STEP BY STEP
Jesse Heart stood in the bright Florida sunshine just outside the Sea Breeze Performing Arts Center. Tall palm trees reached toward a cloudless blue sky and the late-April morning carried a bit of a nip on the air—at least by Floridian standards. A dozen steps and two ornate wooden doors separated Jesse from his destination, but he clasped his hand around the cool metal handrail and hesitated.
Students brushed by him, hurrying to music or to dance class, chattering, laughing, eager to head inside the stately building. And yet, Jesse stood rooted to the concrete, suddenly questioning his sanity. Why did I commit to participating in this damned dance competition? he wondered. Still, there was no going back. A Heart’s word was good as gold.
Jesse rolled his shoulders, trying to ease the tension throbbing in his neck. According to his manager, his dance partner, Ava Mayor, had made her displeasure perfectly clear that a boy-band, hip-hop dancer wasn’t up to her lofty ballroom-dancing standards. Jesse blew out a sigh. His earlier phone conversation with Ava hadn’t gone well either. She’d droned on about rules and promptness along with insanely early rehearsals until Jesse had zoned out, adding an “uh-huh” and “sure” here and there, totally missing a meeting date. Standing Ava up at the local coffee shop later that same afternoon sure as hell hadn’t made her any fonder of pairing up with him. But this wasn’t just about dancing. The performing arts center needed some major repairs, and Jesse’s participation ensured a big turnout for the event, so he’d agreed to help the cause. But although they were to be judged and scored while they danced to open the show, they weren’t part of the actual competition, just ambassadors of sorts to create excitement and sell tickets.
So what was the big damned deal?
A trickle of perspiration slid between Jesse’s shoulder blades, and he was suddenly glad he’d worn a pale-blue Hurley T-shirt that wouldn’t show the sweat. Damn, he was supposed to be the happy-go-lucky Heart brother, never taking anything seriously. But right now, he felt as if he were about to go onstage and couldn’t remember the lyrics to the song he was about to sing.
Jesse glanced down, hoping that loose-fitting jogging shorts and running shoes passed for appropriate dance attire, but then he shrugged. Hey, he was a volunteer for this thing, so it didn’t matter whether or not he looked the part. “This is seriously stupid,” Jesse grumbled under his breath. Gritting his teeth, he forced his feet to move forward. After determinedly taking the steps up to the performing arts center two at a time, he tugged open the heavy front door, grateful when the air-conditioning hit his warm face.
Fingers of sunshine reached into the spacious atrium, spilling in from the floor-to-ceiling windows on Jesse’s left. Green potted plants stood out in contrast to the stark white walls, and terrazzo flooring gleamed as if recently polished. Jesse smiled. He loved this building.
A wide staircase led to the theater where Heartbeat had performed many a concert, but with renewed determination, Jesse turned right and headed down a hallway that led to classrooms and dance studios.
He stopped in front of Ava Mayor’s studio, wondering if he should knock or simply enter. He fished in his pocket and pulled out his cell phone, noting that he’d arrived ten minutes early—unusual, since he tended to be late, something that drove his prompt brothers crazy. Tardiness was an unwanted habit that was difficult to break. He didn’t run behind on purpose, but always seemed to forget something; in some cases, time just seemed to get away from him. Jesse’s ADD excuse didn’t hold water with his brothers, but then again, they didn’t have to live with a brain that always had too many tabs open. His twin brother, Jimmy, was a bit of a daydreamer, but Jesse won the prize for getting distracted.
Late people annoyed on-time people to the max, and Jesse’s manager had warned him that Ava Mayor was a stickler for punctuality. Adding to the torture, Ava liked to start rehearsals bright and early—as in, seven-o’-clock-in-the-morning early. Damn, he wished he had a giant coffee in his hand.
Jesse decided to lean against the cool wall to the left of the studio door until precisely seven o’clock. Unfortunately, mornings weren’t his favorite time of the day. He tended to be a night owl, like his twin—one of the few traits they had in common.
Blowing out a sigh, Jesse shoved his fingers through his shaggy, sun-streaked hair, styled as it had been since his Heartbeat heyday. At thirty-one, he knew he should probably consider a more conservative cut, but he just couldn’t bring himself to do it. His hair suited his laid-back, beach-loving lifestyle, and so, well, there you go.
