. She grinned and bowed, receiving more cheers. She turned to Sarah. “That was fun.” Surprisingly, she meant it.
“I need to sit down. I’m too old for this.” Sarah hobbled off the machine. “Tyler owes me a drink.”
Evie went to join her but found her way blocked by two of the judges, the ones with the receding hairline and the expensive blazer. Blazer looked annoyed while Receding was excited.
“Ma’am,” he said, “that was the highest score today.”
“Really?” Evie said. If she was the highest score on that machine, they had to be scraping the bottom of the barrel for this . . . What was this for again?
She turned to read the signs scattered around the tent, but the judge kept her attention.
“My name is Derek Hastings, and this is Justine Cherry.” He held out his hand and Evie shook it, unsure why he was so excited. “We are the directors of QS Dance and Cherry Studios, respectively, and I would just like to congratulate—”
“You on partnering one of my dancers for the competition,” Justine butted in, shaking Evie’s hand firmly in turn. Very firmly.
“Competition?” Evie struggled to remove her hand from Justine’s grip.
“You definitely don’t want to embarrass yourself with one of them,” Justine added, pointing at the nearby dancers.
“Justine, you’ve allocated your dancers’ partners already,” Derek hissed at her.
“We’ll swap. She’s a smart girl.” Justine’s green eyes flickered to Evie. “You’re gay, right?”
“Excuse me?” Evie asked coldly.
“Please excuse us a moment, Miss—er,” Derek faltered, having not gotten her name. “Er, ma’am.” He spun Justine around and leaned in close to her, whispering fiercely.
Oookay. Time to walk away from the strange, rude people. Evie side-stepped around them, only to see the sudoku woman approach her. She held forms in her hands but, unlike Derek and Justine, didn’t intrude into Evie’s personal space.
“I’m Jean Hastings, assistant director for QS Dance. You’re good.” She smiled at Evie. “What’s your name?”
What in the world was going on? Who were these people? “Evie Whitmore.”
“Evie, please consider taking part in our competition. Do you have three hours free every day for the next week?”
Evie blinked, then finally turned to look at the signs littered around the stall. Perform at Pride! Be partnered with a dancer from two of the best dance schools in Toronto! Learn to dance in seven days! LGBTQA2S and allies welcome. Must be comfortable appearing on film.
Things clicked together.
“I’m very sorry,” she started, “I didn’t really know about—”
“She’ll do it.”
Startled, she looked over to see the lean, grumpy dancer at her side. When did he get there? He was her height, with dark curly hair and light-brown skin, and he glared at her as though she were some kind of idiot. But he had to be one of the most gorgeous men Evie had ever found abruptly standing next to her—not that she was an expert on the matter.
And like all vaguely good-looking men, he came with entitlement and an apparent inability to mind his own business. Or perhaps he was just as rude as his boss.
Time to end this nonsense.
“She can speak for herself,” she said, crisply enunciating every syllable.
His eyebrows raised. “Sorry.”
That strange feeling shot through her again. She ignored it and turned back to Jean. “I’m terribly sorry, but my friend didn’t tell me that this was an actual audition, and I’m afraid I can’t—”
“Evazilla, do it!” Sarah joined them, practically flinging herself into their little circle. Next to her, the stocky cameraman aimed a camera at Evie, occasionally panning to something over her shoulder. Evie glanced behind her—the judges were hissing in each other’s face. Hmm. Professional.
Sarah’s voice drew her back to the conversation. “You should totally do this. You’re on vacation! You have the time.”
Jean and the dancer’s faces turned crafty. Evie was going to kill Sarah for revealing that.
“You will be compensated for your time,” Jean said.
“No, I won’t,” Evie told her. “Tourist visa.”
“It doesn’t have to be monetary.” Jean seemed pleased. She nudged the dancer.
“It’s a really good opportunity,” the dancer said, as though that should be obvious to her. “Please do it.”
Evie stared at them all: Jean looked hopeful, Sarah was excited, the cameraman looked bored but gave her a thumbs-up when she caught his eye, and the grumpy dancer waited with his arms crossed. Behind her, the two judges—directors?—still argued.
“Justine, this kind of behaviour is beneath both of us,” Derek said.
“I didn’t organize this in order to lose,” Justine responded coolly.
Christ on a stick. What the hell was wrong with these people?
“Please,” the dancer repeated. Meddling and scowl aside, he seemed sincere about her doing it.
Dancing. Her? Really? A week of learning something new, then showcasing it at Pride; that would definitely be a challenge. Evie didn’t know the first thing about dancing, but all these people seemed to think she could do it. Plus, hadn’t Sarah said something about them struggling to find people?
Evie sighed. While it was a pleasant novelty to have a gorgeous guy begging her for something, she couldn’t stretch this out any longer.
She turned to Jean. “Three hours a day?”
Jean smiled triumphantly. “Yes. More if your schedules can support it. I’ll ensure you’re compensated somehow for your time. You will be matched with Tyler, who’ll be responsible for your performance and who will perform with you at Pride.”
Tyler. Right. Sarah’s friend. This would probably be fun with someone like him. Evie had visions of jazz hands and flamboyant spinning. “. . . Fine.”
“Yes!” Sarah crowed, hugging her. The cameraman managed a double thumbs-up while balancing his camera on his shoulder.
Jean thrust the forms and a pen under Evie’s nose. “Please fill these in. We require a deposit, to be refunded when you complete the performance next Saturday.” She glanced over Evie’s shoulder and pulled one form from the bottom of the pile. “I would appreciate it if you signed this one now.”
Evie skimmed the form as Sarah bounced next to her. On her other side, she was strangely aware of the dancer staring at her. What was his problem? She raised an eyebrow at him.
He was smirking. “Did Sarah just call you Evazilla?”
Jesus Christ. Evie felt herself blush. Wasn’t it time for him to disappear? Why did he care anyway?
[R]eaders hungry for representation will be pleased, and traditional romance readers who like secular romances with more sweet than heat will want to pick it up too.
A whirl of a sweet story that serves as a solid bridge between installments of an unusually diverse contemporary romance series.