Catskills, Summer 1963
The sharp bends in the road as they drove up the steep incline were starting to make Regina feel queasy, and seriously regret the vanilla malt she’d insisted on at their last stop. If only Kathryn hadn’t been playing such a goddamned martyr about her weight and never fitting into any of her brand new bikinis, then Regina wouldn’t have felt compelled to slurp the whole thing down fast enough to get a headache.
She tried to focus on the penultimate chapter of Plight of the Pleasant, already sure she’d have to re-read at some point on this vacation because of how much she’d skimmed. Which, of course, was Kathryn’s cue to squeal over some song on the radio, hitting Daddy’s shoulder as she sat in the passenger seat and insisting he turn it up.
‘Big Girls Don’t Cry’ filled the car then, the faint hiss and crackle of the station much more noticeable around the music. That never happened back in the city, and it prompted Regina to put her book down and start really looking at their surroundings as Mother drove the car around another bend and the grand entrance to the summer camp rose into view.
“Here we are,” Mother announced, and in a last-minute fit of vacation good spirit, Regina hugged her around the neck from behind. After a moment Mother shifted her shoulders and grumbled about responsible driving, so Regina withdrew to listen to Kathryn’s prattle about how her coral dress would look so much better in a week or two with a real tan, and should she just wear the blue one to dinner tonight?
By the time they parked and the valets came scrambling to help Daddy unload the trunk, Regina’s good cheer was already waning. Mother scanned the bustling welcome area from behind her huge sunglasses (‘if they’re good enough for Mrs Kennedy, darling’) until she found the man she’d apparently been looking for.
He made his way towards them without a second’s hesitation, limping and leaning heavily on a very ornate black cane. Dressed in a full suit and tie despite the hot summer weather--Mother had even allowed Daddy to leave his jacket in the trunk and wear his collar open--he greeted Mother like an old friend.
“Dr Mills, I thought I’d never get you here.”
An accent, Regina noticed in a heartbeat. Perhaps this wouldn’t be a summer of the same old squares. Her own suitcase contained a recruitment brochure for the Peace Corps, her one dream after the promised four years at Mount Holyoake.
“I made it, Mr Gold,” Mother replied, her voice as light as Regina had heard it in years. “And we’re all very happy to be having what might just be our last vacation as a family.”
“This woman,” Gold said, staring in blatant admiration. “Let me tell you this, young ladies. But for your mother, I wouldn’t be standing here today. I didn’t even know they had lady doctors until this fine physician saved my life.”
“We’re very proud of her,” Kathryn piped up, ever the suck up. “And she told us all about the wonderful activities.”
“Do you all dance?” Gold seized on the opening. “Don’t worry if you don’t, we have teachers that will have you foxtrotting and mamboing like a pro in just a few lessons. The girl running the tango class this afternoon? Used to be a Rockette.”
“Well, we don’t want to overdo it on the first day,” Daddy said, tipping the bag boys and stepping up beside Mother. There was something a little defensive in his movements. “This is the first vacation Cora’s taken in three years.”
“Three weeks here, you won’t remember what it feels like to work,” Gold assured them. “Now, Mills both adult and junior, please follow me to our very finest cabin, set aside just for you.”
“Mom’s a real star,” Kathryn whispered, linking her arm in Regina’s as they followed down a perfectly straight path, not a pebble out of place. “We’re gonna have a ball, Gigi.”
“Call me that again and you’ll be spending the vacation in traction,” Regina replied, through gritted teeth. “And since you’ve already waved at four different boys, I’d think that would really put a damper on your plans.”
“Girls,” Mother’s voice rang out in warning. “Come, walk with me and let’s look at these beautiful grounds, hmm?”
“Yes, Mother,” they chorused, falling in step on either side of her.
Three outfit attempts and a tall glass of lemonade later, Regina was pulled reluctantly from her books and off to the first of the group activities. The breeze of the lake made the summer heat just about bearable, and the assembled families mingled in the large gazebo as they waited for their instructor. Kathryn had already peeled away from their group to giggle and gossip with pretty girls her own age, every bit as blonde and leggy as Kathryn herself. No doubt they’d be sneaking off to smoke cigarettes and discuss boys every day before long, leaving Regina to play the dutiful daughter.
“Okaaaaaay! Let’s. Get. Dancing!”
A voice rang out, and a moment later the most gorgeous person Regina had ever seen in real life strode onto the floor. Dressed in a tight red dress with a full, frilled skirt, the girl couldn’t have been much older than Kathryn, so maybe 21 or 22 at the most. This girl’s dark hair tumbled down her back as dramatically as the ruffles of her skirt, and when the piercing blue eyes locked on Regina, her knees actually felt a little week.
“We’re gonna start with a merengue. My name is Ruby, and as long as you all do everything I say, we’ll get along just great.”
“Is it true you were a Rockette?” One of Kathryn’s new friends was the one to ask, her tone just the right side of bitchy to get away with what obviously wasn’t intended as a compliment.
“Not me,” Ruby answered, cueing the record player. “You’re talking about my friend, Emma. Me? I trained in Vegas. So let’s see if any of you can keep up with me, huh?”
Under Ruby’s instruction, they formed ragged lines as the music started to pick up pace. Regina smiled nervously at her mother, who was already concentrating on every word, unable to be anything less than perfect at all times.
It was going to be a damn long summer.
“I’m going up to the big house,” Regina called out right after supper. She’d discovered at home that announcing these things once already out of the door reduced the chance of either parent following her or forbidding the late-night excursion. And while their cabin was certainly luxurious, she felt the need to be out in the fresh air just as long as possible.
