The pink bag hung from her fingertips of her left hand, the other hand activating the screen of her cell phone, her eyebrows furrowing as her eyes scanned the time. She was running behind schedule. It was nearly two o’clock and she had to be at the studio by five to prepare for her new group of students. It was a Tuesday, the first day of Spring.
And Virtue Ballet Academy was thriving.
She’d opened the school of dance nearly five years ago, after she’d retired from The National Ballet of Canada. She’d spent eighteen years at the company, starting when she’d become an apprentice at barely twelve-years-old and advancing through the ranks to a Principal Dancer. It had been difficult at first, making the transition from ballet to ice dance and then back again when she’d decided that she couldn’t stay away. She’d sacrificed so many dreams to give up the ice, to leave the world she’d known since she was seven years old, but she’d done it.
She’d toured throughout Canada and across the world, performing for thousands of people in concert halls, her hair pulled into a tight bun on the top of her head as she grinned, the applause thundering in her ears. She’d spent nearly two decades on arabesques, mastering each position, her feet cracked and bleeding as she leaped and glided through the air. She’d dedicated her life to her craft, and when she’d performed her swan song, hot tears had streamed down her cheeks.
Shortly after retiring, she’d left Toronto and moved back to London to be closer to her family, found a large building on a quiet street, and the rest was history. She’d been working with students aged three to adult since, photographs of her time in the National Ballet of Canada hanging in the pristine white lobby of the studio. She had spent so many years as the student, and then the professional, and now worked with so many other young men and women as she watched their dreams come true. It was bittersweet.
With her eyes scanning the last few lines of an email she quickly composed, she found herself surprisingly graceless, her slender frame colliding with a man in a leather jacket, glancing up at him, an apology already written in her eyes.
“I’m so sorry,” she rushed the apology, already dodging out of the man’s way, but when she caught his eye, she paused. She recognized him immediately, though she couldn’t place him. It was if she were looking through the wrong end of a telescope, the image so familiar yet distorted enough to just be unrecognizable.
But she knew that hair. She knew the shape of his mouth, the sharp point of his nose. She knew those eyes. She’d spent the better part of five years looking into them.
He seemed to recognize her as well, blinking once, a grin spreading easily over his lips.
It took her a moment, which was ridiculous considering he’d been in the back of her mind for twenty-two years, always wondering what he’d done with himself, where he’d been, what kind of life he’d had. He had been the first boy she’d kissed at the Ilderton carnival, the first boy who’d held her hand and looked into her eyes and made her feel beautiful despite her freckles and underdeveloped body. He’d been her best friend for those five years of her childhood, and he’d faded away just as quickly as her dreams of one day competing in the Olympics had.
“Scott Moir,” she said his name, the memory of his touch rushing back to her, the way she’d floated in his arms across the ice, “Oh my God. Is that really you?”
His arms went out to his side as if he were presenting himself.
“It’s really me.” He laughed suddenly, “I’d ask if that’s really you, Tessa Virtue, but you’re not easily forgotten.”
Instinctively, it seemed, he reached out to her, his arms sliding around her as he pulled her into a tight hug. She stood, somewhat stupefied for a moment, before returning his embrace, grinning at him as he pulled away. He stepped back, seeming to appraise her before his hazel eyes moved to the bag in her hand. She felt his gaze on her, couldn’t pretend not to see the approval in his eyes. She felt her cheeks flush suddenly and inexplicably, and when she met his eyes again he was smirking.
“Victoria’s Secret, eh? I guess you’ve come a long way from being twelve-years-old.” He was grinning, his eyes sparkling with a mischief that she suddenly remembered so well.
“Oh, it’s a-” she caught herself, “I had to buy a slip for an event I have next week, I-” She paused. Why was she bothering to explain this to him? She didn’t owe him anything, least of all an explanation. Suddenly feeling rebellious at the gleam in his eye, she crossed her arms over her chest, tilting her head at him. “I don’t think I owe you any sort of explanation.”
She wondered for a moment if he would be offended, wasn’t sure herself how to take his gentle teasing, but the grin appeared wider on his face and she let out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding.
“You look fantastic,” he said finally, and she studied his face. He looked more mature, of course, but not necessarily older. His skin was smooth and unwrinkled, his hair dark and full. She opened her mouth to ask what he’d been doing in the two decades since they’d seen each other, but he was already speaking. “Do you wanna grab a coffee with me?”
She paused, glancing at her watch. She was on a time limit; her life ran on a tight schedule, every moment accounted for. Right now she should be heading to her car, making her way to the studio, reviewing her class list and ensuring that all arrangements for a successful program were made in advance.
