“I’m sorry.” Dante’s husky voice jolted her back into the present, and she pressed the heels of her hands into her eyes, embarrassed to find them wet.
“Aargh, I should be over this by now. I just wish I had a second chance with them.”
“They sound like the type of people who wouldn’t have wanted you to live with all this guilt; they worked too hard to make you happy. You dishonor them by remembering them with only regret in your heart.” His pragmatic words made her pause and consider. He was right; her grandparents had only wanted Cleo and Luc to be happy. And they’d had some good times too. Maybe she should start remembering those?
“My granddad insisted I learn how to ride a bike,” she recalled with a smile. “I argued, at six years old, that a dancer didn’t need to know how to ride a stupid bicycle. And he insisted that everybody needed to know how to ride a bicycle. That man spent days running up and down the road with me, catching me whenever I fell. He never once dropped me.”
She stared blindly at the screen in front of her, and they were quiet for the remainder of the movie.
“I loved them very much,” she said when the credits were running.
“I know,” he replied and reached over to take one of her hands. He gave it a gentle squeeze before dropping it back into her lap.
And in that moment, Cleo knew that her feelings for Dante Damaso had definitely evolved into something very complicated. She wasn’t able to put a name or definition on them, wasn’t sure what—if anything—they would grow into, but one thing she was sure of was that she didn’t like where they seemed to be leading. She felt much too vulnerable.
When Cleo made her way to the gym the following Saturday morning, she heard heavy breathing, grunts, and solid punches. Sure enough, Dante was positioned at one of his heavy punching bags. He was wearing protective gloves, but he was bare chested and barefoot as he punched and kicked the crap out of the bag. It was very primal and masculine and intense. He paused when he saw her standing at the door dressed in her toe shoes, a black leotard, pink leggings, and a wispy pink wrap skirt. He pushed one gloved hand into his already messy hair to get it out of his eyes—he definitely could do with a haircut—and kept his gaze trained on her as she made her way to her dance corner. He looked a little intimidating, gleaming with sweat, and his heaving breaths and rippling muscles and the way he was staring at her, like a lion eyeing a gazelle, didn’t help matters much.
She hesitated, not sure if she should wait until after he was done with his workout, but he waved her in, and it was too late to turn around.
“Hey,” she greeted, and he nodded.
“Hey,” his greeting was curt, and he went back to thumping his bag aggressively seconds later.
“Okay, then,” she murmured to herself as she put her music on. The peaceful strains of Chopin’s Nocturnes flooded through the room, so quiet and gentle at first that Dante didn’t seem to notice it above all the vigorous grunting and punching he was doing. Satisfied that she wasn’t disturbing his workout, she settled into her stretches and then started her barre work. She was moving on to her en pointe exercises when she became aware of the silence at the other end of the room. She looked up into the mirror and saw that he had stopped his workout completely and was watching her again, riveted. She was in the middle of an arabesque penché, supported by her left leg, with her right leg lifted and extended straight behind her. It was a classical ballet pose and did an amazing job of strengthening her core and working on every single muscle in her calves and thighs. She slowly sank back into first position, and he raised his eyes to meet hers in the mirror.
“That was beautiful,” he gritted out.
“So was what you were doing.” And it was, in an extremely raw and primitive way.
“Yeah, well, it didn’t quite match this music.” His broad shoulders moved restlessly and drew her attention back to his beautifully proportioned, well-muscled body.
“The Ballerina and the Beast,” he said gruffly, as if reading her thoughts. “You make that look so effortless. It’s hard to believe that you’re no longer able to dance professionally.”
“Oh, believe it,” she said, turning around to face him properly. “The way I fell? I’m lucky I didn’t break my neck. Broke my leg in two places, injured my hip, and my knee.” She shook her head, the memory sending a shudder down her spine even all these years later. That awful feeling of inevitability of being unable to stop yourself as the worst happened.
“I would have been able to fully recover from any one of those injuries quite easily,” she said, unconsciously sweeping her right foot back and forth. “But all of them combined were catastrophic, and the knee is simply unable to bear the strain of a professional dancer’s life anymore. I’d had injuries before, countless injuries, and I knew when I landed that it was the end of my career, but it took me years to accept it. Anyway . . . I was wondering how long you’ve been doing this.”
“The kickboxing?” She nodded, and he rolled his shoulders before peeling off his gloves. “Since I was an early teen. I had some . . . anger-management issues. My father thought I needed to channel some of that rage.”
“Oh?” she prompted, but he just nodded and went back to punching his bag, ending the conversation. A little irritated that she had told him so much about herself while receiving next to nothing in return, Cleo went back to her own workout, vowing to keep her own counsel in the future. Just because she was lonely and a chatty person didn’t mean Dante was the best person to blab to about her sorry life story.