Walking up to what would be the formal dining room from the next day, Regina hovered by the door as Gold addressed his waiters, all dressed in formal white jackets and looking like dashing young princes who just so happened to also be bringing the soup.
“Your job, gentlemen, is not simply to provide efficient service,” Gold instructed, leaning on one of the round tables with his cane gripped in both hands as it rested against his thigh. “No, here at this resort, we believe in charm. The daughters are your primary responsibility, and the mothers after that. Make them laugh, make them giggle if you can,” Gold broke off, imitating a high-pitched giggle that made the assembled men break out in polite laughter. “And most of all make them feel pretty and special. Cast a spell on them, if you will. Yes, even the dogs,” he added, which made Regina gasp with the sudden cruelty of it. Luckily she had stayed back by the patio doors, out of sight and out of their hearing.
Just as she was about to turn away in disgust, a rabble of people pushed past her and into the dining room. Amongst them, she noticed Ruby who had taught their class that afternoon.
“Oh look,” one of the waiters yelled out. “The circus freaks are here.” He stood head and shoulders over the other men, his hair jet-black and a hint of five o’clock shadow along his jaw. His smile had a lazy charm to it, one that said he knew how to bend the world to his will. In his left hand he held a clutch of knives and forks, and as the light glinted off the silverware it almost looked menacing.
“Cram it, Harvard,” a blonde said, stepping out from the throng of dancers. If Regina thought Ruby looked good in a fancy dress and full makeup, it was nothing to the way this girl drew every eye in the room, wearing simply a tight green tanktop and blue jeans, cut off at the knee.
“I’m headed to Yale, actually,” the dark-haired man fired back, a sneer pulling at his lips.
“Oh, well, whichever kindergarten it is that means you need a lecture about how not to drool on all the little rich girls,” the blonde mocked, getting easy laughs from her friends around her.
“That’s enough out of you, Swan,” Gold threatened, stepping between his two employees. “If you’re all here for dinner, the cook left out sandwiches. Then get back to the staff house and don’t let me catch any of you entertainers doing anything more than a cha-cha with any of my guests’ daughters. You know the rules.”
“Yes, sir,” Swan replied, with a deep, mocking bow that showed the rippling muscles in her bare lower back. Regina bit her lip at the sight, without quite meaning to.
As the group began to disperse, Regina pulled away from the scene and began the short jog back to their cabin. She pulled her white cardigan a little tighter against the evening chill, and kept her head down, listening to nothing but the whisper of the wind in the trees.
Gold was waiting for them at dinner, leading Mother by the arm to their table, almost as if Daddy weren’t there at all. Regina took his arm as they walked across the room, a gesture of quiet solidarity.
“This is Killian,” Gold practically purred as their waiter approached. Regina looked up to see the confrontational jerk from the previous night. He took one appraising look at her, before switching his full attention to Kathryn with her deep blue dress and poker straight blonde hair. Regina tugged at the waves she had pinned into some kind of submission and frowned at her own lazy choice of a simple gray sundress. Even Mother had shown up in something she’d usually wear to a hospital benefit. “He’s off to medical school at Yale, shortly. But this summer he’s going to be my main man in ensuring you get everything you need.”
“My pleasure,” Killian insisted. “Dr. Mills, we’ve all heard what a master of the human heart you are. And this must be the lovely... Regina? She certainly looks like a queen,” he smarmed, never taking his eyes off Kathryn.
“Kathryn, actually,” Regina’s older sister corrected, smile as wide as the Hudson. “Regina is that one.”
He didn’t so much as glance at her.
“Regina’s off to Mount Holyoake in the fall,” Daddy piped up, clasping her hand in obvious pride. Mother had pushed for her to pursue the medical track too, now that schools were far more accepting than they had been twenty years ago. Mother’s reputation as a trailblazer had put quite the bit of pressure on Regina, but Kathryn simply shrugged it all off, like a duck with droplets of water. “She’s going to change the world,” Daddy continued, watching for Mother’s nod of approval.
“Not a queen, huh?” Killian addressed Kathryn again. “Then you must be a princess, at the very least.”
“Maybe,” Kathryn replied, trying to force herself to blush. “This princess doesn’t see any need to go off to college, that’s for sure.”
“Well,” Gold interrupted, with an almost imperceptible jab of his cane at Killian’s foot. “Why don’t we get the drink orders coming, hmm? Have a lovely evening, everyone.”
After dinner, no matter how long Regina lingered over her apple pie, meant more dancing for all of them. This time nobody had to take lessons or do a particular step, but there was a live band and most of the adults were getting pretty liquored up, so Regina figured she could slink off quickly if Mother and Daddy saw her pretending to enjoy herself early on.
Just as she started edging towards the exit, a nervous but handsome young man approached her. She’d seen a few of Kathryn’s new friends circling him earlier, but he hadn’t seemed interested at all. In fact, Regina had to admit, he seemed to have eyes only for her.
“Would you like to dance?” He asked, extending his hand. “My name’s Sidney, if you were wondering.”
“I wasn’t,” Regina answered, but she smiled instead of letting it sound snippy. With light steps Sidney guided them to the center of the throng on the dancefloor, and while he was definitely leading, Regina didn’t feel pushed and pulled around as she had at more formal dances like prom.
“If people are looking because I’m--” Sidney started to say three dances later, but Regina shook her head and moved in a little closer.
