Gilding the Lily-pad cover

Gilding the Lily-pad cover

It was her quirkiness that did it. Five minutes after being assaulted with her shoe at the wake of a total stranger, Roman Habsburg von Lorraine, pretender to the long-since-abolished Austrian throne, decides it’s worth crashing the funeral the next day to pursue the beautiful but quirky Leigh Fromm. Despite being more than eligible to marry into any royal European family that will have him, Roman’s passing interest in Leigh very quickly turns into infatuation. But when a parliamentary motion in Austria throws him head-first into a role he never anticipated, he finds that his romantic relationships—past and present—have suddenly become a matter of state. Desperate to protect Leigh, Roman keeps her in the dark about his abrupt change of fortune—a strategy that he knows won’t work forever. Can their feelings for each other survive what’s quickly becoming a royal mess?

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Enjoy an Excerpt from Gilding the Lily-pad

Chapter One

“Sorry, but I’m not convinced there’s an actual dead person in here.”

I look over the gathering of people in the main room of the funeral home and try to square what should be a rather sad occasion with the paradoxical smiles and enthusiastic conversation of the mourners. A veritable wave of jollity rolls over the three of us as we stand in the vestibule.

On my left side, my old law school buddy, Christine, smothers a chuckle in her throat before punching me in the arm.

“Hey, don’t stop laughing now,” I deadpan. “You go in this place looking all grief-stricken and people will wonder what you’re doing here. You want me to tickle you? Prime the pump a little?”

Just then, a burst of high-pitched giggles erupts from the far corner. I look in that direction and catch a glimpse of a drop-dead stunner of a woman—who is conspicuously not laughing—and then she’s gone, hidden by the shifting crowd.

“Seriously,” says Christine’s husband, Earl, on my other side. “The gloom is running down the walls. You’d think somebody died or something.”

“I told Roman my family was crazy when it came to funerals. This is why I try to get out of going to them.”

I tear my eyes away from where the woman was standing and rejoin the conversation. “Hey, I was just going to sneak in, find a bathroom, and sneak right back out.”

Earl frowns. “Yeah, I’m not going in there, babe. I took one for the team when your grandma died and had nightmares for months.”

I grin at him. “Wait—you had nightmares? About what?”

Earl nods at the doorway. “Go in there, wander around. I dare you.”

“Challenge to ‘wander around’ accepted—right after I find the bathroom.” And that girl—wherever she went. “But you have to at least tell me which direction is the fastest way to sleeping with the light on.”

“Just follow the camera flashes, man.”

Christine grabs my wrist and pulls me into the main room with her. “Stay with me, Roman. I’ll protect you from all my scary relatives.”

We haven’t gone twenty feet before it occurs to me that I’m underdressed for the occasion by the four levels that separate a guy’s coat-and-tie “business informal” category from the sandals and shorts “streetwear” designation. In fact, people are starting to stare. I pull my arm out of her grip. “Bathroom first,” I whisper. “I’ll catch up with you.” After I find her, that is.

Chris doesn’t even look back; someone in her family has already called her name and she’s heading their way. A few seconds later she disappears into another room, leaving me to play Find-the-Female under the guise of slowly and half-heartedly looking for a bathroom.

An older woman’s voice behind me rises above the others. “She looks just lovely!”

I turn around and instead of an elderly woman, I find her—the tall, hot brunette. I stand there, frozen in my tracks, staring at her like a gape-mouthed moron, using every ounce of willpower I have to keep my eyes above her neckline. All I can do is hope that I’ll be able to look away before she catches me ogling her.

The woman next to her is addressing a cluster of people. “I just can’t get over it! If I didn’t know better, I’d think she was just sleeping!”

The brunette looks annoyed and, for a second, I think she’s going to shoot an eye roll at the old lady. Instead, she moves a few paces away from the group and turns her back to me, which is a relief—well, at first. The people she left don’t seem to notice; they dive even more enthusiastically into a conversation about what the dearly departed (who I presume is in an open casket somewhere on the premises) is wearing. I catch a tsk-tsk! of disapproval over the corpse’s choice of earrings, a few glowing remarks about a purple pantsuit, and decide that the brunette had the right idea.

I whisper a few “excuse mes” and slip sideways through the crowd—which seems to be instinctively herding itself towards the back of the room—until I’m standing directly behind her.

Now what? I think, frustrated that I can’t see her face. I’ve never hit on a woman at a funeral home before. I look around for Christine. Surely, in an assemblage this small, she’ll know her name. If she does, I can ask her for an introduction.

I look over the back of her from head to toe. Her hair is long, about halfway down her back, and she’s tall. I glance at her feet. Okay, so she’s wearing heels. Still, she’s got to be at least five-nine, five-ten. I’m discreetly (I hope) checking out her ass when a man’s voice interrupts my appraisal.

“Friends, loved ones.”

I look towards the voice to see a mustached man in a black suit, ostentatious pieces of gold jewelry hanging from every part of him. “I want to thank you all for coming here today,” he says.

Oh, please. I wonder how much money he conned out of this poor family.

I’ve had a general dislike of funerals—including events leading up to and following the actual interment of the body—ever since I attended the first one in my native Austria when I was a teenager. Austria is nominally Catholic but they have a real preoccupation with corpses, especially when it comes to ensuring a “schöne Leiche,” or “beautiful corpse.” The wealthier attendees wear couture and there’s often music and dancing afterwards. I once described funerals in Austria to an American friend as “a fashion show, discothèque, and wax museum all rolled into one.”

The eulogist is trying hard to act desolate as he wrings his hands and says, “Tina would want us to remember her, I think, as a lover of life.”

Is he a funeral director or a used car salesman? This must be the part that gave Earl nightmares. I’ve all but decided to duck back to the vestibule and wait for Christine when the beautiful stranger in front of me takes a step backwards—right onto my foot. This wouldn’t be so problematic if she wasn’t wearing pointy high heels and I wasn’t wearing sandals. I feel a quick jab, like I’ve been shot with a trim nail, and the damage is done.

I suck in a bunch of air as she whirls around, looks down at my foot and then up at me. Instead of an apology, she glares at me with two of the most remarkable eyes I’ve ever seen. They’re green—sort of. More like hazel with flecks of gold. Whatever part of stepping on my foot has filled her with such rage slowly recedes, replaced by a deep blush and a look of utter confusion. I probably don’t look any more collected than she does, so I decide to do something practical, like look down at my foot. No surprise here—it’s bleeding.

“Sorry,” she finally manages to say.

I smile while she digs in her purse, presumably for something to staunch the blood flow. I glance at the silky sash around her waist. “What about this?” I say, lifting one of the loose ends and letting it drop again. “We can use it for a tourniquet.” I sink down onto one knee to inspect the damage, which is actually a lot worse than it looked from six-feet away. Oh, great, there’s blood on the carpet! I consider plugging the hole with my finger but settle for damming the overflow with my hand.

I look up, hoping she’s found something, but her search through the bag seems to have come to a full stop. Frozen deep in thought, she looks like she’s working over a quadratic equation in her head. Just as quickly, she snaps out of it, bends down beside me and pulls something from her purse. “Here’s a napkin,” she whispers. “It’s clean.”

I try to hide the blood on the carpet with my sandal but I’m not fast enough.

“Holy crap! Duke is going to flip out when he sees this!”

