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Chapter One

abrazo: the dance hold, or embrace, in the Argentine tango

 

Ed Maurer tapped his thumb against his steering wheel while he inched along the Twin Cities traffic, sloughing off a rough afternoon as a corporate drone as he headed to Halcyon Center.

He still shook a little from watching three more people from his department clean out their desks, torn between feeling bad for them and feeling fucking relieved he hadn’t been one of them. His neck was a little stiffer than it should be, too, especially since he’d taken four ibuprofen half an hour ago. But that was probably stress.

On 35E things cleared up a little, and pretty soon Ed exited and zipped down the streets of St. Paul towards the center. Tonight he was going to be a teacher. To a bunch of hoodlums, yes, but they were good kids underneath. It was a volunteer position, but the director had given him the job because she’d seen how well he’d interacted with the kids. And he did like them. They reminded him of himself at their age, except they were a lot more jaded than he remembered being.

It wasn’t a big deal, no, but it made him feel good. Made him feel useful in a way he hadn’t in a long, long time.

His buoyant mood dimmed a little as he caught a glimpse of the playing fields off Payne Avenue and saw two guys giving each other shit as they tossed a football back and forth. His gaze lingered there longer than it should have both for safety and for the preservation of his fragile optimism, and as if it knew what he was thinking, his neck sent a sharp twinge down the long, vulnerable cord of muscle.

Ed forced his eyes back onto the road. After a few seconds, he reached for the MP3 player hooked up to his stereo. Fumbling through the music between glances at the road, he punched at the machine until he found the one he was looking for. He stared hard at the road until a breathy voice declared, “It’s Britney, bitch.” As the familiar opening beats filtered through his ears, they bled out some of the tension and chased away some of the clouds. Within a few blocks he was singing along and tapping his thumb to the beat.

Ed pulled his Mazda into a parking spot, grabbed his duffel and his notes, and headed into the building, humming under his breath as he went. He winked at the receptionist as he passed back the sign-in clipboard, grinned at an old buddy and tossed him a cheery, “Heya!” and gave him a high-five as he passed. He was feeling good as he ducked into the locker room, and as he headed around the corner, he sang, “gimme, gimme more” under his breath.

“Oh, fucking A, somebody’s singin’ Britney Spears. Look out. Maurer’s here.”

Ed laughed and waved in the direction of the voice without looking as he headed to his locker. He could see the young man who had spoken to him out of the corner of his eye, a dark, overly-clothed shadow leaning against the line of lockers. “What’s up, Duon? You keeping out of trouble?”

“Fuck, no.”

Ed glanced at him, making sure he didn’t let his gaze linger too long, because Duon got mad when people checked up on him. But even a cursory glance revealed a bruised cheek and a cut beneath Duon’s right eye. Ducking his head to hide his grimace, Ed said, “Vicky see that shiner yet?”

Duon snorted. “Yes. Tried to call the fucking cops. Like they’re gonna care.” He rolled his eyes.

Ed busied himself inside his locker and tried for levity. “Need to find yourself a big strapping boyfriend to protect you, Duon.”

“Fuck you, bitch! I’m the big strapping boyfriend!” He folded his arms over his chest and glared at Ed.

Which had been the reaction Ed had been hoping for. He fought a smile as he unbuttoned his shirt and shrugged out of it before hanging it on a peg in his locker. “So that mean you’re coming to my class tonight? Gonna come show me up?”

“Whatever.” Duon came over to sprawl at the end of the bench. “Damn, man, but I hope I can stay as buff as you are when I get old.”

That did make Ed smile, and he turned his head to look the kid in the eye as he explained that thirty-four was not old—

—but winced instead as his neck sent a shaft of pain up and over into his right eye. Pain exploded in his head, and for a few terrible seconds, he couldn’t see or hear anything at all.

When his vision cleared, Duon was standing in front of him, looking up at Ed with wide, worried eyes.

“Shit, man,” Duon said. “You okay?”

Ed nodded—carefully—and reached up to rub the muscle. “Fine.” He shut his eyes and rolled his shoulder, feeling the inside of his skull light up, though the pain eased with each successive rotation, eventually settling down to a dull roar. He opened his eyes again and turned back to the locker, reaching down to peel off his T-shirt. “I’m fine,” he said again, but even so, he took extra care in taking off the garment.

“You need to get your ass back to that doctor,” Duon said.

“I’m fine.” Ed pulled his muscle-T on over his head—also carefully—and fumbled with the buckle of his belt. “It’s already settling down.” He started to nod at Duon, then changed the gesture to a wave of his hand instead. “Go on. I gotta get ready. Swing by the copy room and find those waiver forms for me, will you?”