“Let them,” she insisted. “I know what it’s like to always be on vacation in the whitest place on earth. My sister--she’s my half-sister, actually--she always says ‘oh Regina, if you just stayed out of the sun’...”
“Nice,” he sympathized. “It’s pretty hot in here, huh?”
“It is,” Regina agreed as the band slowed down at the end of a song. “Is this where you suggest a long walk in the moonlight?”
“I wish I could,” Sidney told her, leading her off the dancefloor. “But I actually work for Mr Gold. I’m sort of his apprentice, if you like. He has me on closing duty in the restaurant.”
“Need a hand?” Regina asked, despite it being a terrible idea. Mother would have had a fit at the thought of Regina bussing tables or washing dishes. The months of arguments over Regina’s college choices: politics and economics instead of a solid pre-med grounding in the sciences, had really been painful enough. Until she got free of the family home, Regina had a certain position in society to pretend to care about, but Mother was already laughing as she danced with Daddy over in the corner, so maybe a little rebellion couldn’t hurt.
“You can keep me company,” Sidney offered as they exited into the cool night air, the noise of the band giving way to the sound crickets and distant bursts of laughter carried on the breeze. “Hey, did you meet Neal when you checked in?”
“I don’t think so?”
“Well, here he comes now,” Sidney said, stopping in the middle of the path as a short, muscular guy came jogging up. “He’s the boss’s son. Neal, this is Regina Mills. Her parents are your dad’s favorite guests this year.”
“Oh, yeah,” Neal answered, giving Regina a curious look. “He tried to get me to come kiss ass yesterday, but I got out of it. No offense.”
“None taken,” Regina assured him.
“Hey, Sidney, can I come raid the kitchen?” Neal asked. “The party’s just getting going.”
“Fine,” Sidney groaned. “Just remember you’re taking the blame if your papa finds out. Regina, you want to come steal some mixers with this criminal genius? Or you wanna watch me shouting at busboys?”
“She can’t come with me, Sid,” Neal reminded him. “No guests at the staff digs, remember?”
“Why not?” Regina asked, drawing herself up to her full height. Cora Mills’s daughter was not denied entrance anywhere. “Oh, are you just too scared of your papa?”
Neal shot her an appraising glance, smirking past her shoulder at Sidney.
“Oh Sid, I think we got a live one. Just for that, Reggie, you’re helping me carry the fruit.”
“Don’t call me that,” she snapped, chasing after him down the path to the kitchen entrance, waving to Sidney who headed straight for the restaurant. “It’s Regina.”
“Nah, that doesn’t work for me,” Neal teased. “What do your folks call you?”
“They call me Regina.”
“Not always, right? I know how you proper families are.”
“How about you just call me... Mills? If you’re so opposed to my first name,” Regina suggested, an image of the blonde known only as ‘Swan’ rising up in her memory. “And I can call you Gold. Can’t imagine the son of the guy who owns this place is from anything less than a ‘proper’ family himself.”
“That’s how much you know.”
“Unless you tell me different, yeah.”
“Well, my mom ran off with some asshole on a yacht. And I don’t want anything from my dad, much less his name,” Neal turned on her, his face contorted with sudden anger. “So, Regina, why don’t we just leave it at that?”
“I said I’d help you steal mixers,” Regina answered, staring him down. “So what do you need me to do?”
“You can carry that,” Neal said with a smirk, nodding at a giant watermelon on top of a stack of crates. “Unless it’s too heavy to carry across the bridge? Wouldn’t want you to break a nail.”
“I can manage,” Regina told him, wrestling the huge green fruit from the pile and turning to him with a smile that didn’t betray the strain in her forearms. “So, where’s this party?”
Regina only dropped the watermelon three times. Not letting it fall in the lake after dropping it in the middle of the bridge definitely counted as a victory. But she forgot all about it the minute she stepped inside the loud, dark entryway of the staff accommodation.
Someone grabbed the watermelon from her, while another grabbed the bottles and cartons Neil had carried perfectly on a tray the whole way there. She moved closer to him, the only way to be heard over the din of music, chatter and whoops and screams from what looked like one giant dance floor.
“Do you dance?” She asked, suddenly filled with daring.
“Nah,” he replied, shrugging his broad shoulders. “I wait for all the girls who’ve just discovered their dancing boy partners are fairies, then I pick ‘em up and wipe away the tears, know what I mean?”
“Charming,” Regina groaned. “Remind me never to dance with you.”
“Who the hell is this?” A female voice yelled from right behind Regina. “Dammit, Neal. I knew we couldn’t trust you. Always the boss’s son.”
“Hey!” He protested. “I can bring anyone I want to a party, Emma. I don’t have to run it past you.”
Regina turned to the strange woman, only to lose the breath in her lungs altogether at the sight of the woman she’d known only as ‘Swan’ until this moment. Dressed this time in a tight green dress that barely made it halfway down her thighs and didn’t have a single strap to hold it up, Emma was drawing gazes from every corner of the room.
“What’s your name?” Emma demanded, and Regina panicked at how she was going to actually form words.
“You’re the Rockette,” Regina blurted, the first fact that came to mind. “Uh, Ruby told us about you.”
“Ruby!” Emma turned towards the throng of people and yelled. Ruby emerged from the group, bodies parting like the Red Sea to let her pass; it was clear which two people ruled this particular roost, and when Ruby wrapped Emma in a generous hug, Regina couldn’t help but see why. “You’ve been talking about me again, Ruby,” Emma teased. “This little rich girl was just telling me all about it.”
“You’re, uh...” Ruby squinted at Regina in the dull light. “Oh, you’re the doctor’s daughter. I have to be real nice to your Mom all summer, apparently.”