I nod towards the creepy guy still yammering away at the front of the room. “Who—the gold-dripping death-dealer?”

She frowns at me. “My family has been using Duke and Duke for over fifty—” She stops short and looks down at my T-shirt.

I cringe, waiting for her reaction to its message that “Mean People Suck.”

“Did you get lost on your way back to the halfway house?”

I can’t help it, I laugh. I’m trying to be quiet about it but it’s the last thing I expect her to say and it’s not much worse than my own self-critique a few minutes ago.

Then I lose her again. Her eyes grow soft and unfocused, thinking about who-knows-what—which gives me plenty of time to check her out. Bottom line: if she’s not a model, she should be. She’s easily the most beautiful woman who’s ever tried to exsanguinate me with a high-heel shoe. Speaking of her shoe, now that I can see it up-close, I realize I was shot with a nail. The black thingy that normally covers this kind of shoe’s heel is missing and a tiny nail is sticking out of the bottom instead.

Does she know she’s walking around on a weapon? I wonder. Is it rude to tell a woman that her shoe’s broken?

Suddenly, she stands up and waves for me to follow her. I do, to a curtained-off recess with a couch in it. All right! Now we’re making progress!

She pulls the curtains closed behind us and, before I can get a word out of my mouth, attacks me with, “What are you wearing?” while simultaneously karate-chopping the air between us with her hand.

Is she kidding me? She must be kidding. I decide to go along with it (hey, it beats standing in the next room listening to the Duke of Mortuary go on and on about some dead woman he probably didn’t even know). “They said this was just going to be the screening for some great aunt.”

Viewing,” she says through clenched teeth.

Oh, shit…definitely not kidding. And it would take ten minutes for me to explain away the “screening” remark as a rare but unfortunate mistranslation that comes from English being my second language. If I want any shot with her at all, I have to defuse this—fast. I think of a technique a cop buddy of mine told me about: when trying to calm a hysterical person, simply speak in a soft, composed voice, and they will unconsciously mimic you. I give it a shot, keeping my voice casual and low. “Right. I thought it was a memorial service where I could just stand in the back. If I’d known it was going to be an all-star gala—”

“For your information, we dress up to show our respect for the dead.”

With that she drops onto the floor and starts roughly slapping tissues on my still-bleeding foot. I want to say, ‘Look, I only left the house tonight to get semi-drunk with some friends and go watch a movie. This was a last minute change of plans. I’m sorry.’ That’s what I should have said, but she’s really taking this whole thing a little over the top. I snort with annoyance. “The dead should be glad I didn’t show up in a jock strap and a pair of socks. Besides, I don’t think anyone’s interested in what I’m wearing. As far as I can see, everyone’s saving the fashion critique for the stiff—ow!”

She stands up, looking even less tranquil than before. “The ‘stiff’ is my Great Aunt Tina. I’d appreciate it if you’d speak about her with a little more respect.”

I smile a little; I can’t help it. It’s what I do when I’m about to spectacularly crash and burn in front of an angry, beautiful woman. I figure this will make her even madder but instead she blushes. Well, well, well…what have we here? In a last-ditch effort to salvage things, I decide to bet it all on the chance that in this small of a gathering of corpse-watchers, everyone knows everyone else. I take in a breath and say, “Christine told me your family was weird about funerals.”

The name definitely rings a bell with her but I think it also short-circuits her brain somehow. She gets that unfocused look again and wordlessly stares at the ground, so I figure more information is better than too little. “I’m here with Christine and Earl. We were on our way to a movie. Christine got a call from someone in your family reminding her about the viewing.”

She snaps out of her trance, looks up, and holds out her hand. “I’m Leigh Fromm.”

Ah-ha! That explains the wacky funeral! I consider asking her if she knows that her last name is German and that her family on the paternal side could, in all probability, be traced to Germany or Austria, but I immediately dismiss the idea. She’ll want to know how I know and I’ll have to tell her and it will all be downhill from there.

I take her hand very gently—my God, her skin is soft!— hold it for a moment, and release it. I’m not in favor of the tradition of many American men, who seem to relish crushing a woman’s hand in theirs. I’ve seen more than one female friend (not to mention my mother) flexing her hand after shaking with that sort of guy and I very early on decided “that sort of guy” wasn’t going to be me. Of course, you run the risk of offending some women this way. And judging from Leigh Fromm’s reaction to our handshake—she’s staring at her hand, dumbfounded—she is clearly “some women.”

Say something…anything! I tell myself. “I don’t remember seeing you at Christine’s wedding last year.”

“I wasn’t there. I had to go on a business trip.”

Well, at least she finally put her hand down, so there’s a better-than-even chance she won’t slap you. “Were you at their baby shower in April?”

She frowns. “Uh, no, I couldn’t make it. I sent her flowers when her son was born.”

“When was the last time you saw Christine?” Is there any other topic of conversation you can think of? By the time this is over, she’s going to think you have a thing for Christine! My nervous smile is back and I decide it’s best for both of us if I just get on the floor and pretend to stop myself from bleeding to death.

“At my grandmother’s funeral,” she says, staring down at me. “And what does Christine mean ‘our family is weird about funerals’?”

Oh, great. Bravo, you idiot. I stall for time. “Let’s see…how did she put it?” I stand up, putting my unharmed foot over the still-bleeding one to keep the tissues in place. She’s eventually going to talk to Christine so it’s not like you can lie. Oh, well, better to go out with a bang than a whimper. “‘The most dangerous place to stand is between someone in my family and a casket.’”

“That’s not true!”

She doesn’t look offended so much as thrown into another state of bewilderment. While she’s discombobulating, I throw a megawatt smile at her, just to see if I’m the one causing her mental lapses. “She said the family motto is ‘If You’ve Got a Corpse, We’ve Got a Plane Ticket.’”

I haven’t gotten more than a few words out of my mouth before she’s blushing furiously and looking at the floor again. Ah-ha! So she’s the ‘I’m-so-attracted-to-you-I’m-angry’ type!

“What’s going on?”

Both of us turn around at the same time to find Christine sticking her head through the curtain. I chuckle. “Trying to recover from meeting Leigh.” It occurs to me as I say this that I never told her my name. I don’t think I could’ve screwed up our little interlude any more spectacularly unless I’d planned it out in advance.

Chris looks at me, then Leigh, then my foot, like she’s trying to piece it all together and has immediately given up. “Well the wake’s almost over,” she tells me. “Earl wants to know if you want to grab a drink at the Funky Buddha and wait for the next movie.”

I look at Leigh. “Whaddya say, Leigh? Want to join us for some drinks? I promise not to show everyone my open flesh wound.”

I’ve barely gotten the words out of my mouth before she’s pushing the curtain out of the way. “Uh, no thanks. I don’t think binge drinking is an appropriate way to grieve.” She glares at Christine, who laughs.

“Oh, come on, Leigh. She was your great uncle’s second wife. You didn’t even know her!”

“Funerals are meant to comfort the living,” says Leigh, before turning on her nail-heel and disappearing through the swinging curtain panels.

“I thought this was the viewing?” Once I’m pretty sure she’s out of earshot, I add, “I mean, the funerals I go to involve dirt and a hole in the ground.”

Christine starts laughing.  “The funeral’s tomorrow.”

I nod. “I assume you know her.”

“Leigh’s my cousin. What was that all about?”