Jesse looked at his cell phone screen again and his stomach rumbled, making him wish he was not only a morning person, but also a breakfast eater. “The most important meal of the day!” his mother had warned. Well, maybe, but not if your stomach lurched at the thought of Frosted Mini-Wheats before the sun finished rising. And maybe he should’ve skipped that last cup of coffee, because he felt damned wired . . .
At precisely seven o’clock, Jesse knocked softly on Ava’s door, pushed it open . . . and then stopped in his tracks when he spotted Ava Mayor bent over in a one-legged, gravity-defying head-to-her-knee pose against the barre alongside the studio’s wall. She must be double-jointed, he thought, swallowing hard. She wore dancer’s attire, black leggings and a skintight black tank top that highlighted her lithe, slender body. Her jet-black hair was pulled into a tight knot on the top of her head, showing off the delicate slope of her neck.
Ava turned her head so swiftly that she lost her balance, and to Jesse’s horror, she teetered. With a sound of distress, she groped for the barre but missed and tumbled to the floor in a heap of long legs, accompanied by a string of surprisingly colorful curses. Interesting.
Oh . . . shit.
Jesse rushed forward and knelt beside Ava. “Are you okay?” he asked, offering his hand in assistance.
Ava slapped at his hand.
“Yes, and I knocked,” Jesse replied, noting the incredible deep blue of her eyes and length of her black lashes, even though she was glaring some serious daggers at him.
“I didn’t hear a knock,” Ava huffed, brushing at invisible strands of hair that couldn’t have possibly escaped her topknot. She pressed her lips together and gave him a scathing look of acute disapproval.
“I did knock . . . softly, though,” Jesse admitted.
“That’s not the point of a knock, now is it?” Ava tilted her head.
Jesse shrugged, a bit distracted by her amazingly kissable mouth.
“Excellent observation,” Jesse said, determined not to argue with her. “But you were expecting me, so . . .”
When Jesse stood up, Ava gave him a once-over.
“What?” he asked, totally rethinking his attire.
“Nothing,” she replied crisply, and resumed her stretching.
“Look, I really apologize for missing that coffee-shop meeting yesterday.” Not that he’d understood the need for it.
Jesse frowned. “I did?”
“You did. Check your phone.”
Shit! “I believe you. I, uh, tend to forget to charge my phone.”
“Wow.” Ava gave him another long look of disdain.
“And sometimes I misplace it. How can I find my phone if I can’t call it to find it?” he asked, trying for humor, but she didn’t even crack a smile. “Don’t you ever do that?”
“Oh.” Jesse stood there for an uncertain moment, wondering if he should press the matter, and then realized he should probably begin stretching as well. His good nature wouldn’t allow him to be irritated with her—well, at least not very, anyway. And his manager, Devin, had warned Jesse that the reason Ava needed a dance partner for the event was because her actual dance partner and former fiancé had dumped her not just for another woman, but for another dancer. Ouch. Maybe she hated men in general and not just him.
“So . . . I’ll start stretching too,” Jesse said breezily, but he didn’t get a response. “But if I tried what you’re doing, my body would crack in half.” He waited in vain for a chuckle but failed to get even a glance in his direction. “Seriously, how do you do that?” he persisted, finally drawing a stormy frown from her.
“Years of practice.”
Fifteen minutes later, Ava finally stopped the insane, how-is-she-doing-that? stretching and faced Jesse. “Okay,” she said, folding her hands primly. “Let’s go over some rules.”
“Rules?” Jesse wasn’t fond of rules.
“Surely you’ve heard of the concept.” Ava arched an elegant eyebrow and waited.
“I have.” Instead of being irritated, Jesse felt amused and couldn’t stop himself from grinning at her serious expression. Although her eyebrow remained haughtily in place, he could tell that her inability to get under his skin was somehow rattling her. But damn, she was gorgeous—seriously, over-the-top gorgeous. Pictures of her he’d seen online didn’t even begin to do her justice. Glossy hair, flawless skin, full lips. Holy shit. If he could ever get her to smile, he’d be blown away.
Ava gave him a scowl instead, as if reading his thoughts. Damn, he must be transparent. And yet something in him wanted to make her smile—no, laugh: he wanted to make her totally lose it. “I know what rules are,” he said. “I just sometimes have trouble following them.”
Ava answered with an arch of one eyebrow.