“Fancy name,” Emma mocked. “Hey Neal, was there any grief about us not being there for the civilian dancing tonight? I had to work on my routine for the Sheldrake.”
“Nah,” Neal confirmed, all of them talking over Regina’s head like she was invisible. “Ashley and Sean did their bit, and you know nobody complains when they do their mambo.”
“Speaking of which,” Ruby followed up. “You need to teach me, Emma. Shall I ask Jimmy to change the music?”
“We can do it to this,” Emma corrected, wrapping an arm around Ruby’s waist and leading her to the space that opened up in the center of what must once have been a pretty grand dining room. Regina found herself unable to look away, feeling the tempo of the music pick up, the beats of it vibrating through the very floor and up through her body.
It started as simply as the moves Ruby taught them all in the afternoons: a swaying of hips, hands resting casually on hips, one foot and then the other tapping out a pattern of steps. Ruby learned quickly, her eyes on Emma’s the whole time, seeming to sense the moves rather than watch and imitate. Their lips were moving slightly, maybe issuing instructions or accepting them, and suddenly from a lifetime of trying to get out of ballet lessons and even rolling her eyes at the group dance yesterday, Regina had never wanted anything as much as she wanted to be a dancer in that moment. Her whole body felt strange, tingles radiating everywhere, right to the very tips of her fingers.
Kathryn had always been the dancer, the elegant one whose every step was chosen, posed, but seemingly effortless. Regina had been the kid who rode horses and fell in the mud and climbed the trees in the orchard ever since the day Daddy told her the sweetest fruit was found on the highest branches.
“They look pretty great together, huh?” Neal asked, moving in behind Regina, but not so close that she felt a need to tell him to back off. “You watch, tomorrow night they’re on civilian duty after dinner. The whole place goes wild.”
“And nobody thinks it’s strange, two women dancing together?”
“Nah,” Neal shot that down pretty quickly. “Emma wears a suit, pins her hair up, the whole deal. As long as they dress up they can call it art. And you know, guys like watching two chicks together. That’s not exactly a secret.”
“Lovely,” Regina groaned, trying to look away from where Ruby and Emma’s dance was getting more inappropriate by the second. Somehow, she only succeeded in catching Emma’s eye, who whispered something to Ruby that made her giggle. Expecting to be mocked, Regina was stunned to see Ruby stride towards her, grabbing Regina by the hand and pulling her into the sea of fast-moving people.
“Like what you see, rich girl?” Emma crowed as Ruby shoved Regina at her. “Let’s see if Ruby taught you anything your first two days, huh?” Ruby disappeared back into the crowd, and Regina knew--in theory--that she could run out of there and never look back. But Emma’s hand was resting on Regina’s hip, and even through the cotton of her dress, the heat of the contact became the only thing she could think about.
“I can’t really dance,” she started to explain as the next song began. She’d heard Kathryn play it at home for the past few weeks, but the words and the singer escaped her. Emma threw back her loose blonde curls and actually smiled about it though, so maybe Regina would start taking some music tips from her sister.
“It’s easy,” Emma shouted at her. “I step forward, you step back. Let me lead.”
Regina tried to do just that, and was surprised that after a brief stumble and a moment’s confusion, she actually picked up on the rhythm.
“You’re as stiff as my ironing board!” Emma teased, both hands on Regina’s hips now as they quick-stepped in unison. “C’mon, rich girl, roll those hips for me.”
It felt ridiculous, but Emma’s hands were strong and insistent, so Regina closed her eyes and tried to make her body move with the music. Even when she stopped concentrating, her feet kept moving in perfect time, almost as though they’d been enchanted. Dancing had never felt like this before.
“Should I get us some drinks?” Regina asked when the song came to an end, much too soon. “Neal said there’s a bar set up in the back, so...”
“No thanks,” Emma said. “Some of us still have work to do tonight. You take care, ri--”
“Please call me Regina,” she interrupted. “It’s Emma, right? Well, I’m Regina. I’d love to take one of your classes this week.”
“I might be a bit advanced for you, but we’ll see,” Emma replied, looking (if Regina wasn’t completely mistaken) a little impressed. “You think you can find your way back to the cabins okay?”
“Yes! I’m not some naive country girl,” Regina snapped. “We live in Manhattan. I can go all sorts of places just fine, thank you very much.”
“Sorry I asked!”
“Yeah. Well,” Regina felt a little embarrassed now. “I guess I’ll see you around.”
She did leave then, heading straight for the exit without looking for Neal or any other familiar faces. Regina made her way down the dimly-lit trail towards the guest cabins, and tried not to smile that she was still dancing her steps the whole way.
Kathryn pulled her aside the next day as they dressed for dinner with their parents. The day had consisted of silly makeovers that took all morning, which Regina had scrubbed off and unpinned her hair right after. One of these days she was going to cut her hair nice and short, only as long as her chin, but Mother had already objected to her shoulder-length trim last week. On top of that they’d spent the afternoon trailing around the golf course as Daddy had tried to insist on them playing as a four. Thankfully, Mother’s impatience at their amateur strokes had bought them some freedom for an hour or so while she and Daddy played the back nine together.
“You need to cover for me tonight, sis,” Kathryn insisted as they stepped out onto the porch. “Mom and Dad said to meet them down there, but I’ve got a date. So you just tell them I had a terrible headache, and you’ll come check on me after dessert.”
“And where will you be?”
“I told you. On a date.”