I feel like such a jackass, I don’t know how to answer her. “I don’t suppose Great Aunt Tina’s husband is alive and well and standing out there somewhere?”

“Morris? Sure. He’s probably looking for Wife Number Three. Except for a two-week period of being a widower sandwiched between two long marriages, he’s been married since he was eighteen-years-old. Two weeks between Great Aunt Audrey and Tina.”

“Well, I guess when you’ve found The One—or Two, in his case—you just know, right? Any chance you could point him out to me?”

She looks at me like I’m crazy. “‘Point him out’…why?”

I sigh. “I’m afraid my inappropriate attire was the target of a few disapproving looks and one verbal dressing-down. I’d better apologize to someone or you know what will happen.”

“Has-been royalty,” she sniffs. “Can’t take them to a wake, can’t stuff their head into a guillotine.” She rolls her eyes at me. “Come on…”

I follow her as she snakes her way through the gathering of people to the far side of the main room. Through a short archway is a smaller room with an open coffin in it. Christine points to a stooped, old man in a dark brown polyester suit standing just inside the archway. “That’s Great Uncle Morris. And for the record, the man standing next to him is his nephew—Leigh’s and my grandfather. His name is Leo.”

I narrow my eyes, trying to make out the second man a little better. Other than wearing an equally out-of-style-suit—a light blue one that appears to be about five sizes too big for him—and holding a camera so large that it looks like it should have a black hood and wooden legs attached to it, they look about the same age to me. “Really?”

“Hard to believe, right? Morris was the youngest in his family of ten kids and my grandfather is the son of Morris’s eldest sister, so the two of them are the same age, give or take a year or two. They went to school together—even stormed the beach at Normandy in World War Two together.”

“No way! That’s cool.”

She shrugs. “The byproduct of large families.”

“Since I’m an only child, I’ll have to take your word for it. What’s Great Uncle Morris’s last name?

“Davidson.”

I spot Leigh standing at the head of the casket to pay her respects. Suddenly, Grandfather Leo, who is pretty spry for a World War Two veteran, breaks for the casket like he’s reenacting Normandy, stops a few feet short of Leigh, aims the camera at her and hollers, “Smile!” The flash goes off before she’s had a chance to turn around.

My mouth falls open. Did he just

“Grandpa!” Leigh practically gets on her knees to hug her grandfather, which makes for an endearing scene. When they’re done embracing, he shoves her gently back in the direction of the coffin and says, “Squat down a little! You’re too tall!”

I lean towards Christine and whisper, “Would you please be so kind as to explain—”

Before I can finish my question, Leigh sticks her head in the casket until she’s practically cheek-to-cheek with Dead Great Aunt Tina, smiling like a beauty pageant contestant as her grandfather captures the moment for posterity. She changes positions and tests smiles of varying widths before standing up and rejoining her grandfather. The entire time this is happening, not a single person—besides me—seems the least bit disturbed.

“What the—what the hell was that?” I stammer.

Christine grins. “Earl warned you: ‘Follow the camera flashes,’ remember?” She slaps me on the back and laughs. “I’m going back to Earl. We’ll wait for you by the door.”

I’m so stunned that Christine’s disappeared before I’m aware of it. I can’t take my eyes off Leigh, who has rejoined her grandfather. Snippets of their conversation reach my ears. “He was wearing sandals. Can you believe that?”

A man—her father, I’m guessing, judging by her striking resemblance of him—joins them, kissing her on the cheek and whispering in her ear.

“His name is ‘Prince’?” says Leigh. “Like the singer?”

“Prince isn’t his first name,” says her mother. “He’s Prince Roman Karl Franz Joseph Max Heinrich Ignatius Lorraine von Habsburg.” When Leigh doesn’t respond, she adds, “Of Austria?”

Damn it, they know…well, sort of. In reality, I’m an archduke by birth—not a prince—but noble titles have been illegal in Austria since the monarchy there was abolished in 1918 so it makes little difference. And “von Habsburg”— in English: “of Habsburg,” or “of the House of Habsburg”—denotes the royal house I belong to. Also illegal. My Austrian passport reads simply “Roman Karl Habsburg-Lorraine.”

I go back to the curtained-off alcove and text Christine: I’ll buy the first round if you lure your cousin away from the creepy coffin-room photo shoot.

A few minutes later, I see Leigh and Christine walking together towards the funeral home door, leaving me free to implement my brilliant plan. Luckily, the Fromm clan meeting has ended, its members dispersed, leaving Great Uncle Morris alone, save Grandpa Leo. I approach him from the side.

“Mr. Davidson?”

He toddles back and forth until he’s turned ninety degrees, squints at me and says, “Who are you?”

Grandfather Leo cackles and slaps Morris on the back. “That’s the King of Germany I was telling you about!”

Oookay. I clear my throat and stick out my hand. “Roman Lorraine, sir.”

His handshake is pretty firm for an old guy. “Morris Davidson.” He looks me over and says, “Whaddya want?”

I’ll admit it: I love old people, the way they just fire off whatever’s on their mind whenever they feel like it with zero repercussions. “I’m a friend of Christine’s and Earl’s. I came inside to find a restroom while Christine paid her respects. I’m afraid my street clothes made more than one person tonight uncomfortable. I just wanted to offer you my condolences and apologize for how I’m dressed.”

“Leigh tells me she stomped on your foot,” says Leo. “What were you doing to her? Trying to grab her, that’s what I think.”

I’m so horrified, I can’t think of what to say.

Morris chortles and slaps me on the shoulder. “He don’t mean it, young man. You run along. Give Christine my love.” He glares in the general direction of the vestibule. “Tell her it was nice of that husband of hers to block the door.”

“Don’t forget the carpet,” says Leo. “He was doing a fine job of holding that down too.”

I take my leave and work my way back to the vestibule where Christine is regaling Earl with the whole story up to this point. Her face brightens when she sees me. “Well?”

“Home free.” I slap Earl on the back. “You, on the other hand, might want to think about sleeping with the light on tonight.”

Chapter Two

My cell phone is vibrating. I sit up, blinking, disoriented at the sight of a strange bedroom. Then I remember: Guest bedroom. Denver. Christine’s place. I lean over the side of the bed and wrestle the phone out of my jeans pocket. I don’t recognize the number but I’m expecting about ten business calls this morning, so I don’t really have any choice but to answer.

My greeting is short and to the point: “This is Roman.”

Godmorgen!

“Isabella.” I grit my teeth and punch the nearest pillow. Damn it! Guess it didn’t take her long to figure out that I was sending all her calls to voicemail. She’s using an internet phone. Has to be, unless she’s buying a new burner phone every other day. “What do you want?”

She pretends to sound surprised. “Wow, someone got up on the wrong side of the bed.”

“Technically I haven’t gotten out of the bed yet. Nor have I had time to select a side.”

Her tinkly, finishing-school laugh is nails on a chalkboard. I wince and hold the phone away from my ear.

“I texted you last night and I never heard back,” she purrs. “I just wanted to make sure you got into Denver okay.”

“Thanks, but I already have a mother. Besides, I was out.”

“Out?” She’s immediately suspicious. “Out with whom?”

The only thing I hate worse than her grating laughter is her persistent use of “whom” when she talks. Yes, I know it’s grammatically correct but it just makes her sound even more turbo-princess than normal.

“Christine and Earl. Look, you have to stop calling me, Iz. We agreed.”

