A week to learn one mambo routine seemed like more than enough time.
Oh, maybe a little toe-stepping to start with, and Regina didn’t always respond well to being guided around by someone, but honestly she felt pretty sure that she could pull off replacing Ruby. In fact, she found a skip in her step as she followed the path down to the boathouse, following Emma’s instruction to meet directly after breakfast.
It had been easy to make excuses to Daddy about not coming along on his fishing trip, they both knew Regina cared for that almost as little as she cared for the pampering session Mother and Kathryn had booked themselves in for all day. Sipping cucumber water and sitting around in towels hadn’t appealed to Regina in the slightest, so she’d made a vague excuse about hiking with ‘new friends’ and slipped away dressed in denim cutoffs and a tanktop with a white shirt tied over it. Surely that and her tennis sneakers would be perfect for dance practice.
The boathouse didn’t appear to be in use anymore, and anyone going out for the day had already collected their boats from the jetty and sailed off down the lake. Regina wandered through the rickety wooden structure, looking for signs of Emma.
“Up here,” a voice called after a few moments. “Or did you think I was gonna teach you to dance on water?”
Okay, so the ground floor didn’t exactly have a lot of dry ground to dance around on, but Emma hadn’t specified. Blushing again, Regina located the stairs in the corner and jogged up them as quickly as she could.
Upstairs turned out to be a huge, airy space, a few pillars supporting it, but light beamed in from every side through streaked and slightly dusty windows. Regina turned to take in the whole effect of it, feeling like a ballerina as she slowly rotated. In one corner, a silk screen with a vivid Japanese print separated off some kind of sleep area, and Regina realized she had actually been invited into Emma’s private space.
“You live here?”
“Just for the summer,” Emma confirmed. “They like us to stay in the staff rooms, but those rabbit hutches make me crazy. You can touch the walls while you’re lying in bed. So I got Neal to find me some unused space, and this is where I’ve crashed, the last three years.”
“You’ve worked here that long?” Regina was surprised, and forgot to hide it.
“Yeah,” Emma looked uncomfortable at giving away the personal details. “You wanna make small talk, or you want to get to work on helping Ruby?”
“She booked the appointment?”
“Yeah, she got the last slot for the day, too.”
“Good. I mean, not good. But if she needs this, she shouldn’t have to go without,” Regina tripped over the words, yammering like an idiot about something they both already agreed on. “So, how hard is the mambo?”
“Well,” Emma replied, pulling a record from the sleeve and placing it on the player in the corner. The wooden case was cracked and barely standing, its paint peeling everywhere the eye looked, but when the sound poured out of the speakers it was warm and golden as honey. “That depends on two things.”
“What are they?”
“One: can you train your body to move on the second beat, not the first? That’s where most people struggle. And two: can you forget the rules altogether and feel the music like you’re dancing on the beach in Havana?”
“Seriously?” Regina felt the color draining from her face.
“No,” Emma snorted. “Just follow the steps. Put a roll in your hips when I tell you to. And don’t be afraid to make it look a little... dirty. Although that might be a stretch for a good little girl like you.”
“I’m not a girl anymore,” Regina snapped. “And I wouldn’t be so sure I’m good, either. I like the music, for what it’s worth?”
“Then get over here,” Emma instructed. “I’m gonna show you the first few steps, then we do it in time, okay?”
“Okay,” Regina answered. It really was just as simple as that.
“Ow!” Emma yelped as Regina trod on her foot for the sixth time in ten minutes. “Are you blind now, too? You were looking at my feet the whole time and still stepped on me.”
“I can’t do the steps if I look you in the eye!” Regina wailed.
“You could do them fine if you’d step on the two!”
“Stop saying that like it means something,” Regina growled in response. “Not all of us were born in a dance studio, Miss Rockette.”
“Oh, you’ve got a temper on you, huh?” Emma looked almost amused as she went to start the music over again. “Seems when Miss Priss can’t magically do something first time, she starts lashing out at the staff. And I wasn’t born in a dance studio.”
“I thought you had to be, to make it at Radio City,” Regina said, crossing her arms over her chest in defiance.
“No, you just gotta work hard. And audition. And learn to kick like you’re aiming for the chin of the person you hate most in the world. Five shows a day, sometimes. Seven days a week.”
“Is that where you learned to mambo? Because I checked the schedule this morning: nobody teaches it here,” Regina accused, sighing as the music crackled into life again. Despite her sudden anger, she could feel the strong beat tugging at her.
“The mambo ain’t for bored housewives and prep school kids,” Emma snapped, moving right in front of Regina and pulling her arms uncrossed. “Surprised a fancy girl like you hasn’t been to Cuba on Daddy’s yacht.”
“Well, I won’t be going anytime soon. Or had you forgotten the President put an embargo on the island?”
“It’s an island? Huh, cool,” Emma teased, her eyes twinkling dangerously for a second. “But maybe you want to stop talking politics and one, two, three, four.”
Regina joined in on the count, and started to move her feet once more, only for Emma to sigh in frustration.
“On the two! God! Quick, quick, slow, yes... but on the two, dammit.”
“Again,” Regina insisted, her usual determination taking hold like a hand gripping the back of her neck.