“Sure.” Duon was clearly reluctant to leave Ed, but he did leave, and once he was gone, Ed let himself sag briefly against the locker next to his own. Then he squared his shoulders and his resolve, and he finished getting dressed.

His whistle was a bit forced as he finally ducked back into the hall, his notes tucked under his arm. His neck had rattled him a little, and he tried to get his game back. He told himself it was just a fluke. It wasn’t a big deal. He was going to go teach a class, and he was going to be fine. It was going to be fucking great, to quote Duon. It didn’t matter that this was twice now today his neck had bugged him and that the last one had actually been a little alarming. It was fine.

He turned the corner to the hall, heading for the weight room.

Music blared down the hall from the main gym, really shitty house music circa 1997, made even worse by its being pumping out through the PA system. Over the top of it came a shrill, insistent call of “And one! And two! And three! Work it, ladies!” The nasal tones hit something primal in Ed’s hindbrain, making his neck light up all over again. Wincing, Ed double-timed it to the weight room. “No.”
But when he opened the door, the same ear-splitting cacophony that he’d heard in the hallway was blaring into the weight room, too, and unlike in the hall, the music wasn’t muted, because in addition to bleeding through the door, it was pulsing through the in-ceiling speakers. Nobody who wasn’t completely deaf could stand to stay in the room for more than five minutes, let alone teach a class.

Him.

Again.

Ed swore under his breath. Then he turned, headed back into the hall, and aimed himself at the stairs that would take him up to Vicky’s office.

*

Halcyon Center’s director was on the phone when Ed stuck his head through the gap in her door, but she waved him in and motioned towards the chairs on the opposite side of her desk without so much as missing a beat in her conversation. Ed entered, but he didn’t sit, choosing instead to make a study of the art on Vicky’s walls. He took in the smiling faces of the local gymnastics team and a Minnesota Gophers basketball calendar, but he was mostly using them as focal points to calm his rage. Not even the sight of his old Lumberjacks poster could draw his attention.

He couldn’t believe this was happening again. And of all the nights! Of all the goddamned nights!

Vicky hung up the phone and turned to Ed, smiling, but Ed was so agitated that he couldn’t even wait for her to invite him to speak.

“It’s happening again,” Ed snapped, pointing at the floor in the general direction of the gymnasium. “He’s playing music over the PA, and it’s piping into the weight room. It’s even louder than it was the last time.”

Vicky pursed her lips and reached for a notepad. “I’ll have Bob look into it first thing in the morning.”

Ed pointed at the clock. “But my class starts in ten minutes!”

Vicky looked at the clock, too. Then she sighed. “We’ll have to cancel it for tonight. I’ll make sure they have it sorted out by next week.”

Ed’s heart lurched, but he took a step closer to Vicky’s desk and tried to put on a charming face. “Why can’t he get cancelled and rescheduled for next week? He’s the one making all the noise, after all.”

“Because that class has ninety people in it, all paying $50 a head for eight weeks to hear him make his noise.” When Ed’s expression fell, Vicky looked at him over the top of her glasses. “I have to look after the bottom line, buddy. This place is non-profit, but tell that to the light bill. When your weight class brings in that kind of cash, you’ll get that kind of treatment, too.”

“Vicky, it’s my first class. And it’s never going to bring in money—it’s free. Come on, Vic. I’ve been looking forward to this for a month, and now you’re telling me, ‘Sorry, go home and watch TV?’ Come on.”

“It’s just for a week,” she pointed out.

Ed sank down into one of the chairs. “Vicky.”

She sighed and leaned forward at her desk. “I’ll make sure it’s fixed for next time. I swear. Even if I have to ask Laurie to cut his class short by a half-hour.” When Ed perked up, she held up a hand before he could ask. “I can’t ask tonight. He’s going to need to be finessed after how badly you riled him up the last time. If he even thinks this might be coming from you, it’s never going to happen at all.”

That made Ed glower. “I still don’t see why he can’t just bring in a sound system of his own.”

“Because it’s a huge, echoing gym, and nothing portable would work. All we have to offer him is the PA. You know damn well that anything worth ten bucks around here gets stolen.”

“What about that old one? In the storeroom off the stage?”

“It shorts out half the time, which you well know.” Vicky nodded her head in the direction of the gym. “Not to mention that he does this for free as a favor to me, and, once again, because he—”

“—brings in a lot of money for the center.” Ed slumped his shoulders briefly in defeat, then rose. “Okay.”

Vicky eyed him suspiciously. “What are you planning?”

Ed held up his hands and shook his head. “Not a thing, I swear.”

Which was true. He didn’t know what he was going to do about it—yet.

Vicky tapped her pencil on the top of the ledge open on her desk. “Can you promise me after whatever it is you’re going to do that I will still have my extremely lucrative aerobics class?”