She’s quiet for a moment and I feel bad for her—I really do—but her bordering-on-bunny-boiling behavior is making the possibility of a friendship after a relationship about as likely as me being crowned king of Austria.

“I know,” she says finally. “I just miss your voice, Roman. I miss us.”

“We agreed: three months.”

“It’s been six months!”

“Three months of no contact. You haven’t managed more than two weeks.”

“Three months of no contact…and then what?”

You find someone else to obsess over, I hope. “We reconnect. We see if there’s anything worth salvaging or we just become friends.”

“There is something worth salvaging.”

Not from where I’m sitting. “Where are you?” Please don’t say Denver.

“That’s why I’m calling you! I’m in L.A. to spend the day with your mother.”

 I sigh and rub the stubble on my cheeks. “I wish you wouldn’t.”

“Why? Your mother adores me!”

That’s because she doesn’t know you. “I wish she wouldn’t.” I blink a few times in quick succession, trying to clear my vision. “Look, every time you call me to tell me you’re spending the day with her, I have to spend half of the next day listening to her tell me what you two did. You’re using my mother to get to me. It’s not fair to her and this isn’t what we agreed on.”

My phone buzzes. I pull it away from my ear to see a text from Christine. On my way to store, then heading home. Need anything?

I activate the speakerphone just in time to hear Isabella ruin the rest of my day. “I thought I’d fly to Aspen this weekend.”

“Yeah, you should go.” Even though you don’t belong there. “Mikhail will be happy to see you.” And the place will be crawling with douchebags—surely one of them will be rich and titled enough, even for you.  My fingers fly over the letters and I hit “send.” Bring lobotomy kit.

“You’re not going?” She sounds crushed, like this was some spur-of-the-moment decision on her part when I know full well (thanks to Mikhail) that she’s been toying with the idea of going ever since we broke up. Now that I know she’s going, I can’t, which means I’ll miss the one weekend of the year when all of my friends are in one place rather than scattered all over the globe.

Christine texts back: Hmm. I could probably craft something from found items when I get back.

I can’t help it—I chuckle. Under my breath I mutter, “Nice.”

Isabella’s voice turns frosty. “Are you with someone?”

I sigh. “Iz, I have to go.”

“Are you with someone?”

“No, I’m not. But if I was, I’d say the same thing because it wouldn’t be any of your business.” I hold my breath and listen for the telltale signs of a crying jag firing up. Nothing. “Look, I have to work, okay?”

“You don’t have to work,” she says, her voice lathered in disdain.

I feel like I’m talking to a small child. “I have to finish the plans for my house. And then I need to build it and live in it.”

“A house…you could have a palace.”

Yeah, but you’d be inside it, making it more of a dungeon. “New motto: ‘If I can’t clean it myself, I’m not living in it.’” I swing my legs over the side of the bed and stand up.

Christine breaks in with another text: Don’t forget the funeral today. 

This throws me for a second and I figure Christine meant to text Earl. I text Christine and try to shake The Princess simultaneously: Thx—embarrassed myself enough at wake. “Goodbye, Isabella.” I raise one arm above my head and stretch while trying to smother a yawn.

“Call me after work then. You can tell me about your day.”

“No, I can’t. That’s the thing, Iz…when people break up, they don’t call each other up and chat about their day.”

My phone buzzes again: Gr Uncle Morris/G-pa Leo say ur hot for Leigh & u should go.

“What the—?” I’m so shocked that I forget Isabella is still on the line.

“What’s the matter?”

“Nothing.” Well, Leo already knows you want to grab her. “I’m not calling you anymore, Isabella, and I have to go.”

“What a shame. I guess I’ll have to tell your mother what a jerk you’re being. Maybe I’ll even cry a little.”

“You’re a royal bitch, you know that?”

She laughs. “That wouldn’t be the first time I’ve heard that.”

“Then I’ll try to come up with something more original before you stalk me again.”

“Call me this afternoon, okay? I’ll tell you what your mother and I did so you won’t have to hear it from her tomorrow.”

“I can’t.” Can you ask a woman out on a date at a funeral? Do people do that? Then I recall the wake last night. I bet her crazy people do. Hell, Morris probably was looking for his third wife last night! The prospect of seeing Leigh again makes even this unbearable conversation with The Princess bearable. I’m even smiling. “I have to be somewhere.”

“You’ve only been there one day. Where do you have to be?”

“I’m going to a funeral.” Unfortunately, this comes out sounding way too upbeat.

She snorts with derision. “Oh, yeah, I can tell. You sound really broken up about it. Come on, Roman. I’d be invited to any funeral worth going to before you and I’m not going to a funeral today. So who died?”

I try to sound a little more somber. “A friend of mine lost his wife.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry…that’s terrible!”

“Yeah, it is.”

“Well, call me later tonight then.”

“Isabella?”

“Yes?”

“I can’t.” I take a deep breath and plunge ahead. “I have a date tonight.”

There’s a few seconds of cold silence, a soft click! and the line goes dead. I stare at the phone and hope the day won’t make a liar out of me.

 

***

 

“Are you sure she’ll be there?” I open the passenger-side door of my Prius for Christine and straighten my tie while I wait for her to get in.

“The latest intelligence reports say that Kat was on her way to pick her up ten minutes ago. So unless she jumps out of the car on the way, she’ll be there.” As soon as I close her door, she bursts out laughing.

I slide into the driver’s seat and buckle up before I ask. “Something funny?”

She grins at me. “I’m just trying to imagine you on a date with Leigh, that’s all.”

I throw the car in gear and pull away from the curb. “Which part is funnier: her being with someone like me or the other way around?”

She flips the visor down and starts playing around with her chin-length, blonde hair. “Definitely the other way around.”

“Why? You don’t think she’ll go out with me?”

“I think you’ll find that she’s not just a pretty face.”

“I never said that.” I sit up a little straighter and reconsider. There was a lot of drinking last night so it’s possible that I did. “I mean, I didn’t say that…did I?” Please say no. Not with her best friend there for half the night.

“No. I’m just saying that Leigh’s a little, I don’t know…quirky.”

I frown. “Perky can be okay. I mean, as long as she doesn’t giggle all the time like a twelve-year-old.”

Quirky. Not ‘perky.’”

“Quirky, how? She collects Care Bears? Composes whale songs?”

Chris smiles. “You’ll find out.”

I change the subject. “Kat seemed like a cool chick. If that’s her best friend, then I’m even more interested in Leigh.”

She snickers. “That’s because Kat is cool. Leigh is definitely not cool.”

“Why, just because she didn’t want to go binge drinking with us last night?”

“No, it’s not that.”

“What then? You sound like you don’t like her.”

“I love my cousin to pieces. Everyone loves Leigh.” Just like that, she’s zero smiles and dead serious. “What’s going on with you and The Princess?”

I groan. “I broke up with her six months ago! Look, it’s not like I can just tell her to eff off, okay? Our families—”

Christine holds up her hand. “I’m not criticizing; I’m just saying that if it’s not over with the Princess Royal—”

“It’s over. She’s just being a little bitch because she’s a spoiled, rich girl with too much time on her hands. She’s used to having her way.”

“Well, maybe her mom will die soon,” she says cheerfully. “Then she’ll have Denmark to play with!”

“Lovely sentiment, Christine. Queen Margrethe is my godmother.” I make a left turn onto Quebec Street and keep an eye out for the sign for Fairmount Cemetery.