“Fine,” Emma snapped, extending her arms and pulling Regina into position. Regina stiffened at the sudden contact, having expected a moment’s more preparation before Emma’s hands returned to her waist and to hold Regina’s hand, respectively. “Relax,” Emma said, kinder this time and letting Regina go again. “Deep breaths, and shake out your arms, come on.”
“You’re kind of a hardass,” Regina complained, feeling foolish as she waved her arms like a kindergartener pretending to be an octopus.
“I have to be,” Emma muttered, taking both of Regina’s hands in hers for a moment, and then pulling her into their dancing position. “Now keep your frame nice and tight without going as stiff as a corpse, okay?”
Regina nodded, and this time when she braced her arms, it felt a lot more natural. Emma felt warm through her own teal blouse, which was a little too dark for the season really, especially tucked into some well-fitted black tuxedo pants. But Emma still looked perfectly unruffled, her long hair pulled up in a twisting braid that Regina knew would never hold in her own hair.
The music picked up its pace, and Regina started to count, ready to come in. Of course, she started moving on the first beat, only to be stopped by Emma’s sigh. Counting again, the next time she got it right, and as Emma’s hips rolled and her legs took elegant steps forward-back-back and back-forward-forward, Regina actually felt like she was doing the same thing for the first time. Instead of counting the beats like a math lesson, she watched Emma’s face, daring to meet her gaze fully for the first time, and their feet took care of themselves.
“Not bad,” Emma said as the song faded out. “I mean, that’s just the first step but I think you’re starting to get it.”
“You think we’ll be ready for Thursday?”
“Well,” Emma sighed. “It’s not like we have a choice.”
“Where were you all day?” Kathryn demanded as they walked down to dinner. “Only I went to see Killian, find out why he didn’t show last night. He said I should ask you.”
“Beats me,” Regina lied. “What do you see in that jerk, anyway? He’s so full of himself, I want to bust him like a piñata.”
“He’s gorgeous,” Kathryn insisted, her voice getting just a little dreamy. “And okay, maybe he’s too much of a bad boy to really do the marriage and babies thing, for now anyway, but who needs that?”
“Not me,” Regina agreed. “There are plenty of guys here, Kath. Can’t you shop around like you do for everything else?”
“Why don’t you like him?”
“I just don’t.”
“Tell me, or I’ll bring it up at the dinner table.”
“Fine,” Regina sighed, stopping dead even though her sandals were pinching her blistered feet. Apparently even her usually active lifestyle was no preparation for a day of hardcore dancing lessons. Flushed with the success of mastering three whole steps, she’d even practiced on the long walk back to her family cabin. “He’s got a reputation, okay? And he got a girl in trouble, but isn’t doing the right thing about it. So you should steer clear, unless you want to break Mother’s heart, and Daddy’s.”
“How do you know?”
“I know things.”
“Sidney told you? Listen, I know he’s got the hots for you, but you’re only eighteen Gigi, and you don’t know everything. Did you ever think he was just jealous of Killian?”
Regina had been starting to walk the rest of the way down to the restaurant, but Kathryn’s spiteful comment stopped her all over again.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You know what I mean,” Kathryn said, smoothing out the skirt of her vibrant pink dress, looking every bit the Prom Queen that she’d been, her blonde curls falling perfectly around her face. Regina thought of all the times she’d wished she was as pretty as her older sister, that people had treated her in that easy way instead of being intimidated by Regina’s book smarts or more practical riding clothes.
“You mean Sidney must be jealous he only got the runner-up,” Regina accused. “He got the less appealing sister, so you assume he’s trying to ruin Killian’s chances and get you for himself. My God, Kath! It’s a wonder you can fit through the doorways, your head is so big!”
“Hey!” Kathryn protested, but the damage was done.
“I’m going straight to my room after dinner,” Regina muttered as they finally approached the table where their parents sat. “Don’t rush back. But try not to get pregnant in the meantime.”
“Regina!” Kathryn shot back in a scandalized whisper. But Regina closed her eyes for a moment as she sat down, remembering the smile Emma had given her after a whole song without a single step landing on top of Emma’s foot.
“Girls,” Daddy greeted them warmly. “You both look beautiful. There’s going to be a talent show, Mr Gold was just telling us.”
“Great,” Kathryn responded, the darling daughter once again. “Maybe I can sing something. You know, if they want that sort of thing.”
“I’m sure they will,” Mother agreed. “Did you have a good day, Regina? Sit up straight, dearest. We missed you at the beauty parlor.”
“Yes,” Regina replied, surprised at how much she isn’t lying. “I might have overdone it, though. My legs are killing me.”
“Physical fitness is so good for you,” Mother assured her. “You keep it up.”
“Oh,” Regina answered. “I plan to.”
“Your posture sucks,” Emma pointed out at the end of their first hour. The sun was high by then, beating down through the room surrounded by glass. Regina was glad of her cut-off shorts but the shirt she’d worn was sticking to her back, and probably showing the sweat patches all over the blue cotton. So much for ladies ‘glowing’, she thought with a grimace. “Lose the shirt,” Emma added, handing Regina a bottle of Coke from a bucket of ice by the stereo.