“Oh yeah.” Probably.

“With my exceptionally affordable instructor still at its head?” she added.

“Not a problem,” Ed assured her.

Her eyes narrowed. “And that I will not be interrupted in the middle of my phone meeting with a coordinator for a potential grant by a harangue about the bumbling Neanderthal who doesn’t know his place?”

Ed’s eyebrows went up at the “who doesn’t know his place” comment, and he paused, because he really didn’t like to lie to Vicky. Finally, he nodded. “Okay.”

“Ed,” Vicky said, her tone full of warning.

Ed winked. “No calls, Vic. I swear.”

Vicky tapped her pencil a few more times, then sighed and leaned back in her chair. “All right. Then just make sure I have plausible deniability.”

“Promise,” Ed said, and grinned over his shoulder, pausing as he headed back out the door. “Good luck with your phone meeting.”

“Goodbye, Ed,” Vicky called without looking up.

Ed saluted, then headed back down the stairs and towards the gym.

*

La Bouche was playing when Ed pushed his way through the doors to the gym, some remix of “Be My Lover.” Generally Ed preferred to leave the nineties right where he’d left them, but he had to admit, this song had always made his toe tap.

Of course, not once in his memory had the song come with a hyped-up chipmunk with a mic screaming, “And one! And two! And one!” over the top of it.

Laurie Parker was, Vicky had told him, some big-time dance instructor whose family lived in Medina and who used to dance on Broadway and everywhere else famous, and really, that alone Ed had decided was reason enough to hate him. He’d told Vic they didn’t need some suburban snot coming over here to give them charity, but that had only made her mad.

“He’s a friend, Ed, so back off,” she’d said. “In addition to his doing favors for me, we still get together every now and again to discuss our mutual love of Barbra Streisand. And don’t turn up your nose at me, football-player-who-listens-to Britney Spears.”

“She’s just misunderstood,” Ed had grumbled.

Laurie. What kind of pussy name was that? Of course, it went with the rest of him. Laurence Parker was everything in a man Ed hated: he was rich, he was from the suburbs, and he was a freaking billboard for gay stereotypes. It was probably some sort of double standard, but Ed couldn’t help it. His whole life he’d been fighting the “gay is girly” shit, and he was damn sick of it. Gay could also mean a semi-pro football player. Who listened to Britney, yeah—but he knew a few of the other guys on the team who did too. Really, Ed was a pretty macho guy who just happened to be gay. But Laurie. Shit.

He’d give Parker credit for not mincing when he wasn’t leading aerobics classes, but that was about it. He was overly feminine both in his looks and his gestures. He was a dancer and an aerobics instructor. He fussed about getting dirty. He was stylish and graceful.

He listened to Barbra Streisand.

They weren’t great reasons to hate somebody, Ed knew, but that didn’t stop him getting his back up every time their paths crossed. The only good thing about Laurie was that he was always ready to fight back. So far in the month Ed had been coming to the center, they’d fought over Ed’s mess in the locker room, space on the bulletin board, whether or not it was unhygienic of Ed to spit into the drinking fountain, whether or not everyone from the Twin Cities suburbs were pompous asses, the relative merits of dancing and football, and above all, the volume of the music Laurie used to accompany his classes. He really didn’t know the guy outside of his name and that he always seemed to find Ed’s last nerve, but really, that was more than enough.

And this was not the first time the PA system had failed to work the way the maintenance people swore it was wired to. This was not the first time, either, that Ed had complained, and it was not the first time Vicky had said there wasn’t much she could do and Ed had tried to take matters into his own hands. On other nights when he was just in the weight room with a client, he’d been content to vent his spleen and get Parker as worked up as he was. Sometimes he’d managed to get the volume turned down, but that was it.

Tonight was different, and so tonight he planned to make his approach differently. But since no one had informed Laurie of this, he gave Ed a decidedly hostile glare as he wove his way through the throng of sweaty, flailing middle-aged women.

“No,” the instructor said as Ed approached the stage, flipping up the mouthpiece of the mic so his sharp retort did not carry through the PA. He didn’t so much as miss a beat, either, his petite, Lycra-clad body still stepping from side to side and pumping his arms up and down in time to the music. “No, I will not turn down my music. No, it is not my fault the system keeps screwing up. No, I will not use a CD player, because I can’t. No, I will not at least listen to ‘decent music’ because this is the music that I have chosen and that I like. And yes, I have to count, because that’s the way we do it in aerobics class.” He jerked his chin down and gave Ed a withering look. “Did I miss anything? Or have you thought up some new idiotic objections?”

“I’m teaching a class too,” Ed nodded to the hall. “In the weight room. In five minutes. Where right now no one can stand to be for more than ten seconds because it sounds like the aerobics class from hell.”