“Oh, sorry,” she says, not sounding in the least bit contrite. “Well, maybe she doesn’t have to die. Maybe she just goes crazy, like in the movie The Madness of King George. What did George have? The disease that made his pee purple?”

My grip on the steering wheel tightens. “Porphyria.”

“Porphyria, that’s it!” She looks over at me. “You’re not getting royally grumpy on me, are you?”

“No.”

“Come on, Roman. You make fun of the royals all the time.”

“That’s because I’m allowed to.”

“And I’m not?”

“No. It’s not funny when you do it, it’s just annoying.”

“And why’s that, Your Royal Highness?” She points at an approaching sign. “Turn here.”

I tap the brakes once we pass through the gates, slowing the car to a crawl. “I’ve heard you refer to your female friends as ‘bitches.’ Am I allowed to call your female friends ‘bitches,’ Chris?”

She smiles. “Not if you want to keep all your teeth.”

“Exactly.”

“There’s a problem with your analogy: I’m a woman. You’re not a royal.”

“Not a reigning royal, no. But my extended family is. A lot of my friends are. My ex-girlfriend is. Hell, I’m in the line of succession to the English throne! And as relieved as I am to not be dating Isabella anymore, you’re not allowed to make fun of her.”

“Have it your way, Your Grace.”

For about the thousandth time, I kick myself for ever thinking that it was a good idea to divulge to Christine that I am an Austrian archduke by birth; she’s one of the few people outside of royal circles who know this fact. Just think how much worse it would be if she knew that you’re also ‘Prince Imperial of Austria and Prince Royal of Hungary and Bohemia.’ You’d never hear the end of it. I sigh. “An archduke is like a prince, remember? If you’re going to be an ass, I prefer ‘Your Imperial Highness.’ ‘Your Grace’ is the way you address a duke in England—you know, where the nobility is alive and well and titles aren’t illegal?” I pause a moment before adding, “‘Your Grace’ also comes in handy for offensively ostentatious funeral directors in Colorado.”

“Watch yourself. Duke and Duke Mortuary Services is the closest the Fromm family will ever be to royalty. Speaking of that, their plots are up here on the right. Just park on the curb anywhere.”

“You’re sure Earl can pick you up in case…well, you know.”

“Yes, Your Grace, it’s all been arranged. He’s picking up the baby and heading this way.”

I decide that silence is going to be the only thing that stops me from throwing her into the hole after Great Aunt Tina. I love Christine like a sister but I’ve known her long enough that she knows how to push all my buttons—just like a sister. I follow her up the hill to the gravesite and have a flash of déjà vu when I see Morris Davidson and Leo Fromm standing side by side in the exact same suits, just as they were last night. It’s like they never moved at all, the set and props around them simply switched out overnight.

When Morris waves me over, I freeze in my tracks. Oh, God, they’re going to ask me what the hell I’m doing here! I slowly advance on them, trying to craft the perfect opener for when one is shamelessly crashing a funeral in order to pursue a woman. I reach to shake his proffered hand but before I can open my mouth, he says, “Now, here’s how you’ll want to do this, son: you just sit yourself down and wait until after the service before you talk to her.”

Holy Christ, Christine wasn’t kidding—they do know about Leigh! “I—I wasn’t…I didn’t—”

Leo scowls at me. “You’re not going to talk to her like that are you? You sound like an idiot. We got plenty of those in the family already.”

I try to pull myself together. “I hope I haven’t offended you by coming here today.”

They both look at me, incredulous. “‘Offended’?” says Morris. “You coming here makes me think you’re not as dumb as you sound. Nothing like a funeral for finding women. Stay away from the ones who don’t sniffle though.”

Leo shakes his head in agreement. “But don’t go near the bawl-babies neither. You want to find one who’s right down the middle.”

“The ones holding a tissue but not using it much.” Morris’s wrinkly face folds into the saddest expression I’ve ever seen and he pantomimes someone dabbing the corner of their eye. “Tearing up a little’s fine but if they’re honking their nose through the whole thing, keep looking.”

“I–I’d be happy to wait until after the service to speak to Leigh, sir.”

They both give me that look that says they’re right back to questioning my IQ. “Now don’t be hasty, young man,” says Morris. “There’ll be plenty of nice-looking women here. You sit yourself down and watch them as they come in.”

Leo nods. “You’ll want to watch ‘em during the service too. Make sure you’ve made up your mind by the end and then you pounce!” He claps his wrinkled, gnarled hands together on the last word and I startle.

Morris frowns. “A little jumpy, are you? You’d better sit down before you fall down.” He leans close to me and whispers in my ear: “Steer clear of the beauty in the second row. I’ve got my eye on her.”

I nod my head. “You can count on me, sir.”

He claps me on the shoulder. “Good luck, son.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Since the only woman in the second row looks to be about a hundred years old, I’m confident it’s a promise I can follow through on. There aren’t many people here yet and I don’t see any sign of Leigh so I grab a seat at the end of a middle row and wait.

A few minutes later, Christine joins me. “Kat just texted me. She said Leigh turned off her phone when she heard you had her number.”

My ego promptly deflates. “Oh, great, that sounds promising.”

“It probably is promising, actually.”

“How’s that?”

“Let’s just say that Leigh isn’t the world’s best phone conversationalist.”

“You’re really starting to scare me, here. I mean, she can feed and dress herself, can’t she?”

“They’re here,” Chris whispers, just as Roger Duke asks everyone to be seated.

I promptly put on a mournful face, stare straight ahead, and try to act like I belong here. Ten minutes later, after a touching eulogy from Morris, curiosity gets the better of me and I turn around to verify that the woman I remember from last night hasn’t arrived in a straightjacket with a caretaker. I spot Kat’s white-blonde hair immediately. She pokes Leigh with her elbow and smiles at me. I only have a split-second of eye contact with Leigh so I wink at her before facing forward.

I immediately regret it. Why did you do that? You barely know her and the last time you saw her, she was trying to get away from you as fast as she could. I sit there and stew in doubt for another fifteen minutes while a minister performs the “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” routine and the coffin is ceremoniously lowered into the ground on a pneumatic lift. The minister abruptly wraps up the service with a quick prayer, an “amen” and a “thank you all so very much for coming today.”

I look around me as other people start to stand. It’s over? I mean, if Austrian funerals are a sumptuous, ten-course feast, this one was like grabbing a burrito and a side of cinnamon twists at a drive-through.

Christine nudges me and whispers, “You should catch Leigh before she tries to get away.” She ducks her head to get a better look at my face. “You’re not going to chicken out, are you?”

“No. But if she blows me off, I’m going straight to the airport and flying to Aspen for the weekend to nurse my wounds.”

Christine’s smile is sly. “What if she says ‘yes?’”

“In that case, don’t wait up.” I jump to my feet before her fist finds my arm, and circle around behind the tent so I’m standing directly behind their chairs. Kat stands up but doesn’t see me. Before she can walk away I lean in and say, “You two ready to leave?”

Kat turns around and immediately (and rather obviously) makes eyes at Leigh before answering me. “Hey, Roman. Uh, I’ve got to get home and feed my tadpole.”

Her wha’? Then I remember. Oh, right, her son’s nickname is ‘Tadpole.’ I don’t really know what to say to this, because I can’t remember the specifics of why so I just keep my mouth shut.