“The shirt isn’t giving me bad posture,” Regina snapped. “But thanks for laying on refreshments today.”
“Neal brought it over,” Emma said with a shrug.
“Is he your boyfriend?” Regina asked, before she could think better of it.
“Well, Miss Mills,” Emma drawled. “I had no idea you were a comedian. Maybe my first year I was impressed by a daddy’s boy in denial like Neal, but he already blew his chance.”
“So, you do like boys? I mean, you always dance with Ruby unless someone makes you dance with Sean or James...”
“You’re here to dance, not dig around in my personal life,” Emma shut down in an instant. “But hey, if that’s why you’re worried about ditching the shirt? Melt, for all I care.”
Regina rolled her eyes, and unbuttoned her shirt, hanging it over the screen that marked Emma’s bedroom space. It felt like a challenge, somehow, and she saw Emma tense for a moment when Regina turned back round.
“Why are you wearing a leotard?” Emma asked, barely stifling a laugh.
“It’s a swimsuit,” Regina corrected her. “You said you have to teach later, so I thought I’d go for a swim. Now, you want to stand around talking, or do you want me to actually learn this damn routine?”
“Careful,” Emma said, moving with her customary quick grace to pull Regina into position again. “Saying ‘damn’ like that might get you thrown out of the equestrian club.”
“I’m not in a club,” Regina answered, before working out the dig. “We keep our own horses,” she added proudly. “Or we did, until last summer.”
“Let me guess, diamonds were just a better investment?”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Regina said, hearing the cue in the music and starting to move, Emma following without a second’s hesitation. “The stables... there was a fire.”
“Shit,” Emma said, but they didn’t break step. “I didn’t mean to... I get a lot of grief from the rich kids every summer. Call it a habit. Sometimes I forget bad things can happen to anyone.”
“My family worked hard for everything we have,” Regina retorted, and the angrier she got the easier the steps flowed from her. Emma turned and dipped her unexpectedly, and Regina felt her body respond as easily as a car responded to a turn of the steering wheel. “And okay, maybe the other kids like me wouldn’t do this. Or help Ruby. But maybe it’s time you gave me a little credit for who I actually am, instead of what you assume about me.”
“Not every college girl is pure evil, huh?” Emma looked thoughtful as they turned nimbly in the far corner. “I’ll bear that in mind.”
“Are we going to get to the lift today?” Regina asked as the song finished and Emma went to move the needle back to the start. “Ruby said the lift is the hardest part, but get that and we get the whole dance.”
“Not yet,” Emma cautioned. “But you’re doing okay. Today, we’re gonna fix your posture. Now arms up, do the steps just like I’m dancing with you.”
“What are you going to--” Regina lost her words as Emma pressed one hand against Regina’s back, the other flat over her ribs.
“Stand up tall,” Emma whispered, her voice barely audible over the music. She leaned in closer to Regina’s ear, the heat between their bodies sudden and noticeable. “You gotta dance like you’re the most beautiful girl in the room. You gotta show it off.”
“I can’t... I’m not.”
“Sure you are,” Emma said. “Now, act like it.”
Regina moved her feet, let her hips rock just as Emma had taught her and closed her eyes. Beautiful the word echoed in her head, like something completely different to the way Daddy had said it just last night. Regina rolled her shoulders back, lifting her chin just a little. As the music carried on, she felt her spine straighten, felt inches taller even as she repeated the simple steps over and over again. Emma’s hands kept up their pressure, never slipping, never moving away from Regina as she stepped forward and then back.
“Better,” Emma admitted at the end of the song. “Now, again. Hold yourself that way, this time without my help.”
“Shoulders down,” Emma ordered, as they spun past the record player again. “Did you enjoy your swim yesterday?”
“Only you seem a lot less tense. Must be doing you good.”
“Oh,” Regina answered. “I love swimming, so I guess it helps. How were your students--”
“Two, three, four!” Emma nudged them back on rhythm. “Concentrate.”
“You started talking!”
“Don’t put your heels down,” Emma scolded, two unbearably hot hours later. Regina could feel the sweat streaking down her spine, her hair curling at the base of her neck even after she tied it up in a high ponytail.
“I’m not,” Regina claimed, but she could feel herself doing exactly that. “When do you do the--oh!” She felt Emma’s muscles flex and suddenly Regina was rotated from one side of Emma’s body to the other, Regina’s legs holding firm to make the lift seem almost elegant.
“It’s better if you don’t see the first one coming,” Emma explained, as they picked up the basic step again, moving across the room with ease.
“That’s the lift you made such a big deal about?”
“That? Hell, no. That’s barely a lift at all. You’ll see, we’ll get to the real thing in due course.”
“The contest is in a few days,” Regina reminded her, feeling the dread squeeze in her own chest at the thought of it. “Are we going to be ready?”
“You stop thinking about it, and start feeling it? We just might be.”
“No classes this afternoon?” Regina asked, as they sat on half-broken chairs and devoured turkey sandwiches that Ruby brought over, along with a pitcher of iced tea.