“It’s not my fault—” Laurie began through gritted teeth. But this time Ed interrupted him.

“No, it’s not,” he agreed. “But you’re the only one who can do anything about it right now.” He put his hands on his hips. “I want to know what it takes to get you to use a different sound system just for tonight.”

Laurie pursed his lips. “There is no other—”

“There is, actually. It’s old, and it’s fussy, but it would work for one night. I’ll even help you set it up, and I’ll tear it down myself. Just for tonight. Because this class isn’t like training somebody where I can go out to the hall and explain something and then use sign language to communicate in the weight room itself. I need them to hear me.”

“Tell them to come back next week when the system is fixed,” the instructor said, and Ed shook his head.

“No. I have as much right to be here as you do. You get your way every time this happens, dude. It’s your turn to bend over.”

The look Laurie gave Ed could have cut glass. “I am not—”

“I’m sacrificing too,” Ed said, quickly, because he honestly did not want to piss him off anymore. Not until he got what he was after. “So I want to know: what is it you need? Something here at the center, something outside of the center, something at your job—you name it. Your car washed and waxed while you direct me from a lawn chair, your flower bed dug up—what do you need?”

Laurie still didn’t so much as slow down his repetitive steps and arm pumps, but he did regard Ed thoughtfully for a few beats. “You really want it this time, don’t you?”

Ed held out his hands. “Surely you can think of some suitably degrading task you’d love to give the meddling Neanderthal in exchange for one half of one night on a sub-par sound system.”

Laurie blushed and looked away. “She wasn’t supposed to tell you I said that.”

Ed started to get nervous. “Give me something. Anything. Something really embarrassing. I’m never going to give you a better opening than this. Anything, buddy. Anything.”

A strange shadow passed over the instructor’s face. For a minute Parker looked haunted and oddly vulnerable. The look disappeared, and Laurie looked down at Ed with a glint in his eye.

“Anything?”

Ed held out his hands. “Anything.”

“Hold on.” Laurie lowered the mic before shouting out some new commands, leading his flock into a new move, taking a minute to encourage them before he pushed the mic up again and turned back to Ed. “What I need is for you to come one night a week for five weeks and be my assistant at my dance studio.”

Ed blinked. Dancing assistant? He tried to read Laurie’s face to gauge whether this was a joke, but no, Parker looked pretty damn serious. “What night?”

“Tuesdays,” Laurie said. “Seven to eight. For five more weeks.”

Ed grinned. “Consider it done,” he said, and turned to make a beeline for the supply closet.

“There’s more,” Laurie said, his voice full of warning.

“Then tell me already,” Ed said, starting to lose his temper. “My class is about to start.”

“As my assistant,” he said, looking Ed right in the eye, “mostly you’ll be dancing with me.”

Ed’s eyebrows shot up. Then he shrugged. “Okay. Is that all?”

Laurie looked at him with extreme suspicion. “You will dance with me. Just like that?”

“Do I have to do it naked, or something?” Ed asked.

"I’m serious about this,” Laurie said, starting to sound tart. “So if your plan is to just agree now, get your way and then stand me up—”

“I will get your phone number after class,” Ed said, “and give you mine. But if I’m not there, you can go to Vic to get your pound of flesh. You know she’ll be good for it. Now.” He jerked his head at the back of the stage. “Can I get you the damn sound system?”
When Laurie jerked his head in reluctant approval, Ed hurried around to the stairs and made his way onto the stage. He glanced at his watch before he started lugging out the speakers and started working faster, because his students were probably already there by now and wouldn’t hang out too long. But before he had even half of it out, he felt a hand on his arm, and when he turned around, Parker was there, holding out a business card.

“You’ll lose half your class getting all that out,” he said. “I’ll do it myself. Here, take this, and go.”

Ed stopped with one speaker hoisted in mid-air and raised an eyebrow.

To his credit, Laurie only lifted his chin a little and pressed the card forward. “Seven p.m. next Tuesday at the address on this card.  Except actually why don’t you come at six forty-five so we can go over what I need in more detail. Wear comfortable clothing and dress shoes with a heel, if you have them. If you do this for me, it really will be a favor, and I don’t mind hauling out the equipment and pausing my class to do it. But if you don’t show up”—his chin came back down and his eyes acquired some very pointed daggers—“I’ll collect the pound of flesh myself.”

“Fair enough.” Ed put the speaker down, took the card, and stuck out his hand. “Thanks, buddy.”

Laurie put his hand in Ed’s, letting his slim fingers be swallowed up in Ed’s beefy paw. “You’re welcome.”

Ed shook his hand once, then let go. “See you at quarter to seven on Tuesday,” he called out, breaking into a jog and vaulting off the edge of the stage. 

 


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