“I gave Leigh a ride here,” she says. “Would you mind taking her home?”

I want to kiss Kat for dropping the opportunity right into my lap. “Absolutely,” I say, beaming. Then I think about what I’ve just said. Oh, great answer. ‘I absolutely mind!’ Before they get the wrong idea, I clarify it by addressing Leigh. “Should we go get some dinner?”

She smiles back at me. “Sure thing. What did you have in mind?”

It’s such a normal, typical response that I’m a little surprised. I mean, Christine made it sound like I might have to supplement my speech with hand gestures or something. “Have any objections to organic food?”

“That sounds great.”

That’s what she says but her smile dims a little right after the word “great” and she stares at Kat, like she’s trying to convey her displeasure telepathically. Who doesn’t like organic food?

For whatever reason, Kat won’t even look at her friend. With a cheerful “All right, well I’ll see you guys later!” she waves at us and speed-walks towards the street.

This is getting weirder by the second. And then it gets worse. I hold my hand out to Leigh and she just stares at it. With a flash of insight, I realize that she probably thinks I want to hold her hand. Way to go, genius. I flip it over so it’s obvious I’m just offering to escort her across the grass. “Thought I’d help you get out of here on those stilts alive—before you get my other foot.”

She doesn’t say anything but puts her hand over mine and allows me to get her to the asphalt in one piece. I hurry to open the door for her. As she gets in, I figure a compliment couldn’t hurt. “That suit looks really great on you.” It’s not a lie either—it does.

She startles a little, like she knows I caught a shot of cleavage when she sat down. Her “thank you” is barely audible.

I shut the door and take my time walking to my side. She’s probably still angry about last night. Apologies before compliments. I slide into the driver’s seat, shut the door and get it out of the way. “I wanted to apologize about yesterday. I shouldn’t have spoken that way about your aunt. I feel terrible about it and just wanted to say that I’m sorry.”

She takes a breath, like she’s going to respond…but doesn’t. She starts and stops a few times before she manages to spit something out. “She tried to look her best.”

I chuckle. “You really make me laugh, you know that?” I push the power button on the dashboard. Before she thinks I wasn’t sincere about my apology, I ditch the smile. “I thought she looked very nice. It was great to see your whole family there to support your great uncle. And I’ve never been assaulted in a funeral home before.” I smile a little here; I can’t help it. “So thanks for that.”

I check the side mirror before pulling onto the lane that winds through the cemetery.

There are a few beats of silence before she responds—and when she does, it’s a real zinger. “Yeah, next time you’ll have to wear a powder blue polyester suit from the 1970s so you can blend in a little better.”

I turn onto Quebec and allow myself a quick chuckle, so as not to trivialize what I say next. “Normally I would have a witty follow-up to that, but as a rule I try not to make fun of World War II veterans who stormed the beach at Normandy.”

This seems to please her. Score! Finally! Time for music. We’re stopped at a light so I reach for the stereo and pause. “What kind of music do you like?”

There’s nothing for a few seconds and then, “I have pretty eclectic taste in music.”

Which means….what? ‘I’ll listen to anything’? I stab the power button and leave it on the local indie rock station, and press her for specifics. “Like what?”

The light turns green and I take a right onto Leetsdale Avenue and wait. One thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three, one thousand four, one thousand five—

“I’m a cult follower of Tori Amos, but I also like alt rock, rap-core, adult contemporary, orchestral music from the Classical and Romantic periods, and mid-nineteenth century Appalachian gospel.”

A city bus stops directly ahead of me so I put my blinker on to move to the left lane where a road-rager in a Cadillac Escalade accelerates to stop me. I calmly cut him off and come to a stop at the red light. I’m not sure I know what half of the genres she’s just rattled off even are, so I pick the most bizarre of the bunch. “Appalachian gospel? Is that, like, John Denver?”

“No, that’s hillbilly folk.”

I laugh. She’s quirky, just like Christine said, but it’s kind of cute.  I like her, I decide. She’s hot, she’s funny…yeah, I definitely like her. Sure as hell beats The Princess’s personality void any day. Besides, it’s just dinner. I sneak a quick peek at her before getting my eyes back on the road. Maybe something after dinner too…we’ll see how it goes.

Chapter Three

When I turn off California Street and pull into the lot behind The Mercury Café, I can tell by the way Leigh tenses up—like someone’s going to jump out of the bushes and rob us—that she’s never been here before. Hell, she probably thinks I’m going to rob her. I’m not offended; it’s pretty much what went through my mind the first time a friend brought me here a few years ago.

Weeds choke the cracks in the pavement and crawl up the outside walls, giving the appearance that the blue brick building is being swallowed whole. The entire area, just a few blocks from downtown, is run-down and tired but I’ve walked up and down these streets, alone and with friends, inebriated and sober, at all hours of the day and night and never had any problems—ever. Besides, what’s inside is definitely worth braving the shabby surroundings.

She follows me wordlessly through the alley and to the front. I hold the door open for her and move past her to the red velvet curtain that covers the doorway to the bar area. My hand is on the curtain when I hear her giggling behind me. I turn around and follow her finger to a sign: Learn to hula!

“Can you get kazoo lessons here too?” she says in an undertone.

I laugh and lift the curtain higher, motioning for her to pass through. I think I’m starting to get her—a little, anyway. She definitely has a sense of humor and she’s opinionated as hell but she’s a thinker too. More like an over-thinker. The pauses in our conversations must be a result of her processing it all and coming up with the funniest, smartest or most interesting answer. I consider that idea for a moment before deciding that I’m okay with waiting for the best.

She turns in a circle, taking in the faded wood floors, the peculiar fixtures, and the “mix and match” tables and chairs. Tilting her head back, she follows the strings of white lights hung in a crisscross fashion from the ceiling of the bar all the way across the restaurant. The intensity of her concentration is fascinating to watch—and surprisingly sexy as hell.

I have to force myself to look away. Let her look around without you drooling all over her, you pervert, I scold myself. First the wake, then the funeral, and now this. If my oh-so-proper mother knew how I’d spent my first two days in Colorado, she’d have a royal stroke. And Isabella…

Isabella would fly here and spear Leigh with one of her tiaras. End of story. The thought makes me feel, by rapid turns, irrationally angry, oddly protective, and completely ridiculous.

“Two for dinner?”

I turn around and see Burg, one of the waiters. The guy’s been working here forever. He waits for Leigh to say something but I figure it’s going to take a few seconds for her brain to absorb and deflect the sight of a dreadlocked mass of hair the size of ten kitchen mops. I nod and hold up two fingers. “Two for dinner.”

Burg swipes a couple of menus from a table and I politely step aside for Leigh to follow him, but she waves at me to go before her. As soon as I do, I decide that she’s beautiful and sly; she certainly has the pole position at the moment. That’s because Burg smells like he hasn’t showered since the last time I saw him two months ago. She must have gotten a whiff of him before I did.

“This okay for you guys?” he says, stopping at a table in the corner.

Trying to inhale as little as possible, I nod. “It’s great, thanks.” Good God, I think I can taste his patchouli.

I put my hand on the back of the closest chair and pull it out for Leigh. For a second, I think she’s decided to sit in the other chair but then she stops. She glances at the table and then up at me before it gradually dawns on her that I’m holding the chair out for her.