“I’m teaching group,” Ruby answered. “Emma here doesn’t do many classes in the Sheldrake weeks, only the private lessons who won’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”
“I’m sure Regina doesn’t care how we cover the roster,” Emma snapped, gulping down her own iced tea. “You got time to show her the chase part?”
“Let me finish chewing, Emma. You’re such a jerk sometimes,” Ruby chided, smiling big at Regina. “Thanks again for this, Regina. You’re really doing me a favor and a half. And don’t let Emma scare you. If she didn’t think you’d get it, she’d have given up already.”
Buoyed by Ruby’s admission, and the way it made Emma scowl, Regina laughed softly and stretched out her legs. She tugged at her cropped tee, the white cotton finally cool against her skin again, while Emma and Ruby stood up and got ready to run through yet another new sequence.
“Watch carefully,” Emma shouted as the music picked up again. “And once Ruby goes off to class, we’re starting on the close body work, so make sure you don’t smell like turkey.”
Emma wasn’t kidding about the close work.
Regina picked up the chase steps quickly enough, the routine of one partner moving away only to be pursued by the other wasn’t exactly exclusive to the mambo, and she’d cha-chaed and quickstepped through enough at formal dances so far.
But a chase meant being caught, it turns out, and that meant being pulled tight against Emma’s body, Regina’s back to Emma’s chest, while their hands gripped each other’s just under Regina’s breast, ready for the spin out of this still moment in the midst of an otherwise frenetic dance.
“Ready?” Emma whispered, no music for this part. She liked to try everything in quiet first, then practice it to death as long as the appropriate song would play. They still hadn’t danced to the actual music for their routine, because apparently Regina would tune out all the important beats if she heard it too often.
“Can I ask you something?” Regina ventured, sucking in a deep breath and trying not to focus on the fact that Emma smelt faintly of lilies. “I mean, it doesn’t matter, but we’re doing some really intimate things now, and I think it’s important we trust each other.”
“We do need to trust each other,” Emma conceded. “If you don’t trust me, especially on lifts and spins, you’ll hurt me.”
“Why do I feel like you can take it?” Regina teased, forgetting herself. “Anyway, I wanted to ask about what we kind of avoided the other day. About dating, and if you date girls as well as guys?”
“Does it matter?”
“It does when you’re in a position that’s not a million miles away from groping me, dear,” Regina made sure to make it sound as patronizing as possible. She’d learned that Emma responded much more quickly to provocation than being nice.
“Yeah, fine. I’ve dated some women. Is that a problem?” Emma took a half-step back, as though giving Regina extra room to deal with the new information. Regina considered for a second, and then pressed her back even harder against Emma, removing any space between them at all.
“I don’t mind at all,” Regina breathed, not quite believing she was actually saying the words aloud. Even her voice sounded funny, like Kathryn’s when she got all flirty with boneheaded boys like Killian. Regina had never looked twice at a boy like that, just like she’d felt nothing for Sidney, or Neal, or any of the boys back home who’d come courting Kathryn and settled for her instead, discouraged when they couldn’t pry her away from her books or Mother’s watchful glare.
“What, you’re gonna tell me someone like you goes on dates with other chicks?” Emma snorted. “Nice try, but girls like you don’t do that. So don’t go ratting me out, okay?”
“I don’t think you know what I’m capable of,” Regina said, firm and quiet. “Now, do you have a new move to show me, or not?”
“Hold still,” Emma sighed. “Now raise your arm, wrap it around my neck nice and gentle, okay? I don’t want you mussing my hair.”
“Your hair is already mussed.”
“I mean on the night,” Emma corrected. “I’ll have it slicked back and pinned. Now, that’s fine, rest your hand there and let me trace down your side like this--”
Regina burst into giggles at the ticklish trail of fingertips down her side. Emma clicked her tongue impatiently.
“Again,” they both said in unison, and this time Regina held her laugh. What had initially seemed ticklish seemed like something completely different by the time Emma’s fingers grazed the side of Regina’s breast, carrying on down to her hip. Just as she opened her mouth to react, Emma squeezed Regina’s hand and yanked her out into the spin. Caught off-guard, Regina stumbled and almost hit the floor face-first.
“Back up, Mills,” Emma called out. “And pay more attention this time.”
Regina barely tasted dinner that night, her body aching and her stomach rumbling for replacement calories. She followed dutifully in for the dancing, but as soon as Emma completed her first number, this time dancing with an enthusiastic young guy called Gus, Regina slipped out and followed the trail back to her own cabin.
She didn’t notice Kathryn following behind until they were almost at the porch, Regina having danced most of the way there in increasingly fluid steps.
“When did you learn to move like that?” Kathryn demanded, laying a hand on Regina’s shoulder. “You think you could teach me?”
“Maybe tomorrow,” Regina groaned. “I’ve been in the studio all day.”
“Got a thing for one of the dancing boys?” Kathryn teased. “After all that baloney you told me about Killian, you’re going to be the bad Mills girl this summer?”
“It’s not baloney.” Kathryn could be the absolute most loyal sister when it came to breaking curfew or faking a note to get out of gym. But Regina resisted the temptation, deciding the rest of the story wasn’t hers to tell. “But sure, I can teach you on Friday, if we don’t have anything else on.”
