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Dance to the Piper

Nora Roberts


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  During the break between lunch and cocktails, the club was empty. The floors were scarred but clean enough, and the paint on the walls was only a little dull from fighting with cigarette smoke. There was the scent intrinsic to such places—old liquor and stale perfume mixed with coffee that was no longer fresh. To a certain type of person it was as much home as a cozy fire and plump cushions. The O'Hurleys made their home wherever audiences gathered.

  When the after-dinner crowd strolled in, the lights would be dimmed, and it wouldn't look so grimy. Now, strong sunlight shone through the two small windows and lighted the dust and dents mercilessly. The mirror in back of a bar lined with bottles spread some of the light around but reflected mostly on the small stage in the center of the room. "That's my girl, Abby, put a nice smile on." Frank O'Hurley took his five-year-old triplets through the short dance routine he wanted to add to the show that night, demonstrating the prissy moves with his wiry body. They were playing a family hotel at a nice, reasonably priced resort in the Poconos. He figured the audience would have a soft spot for three little girls.

  "I wish you'd time your brainstorms better, Frank." His wife, Molly, sat at a corner table, hurriedly sewing bows on the white dresses her daughters would wear in a few hours. "I'm not a bloody seamstress, you know."

  "You're a trouper, Molly my love, and the best thing that ever happened to Frank O'Hurley."

  "There's nothing truer than that," she muttered, but smiled to herself.

  "All right, my darlings, let's try it again." He smiled at the three little angels God had blessed him with in one fell swoop. If the Lord saw fit to present him with three babies for the price of one, Frank figured the Lord was entitled to a sense of humor.

  Chantel was already a beauty, with a round cherub's face and dark blue eyes. He winked at her, knowing she was more interested in the bows on the dress she'd wear than in the routine. Abby was all amiability. She'd dance because her pop wanted her to and because it would be fun to be onstage with her sisters. Frank urged her to smile again and demonstrated the curtsy he wanted.

  Maddy, with an elfin face and hair already hinting toward red, mimicked his move perfectly, her eyes never leaving his. Frank felt his heart swell with love for the three of them. He laid his hand on his son's shoulder.

  "Give us a two-bar intro, Trace, my boy. A snappy one."

  Trace obligingly ran his fingers over the keys. It was Frank's regret he couldn't afford lessons for the boy. What Trace knew of playing he'd learned from watching and listening. Music rang out, jumpy and bright.

  "How's that, Pop?"

  "You're a pistol." Frank rubbed a hand over Trace's head. "Okay, girls, let's take it from the top."

  He worked them another fifteen minutes, patiently, making them giggle at their mistakes. The five-minute routine would be far from perfect, but he was shrewd enough to recognize the charm of it. They'd expand the act bit by bit as they went on. It was the off-season at the resort now, but if they made a bit of a mark they'd secure a return engagement. Life for Frank was made up of gigs and return engagements. He saw no reason his family shouldn't be of the same mind.

  Still, the minute he saw Chantel losing interest he broke off, knowing her sisters wouldn't be far behind.

  "Wonderful." He bent to give each of them a smacking kiss, as generous with affection as he'd have liked to be with money. "We're going to knock them dead."

  "Is our name going on the poster?" Chantel demanded, and Frank roared with delighted laughter.

  "Want billing, do you, my little pigeon? Hear that, Molly?"

  "Doesn't surprise me." She set down her sewing to rest her fingers.

  "Tell you what, Chantel, you get billing when you can do this." He started a slow, deceptively simple tap routine, holding a hand out to his wife. Smiling, Molly rose to join him. A dozen years of dancing together had them moving in unison from the first step.

  Abby slid onto the piano bench beside Trace and watched. He began to improvise a silly little tune that made Abby smile.

  "Chantel's going to practice till she can do it," he murmured.

  Abby smiled up at him. "Then we'll all get our names on the poster."

  "I can show you how," he whispered, listening to his parents' feet strike the wooden stage.

  "Will you show us all how?"

  As an old man of ten, Trace was amused by the way his little sisters stuck together. He'd have gotten the same response from any of them. "I just might."

  Content, she settled back against his shoulder. Her parents were laughing, enjoying the exertion, the rhythm. It seemed to Abby that her parents were always laughing. Even when her mother got that cross look on her face, Pop would make her laugh. Chantel was watching, her eyes narrowed, experimenting a bit but not quite catching the movements. She'd get mad, Abby knew. But when she got mad, she made sure she got what she wanted.

  "I want to do it," Maddy said from the corner of the stage.

  Frank laughed. With his arms around Molly's waist, the two of them circled the stage, feet tapping, sliding, shuffling. "Do you now, little turnip?"