But standing here, five years of her childhood memories standing before her in this mall, she knew that she needed to make an exception. If she passed up this opportunity, she might not see him for another twenty years, if ever. She couldn’t simply turn and walk away.
“Okay,” she said instead, and he grinned.
They found themselves in a Starbucks within the mall, swiping his credit card for the charge of two black coffees and settling into two easy chairs that had been recently vacated. He held his coffee cup up to her, tilting it as if it were a champagne glass, and said simply, “to old friends.”
She returned the gesture and settled back against the leather seat, cradling the warmth of the cup in her hands.
They talked for the better part of an hour, catching up on their careers and lives. Scott had continued to skate for several years with different partners, none of whom had made enough of an impression him to be mentioned by name. He’d turned to hockey as a teenager, played professionally for a while, and then found his true calling in coaching. She listened as he relayed the path of his life, finding irony in the idea that they’d started together and had traveled such similar paths.
“You run a ballet studio.” He echoed the words after she’d run through the abridged version of her life since she’d known him. “I’ve heard of it, of course. I guess I never put the ideas together, but it makes sense. Do you like teaching?”
She smiled, watching the way his hazel eyes remained focused on her. She was reminded of him as a fourteen-year-old, a teenaged boy whose attention would be expected to be anywhere but on his duties, yet he had never taken his eyes off her when they’d been on the ice. She remembered, sadly, how it seemed to have been the last time a member of the opposite sex had paid undivided attention to her.
And now, here he was again, watching her with concerned, focused eyes. There were crowds around them, the bustle of shoppers and conversation, and yet his eyes never left hers.
“I love it,” she nodded after a moment. “I work with students of all ages, from three to adult, and each of them bring such a different satisfaction to the role. I get to watch the little ones fall in love with ballet for the first time, and I get to watch the adults realize their true passions.”
“I’m sorry I never got to see you perform,” he said suddenly, the hint of a smile on his lips. “I’ll bet you were magnificent. Do you miss it?”
She took a moment to consider his question, though she knew the answer. She missed it more than she’d realized she would. She missed being on the stage, feeling beautiful and graceful and like she’d found her greater purpose in life. She missed moving her body in ways that amazed even herself, missed the push and pull of exertion, the ache of her muscles, even the ways in which she’d cried in agony after a particularly grueling training. She missed everything.
“Yes,” she said simply, nodding. “I miss it so much.”
He nodded, and she wondered if he truly understood. Had he felt the same way about skating? She thought of their years together, how much it had hurt to make the decision to give up the ice in favor of ballet, wondered how her life may have been different if she’d decided never to hang up her skates.
“You probably know this,” he was saying, suddenly looking bashful, “but I had such a massive crush on you when we were little. I guess that’s probably no surprise.”
“What?” She started, looking at him with raised eyebrows. She’d known, or at least suspected, but to hear it was something she’d never expected. “Oh, god, I was so awkward when I was a kid.”
He tilted his head, his eyebrows furrowing slightly.
“Not to me you weren’t,” he shook his head, his gaze never leaving her, “you were always beautiful to me. From seven all the way to twelve when you mysteriously disappeared from my life.”
She thought of the little girl she’d been, the way he’d never made her feel awkward despite her own misgivings. She thought of the freckles that peppered her skin, the way she’d spent so many years trying to find just the right makeup combination to disguise them, the way she still applied it liberally every morning before leaving the house. She thought of his strong, sturdy hands brushing her skin, his lips counting the freckles on her body, and wondered if she’d feel so self-conscious laid out before him. She made an effort to glance at his left hand, felt the sigh of relief leave her body as she noticed no wedding ring.
It was incredible, the way he made her feel despite the fact that, for all intents and purposes, he was a complete stranger. She hadn’t had a conversation with him, hadn’t so much as seen his face in over two decades, and yet somehow it felt as if no time at all had passed between them.
She could have sat forever, she realized, but her eyes met the clock and the constraints on her time flashed in her mind. She needed to be on her way, hated to go, and wondered if she’d see him again.
“Thank you for the coffee,” she said softly, straightening in her chair. He still watched her, as if she fascinated him.
“You’re welcome,” he said with a simple smile. “It was really nice to see you again, kiddo.”
How had he remembered that nickname after so many years? How had he recalled the term of affection that had once relayed so many more emotions than either of them had been capable of expressing at the time?
She waited for him to say more, maybe to ask for her number, and she’d already decided she’d give it to him. She couldn’t risk not seeing him again, not after so many years and miles between them. But he didn’t ask, simply stood and offered her another hug before she began to walk away.