“I don’t have time before then.”
Tuesday morning brought the kind of torrential rain Regina hadn’t realized she’d been missing. Everything felt cleaner as she slipped out before breakfast, the air so fresh she found herself stopping to take deep breaths as often as possible. It meant she was soaked through by the time she arrived at Emma’s boathouse room, leaving Emma to shake her head in disbelief.
“Close work it is then,” she sighed. “There’s a clean towel in the bathroom. Take off everything that got wet, because you are not giving me some crappy summer cold.”
“I should dance in my underwear?”
“Fine, I will if you will. You’re still freezing up whenever I move in close, so we’ll push you past that.”
“Will we hear the music over the rain?” Regina raised her voice to be heard from the bathroom. She looked at herself in the cracked mirror for a long moment before wriggling out of her wet clothes, hanging them over the shower rail. Emma didn’t answer.
Stepping back into the room, Regina didn’t see her dance partner right away. A storm had rolled in on her walk over, and a crack of thunder sounded right overheard, making her jump. A moment later, Emma appeared from behind the screen, dressed only in a bra and tiny shorts that might as well have been underwear.
“We don’t need music for this part,” Emma explained, crossing the room to take Regina by the hand and lead her to the center of the floor. “We’re gonna work by heartbeat.”
“Heartbeats are variable,” Regina launched into an explanation, conjuring up a half-dozen facts Mother had shared over dinner in just the blink of an eye.
“Oh, a baby heart doctor in the making, huh?” Emma mocked, spinning Regina effortlessly, making her lose her breath for a second. “Is that why you’re off to college: the family business?”
“No,” Regina admitted. “I want to join the Peace Corps, when I’m done. I’m taking politics, econ, that kind of thing. Then law school, maybe.”
“You gonna run for President?”
“Maybe I will. Or well, maybe Mayor of a nice place is more realistic. City Council, that kind of thing. Did you always want to dance?” Regina asked, as Emma pulled her close and wrapped her arms around from behind.
“God, it’s humid today. This damn storm,” Emma grumbled. Regina waited, not accepting the change in subject. “But dancing? I guess I just stumbled into it. I had this foster mom, and I guess our checks weren’t covering enough after a while. She went to work at some club, and when she practiced her routines I would copy them.”
“That’s how you got to Radio City? We might even have seen you, last Christmas.”
“I was gone by then. Part-time gigs like this now, that’s about as much as I can hope for.”
“But you’re not that old,” Regina said, relaxing into the quickstep that Emma led her in. “I mean, look how you move here.”
“It’s not good enough for the pros,” Emma replied, her voice almost wistful. “I had to take some time out, and it’s never quite come back. I wanted to start my own school, maybe teach kids in the city who don’t get the chance otherwise. But I don’t know the people who can make that kind of thing happen. So it’s back to working in a diner for me, once this season is done.”
“Well, there’s always--”
“Just dance, Regina,” Emma closed it down again. Regina had to admit she was surprised to learn as much as she had. Getting information from Emma was like getting blood from that proverbial stone.
“Should I be listening to my heartbeat?” Regina asked as they worked through the steps one more time. “Only I feel like I’m just following you.”
“Here,” Emma said, coming to a halt and taking Regina’s hand in her own. “This is the speed we move at, okay?” Laying Regina’s hand on Emma’s own chest, she didn’t blush or even flinch in the slightest as Regina touched the unbearably soft skin where Emma’s breast began its gentle curve. “Feel it?”
Regina couldn’t hear anything but her own heart roaring in her ears, and although she could feel the gentle thump of Emma’s heart beneath her palm, nothing in Regina’s brain felt able to count or process it. Her mouth went dry, her eyes seemed to have forgotten how to blink, and all she could think about was her hand, and how it was touching Emma.
“Feel it?” Emma repeated.
“Yes,” Regina murmured, gathering her courage. Emma wasn’t wearing a scrap of make up, not even the slightest color on her lips that were so agonizingly close to Regina’s own.
Bah-bum went Emma’s heart beneath Regina’s palm. Bah-bum once more and Regina did it. She leaned those extra few inches and kissed Emma softly on the mouth.
“Hey!” Emma’s hands were on Regina’s shoulders, but instead of pulling her closer, Emma turned Regina away as easily as the spin that closed out the first sequence.
“I don’t do that, okay?”
Emma’s voice was gruff, and Regina bit her own lip as she tried to work out what she’d done wrong. They had both admitted to liking girls, more or less, and all this touching was far beyond what Regina had ever gotten around to with the boys back home. Hadn’t Emma been inviting it? How could Regina have read it so wrong?
“Sorry. I guess... with guys it’s always because they want my sister. Guess I’m not gonna be any luckier now I’ve admitted I prefer girls.”
“It’s...” Emma stomped a foot on the floor, startling Regina. “It’s not that you’re not pretty. You’re stunning, and I can’t believe you don’t know that. But I don’t come up here every summer to get rented by the hour. No matter what you all think. So if you want to have your whole Lady Chatterley thing, you’re gonna have to try elsewhere.”
“I don’t think that,” Regina argued, but Emma cut her off by marching over to grab two t-shirts from the folded laundry on her bed.