What follows is a neurological electromagnetic storm behind her eyes of such magnitude that I expect her to fry all electronics and every computer chip within a five hundred-mile radius with her mind, plunging Colorado into the Dark Ages. I’m about to ask her if she’s okay when she blinks and lunges for the chair I’m holding like her ass is on fire and sitting down is the only way to put it out.

Quirky is right. Unusual? Yes. Idiosyncratic? I’d say so. Eccentric? Maybe. Unpredictable? Definitely. I’ve never met a woman like her before and it’s safe to say that I’m more than a little intrigued. I drop into my chair, throw the napkin over my lap and grab one of the menus. I know I should probably give her a chance to recover from whatever just possessed her but I feel like someone should say something to break the tension. “So, are you a carnivore or an herbivore?”

Terrible idea, as it turns out.

Still obviously distressed from the chair incident, she answers right away. “Well, technically I’m a carnivore because I do like meat occasionally but meat isn’t very good for you so I’ve been eating a lot of beans and fish lately. Of course fish is meat…that’s why it’s the Chicken of the Sea, but ethically I’m opposed to corporate farms and keeping animals stuffed in pens. But at the same time, our human ancestors were always meat eaters, at least since Homo erectus. And I know I couldn’t kill an animal myself if there were plants available to eat unless I had to kill an animal to feed my children if they were starving. Except I don’t have kids.”

Whoooaaaaa.

The on-duty hostess, Natalie, has no sooner reached the table with two glasses of ice water than Leigh grabs one right off the tray and guzzles it down like her face is hooked up to a hose.

Congratulations, dumbass. I believe you have irretrievably and irreversibly freaked her out. If nothing else, I’m definitely beginning to appreciate her need for extended deliberation. I lean back in my chair until it starts to tip back on two legs, grinning at her while I wait for Natalie to walk away. “Wow. Now I know your opinion on dietary ethics and human biological anthropology…what the hell are we going to talk about for the rest of the meal?”

She smiles but I can tell she’s mortified. I pretend to look at the menu so she has time to pull through it. “Anyway, I was just going to recommend the rack of lamb in the event you weren’t a vegetarian. Everything they serve here is organic, hormone-free, that sort of thing. And you don’t even have to kill anything yourself—as far as I know the animals arrive already dead. But if your conscience is steering you away from mammals, the rainbow trout is delicious. Personally, I wouldn’t go for the bean burrito on a first date.”

In my peripheral vision, I see her blink with surprise at the word “date.”

A guy asks a woman to grab a meal with him…that’s a date, right? Or does asking her out at a funeral make it more like a pity party?

We lapse into silence and I’m determined to let her be the next one to speak. And she does…eventually.

“How did you ever find this place?” she says.

I mentally sigh with relief. “I dance here.”

There’s no immediate follow-up question and I remember what Christine said about Leigh turning off her phone when she heard I had her number. Yeah, this would be pretty damn excruciating on the phone.

“Dancing is such great exercise,” she says suddenly before turning her attention to the menu. “Kat told me that you went to law school at DU but that you’re not an attorney. What do you do?”

“I build treehouses.” Figuring she’s going to need a good ten minutes to digest that, I decide it’s high time to turn the tables again. I drop the menu. “Christine says you’re some kind of researcher? Like human research? Animal research?”

Actually Christine didn’t say “some kind of researcher.” She’d had too much to drink already last night when I asked her and was barely able to manage the word “researcher” before she flopped forward on the table, guffawing until tears were rolling down her face. I couldn’t get a word out of her on the topic after that without her howling with laughter. By that time, Kat was already gone, Earl was shut down by Christine when I asked him, and I eventually forgot that I’d asked the question.

“Actually, I’m a PRA,” she says. “A professional research assistant. I work for a company that does human biological and psychological research.”

“Like finding out if people prefer Coke over Pepsi?”

She smiles. “No, that’s market research.”

“Any new, exciting discoveries made of late?” I feel like we’re on a genuine roll here so I’m annoyed when our server chooses this moment to interrupt us for our orders. Leigh, on the other hand, looks like she wants to weep with relief at the intrusion, which just piques my curiosity about her line of work even more. What kind of research could she be doing that would make her act like that?

“Hey, Roman,” says Mia, our server. Like everyone else at the Merc, she’s been here for years.

I’ve always admired Mia. I mean, anyone else with a port wine birthmark covering half of their face would have surgery to remove it, used makeup to minimize it, or become a recluse. Not only is she not a recluse, she wears the birthmark proudly—even deliberately draws attention to it with a variety of facial piercings. She told me once that it was her way of telling the world, “You will look at me, you son of a bitch, or I’ll spit in your gluten-free trout nachos.”

“Shea wants you,” she says.

Are you kidding me? How does Shea even know I’m here? I groan in frustration. “I’m having dinner! Tell her I’m on a date.”

Mia frowns but sadly doesn’t get my not-so-subtle hint. “Doug didn’t show up. She’s got about twenty-five couples up there and says she’s going to be forced to do the ‘dancing with myself’ routine again if you don’t help. She says there’s two hundred dollars in it for you… one hour of your time, and she’ll let you personally castrate Doug yourself.”

Much too late, I realize that I should have taken Leigh to a place where I don’t know anyone. What the hell is Shea thinking? I don’t send people to barge into her off-time and ask her to come and help me build my house. I let out a measured breath, hoping it sounds like a sigh and not the pressure release valve that it is. “Leigh, do you mind if we eat upstairs? I’ll help Shea really quick and then we can eat our food at the bar up there and pick up where we left off.” And it damn well better be quick.

“Uh, sure…no problem.”

Leigh looks perplexed, which just embarrasses me more, which makes me even angrier. Cool down or she’ll think you’re pissed at her!  Hoping for something that sounds a little more cheerful, I turn to Mia. “Great! Can you pop upstairs in about five minutes to see what Leigh wants to order? I’ll have the rack of lamb and a Fat Tire.”

“Sure thing.”

I lead the way out of the bar, lapsing into a seething silence all the way from the stage that hosts a steady rotation of live music, save-the-world-type documentaries, and poetry slams, to the staircase at the back of the building, while replaying Mia’s comments in my head on fast-forward—‘Shea wants youshe’s going to be forced to do the “dancing with myself” routine’…there’s two hundred dollars in it for you…’

I’m halfway up the stairs, taking them two at a time, before I realize that Leigh has no idea who Shea is, what I’m going to be helping her with, or why this will net me two hundred dollars.

Oh, shit! It sounds like Shea wants to nail me and that I’m so desperate for money that I’d run off in the middle of a date to do a solo strip-tease for a couple hundred bucks. Perfect.

Unfortunately, there’s no time to explain now. If I can hear Shea’s voice in the stairwell, anything I’d say to Leigh now would just echo up into the classroom.

“If you can hear me, say ‘Shhhh!’” says Shea.

The couples shush each other so enthusiastically that the room sounds like a radio tuned to static. Pairs of men and women stand around the edge of the room, all of them facing Shea, alone in the middle.

I look back at Leigh, hoping to catch a hint of how angry she is and how much damage control I’m going to have to do afterwards. Instead, I catch a repeat of her charming “give-me-a-second-to-take-it-all-in” performance as she looks around the dance hall, but this time I have to share it with almost every guy there, most of whom turn to watch her. I experience a flashover of envy before I realize that at least some of these guys are doing this despite standing next to their wives or significant others. This gives me some comfort. Looks like you’re not the biggest perv here after all.