“Let me guess: Killian the waiter?” Regina couldn’t quite keep the sneer from her voice. That boy had trouble just rolling off him in waves. It wasn’t exactly shocking that her sister would choose to completely ignore that.
“Don’t be jealous, Gigi,” Kathryn teased, popping her lipstick in her purse. “Now, are you going to be a dear and cover for me, or not?”
“On one condition,” Regina grumbled.
“I know, I know,” Kathryn sighed. “I’ll stop calling you Gigi. You have a deal, little sis.”
“Just don’t do anything dumb. I’m not getting in trouble for you.”
“I never do anything dumb,” Kathryn insisted. “I’m snagging myself a handsome future doctor. What could be trouble about that?”
Mother looked a little suspicious about Kathryn’s headache, but they made it through dinner without discussing her much, so Regina took that as a good sign. After the meal Sidney came to seek her out, asking her if she wouldn’t rather skip the dancing tonight and go for that walk while he had a break.
“Oh,” Regina tried not to sound too underwhelmed “I heard the Rockette girl is dancing tonight, with the civilians. I wanted to watch, if you don’t mind.”
“I had no idea you actually liked dance,” Sidney responded, and he mostly hid the disappointment like a champ. “Maybe your party last night changed your mind?”
“Something like that,” Regina half-admitted, hoping that Neal hadn’t decided to gossip about her. Boys didn’t do that sort of thing, right? And even if there had been a lot of... touching from Emma, well, it really had been simple dancing and nothing more. God, had it been this hot in the lounge last night?
They didn’t have to wait long. By the time the band flew into its third or fourth number, the crowd parted and a quick ripple of applause spread through the room like the burst of a firework. Ruby stole the attention first of all as she spun into position, her red and white dress sparkling with sequins and catching the light as the skirt flared out. Others may have missed it, but Regina was aware the very second Emma stepped into view. Her tailored pants made her legs look even longer, ending in those silver dancing heels that matched Ruby’s exactly. With the white shirt and fitted tuxedo jacket, the overall effect was both dashing and still feminine in a way that had all the girls whispering instantly about whether they could pull off a look like that.
“Not exactly the traditional merengue,” Sidney commented as they watched, their own dance reduced to little more than a shuffle. Ruby’s feet seemed to barely touch the floor, almost like she was hovering with the lightness of her step. She responded to every slight movement from Emma, turning and twisting and dipping as though their very bodies were controlled by the conductor, just like the band itself.
“Can we...” Regina floundered for a moment, never taking her eyes from Emma Swan. “Let’s just watch, is that okay?”
“Sure,” Sidney agreed. “I have to go soon, anyway.”
If there was a hint contained in those words, Regina ignored it. She followed every step of the merengue, toes tapping as the other couples on the floor either tried to keep up or got out of the way. As Ruby and Emma launched into a second number, Gold appeared at the side of the stage. He didn’t exactly make a grand entrance, but Emma reacted to him right after lifting and twirling Ruby in a way that made the whole room gasp.
Emma leaned in to whisper something to Ruby, and a moment later the two women broke apart, each seeking out one of the younger men to partner them. Regina watched Gold, his mouth set in grim determination, leaving only when the dancefloor had filled again, Emma and Ruby leading more limited partners and everyone else keeping up far more easily.
“Doesn’t Mr Gold like them dancing together?” Regina asked Sidney, who seemed startled at the question.
“He allows it,” Sidney explained. “But it’s not exactly the ‘image’ he’s going for. The rule is one dance, to get people interested. Then it’s dancing with the people who pay the wages, you know? Especially the ones who’ve been having private lessons--they like to show off.”
“So they teach dance all day and then have to dance with people all night?” Regina confirmed. “Seems like a lot of work.”
“Why do you think they have all those wild parties? It’s how they blow off steam. You coming for that walk?”
“Of course,” Regina replied, although her heart wasn’t in it at all. Mother nodded approvingly as Regina left on Sidney’s arm. Prospects, Mother would say; always date a boy with good prospects.
As Mother had confided on the golf course earlier, a boy like Killian would be perfect for Kathryn, because she wanted to be a wife and a mother. But girls like Regina--just like Mother was, before her--they needed the kind of man who understands hard work. After all, Daddy might have been just an orchard owner when Mother married him, but she knew right away that he was a worker, and a worker always supports those around him.
Regina didn’t mention, yet again, that she’d never been much like Mother at all.
She followed Sidney out into the cool night air, just in time to see Kathryn emerging from the path leading to the golf course, hair mussed and dress disheveled. Killian, three strides in front, managed to look both impressed with himself and bored, all at the same time, ignoring Kathryn’s pleas to slow down.
The next night found Kathryn back at the table, and without distractions they actually had a pleasant family evening together. When Daddy led her out onto the dancefloor, Regina was only too happy to oblige, even if Kathryn did have just the hint of a pout over it. Midway through their waltz, Regina noticed Emma over in the corner, an obviously fake smile plastered on her face as she danced with a much older man.
Something in the way they were dancing made Emma look trapped. No matter how many twists and turns she guided her partner into, he would dip her and then find a way to box her back into the corner of the dancefloor. Regina didn’t like the look of it one bit.
“Do you know that tall man over there?” She asked Daddy, right as their steps carried them past Emma and the man in question.
“Oh yes, he’s a friend of your mother’s,” Daddy explained. “Albert Spencer. He’s Head of Cardiology at Presbyterian; I’ve got a suspicion he wants to recruit her to the staff there.”
“Is that a good thing?”