“Let’s stick to being dressed,” Emma told her. “Cut down on any confusion about what I’m offering here, okay?”
“Put it on!” Emma snapped. “And then we’re doing the big lift, so start concentrating for real.”
Regina pulled the soft material over her head, catching the few tears she couldn’t seem to hold in the process. Sniffing once, she turned away to gather herself and summon how Mother would deal with a moment of such embarrassment. When Emma approached, Regina knew she looked still on the surface again. She wouldn’t mention the kiss, wouldn’t even see this woman again once the dance ended at the Sheldrake, so why ruin her last family summer over it?
“Okay,” Regina said, sounding maybe as calm as she ever had in her life. “Talk me through this damn lift.”
Three attempts where Regina chickened out in the run-up and Emma called a halt, frustration radiating from her.
“This is my fault,” Emma conceded when the fourth try knocked her on her ass, sliding halfway across the floor. “I shouldn’t have rejected you so harshly.”
“Don’t flatter yourself!” Regina retorted, hands on her hips instead of helping Emma up as she’d originally intended. “Maybe you’re just not that great a teacher.”
“Well, maybe I’ll call the Sheldrake and tell them it’s all off for Thursday!”
“Maybe you should.”
Tired, and feeling the familiar clench of rage in her chest, Regina took her chance to walk away. She yanked Emma’s shirt off roughly and pulled her own (thankfully dried) clothes back on. No matter how pretty this girl was, or how interesting and different to Regina herself, she had no intention of staying around to be ridiculed.
“Mills, wait!” Emma called after her. “Regina!”
But Regina was already off down the stairs, rushing back out into the afternoon rain.
Kathryn tried three times to rouse Regina the next morning, and even Daddy ventured into the chaos of their room to see if she wanted to come golfing after all. Mother smiled from the doorway and said not to waste the whole day, vacation or not. Regina picked up a copy of The Fountainhead that certainly wasn’t hers, and started to read.
Around ten a frantic knock came at the window. Ordinarily, Regina might have ignored it, but she’d already started to regret her sulk. It might be Ruby coming to ask why the hell Regina was letting her down, sending a fresh surge of guilt rising up like bile in her throat. The last person she expected to see outside the window was Emma, wearing tight blue jeans and what looked like a man’s tee, cut away at the arms and neckline, twisted in a knot over her midriff. If Regina had been that kind of girl, this would be the point where she wolf-whistled from the safety of her porch, she realized with a wistful twinge between her thighs.
“What?” She demanded, and when Emma turned around the full effect of her loose curls and aviator sunglasses completed the assault on the crush Regina wanted so badly to tamp down.
“Came to apologize,” Emma grunted, chewing her gum with exaggerated care. “Don’t think we should screw things up for Ruby because I hurt you.”
“You didn’t hurt me,” Regina sneered. “And I’m not really in the mood to mambo. Give Ruby my apologies when you see her.”
“Typical,” Emma snorted. “Going gets tough, rich girl gets goin’. Color me shocked.”
“Now, you listen just a minute--”
“No!” Emma fired back. “I came here to apologize. The grown-up thing to do is accept the apology. Do you accept?”
“Do you accept?”
“Fine,” Regina huffed. “I accept. But I’m not dressed to rehearse yet, even if I wanted to. How do you know I didn’t make other plans?”
“Because I’m not an idiot? I waited to see everyone else leaving before I came knocking. I figured your jumping and never being seen talking to me in the evenings means you’re keeping your good deed secret.”
“Don’t say ‘good deed’ like that.”
“Like you’re looking down your nose as you say it.”
“Fine. Now, get dressed, Regina. Day’s wasting,” Emma reminded her.
“Should I meet you at the boathouse?” Regina asked, stalling for time. She knew she looked her usual messy self, just dragged out of bed.
“Nah, I brought my car,” Emma said. “Put a swimsuit on underneath. Two minutes, let’s go.”
The yellow car, liberally sprinkled with rust and some tape in its most obvious dents, barely coughed into life when Regina approached it. Emma rolled down the passenger window and leaned across.
“Lock jammed again. Think you can come in through the window? It’s that or give me a lap dance, and uh...”
“Fine,” Regina snapped, throwing her dance shoes into the backseat and then gripping the roof to support herself. With an unexpected ease, her legs followed silent instruction and she eased herself in with only a bump of her elbow against the dashboard.
“Not bad,” Emma said, gunning the engine for real and pulling out of the parking lot in a spray of gravel.
“You’re pretty wild, huh?” Regina asked as they sped out of the resort on the winding road.
Emma laughed. “You’re determined to make me like you, dammit. But yeah, what’s the point in having wheels if you don’t test out what they can really do?”
Regina leaned over to fiddle with the radio, settling on the first loud song she could find. Cranking the volume, she laughed as the wind whipped through rolled-down windows, blowing her hair all over her face.
“You might want to get Ruby to fix your hair for tomorrow night,” Emma suggested. “Looks like you’ve never heard of hairspray.”
“Where are we going?” Regina asked, trying to hide her blush.
“Wait and see.”