“That’s only one of the things I can do that requires discipline, practice, and rhythm.” Jesse and his brothers all played several musical instruments and had studied voice as young children. Their harmony was always spot-on. The family-owned music store that they still ran in Sea Breeze helped fund the local high school band and donated instruments and equipment to the performing arts center. But Jesse refrained from getting on his soapbox and telling Ava all that. He didn’t want to come off as bragging. But he did say, “My brothers and I were trained by acclaimed choreographer Arabella York. She teaches dance classes here at the center. You might have met her.”
“In passing, I think.” She raised one delicate shoulder.
“She’s married to my brother Grady.”
“Ah, yes.” Ava nodded as if the information was slightly boring.
“You haven’t been in Sea Breeze long, have you?” Jesse asked. Despite her attitude, he wanted to know more about her.
Ava inclined her head. “I accepted the dance instructor position here a little more than four months ago,” she said in a matter-of-fact tone, but something vulnerable flickered in her eyes and she quickly glanced away.
“And where are you from?”
Right. Jesse remembered Devin mentioning that Ava was from Chicago. He wondered if she was trying to put some distance between her ex and the dancer he was involved with. How could he have forgotten that little detail?
“I prefer a white Christmas,” Ava replied in a slightly clipped tone. “Now, about those rules.” She pressed her lips together. “Do I have your full attention?”
“Uh, yes, you do,” Jesse said, careful to sound truly interested in what she was about to say. Since he was always friendly and relaxed, he wasn’t used to a woman being so standoffish toward him. But if Ava thought her attitude was going to push him away, she was dead wrong. He was only more intrigued. “Hit me with the rules again.” He gave her the patented boy-band smile that had melted countless hearts since he’d first joined Heartbeat. He knew she wanted to appear unaffected, but something new flashed in her eyes. Interest? But just like that . . . the look vanished. Perhaps he was imagining things.
“As I said, I expect promptness. We’ll rehearse at seven o’clock sharp, before my classes begin.”
Jesse nodded, though the thought of dancing at seven o’clock in the morning was something akin to torture. “Of course,” he said, trying not to wince.
Ava smoothed back her perfect hair. “And no distractions like cell phones during rehearsal.” She wagged a finger in the air.
“Okay.” Jesse shrugged. “But I’m not one of those people chained to their cell phones.” As if on cue, his cell phone pinged several times in a row. He ignored it, but not without some restraint. He wasn’t being entirely truthful. He loved his phone, even if he did let it die way too often—which drove his brothers crazy. “Fully charged now,” he said with a weak grin.
“Good.” Ava gave him another level look. “I expect you to be here for each rehearsal, with no absences. We only have five weeks before the event, so don’t be a no-show. Agreed?”
“I performed with my brothers for several years,” Jesse replied easily. “I am fully aware of the importance of rehearsals.” He said it in a pleasant tone, but he was starting to get a little bit annoyed by her snooty attitude. But somehow thinking of the word snooty nearly made him chuckle, and he must have missed what she said next, because she looked at him as if he was supposed to answer. “Uh, sure,” he said, without a clue as to what he was supposed to be sure about. She frowned slightly, but then continued issuing orders.
“I have a full schedule of classes, so I don’t have time to wait around for you or teach steps over and over, so I expect—”
“Whoa there.” Jesse held up both hands palms up, and to his surprise she clamped her mouth shut. “Okay, Ava, look. I’m not one of your students. I’m a seasoned performer. I’m dedicated and disciplined,” he added, even though his brothers might have argued that last bit. “And I want to remind you I’m doing this for charity. I’m a volunteer, neither paying nor getting paid. So do you think you could slow your roll a little?” He crossed his arms over his chest.
Ava pressed her lips together in a firm line, making Jesse wish he’d just held his damned tongue. “I think you’re forgetting this is my profession.” She tapped her chest. “My livelihood. While I’m also doing this for charity, on my own time, I’m also promoting myself and the school. I don’t want to be the laughingstock of the event. I want high scores from the judges, even though, apparently, I need to ‘slow my roll,’ ” she said with air quotes. Her chin came up, but she blinked rapidly as if trying to hold back emotion.
“You showed your lack of dedication,” Ava answered hotly, and if her hair hadn’t been so tightly secured on top of her head, he imagined she would have flipped the dark tresses over her shoulder in a show of defiance.