  "I can do it," she told him, and with a stubborn look on her face she began to tap her feet—heel, toe, toe, heel—until she was moving center stage.

  Caught off balance, Frank stopped on a dime, and Molly bumped heavily into him. "Look at that, will you, Molly."

  Pushing her hair out of her eyes, Molly watched her youngest daughter struggling to capture the basics of their tap routine. And she was doing it. She felt a mixture of pride and regret only a mother would understand. "Looks like we'll be buying another set of taps, Frank."

  "That it does." Frank felt twice the pride and none of the regret. He released his wife to concentrate on his daughter. "No, try this now." He took the moves slowly. Hop, shuffle, stamp. Brush, step, brush, step, and step to the side. He took Maddy's hand and, careful to keep his steps small to match hers, moved again. She moved right with him.

  "Now this." His excitement growing, he looked at his son. "Give me a downbeat. Listen to the count, Maddy. One and two and three and four. Tap. No body weight here. Toe stab front, then back. Now a riff." Again he demonstrated, and again she imitated the steps.

  "We'll put it all together now and end with a step slide, arms like this, see?" He brought his arms out to the side in a sharp, glitzy move, then winked at her. "You're going to sell it."

  "Sell it," she repeated, frowning in concentration.

  "Give us the count, Trace." Frank took her hand again, feeling the pleasure build as she moved in unison with him. "We've got ourselves a dancer here, Molly!" Frank hefted Maddy into his arms and let her fly. She squealed, not because she feared he wouldn't catch her but because she knew he would.

  The sensation of dropping through the air was every bit as thrilling as the dance itself had been. She wanted more.

  Chapter One

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  Five, six, seven, eight!

  Twenty-four feet hit the wooden floor in unison. The echo was wonderful. Twelve bodies twisted, swooped and plunged as one. Mirrors threw their images right back at them. Arms flowed out on signal, legs lifted, heads tilted, turned, then fell back.

  Sweat rolled. And the scent was the theater.

  The piano banged out notes, and the melody swelled in the old rehearsal hall. Music had echoed there before, feet had responded, heartbeats had raced and muscles had ached. It would happen again and again, year after year, for as long as the building stood.

  Many stars had rehearsed in that room. Show-business legends had polished routines on the same boards. Countless unknown and unremembered line dancers had worked there until their muscles had gone stringy wi
th fatigue. It was a Broadway that the paying public rarely saw.

  The assistant choreographer, his glasses fogging a bit in the steamy heat, clapped out the beat constantly as he shouted the moves. Beside him the choreographer, the man who had sculpted the dance, stood watching with eyes as dark and alert as a bird's.

  "Hold it!"

  The piano music stopped. Movement stopped. The dancers drooped with a combination of exhaustion and relief.

  "It drags there."


  The dancers, still a unit, rolled their eyes and tried to ignore their aching muscles. The choreographer studied them, then gave the signal to take five. Twelve bodies dropped against the wall, shifting together so that heads fell on convenient shoulders or abdomens. Calves were massaged. Feet flexed, relaxed, and flexed again. They talked little. Breath was an important commodity, to be hoarded whenever possible. Beneath them, the floor was battle-scarred, covered with masking tape that had set the marks for dozens of other shows. But there was only one show that mattered now: this one.

  "Want a bite?"

  Maddy O'Hurley roused herself to look down at the chocolate bar. She considered it, coveted it, then shook her head. One bite would never be enough. "No, thanks. Sugar makes me light-headed when I'm dancing."

  "I need a lift." The woman, her skin as dark and rich as the candy, took a huge bite. "Like now. All that guy needs is a whip and a chain."

  Maddy glanced over at the choreographer as he bent over the accompanist. "He's tough. We'll be glad we've got him before this is over."

  "Yeah, but right now I'd like to—"

  "Strangle him with some piano wire?" Maddy suggested, and was rewarded with a quick, husky laugh.

  "Something like that."

  Her energy was coming back, and she could feel herself drying off. The room smelled of sweat and the fruity splash-on many of the dancers used to combat it. "I've seen you at auditions," Maddy commented. "You're real good."

  "Thanks." The woman carefully wrapped the rest of the candy and slipped it into her dance bag. "Wanda Starre—two rs and an e."

  "Maddy O'Hurley."

  "Yeah, I know." Maddy's name was already well-known in the theater district. The gypsies—the dancers who wandered from show to show, job to job-knew her as one of their own who'd made it. Woman to woman, dancer to dancer, Wanda recognized Maddy as someone who hadn't forgotten her roots. "It's my first white contract," she said in an undertone.