“A stream?” Regina sputtered when they made their way through yet another set of bushes, still wet from the previous day’s rain. “Uh, you do know there’s a giant lake right by my cabin, right?”
“No distractions here,” Emma explained, placing her keys and sunglasses on a flat rock by the riverbank and kicking her shoes off beside it. Regina hung back, watching before deciding on which of her possessions to shed. “And the lake doesn’t come with a balance beam,” Emma added, nodding towards a fallen tree that stretched from one bank to the other.
Regina dropped her dancing shoes, and kicked off her flip flops in recognition of the challenge. She might not have been a dancing queen, but she’d been climbing trees almost since before she learned to put one foot in front of the other. She pushed past Emma and stepped carefully onto the worn surface of the trunk, one steadying step at a time, arms out to either side of her.
“Feeling brave this morning?” Emma mocked. “Where’s this killer balance been all this time?”
“I like being out in the woods,” Regina confessed, calling back over her shoulder because the first burst of confidence hadn’t yet extended to turning around. “Before we moved to the city, back when Daddy still had the farm and the orchards, I would be outdoors from sunrise to sunset.”
“Daddy, huh?” Emma sounded a little deflated at the mention of Regina’s privileged life, which in turn set Regina’s teeth on edge. How was she supposed to get anywhere if every time she opened her mouth, Emma got a chip on her damn shoulder? “How come you don’t live out on your paradise farm anymore? That fire burn the whole place down?”
“No,” Regina admitted, bending forward and then doing a slow handstand. Upside down, Emma was much less cool, much less intimidating. In increments, slapping her hands against the bark in turn, Regina executed a tentative turn before dropping back down in stages, sitting on the trunk and swinging her legs on each side.
Emma was waiting, arms crossed over her chest.
“We were always so careful,” Regina said, her voice suddenly three years younger. “And Daniel...”
“Daddy took him on for the summer,” Regina explained. “Daniel had been around horses his whole life, just like me. And he knew not to smoke in the stables, or leave the lamps unattended... he knew all of that. I know he did.”
“You liked him,” Emma guessed, dropping her arms and taking the first step onto the fallen tree. “I thought you didn’t like boys?”
“He’s the only boy I liked. I guess... I knew you were supposed to like someone, eventually. My sister always teased me about not liking any boys. And he was so nice to me.”
“Your parents gave him marching orders? They blamed him?” Emma looked interested by her own guess, like she’d found a part of the story she could relate to. Regina started to form questions about Emma’s past, but she felt compelled to finish her story.
“He died,” Regina whispered. “He was trying to save the horses, the men said. The horses must have been terrified. I could hear them, even up at the house. My own horse, Rocinante... I should have been brave enough to go and rescue him, shouldn’t I?”
“You were, what? Fifteen? You shouldn’t be running into burning buildings at that age,” Emma said, not unkindly. “At any age, really. Trust me on that.”
“So Mother said it was a good chance to start over, in the city. She didn’t want to drive so long to work every day, and there are all kinds of events to attend when you work at a big hospital... she wanted to be in Manhattan, in case she got a better offer than All Saints.”
“You don’t like New York?”
“I like it fine. But it broke Daddy’s heart. He keeps himself busy, and he goes to the park almost every day, if he can. But he’s like a fish out of water. Anyway,” Regina shook her head. “I’m sure you don’t want to hear any more about my silly problems. I must seem so funny to you.”
“Not funny,” Emma contradicted her. “But you might be the most interesting person I’ve met at this damn summer camp. No kidding.”
“Even if I tried to kiss you?”
“Maybe especially because of that,” Emma muttered, and with that effortless ease, she lowered herself to sit right opposite Regina in the middle of the tree trunk. “Why did you even come with me today, Regina? You were right to tell me to go to hell, and Ruby, too. You don’t owe us a thing.”
“I know I don’t.”
“I wanted to,” Regina said. “Isn’t that reason enough? Should I levy another price on you, Emma Swan? Demand a secret in exchange for the one I just told you?”
“I don’t tell my secrets,” Emma argued. “They wouldn’t be secrets if I did.”
“You could tell me something. Did you and Ruby meet here? Was she ever one of the girls you dated?”
“We never dated,” Emma dismissed the idea with a wave of her hand. “But I don’t want to talk about Ruby today.”
“Because thinking about her, and why you’re here...”
“What?” Regina demanded, leaning in a little closer. “You might feel better for getting it off your chest, you know. A problem shared, and everything.”
“I’ve never told anyone,” Emma admitted, dropping her head and letting her blonde hair tumble forward to hide her. “Not even the girls at Radio City, at the time.”
“Emma,” was all Regina could think to say, reaching out to squeeze Emma’s perfectly defined upper arm. Even doing nothing more than gripping the tree, the muscles radiated strength.
“I don’t like thinking about Ruby...” Emma raised her head and looked up at the pale gray sky. Summer seemed far away, a season ready to fade on them for good. “Because when I was in her situation, nobody came up with the money, or recommended a doctor.”
“When you...were...” Regina pieced it together before Emma formed the words, but she kept her reaction muted. Clearly Emma wasn’t used to any kind of girl talk, and this was way beyond that.