“Roman!”

The students move out of the way for Shea as she holds out her arms for a hug. I make both my embrace and my greeting brief and lukewarm. “Hey, Shea.”

Shea’s dressed in her typical half-and-half style, with 1920’s hair and modern clothes. She’s one of the best dancers I know but has a problem finding a steady male instructor to help her teach the always-packed classes. After my brief but passionate relationship with Isabella, the pattern for Shea’s predicaments is a lot easier to understand.

Like Isabella and me, Shea’s couplings with male instructors no doubt start out as purely professional before evolving into something more. Unfortunately, the “spark” that kindles the passion ends up burning down the professional relationship too—right before it goes out altogether.

Bottom line: dancing with someone is an intimate business to begin with, what with two people in constant physical contact, staring into each other’s eyes all the time, and sharing the genuine rush felt after every song. Add all of the above to the pressures of practices and competing, the feeling of being a team, the support you give each other… I’d known Isabella my whole life and never felt anything for her one way or the other—until we became dance partners.

Unlike me, Shea never learned her lesson. Once Isabella and I were over, I left the competitive scene for good. Never again, I think.

Shea smiles kindly at Leigh. “I am so sorry I ruined your date! Feel free to stay for lessons—no charge.”

Oh, yeah, you look really sorry.

Leigh mumbles a “thank you” and lapses into silence.

Then I remember I never told Leigh what we’re doing up here in the first place. No wonder she’s confused. I reach for her hand and give it a squeeze. “This won’t take long. I’ll make it up to you.”

Shea grabs my other hand and pulls me to the middle of the floor. The difference between touching Leigh’s hand and Shea’s is like fire and ice water. I mull this over while Shea introduces me.

“This is Roman Lorraine,” she tells the students. “My regular partner wasn’t able to make it today, so Roman was nice enough to offer to help me out.” She turns her body towards me but twists her head around to address the couples. “Okay, so what you’re here to learn is called Lindy Hop. Depending on which part of the country you’re from it may be called East Coast swing or jitterbug. Lindy Hop is essentially 1920s and 1930s African American street dancing, which was a mish-mash of tap dancing, jazz, breakaway and the Charleston. It is technically classified as a ballroom dance but that’s pretty much where the similarities end.”

These lessons are all scripted and choreographed and now it’s my turn. I slide my foot across the floor to make sure we’re not on one of the bumps in the uneven wood before pulling her to me. With my right hand on the middle of her back and the other holding hers in the air, I lead her in a silent waltz. “This is traditional ballroom dancing,” I tell the students, “which is done with this very upright and rigid frame.” I release Shea and take a step back, keeping hold of her hand.

She motions whoever’s running the sound system to start the music. When she looks back at me, her eyes are twinkling with mischief. “Camp Hollywood,” she says.

My eyes grow wide and I barely have time to hiss a “no!” at her before a trumpet blast of Big Band Swing cuts me off—and there’s no going back. I lead her in a few swing-outs to give myself time to remember the routine our team performed last year. Before she can complete a full turn on the next swing-out, I wrap my arm around her waist and pull her back beside me into a side-by-side Charleston. This is a classic, showy time-waster, but I’m not sure I remember the entire routine so I need to do something to stall.

Oh, well, I’ll just make it up. If she’s smart, she’ll just follow my lead or she’ll end up with a broken neck. I nod at Shea and then there’s nothing left to do but go for it. I pull her out of the Charleston until she’s facing me and then snap her back to me. Hope that was enough, I think as she jumps onto my arm while I lift her to my shoulder and spin her in the air a few times. The move looks hard and it does take a lot of practice, but neither one of us is really doing much besides letting momentum take its course.

These are beginner students and I can tell they’re all properly impressed—which is the whole point. Once Shea is back on her feet, I risk a glimpse in Leigh’s direction. I’m not surprised to see that she looks absolutely horrified. Her wide eyes and open mouth are so amusing that I whip my head around so she can’t see me grinning. I lead Shea in a few more steps that end with her in front of me for a few repetitions of the tandem Charleston. We break out of that and I throw in a few more Lindy basics and a tuck turn before pulling her back in for a flip. The song’s about to end and Shea comes out of the flip and closes with a flourish by sliding into the splits.

Our audience is beside themselves with enthusiasm, each of them no doubt secretly hoping that they’ll take a few lessons and be able to amaze their friends with something like that. In reality, they’re in for months of practice before they’ll even be able to make it through one song doing two moves without feeling like a complete waste of oxygen. And that’s only if they have a few drinks before each class to loosen up.

I grab Shea’s hand and take a quick bow. She pulls me towards her and stands on her tip-toes to reach my ear. “Why don’t you ask your date to join us?”

I nod, too angry to talk to her about coercing me into this teaching gig. Save it for another day, I tell myself. Leigh is standing by the bar where the plastic pitchers of ice water are. I catch her eye and smile as I close the distance between us, hoping that she’ll at least be a little impressed at my dance abilities. The closer I get, the more doubtful I become.

Leigh’s expression has hardly changed since I peeked at her at the beginning of the routine; if anything, she looks even more dismayed. Suddenly she points to the middle of the room where Shea and I were performing and says, “I am not doing that. I can’t even line dance.”

Did she hear Shea? Or did she just guess? I laugh and grab a napkin to try to absorb as much of the sweat streaming down my face as I can. Dancing in a long-sleeve shirt and tie. Brilliant idea. “Don’t worry, Leigh, I’m not going to throw you into the air in the first class.”

But the fact is that if I have anything to say about it, there will be dancing in her future. Nothing hurries affection along like dancing and I can’t wait to get my hands on every part of her body that I’m allowed to touch during any ballroom dance she’s willing to try.

I fill a cup with ice water and gulp it down, wipe my mouth with a napkin and toss it into a nearby trashcan. Behind me, I hear Shea ordering the men and women to line up on opposite sides of the room. I screw up my courage and hold out my hand to her. “C’mon, Leigh, give it a try. Then we’ll have something to do when I take you out again.”

She seems surprised but in a good way. I lead her to the women’s side of the room and release her before taking my place in front of the men.

I bet if I asked her to a movie after this, she’d say yes. Unfortunately, after I finish helping Shea teach this class, I’m going to smell like an ox. Which is probably just as well, I think. If we’re sitting in a movie theater, I won’t be able to talk to her. And talking to Leigh Fromm is very quickly turning into my favorite reason to spend time with her, with marveling at her body as covertly as possible coming in a very close second.

Okay, maybe it’s a dead heat, I concede.

As Shea leads the women in the triple-step and I lead the men, I look over at Leigh now and then to see how she’s coming along. I can usually tell in just a few lessons whether someone will be a hopeless, mediocre, average, or excellent dancer. Leigh picks up the basics quickly which rules out mediocrity. She looks uncomfortable but so does everyone else besides Shea and me. Private lessons, I decide. If it’s just the two of us, she’ll learn faster. Not to mention we’ll be alone.

I’m not sure why I’m so interested in figuring out how good she’ll be. Look, idiot, why don’t you just see if you can get her to go on a second date…I mean, pace yourself, for God’s sake. It’s hard to take my eyes off her though, and I can’t stop myself from smiling and winking at her, or from feeling a thrill when she returns one or the other.

Definitely a second date, I decide. Like, tomorrow.