She made it out of the Starbucks and into the mall, past the spot where they’d serendipitously bumped into one another before she was turning back. She caught him just as he was leaving the coffee shop, his eyes drawn to the cell phone in his hand.
“Hey,” she greeted him once more, suddenly breathless, though not from physical exertion. “I forgot something.”
“Oh?” He glanced behind them at the two chairs they’d occupied, new customers settling into the seats. “What?”
Acting on a whim, she took the phone from his hand and swiped into his contacts, her fingers working quickly as she added her name and contact number before offering it back to him.
“I forgot to give you my number,” she said boldly, and watched as he grinned. He took the phone from her, glanced down at the screen, and tapped on her name. She watched as her contact information filled the screen.
Without a word, she turned and began to walk away once more. She managed to make it to her car despite the warmth that flushed her cheeks, the embarrassment that threatened to take hold of her and bring her to her knees in a moment of weakness.
By the time she’d driven to her studio, she’d managed to calm her racing heart. She grabbed her gym bag from the backseat of her car, unlocked the glass front door and made her way to her office. Settling into a computer chair, she reached into her bag and pulled out her cell phone. There was a text from an unknown number, and she caught her breath.
Hope against hope. It was foolish of her to think that he’d contact her so quickly, yet when she swiped on the screen and revealed the message, the words appeared.
Imagine running into you twenty-two years later, Tessa Virtue, and you’re still just as beautiful to me now as you were when I was fourteen years old.
She tried to focus on the class rosters, tried not to think about the text message. She paid particularly close attention the students in her juvenile classes, school-aged and younger. It was so difficult to sometimes break the preschoolers of their anxieties regarding not being in the same room as parents, but it was necessary to put in place the standards she expected in class.
She ran through the list of three and four-year-olds once more, her eyes darting over each name and checking it along with the number of currently enrolled students. There appeared to be one more student enrolled than was listed on her roster, and she spent the better part of fifteen minutes searching for the child’s name before realizing that there was less than thirty minutes before the students would begin to arrive. She would simply have to check each student in when they arrived and ensure that each child had been properly enrolled.
She spent the remaining short span of time organizing the studio, creating name tags for each student. It was helpful for the first session, specifically for the younger children, who were sometimes too shy to even say their own names. Once again, she compared the names of the eight children to the class roster, that elusive ninth child mysteriously absent from her list.
By the time children and their parents began to filter in, she was at the front door, holding it open to greet each family individually. She was able to easily match each child to their name, shaking the hands of mothers as their children either clung to their leg or bolted in front of them.
“Let’s use our quiet feet!” Tessa reminded a young girl who had darted into the building, blowing past her mother. Tessa offered a consolatory smile to the young woman, an infant on her hip, turning to greet the next family as they reached the entrance.
“Good afternoon! You-” She paused, her eyes falling upon the man in front of her. “Scott?”
He grinned sheepishly, and she placed a flustered hand to her chest, glancing around.
“What are you doing here?”
“I, uh,” he glanced behind him, but Tessa kept her gaze focused on him, “I got curious. I looked you up, I found your studio, and uh-”
“I was going to text you back,” she found herself saying suddenly, “but I told you I had a class tonight, and I’ve been busy getting things together. You didn’t have to just show up.”
He blinked at her, confusion lining his features.
“Oh, I didn’t.” He stepped aside, his hands lowering to his sides, one palm splaying over the back of a tiny girl, gently encouraging her to step in front of him. “Tessa, this is Lily. Liliana. She’s one of your new students.”
Tessa’s eyebrows raised, her eyes slowly lowering to look at the little girl. She was tiny, watching Tessa with wide dark eyes from beneath a curtain of equally dark hair.
“Uh,” Tessa blinked, laughing, looking back at Scott. “Hi, Liliana.”
There was no point in asking; it was obvious. They had the same face shape, the same dark eyes. Her jaw was sharp like his. She peered at Tessa from beneath the wide brim of a Toronto Maple Leafs hat that was clearly too big for her head.
She felt the breath leave her, felt the chill of betrayal rise in her chest. She tried to ignore him, reaching down for the little girl’s hand, offering hers in a gesture of greeting. The child didn’t move, her fingers instead curling tighter around Scott’s pant leg.
“Um,” she glanced up at him, smoothing her own black leotard over her slender frame, “I’m sorry, I don’t have you on my class list.” She glanced up at Scott. “When did you enroll her?”
It was nearly impossible to contain her anger and betrayal, to speak to him like he was a normal parent enrolling his child, not the man with whom she’d just spent the afternoon flirting. Giving her false hope, making her believe that they’d stupidly be able to pick up where they left off two decades ago.