“Pregnant,” Emma confirmed. “I was seeing this guy, he’d come in three times a week to watch me dance. I thought he was so devoted. Little did I know he’d been schtupping the box office clerk too, she waved him in on a comp every time.”
“Yeah,” Emma nodded. “But these things happen. Now, about that lift--”
“Do you have a son? Or a daughter?” Regina hated herself, but couldn’t let it go. For Emma to actually open up had made Regina greedy, and she had to hear the story right to its end. “Do your parents--”
“I don’t have parents, remember?” Emma snapped. “And no, I couldn’t keep him. You think Gold lets me leave a kid in the playpens here for free all summer? I gave the baby his best chance. But the nine months it took me to do that? Also killed my pro dancing career. So, it is what it is.”
“I’m sorry,” Regina offered. “And you might not want to hear it, but for what it’s worth I would have borrowed that $250 for you in a heartbeat. Twice over.”
“Borrow? You mean you didn’t just get handed it by your parents?”
“Anything outside of our allowance has to be paid back,” Regina explained. “It’s how we learn to be responsible about money, Mother said.”
“Well, that’s not a bad lesson,” Emma told her. “Now, speaking of lessons, let’s see if you can still move backwards dancing on this log.”
“Lifts are easier to practice in the water,” Emma shouted as she waded into the wider part of the river. “Get in here!”
Regina had been dumbstruck by Emma’s effortless peeling of clothes, revealing her own swimsuit that was actually a daring black bikini, halter-neck for maximum drawing Regina’s attention to places she shouldn’t be staring, and leaving nothing else to the imagination. In her own red swimsuit, Regina felt childish and unsophisticated.
“The water is so cold!” She complained, wading in after Emma. The water deepened to about her waist but no further, and when Emma stopped they seemed to be the only people for miles, the sun radiating off the water making it as shiny as a mirror.
“Okay, so three big steps and jump,” Emma reminded her, and Regina nodded. Faking confidence was absolutely the way forward. They had trusted each other with little-told stories in Regina’s case, and actual secrets in Emma’s. Even with Kathryn, Regina never discussed Daniel or Rocinante or much of anything about the old house. It felt like Regina had offered a hand to someone and for the first time someone had grasped on and not let go.
“Okay,” she said, trying not to be dazzled by the sight of barely-clothed Emma with the sun at her back. Even with goosepimples and a frown, Emma was the sight Regina couldn’t tear her eyes away from. “One, two, three,” she reminded herself, and then splashed her way over to Emma, planting her feet and launching as though from a diving board.
The water weighed her down more than Regina expected, so instead of being pulled into a lift, she tackled Emma at shoulder height with all the force of a linebacker. They both splashed heavily into the lake, Emma spluttering as she went down with Regina half on top of her.
“More jump next time,” Emma laughed as she surfaced. whipping wet hair off her face. Regina shrugged at her, grinning at the expected failure.
“Did I hurt you?” she asked, when Emma winced on standing upright again. “You said I’d hurt you if I didn’t trust you, but I really did Emma, I swear.”
“You didn’t hurt me,” Emma assured Regina. “See?” Emma continued, grabbing Regina’s hands and placing them on Emma’s shoulders. “I’m all in one piece.”
“Yeah. Ready to go again?”
“Mmmhmm,” Regina confirmed. pulling away to take her strides. This time on the third she pushed extra hard with her legs and as she moved up over Emma, strong hands gripped at Regina’s hips. “Oh! I’m doing it!” She yelled, and just for a moment in Emma’s safe hold, it actually felt like flying.
“Hold it!” Emma yelled, but Regina had already dropped her arms and the inevitable tumble began, soaking them both all over again. This time, instead of paddling around and getting back on her feet, Regina let herself be pulled by Emma, until they were both on their knees with their heads above water.
“Sorry--” Regina began the apology, but the words were smothered by Emma’s mouth on hers. Stunned, Regina kissed back as hard as she knew how, wrapping her arms around Emma’s neck to prevent another sudden end to the meeting of their mouths.
“Woah,” Emma breathed a few moments later, when Regina reluctantly pulled away to breathe. “I swore I wasn’t gonna… shit, I’m sorry, Regina.”
“Don’t you dare be sorry,” Regina warned her, kissing Emma again and only half-terrified she’d be pushed away. She wasn’t, and the kiss was even better than the first.
“It’s a distraction,” Emma insisted as she ended the kiss with her own reluctance. She pushed the wet strands of hair pressed against Regina’s cheek back behind her ear. “And I could lose my job. Not to mention I need you focused on the dance tomorrow night, and nothing else.”
“I know,” Regina whined, wishing she could pretend she wouldn’t be distracted by wanting kisses more than spins. “Hey, Emma, do you really think we’ll be ready?”
“Yeah,” Emma admitted. “If we stop kissing and practice lifting, I really think we will be. You willing to do that? For Ruby’s sake?”
“Yes,” Regina replied, and if only part of her actually meant it, then it was still the right thing to say. The rest of her, the part that felt selfish and wicked and completely intoxicated by the taste of Emma’s lips and the softness of her skin, wanted so badly to say no. “Let’s get through tomorrow, and then we’ll see.”