  "No kidding?" White contracts were for principals, pink for chorus. There was much, much more to it than color coding. Surprised, Maddy straightened to get a better look. The woman beside her had a large-featured, exotic face and the long, slender neck and strong shoulders of a dancer. Her body was longer than Maddy's. Even sprawled on the floor, Maddy gauged a five-inch difference from shoulder to toe.

  "Your first time out of chorus?"

  "That's right." Wanda glanced at the other dancers relaxing and recharging. "I'm scared to death."

  Maddy toweled off her face. "Me, too."

  "Come on. You've already starred in a hit."

  "I haven't starred in this one yet. And I haven't worked with Macke." She watched the choreographer, still wiry at sixty, move away from the piano.

  "Show time," she murmured. The dancers rose and listened to the next set of instructions.

  For another two hours they moved, absorbed, strove and polished. When the other dancers were dismissed, Maddy was given a ten-minute break, then came back to go through her solo. As lead she would dance with the chorus, perform solo and dance with the male lead and the other principals. She would prepare for the play in much the same way an athlete prepared for a marathon. Practice, discipline and more practice. In a show that was slated to run two hours and ten minutes, she would be on stage about two-thirds of the time. Dance routines would be absorbed into the memory banks of her mind, muscles and limbs. Everything would have to respond in sync at the call of the downbeat.

  "Try it with your arms out, shoulder-level," Macke instructed. "Ball change before the kicks and keep the energy up."

  The assistant choreographer gave the count, and Maddy threw herself into a two-minute routine that would have left a linebacker panting.

  "Better." From Macke, Maddy knew that was praise indeed. "This time, keep your shoulders loose." He walked over and laid his blunt, ugly hands on Maddy's damp shoulders. "After the turn, angle stage left. I want the moves sharp; don't follow through, cut them off. You're a stripper, not a ballerina."

  She smiled at him because while he was criticizing her he was massaging the exhausted muscles of her shoulders. Macke had a reputation for being a grueling instructor, but he had the soul of a dancer. "I'll try to remember that."

  She took the count again and let her body do the thinking. Sharp, sassy, acerbic. That was what the part called for, so that was what she'd be. When she couldn't use her voice to get into the part, she had to use her body. Her legs lifted, jackknifing from the knee in a series of hitch kicks. Her arms ranged out to the side, contracted to cuddle her body and flew up, while her feet moved by memory to the beat.

  Her short, smooth crop of reddish-blond hair flopped around a sweatband that was already soaked. She'd have the added weight of a wildly curled shoulder-length wig for this number, but she refused to think about that. Her face glowed like wet porcelain, but none of the effort showed. Her features were small, almost delicate, but she knew how to use her whole face to convey an expression, an emotion. It was often necessary to overconvey in the theater. Moisture beaded on her soft upper lip, but she smiled, grinned, laughed and grimaced as the mood of the dance demanded.

  Without makeup her face was attractive—or cute, as Maddy had wearily come to accept—with its triangular shape, elfin features and wide, brandy-colored eyes. For the part of Mary Howard, alias the Merry Widow, Maddy would rely on the expertise of the makeup artist to turn her into something slick and sultry. For now she depended on her own gift for expression and movement to convey the character of the overexperienced stripper looking for an easy way out.

  In some ways, she thought, she'd been preparing all her life for this part—the train and bus rides with her family, traveling from town to town and dub to club to entertain for union scale and a meal. By the age of five she'd been able to gauge an audience. Were they hostile, were they laid-back, were they receptive? Knowing the audience's mood could mean the difference between success and failure. Maddy had discovered early how to make subtle changes in a routine to draw the best response. Her life, from the time she could walk, had been played out onstage. In twenty-six years she'd never regretted a moment of it.

  There had been classes, endless classes. Though the names and faces of her teachers had blurred, every movement, every position, every step was firmly lodged in her mind. When there hadn't been the time or money for a formal class, her father had been there, setting up a makeshift barre in a motel room to put his children through practice routines and exercises.

  She'd been born a gypsy, coming into the world with her two sisters when her parents had been on the way to a performance. Becoming a Broadway gypsy had been inevitable. She'd auditioned, failed, and dealt with the misery of disappointment. She'd auditioned, succeeded, and dealt with the fear of opening night. Because of her nature and her background, she'd never had to deal with a lack of confidence.

  For six years she'd struggled on her own, without the cushion of her parents, her brother and her sisters. She'd danced in chorus lines and taken classes. Between rehearsals she'd waited tables to help pay for the instructions that never ended and the dance shoes that wore out too soon. She'd broken through to principal, but had continued to study. She'd made second lead, but never gave up her classes. She finally stopped waiting tables.