“I’m really sorry about that. But are you seriously going to make this difficult?” Jesse gave her a long look, but she didn’t waver or offer an apology. He felt a muscle jump in his jaw. He rarely let anything get to him, but his heart rate suddenly picked up speed. Perhaps agreeing to be Ava Mayor’s dance partner was going to be a big-ass mistake.
Jesse bit back the expletive hovering on the tip of his tongue. He considered pivoting on his heel and getting the hell out of there. He hadn’t signed up for this bullshit, and he nearly told her so. He didn’t like that she was getting to him.
Jesse gritted his teeth. He’d taken on the role of the Heart brother who could make everyone laugh. Ease tension. He was the comedian, the damned life of the party. Even when he didn’t want to be that guy, he’d find a way to crack a joke. Twelve years ago, when he and his brothers had lost their mother to lupus, he’d had to dig fucking deep to maintain his role of the happy-go-lucky guy who breezed through life without a care. Jesse inhaled a cleansing breath. Okay, he could do this.
“So . . . ?”
“I hope you mean it.” Ava squared her shoulders.
Then again, maybe he should bail—but of course he couldn’t. Damn his good conscience. “One more thing.” Ava lifted one delicate shoulder and lightly cleared her throat.
“The ballroom dances I’ve chosen to perform are . . . passionate. I’m not going to make them easy on you just because you’ve never done ballroom before. I’m an experienced dancer, and I want my partner to be able to match me.”
Whoa, if she didn’t have his full attention before, she had it now. “And?”
“And you have to be strong enough to lift me.”
Jesse had the silly urge to flex his muscles. “That won’t be a problem.”
“Trust me,” Jesse said firmly. “Or do you need me to demonstrate my lifting skills?”
Ava’s eyes widened slightly. “No.”
“I’ve got this.” Jesse shrugged. “Just sayin’.” He decided he’d better leave out the little fact that he sometimes had trouble staying focused. Still, he always managed to learn all the complicated Heartbeat routines. Why should this be any different?
“I’ll take your word for it.” She sighed, seeming a bit disappointed that she hadn’t chased him off with her mention of the words passionate and experienced. Aha—so was that what she was trying to do? Scare him off so she could get a bona fide ballroom dancer instead of him? Well, in that case . . .
“My word is golden.”
“One last thing. Um . . . that whole surfer-boy look?” Ava waved a dismissive hand in his direction. “It’s got to go.”
“It’s not a look. I’m not a poser. It’s a lifestyle. I have a beach house and I surf. What about it?” he asked, but he was pretty sure she was still just trying to get under his skin.
Jesse waited for a moment. “Yeah?”
Ava let out a delicate sigh. “I just don’t see us having any chemistry.”
“On the dance floor,” Ava added hastily, and Jesse detected just a hint of a blush. “It could be an issue. My partner needs to look the part of a true dancer—someone who’s elegant, suave, not someone who”—she wrinkled her nose—“looks like they’re about to work the snack shack at the beach.”
Hmmm . . . wait a minute.
“Really . . . ?” Jesse asked slowly. While Jesse was now sure Ava wanted to get rid of him because she preferred a true ballroom dance partner, he wondered if something else was going on here. He could sympathize a little bit about the non-ballroom-dancing thing, but why had she taken such an instant dislike to him? Or . . . had she?
“No chemistry, huh?” Jesse nibbled on the inside of his cheek.
“I’m afraid so.” Ava gave him a small, tight smile and he suddenly didn’t believe her. At all.
“Are you sure?” Jesse asked, taking a step closer, and although she nodded firmly, something wavered in her eyes and she licked her bottom lip.
“Sometimes it just happens that way,” Ava said, but the slight quiver in her voice gave her away. Ah, the poor thing was chock-full of telltale signs that she wasn’t as immune to him as she pretended to be.
“Sorry, Ava, but I’ve gotta disagree.” Jesse stepped even closer. With the barre and the mirrors behind her, she had nowhere to go. He could see by the rise and fall of her chest that he’d suddenly turned the tables. “Why don’t we find out for sure?”
“What do you mean?” Her deep blue eyes widened and she swallowed visibly.
“You’re out of your mind,” Ava sputtered, but her voice was breathless, and she licked her bottom lip again as if in nervous anticipation.
Jesse decided to go for it. “Let’s put this no-passion thing between us to the test. What do you say?”
“I say . . . no!”
“I’m not wrong!” Ava nearly shouted, protesting way too much.
Jesse tapped his index finger to his bottom lip. “Prove it.”