“It is to your mother. It’s not so long ago she had to fight tooth-and-nail to get an interview anywhere. Now all the sharks are circling her. I hope he’s more charming in an interview than he is out here, though,” Daddy finished, casting a second glance towards Albert, practically wrestling with Emma now.
“Henry,” Mother interrupted as they swung past her. “It’s Kathryn’s turn now. Don’t play favorites.”
The music slowed at the end of the song, but just as Regina moved aside for her sister, a crack rang out across the room. A slap, Regina realized half a moment later, and she didn’t have to turn around to work out exactly where it came from.
Sidney rushed over to Emma, pulling her towards the door while Albert rubbed his face, picking out a familiar face by the bar and marching over there to talk and divert some of the attention.
“Oh, poor Albert,” Mother grumbled, linking her arm with Regina’s as they headed back towards the table. “He really hasn’t been himself since his wife died. Stand up straight, darling.”
“He was harassing that dancer,” Regina said, unable to contain her annoyance over it, Mother’s doctor buddy or not. “She was just trying to make him stick to dancing.”
“Regina, dear,” Mother sighed. “That dancer rents herself by the hour. Now, when it’s a housewife from the suburbs, then maybe you can call it dancing lessons. But when it’s a man of a certain stature, he’s going to develop expectations; he’s going to expect to get his money’s worth.”
“Mother!” Regina blurted, scandalized. “You can’t really think that. What if it was me, trying to teach him... piano? Or golf?”
“Your golf game is appalling, Regina, so I think you’re safe,” Mother retorted. “Why do you suddenly care about one of Gold’s Reno floozies, anyway? You’re here to meet bright young people like yourself, start your college networking before these last three weeks of summer are up.”
“You’re right,” Regina said, her throat so tight the words almost choked her. “Excuse me. I’m going to check on Sidney.”
“Yes, see that girl didn’t give him too much trouble,” Mother advised. “He really is a fine young man.”
Regina bolted for the exit, not quite running but practically skipping in her haste to get away from her mother and those unexpected, terrible words. Sidney was down by the path, arguing with Emma, her blonde hair spilling from the neat chignon that even her dancing hadn’t disturbed. Before Regina could interrupt them, Neal appeared at her side, running his hand over his jaw and apparently considering his options.
“Is she giving Sidney shit to stick up for Ruby?” He asked, apparently decided.
“No,” Regina answered, never looking away from the argument in front of them. “She slapped a horrible guest who was practically undressing her on the dancefloor. Why would she have to stick up for Ruby?”
“Oh Christ, she took a swing at Spencer, didn’t she? That’s gonna make my dad put her on notice.”
“Yeah, it was him. What’s up with Ruby?”
“She’s hiding in the day bar, crying behind the counter. Since she won’t listen to me, I thought Emma could come get her before anyone finds her making a scene,” Neal explained. “You think you can find a way to distract your boyfriend?”
“He’s not my--fine, wait here,” Regina groaned, unsure when exactly she’d decided to get caught up in the affairs of the resort dancers, though she suspected it was right around the time she’d first laid eyes on Emma Swan.
Two minutes and a cockamamie excuse about Mother complaining of a broken lock on their cabin door later, Regina had sent Sidney rushing off to investigate. Of course, he’d suggested she come along, but Regina had played the good girl card and reminded him it wouldn’t be appropriate. That left her free to jog across the lawns behind Emma and Neal, intent on rescuing Ruby from whatever had made her cry.
Neal hadn’t been kidding, Regina soon realized. With her sequinned dress not even fastened properly, and every inch of her makeup melting down her face in ugly streaks, Ruby looked nothing like her usual beautiful self.
“Rubes, what happened?” Emma asked, trying to help her friend back on her feet.
“Killian,” Ruby sobbed. “I met him in here for our regular date and he told me we’d have to cool it because he has some rich bitch now.”
“No offense,” Neal said, smirking at Regina, who very maturely stuck out her tongue in response. “But Ruby, why are you getting this messed up over some busboy?”
“He, uh, well, I--” Ruby dissolved into a fresh round of sobs. Somewhere in the mess of sounds, Regina picked out the word “pregnant” and the mood in the room crashed entirely.
“He doesn’t wanna know?” Emma confirmed. “That Ivy League prick. I’ll knock his bleached teeth down his throat for him.”
“We gotta get you out of here,” Neal urged. “They’re opening up in here for the late card game real soon. Emma, can you--”
“By myself?” Emma whined.
“You lift her all the time,” Neal pointed out, as Ruby slumped back against the shelves behind the bar, the vodka bottle she’d clearly been drinking from now apparent to Regina.
“When she’s cooperating,” Emma countered. “Hey, Regina. How are you at lifting drunk, sad girls?”
Regina wanted to gasp at Emma remembering her name, but caught herself just in time. She looked from Emma to Neal, then down at her spotless white evening dress and heels. There probably wasn’t time to go change, so it was time to help or run like hell before people started getting in trouble.
“We’re going to stay out of sight, right?” She asked, fate already sealed.
“Sure,” Emma grunted, yanking Ruby up and draping one of her arms around Emma’s shoulders. “Other side’s all yours. Then we’re heading out through the back, okay?”
“Okay,” Regina agreed, feeling like part of the team for once as she lifted Ruby’s other arm just like Emma had done.
“When she sobers up, tell her there’s a guy--a doctor--two towns over who takes care of this stuff. He only does it one day a month though, he goes all over the place so nobody comes sniffing around. We had a couple of girls last year, the year before...”
“How much?” Emma snapped.