  Her biggest part had been the lead in Suzanna's Park, a plum she'd relished until she'd felt she'd sucked it dry. Leaving it had been a risk, but there was enough gypsy in her to have made the move an adventure.

  Now she w
as playing the role of Mary, and the part was harder, more complex and more demanding than anything that had come before. She was going to work for Mary just as hard as she would make Mary work for her.

  When the music ended, Maddy stood in the center of the hall, hands on hips, labored breathing echoing off the walls. Her body begged to be allowed to collapse, but if Macke had signaled, she would have revved up and gone on.

  "Not bad, kid." He tossed her a towel.

  With a little laugh, Maddy buried her face in it. The cloth was no longer fresh, but it still absorbed moisture. "Not bad? You know damn well it was terrific."

  "It was good." Macke's lips twitched; Maddy knew that was as good as a laugh, for him. "Can't stand cocky dancers." But he watched her towel off, pleased and grateful that there was such a furnace of energy in her compact body. She was his tool, his canvas. His success would depend on her ability as much as hers did on his.

  Maddy slung the towel around her neck as she walked over to the piano where the accompanist was already stacking up the score. "Can I ask you something, Macke?"

  "Shoot." He drew out a cigarette; it was a habit Maddy looked on with mild pity.

  "How many musicals have you done now? Altogether, I mean, dancing and choreographing?"

  "Lost count. We'll call it plenty."

  "Okay." She accepted his answer easily, though she would have bet her best tap shoes that he knew the exact number. "How do you gauge our chances with this one?"


  "No. Paranoid."

  He took two short drags. "It's good for you."

  "I don't sleep well when I'm paranoid. I need my rest."

  His lips twitched again. "You've got the best—me. You've got a good score, a catchy libretto and a solid book. What do you want?"

  "Standing room only." She accepted a glass of water from the assistant choreographer and sipped carefully.

  He answered because he respected her. It wasn't based on what she'd done in Suzanna's Park; rather, he admired what she and others like her did every day. She was twenty-six and had been dancing for more than twenty years. "You know who's backing us?"

  With a nod, she sipped again, letting the water play in her mouth, not cold but wonderfully wet. "Valentine Records."

  "Got any idea why a record company would negotiate to be the only backer of a musical?"

  "Exclusive rights to the cast album."

  "You catch on." He crushed out the cigarette, wishing immediately for another. He only thought of them when the music wasn't playing—on the piano, or in his head. Luckily for his lungs, that wasn't often. "Reed Valentine's our angel, a second-generation corporate bigwig, and from what I'm told he's tougher than his old man ever thought of being. He's not interested in us, sweetheart. He's interested in making a profit."

  "That's fair enough," Maddy decided after a moment. "I'd like to see him make one." She grinned. "A big one."

  "Good thinking. Hit the shower."

  The pipes were noisy and the water sprayed in staccato bursts, but it was cool and wet. Maddy propped both forearms against the wall and let the stream pour over her head. She'd taken a ballet class early that morning. From there she'd come directly to the rehearsal hall, first to go over two of the songs with the composer. The singing didn't worry her—she had a clean voice, excellent pitch and a good range. Most of all, she was loud. The theater didn't tolerate stingy voices.

  She'd spent her formative years as one of the O'Hurley Triplets. When you sang in bars and clubs with faulty acoustics and undependable audio equipment, you learned to be generous with your lungs.

  She had a pretty good handle on her lines. Tomorrow she'd be rehearsing with the other actors—after jazz class and before dance rehearsal. The acting itself gave her a few flutters. Chantel was the true actor in the family, just as Abby had the most fluid voice. Maddy would rely on the character of Mary to pull her through.

  Her heart was in the dancing. It had to be. There was nothing more strenuous, more demanding, more exhausting. It had caught her—mind, body and soul—from the moment her father had taught her her first simple tap routine in a dingy little lounge in Pennsylvania.

  Look at me now, Pop, she thought as she shut off the inconsistent spray. I'm on Broadway.

  Maddy toweled off quickly to avoid a chill and dressed in the street clothes she'd stuffed in her dance bag.

  The big hall echoed. The composer and lyricist were performing minor surgery on one of their own tunes. There would be changes tomorrow, changes she and the other vocalists would have to learn. That was nothing new. Macke would have a dozen subtle alterations to the number they'd just gone over. That was nothing new, either.

  Maddy heard the sound of dance shoes hitting the floor. The rhythm repeated over and over. Someone from the chorus was vocalizing. The vowel sounds rose and fell melodically.