“Oh, I just registered her,” he grinned, but she saw the guilt in his eyes. “I printed the registration packet, just in case.” He reached into his pocket and unfolded the familiar papers. She glanced briefly at it, her eyes scanning over the name.
Liliana Moir. The mysterious ninth child.
“Okay,” she breathed after a moment, “just come in.” She pushed the door open wider and Scott shuffled inside, guiding the child inside. She paused near the front door and Tessa looked back to them.
“Does she have dancewear?” She wondered. Scott nudged the little girl, and when she made no effort to move, he tugged gently at her blue jacket. It fell open to reveal a pink leotard with white tights beneath. Tessa nodded, steadying her breath.
It wasn’t Liliana’s fault, she decided. The child had no say over her father’s actions, no control over the fact that he’d spent the afternoon flirting with her future ballet teacher. She forced a smile at the little girl, who was watching her again wordlessly. She knelt before the child, meeting her eyes.
“How old are you, Liliana?”
Liliana stared at her, unspeaking. Tessa looked up at Scott expectantly.
“She’s shy,” he offered, sounding somewhat shy himself. She could only wonder why. “But she’s three.”
Tessa pushed herself to her feet, swallowing hard. The studio was bustling with clients, with excited children who were waiting impatiently for her to call them onto the dance floor, and she turned toward Scott suddenly.
“I’ll talk to you after class,” she hissed at him before turning toward the rest of the clients with a perfect, proper smile upon her painted lips.
She gathered the children onto the dance floor, arranging them in a semi-circle and smiling patiently as she took the hands of teary preschoolers who had likely never been separated from their parents.
She sat on the floor in front of them, encouraging them to fold their legs in front of them and press the soles of their feet together in a simple stretch that resembled a butterfly’s wings. She fluttered her knees as she spoke to them, smiling as she asked their favorite animals, colors, thing to do.
Liliana complied, her legs easily folding in front of her, but her eyes remained on the glass window that separated the dance floor from the waiting room, undoubtedly searching for Scott through the one-way mirror. Tessa watched, her eyes focused so intently on the girl’s tiny face, searching the similarities in Scott’s. She noticed, too late, that Liliana still wore the baseball cap, her dark hair likely pulled into a bun or high ponytail beneath it. Tessa frowned to herself. She’d been so taken aback by her sudden appearance that she hadn’t even thought of telling the little girl to remove it.
She thought of the way Scott had hugged her, the way his hands had lingered on her, the way she’d foolishly rushed back into the Starbucks to put her number in his phone, so naively believing there was something between them. She’d felt it when he’d looked at her, the way his eyes had never left hers as she spoke, the way she’d felt so important and somehow significant in his presence.
And when she’d rushed back to him and he’d been on his phone, had he been composing a message to Liliana’s mother? Informing her that he’d run into an old friend and stopped for coffee, but that he’d be home shortly? Or maybe he’d taken a different route; maybe he’d lied about why he was running late, giving an alternative story to cover for the fact that he’d gotten Tessa’s number.
The more she thought about it, the more distracted she became. She cursed him in her mind, hating him already for the false hope he’d given her, the way he’d made her feel only to humiliate her like this. She thought of what she might say to him after class, maybe demand that he remove his daughter from the class.
But as she watched the little girl, so quiet and seemingly unsure in her tiny pink tutu and too-big baseball cap, she began to doubt herself. The other children were laughing and responding to her questions, calling out without hesitation, and Liliana sat quietly in her spot on the floor, rarely meeting Tessa’s eyes and looking away when she did.
By the time class was over, she’d decided that it wasn’t right to remove Liliana from the class because of Scott’s selfish behavior. When she dismissed the children, they scattered back into the waiting room, laughing and leaping on the tips of their toes. Liliana stood quietly and walked back to the waiting room, and Tessa watched as Scott helped her slip into her jacket.
“Don’t leave,” she said to him quietly before greeting the other parents, thanking them for their enrollment and encouraging them to have the children practice their newly-learned skills at home. As they began to filter out, the building growing quiet in the absence of the children and their parents, Tessa approached Scott, her eyes dark. He was kneeling on the floor beside Liliana speaking to her softly.
He glanced up, watching her approach, and rose to his feet. He looked back at her, not nearly as sheepish as she imagined he would appear at this point.
“I don’t appreciate what you did today,” she said, her voice harsh before glancing down at Liliana, who was still watching her with those impossibly large eyes. She lowered her voice and stepped closer to him. “You put me in a very difficult position.”