“$250, last I checked. If it’s the same as before it’s the third Thursday of the month.”
“That’s next week,” Ruby grumbled. “We have the Sheldrake on Thursday.”
“Oh sure, that you remember, but walking is too hard for your depressed ass,” Emma sighed. “We’ll talk it out back at the house, okay?”
“‘Kay,” Ruby mumbled, and Regina tried to concentrate on keeping up with Emma’s erratic, but surprisingly quick steps.
Neal came to find them not long after Regina and Emma wrestled Ruby on to the grubby sofa in what was apparently Ruby’s room. Theater posters lined the walls - window cards for Broadway shows interspersed with Vegas trinkets, and cheap jewelry was draped on every edge and handle, with the skimpy clothes relegated to random piles on the floor. Regina arranged her facial features very carefully, because she was pretty sure Emma wouldn’t hesitate to call her a snob and throw her out if Regina looked at anything even slightly funny.
“I don’t got $250,” Ruby groaned into a cushion when Neal confirmed what he’d told them a little while before. “And if we miss the Sheldrake, we lose that fee and the last few weeks of the season, too. I know you need that extra dough, Em.”
“Can’t someone else dance with you?” Neal demanded of Emma. “There’s a bunch of other girls on staff. You could even dance with a guy, you know, really shake things up.”
“Mr Sheldrake likes his girl-on-girl, idiot. And Ashley, everyone else, they’re all covering here so we could have that night off. If Ruby’s not fit to dance anywhere, we’re just a person short however you look at it.”
“Oh, yeah. Hey, is the boy wonder gonna stump up the cash?” Neal asked. “I can put some pressure on him, but I guess you don’t want me to lean on Sidney or my dad.”
“He told me it can’t be his,” Ruby said, the sobs threatening again. “Said I was probably banging half the resort and thought I’d pin it on him. Said he should have known better than to fool around with a... with a whore.”
“He’s after my sister,” Regina groaned, which made everyone turn to stare at her. “I mean, he’s, uh, sniffing around her. Should I warn her?”
“If you like,” Ruby replied. “Emma, we’re making our gig. I’ll just have to deal with this until the season is over. Just a few more weeks, right?”
“If you want to do this, Rubes, I’ll give you the money,” Emma offered, sitting on the sofa to hug her friend. Ruby relaxed into the contact gratefully, looking so much younger than Regina had ever noticed before.
“I can’t take your money, Em. Even if we put what wages we have left together, we probably can’t make it. And me losing us work? That’s not the deal.”
“I’m sure you can think of something,” Regina piped up. “I mean, these things always work out in the end, right?” She didn’t have the heart to tell Ruby how many times she’d already seen that not to be the case. The girl looked devastated already.
“Thanks for the help, rich girl, but you should get back before they send out a search party,” Ruby snapped, no longer the vulnerable person of a moment before. Emma frowned at Regina again, her help already forgotten.
If there was one thing Regina recognized, it was being dismissed. She moved towards the door, trying not to feel bad that nobody overruled Ruby and asked her to stay.
“Good luck,” she said as she closed the door behind her, but nobody seemed to hear.
“Mother,” Regina said, approaching her on the porch where she was lost in some book or other. “Could I have a word?”
“Of course,” Mother replied, setting the book down on her lap. “Oh, Regina, every time I look at you now I see a young woman. Is it possible you grew from that tiny baby I held in my arms?”
“Well, you’re the MD. You tell me.”
“Are you too grown to give your mother a hug?”
“Never,” Regina insisted, squeezing into the wicker chair and cuddling into her mother with relief. For all their problems, especially lately, when away from all the distractions of work and school, Regina had always lived for these fleeting moments of closeness. “Mommy, I need to help someone. But I don’t have the means to do it myself.”
“Well, helping people is a vocation, Regina,” Mother reminded her. “If you don’t have the means, you find the people who do.”
“Could you lend me $250?” Regina asked, rushing it out in one breath. “I can’t tell you why right now, but I promise I absolutely have to do it. It’s very important, and I’m the only one who can help.”
“That’s a lot of money, dear. You’re not the one in trouble, are you?”
“It’s not me, but believe me I wouldn’t even consider asking if there was any alternative at all,” Regina sat up, but Mother clutched at her hand before she could pull away. For a moment, the chill crept down Regina’s spine. Sometimes, when Mother got very tired or Regina pushed the wrong way, there would be consequences. But Mother’s grip wasn’t her angry grip. There were no bruises this time.
“Regina, is this for anything... illegal? No, forget I asked that. You’re my good girl, and I know you wouldn’t. I know you wouldn’t disappoint me, would you?”
“Of course not. And thank you, Mother,” Regina responded, hoping she wouldn’t blush and give away the law-breaking nature of what she was trying to do. “It means so much to me.”
“Go have some time with your new friends,” Mother instructed. “I’ll have the money for you by dinner, is that okay?”
“More than okay.” Regina planted a gentle kiss on Mother’s cheek. “You sure you don’t want me to grab my book and read here with you?”
“Maybe another day, darling.”
Instead of seeking out Kathryn or anyone else, Regina slipped on her sandals and made her way down to the restaurant, hoping to catch Killian in the lull between lunch ending and setting up for dinner.
Sure enough, he was sitting at a corner table, some heavy textbook in front of him and his pressed white jacket hanging over the chair he sat on. Regina approached in angry strides, grateful nobody else was in that section to overhear.
“If you’re here for your sister, I told her I’d see her after my shift tonight,” Killian said, barely looking away from his book. “Unless you want a turn first, of course.”