He glanced away from her guiltily, tugging gently on Liliana’s hand.
“Hey, Lily. Why don’t you go over there and color for a minute while I talk to your teacher?” He nodded toward a small corner furnished with a child-size table and a variety of art supplies. She glanced up at him before wordlessly walking over to the corner and taking a seat at the table.
They watched her quietly for a moment, and when Scott spoke again, his voice was quiet.
“Look, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about her. I didn’t think I was going to see you again. And then when you came back and you put your number in my phone, I thought… I don’t know, maybe that you saw her picture on my screen, and you’d put the pieces together.” He glanced toward Liliana before looking back to Tessa. “I didn’t do anything to deceive you or put you in a difficult situation, Tessa.”
“You shouldn’t have bought me a coffee,” she was saying, “I shouldn’t have met you like that for a coffee date, and I wouldn’t have if I’d known-”
“Wait,” he interrupted her, smiling now, “who said it was a date?”
She growled at him, placing her hands on her slender hips. She’d spent the majority of her life in a leotard, it was the single piece of clothing in which she normally felt most comfortable, but she suddenly felt exposed and embarrassed at the idea of standing here with him. She crossed the room, reaching for her shawl and pulling it over her shoulders, hugging herself.
“You bought me coffee,” she repeated, her voice sharp. “And I gave you my phone number. I was interested in you. I would never have done that if I’d known you were married.”
He coughed in surprise, his eyes going wide. Liliana looked toward them, studying Scott.
“Married?” He nearly choked on the word, his voice quieter after the initial outburst. “I’m not married. You think I’m trying to cheat on my wife with you?”
“In a relationship, then,” Tessa spat at him, “same difference, Scott Moir. You-”
“Actually,” he cut her off as she attempted to go on, “my ex-wife isn’t in the picture. It’s just me and Lily. She was with my mom this afternoon when I ran to the mall.”
She felt the surprise on her own face, felt the flush of shame and guilt as he took a step toward her.
“Look, I get it. We haven’t seen each other in over two decades. You don’t know me, at least not anymore, but I’d think you owe me at least the benefit of the doubt before you accuse me of trying to have an affair.”
She took a step back from him, suddenly speechless. He could still be lying of course, but the pain in his eyes made her believe him. For the first time since she’d seen him that afternoon, he frowned at her.
“If you want me to take Lily out of your class, I will, but I don’t appreciate being called an adulterer when you don’t even know half of the story, much less all of it.” He looked toward Liliana, his face softening as he met her gaze. “Come on, baby, are you ready to go have dinner?”
The little girl slipped from her chair and came to stand beside him silently. She slipped her hand into his and he turned, beginning to walk away. Tessa took a step forward.
“Scott,” she called his name, her slender fingers poised in the air as if she could reach out to touch him. “Wait. I’m sorry.”
He turned back to her after a moment, still holding his daughter’s hand.
“I judged you too quickly,” she finally spoke. “I didn’t… I just assumed…”
His face softened, the frown fading into a tired smile.
“Yeah, I get it.”
She glanced down at Liliana before looking back up to him.
“You don’t have to take her out of the class,” she acquiesced, shaking her head. “Not unless you want to.”
Scott glanced down at Liliana, who averted her eyes from Tessa to her father. There was a moment between them that Tessa suddenly envied, a moment that oddly enough reminded her of their time together on the ice, when no one else in the world existed but the two of them. It was a bond that Tessa hadn’t known since that time, not even with the men she’d danced with since.
“We’ll be here next week,” Scott said finally, tugging gently on Liliana’s hand. “Have a good week, Tessa.”
She stood, watching as they made their way to the front entrance, the little girl walking alongside him before throwing a backward glance to Tessa. She blinked, her large dark eyes curious. When they’d reached the door, Scott paused and turned back to face her.
“If you want a date, I’ll give you a date,” he said suddenly and nonchalantly, his voice once again flirtatious and playful. “After two decades of pining over me, I think you deserve more than just a black coffee.”
Tessa felt the blush rise in her cheeks. Her initial response was to curse at him, but she glanced once more at Liliana before sighing and drawing her shawl tighter to her.
“You’re one of my parents now,” Tessa cautioned him. “I have a strict no-dating policy.”
Scott watched her for a moment, and she saw the flash of mischief in his eyes, the one she recognized even after so many years apart.
“There are exceptions to every rule,” he said simply, “I think even you know that.”
He pushed out the front door and Tessa followed behind him in a rush, glaring at him as she turned the lock behind him.
He’d been in her life again for less than eight hours, and already he’d turned her world upside down.