“I’m here about Ruby,” Regina said, hands on her hips. “And is that any way to address a paying guest?”
“Last I checked, Mummy and Daddy were paying for you, so I wouldn’t be so precious about it. And Ruby is none of your concern.”
“You know what’s up. You should do the right thing,” Regina challenged, and this time he was annoyed enough to close his damn book. “You know that, don’t you?”
“Where do you get off telling me what the right thing is? I work here to pay for college, kid. Not sort out every easy girl who gets herself in trouble.”
“You got her in trouble!” Regina hissed, watching him pick up a silver pitcher and refill his water glass.
“So she says,” Killian responded. “She’s probably been with half the guys in this place. She just thought I’d be too worried about college not to stump up the cash. Well, she’s got another thing coming.”
“But there’s a chance, right? You took that risk, so you should pay the consequences.”
“Listen, maybe if we were talking about a classy girl. Like your sister. But one thing college should teach you is that some people matter, and some people don’t. Ruby will find a way. Trash like her always does.”
“You make me sick,” Regina spat, grabbing at the pitcher, pleased to see it was still half full. “Don’t talk to me. Don’t even look at my sister again. Or I’ll have you fired.”
She dumped the remaining ice water in his lap, enjoying his shout of surprise and rage as she walked right out into the afternoon sun.
It seemed to take forever until dinner and dancing was over that night, and Regina used the excuse of waiting for Sidney not to return to the cabin with her family. Kathryn had been in a foul mood all evening because Killian practically ignored her, and no wonder with Regina glaring at him anytime he so much as approached their table.
Hoping she looked a little more grown up in her tied blouse and capri pants, Regina jogged across the bridge once she was sure all the dancers had left the ballroom. Neal nodded at her from behind the record player when she pushed through into the staff house dance area, and she waved a hand in greeting that made him come out and follow her in her search for Ruby.
Sure enough, Ruby was dancing with Emma, but much slower than usual and little more than a slow-moving shuffle that kept perfect time. Clearly, nobody’s heart was in it tonight.
“Here,” Regina announced, shoving the envelope in Ruby’s hand before she lost her nerve. “The money you need.”
“Wait, you busted Killian for this?” Ruby asked, whistling through her teeth. “Even Neal couldn’t get anything out of him.”
“Yeah,” Regina lied, before reconsidering. “I mean, I tried, even gave him an unplanned ice bath. But no go. Still, you said you needed the money, so...”
“I can’t take this, Regina.”
“Yeah, you can,” Regina insisted. “I want to help. I mean, someone has to, right?”
“And by someone you mean your rich daddy, right?” Emma demanded, getting in between Regina and Ruby.
“My mom arranged it, actually,” Regina corrected, like it made a blind bit of difference. Emma looked less sparkly then, wearing a tight white dress with some guy’s oversized denim shirt draped over it. Her shoes were flat sandals like Regina’s own though, and for some reason that gave her a little confidence. “Ruby, please take it.”
“I can’t,” Ruby said again, shaking her head sadly. “Neal checked, and the only appointment is Thursday. That means losing the Sheldrake, and they’re supposed to pay us for the whole season. They won’t have us back next year, either.”
“You should take the money,” Emma argued, changing her tune. “So we lose the Sheldrake. It’s just a bit on top, anyway.”
“No it’s not,” Ruby shot Emma down. “You said it’s the difference between going to audition in New York or going home to--”
“Hey!” Emma interrupted. “Let’s not go sharing my business all over the place, huh?”
“There’s really no one who can cover for you?” Regina pleaded, not willing to give up her moment as the knight in shining armor. And damn it, she was going to wipe that sneer off Emma’s face in the process.
“We all work,” Emma snapped. “Teaching classes all day, covering the roster in the evenings. We can’t all just take the afternoon to sip ice water by the lake anytime we like. Unless you’re volunteering,” she finished, with a snort of laughter.
“That’s... not a bad idea,” Neal chimed in. “Gives you the extra body this situation is sorely lacking right now.” In his Hawaiian shirt and trimmed beard, he looked more like a pimp than the son of a wealthy resort-owner, Regina thought, before scolding herself silently for the uncharitable thought. All this could have been avoided if they’d gone riding in Jackson Hole like she’d suggested back at Easter.
“It’s actually a terrible idea,” Regina corrected him. “I couldn’t even follow the merengue.”
“You’ve got rhythm, though,” Ruby told her. “I mean, I couldn’t ask you to do this. But don’t put yourself down in the meantime.”
“I was kidding,” Emma yelled, taking Neal’s beer from him and downing half of it in one gulp.
“You know, you’re a pretty strong partner,” Ruby said after a moment. “I mean, you could lead a dead body in a waltz, as long as the body didn’t go stiff.”
“This is mambo, Ruby. It took me long enough to teach you.”
“You heard her!” Emma scoffed. “I mean, she can’t even merengue. She can’t do it. She can’t. And even if she could, what do you think a kid like her knows about hard work and practice? I want to help you, Rubes, but she is not the answer.”
Regina narrowed her eyes at Emma’s mocking face, and made up her mind in that very same moment.
“Oh, I guess someone like you isn’t really a good enough teacher,” Regina drawled, grabbing her own beer from one of the male dancers walking past with a six-pack. “You’d probably rather get pawed by Dr Spencer, I guess.”
“Hey!” Emma got up in her face then, and it took every last scrap of Regina’s composure not to blink. Instead, she took a delicate sip from the bottle, staring Emma down the whole time.
“Well, Emma? Do you want to help your best friend, or not?”