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   The sound of eight tiny reindeer had nothing on a half-dozen eight-year-olds clog dancing, Dante Jefferson thought as he held the phone more closely to his ear
   "You'll have to repeat that," he yelled in to the receiver
   "I'm having trouble hearing you"
   The steady thudding above his head paused briefly, then started up again
   "What's going on there?"
   Franklin asked, his voice barely audible over the banging that nearly kept time with the damned piano music
   "I wish," Dante muttered
   "Look, I'll call you back in a couple of hours"
   The stupid dance class would be over by then
   At least he hoped so
   "Sure. I'll be here"
   Franklin hung up
   Dante glanced at the bottom right of his computer screen
   The ever-present clock told him it was seven-fifteen
   In the evening
   Which meant it was eleven-fifteen in the morning in Shanghai
   He'd stayed late specifically to speak to Franklin about an international business deal that had developed a few glitches
   The clog dancers had made the conversation impossible
   He saved the spreadsheet and went to work on his email
   He and his business partner had plenty of other projects that needed his attention
   Just before eight, he heard the clog dancers going down the stairs
   They laughed and shrieked, obviously not worn out by an hour of misstepping practice
   He, on the other hand, had a pounding pain right behind his eyes and the thought that he would cheerfully strangle Rafe first thing in the morning
   His business partner had been the one to rent the temporary space
   Either Rafe hadn't noticed or didn't care about the dance school parked directly above
   The offices were in an older part of Fool's Gold and had been built long before the invention of soundproofing
   Rafe didn't seem to mind the noise that started promptly at three every single afternoon and went well into the evening
   Dante, on the other hand, was ready to beg the nearest judge for an injunction
   Now he got out of his chair and headed for the stairs
   He made his way to the studio
   He and whoever was in charge were going to have to come to terms
   He had to spend the next couple of weeks working out the problems of the Shanghai deal
   Which meant needing access to his computer, contracts and blueprints
   Some of which he couldn't take home
   He needed to able to use his phone, in his office, while speaking in a normal voice
   He paused outside the door that led to the studio
   It was as old-fashioned as the rest of the building, with frosted glass and the name of the business-Dominique's School of Dance-painted in fancy gold script
   He pushed open the door and entered
   The reception area was utilitarian at best
   There was a low desk, a computer that had been old a decade ago, backless benches by the wall and several coatracks
   He could see through into the studio itself--a square room with mirrors, a barre that was attached to the wall and, of course, hardwood floors
   There wasn't a piano, and he realized the endless, repetitive song that had driven him insane had come from a compact stereo
   He rubbed his temples and wished the pounding would stop, then walked purposefully into the studio
   He was a coldhearted bastard lawyer, or so he'd been told endlessly by those he bested
   He planned to reduce the dance instructor to a blob of fear, get her to agree to lay off with the dancing and then go back to his phone call
   All in the next ten minutes
   "We have to talk," he announced as he came to a halt in the center of the room
   He realized there were mirrors on three walls, so he was seeing himself from unfamiliar angles
   His shirt was wrinkled, his hair mussed, and he looked tired, he thought briefly, before turning his attention to-
   Dante swore under his breath as he took in the tall, slender woman dressed in nothing more than a black leotard and tights
   Despite the fact that she was covered from collarbone to toes, the clinging outfit left nothing to the imagination
   He almost felt as if he'd walked in on a woman undressing
   A sexy woman with big green eyes and honey-blond hair
   A woman who was completely untouchable, for a host of reasons
   He ground his teeth together
   Why hadn't Rafe mentioned that his sister was now working here? But even if his business partner didn't kill him for looking, Dante had a firm list of rules that were never broken
   Not getting emotionally involved was number one
   Anyone who taught little kids to dance had to be softhearted
   Nothing got him running faster than a hint of emotion
   "What are you doing here?"
   Evangeline Stryker asked
   Yes, he thought as he stared at her
   Rafe's baby sister
   She was responsible for the nightmare that was his life
   She and those unbelievably loud mini-dancers she taught
   So much for reducing the dance instructor to anything
   "Sorry," he said, doing his best to keep his voice from growling
   "I didn't know you worked here"
   Evie gave him a wide-eyed stare, then a strange half laugh
   "Right. I work here. I teach dance. Lucky me"
   Dante knew Evie had broken her leg a few months ago, but he didn't remember hearing anything about a head injury
   "Are you all right?"
   "No," she snapped and put her hands on her hips
   "Do I look all right?"
   He took a step back, not wanting to get in the middle of whatever she had going on
   "I came upstairs because I can't work like this anymore. The pounding, the same piece of music playing over and over again. I have to talk to Shanghai tonight, and instead of peace and quiet, there were clog dancers. You've got to make it stop"
   He held out both hands, palms up, speaking in what he knew to be his most reasonable tone
   "Make it stop? Make it stop?"
   Her voice rose with each word
   "Are you kidding?"
   Evie knew she sounded shrill
   She was sure she was wide-eyed, flushed and more than a little scary, but right now she didn't care
   She was in full panic mode and now Dante was stuck listening to her rant
   "You want to talk to me about your troubles?" she continued
   "Fine. Here are mine. In approximately six weeks it's Christmas Eve. That night, the town of Fool's Gold expects yet another chance to see their annual favorite- The Dance of the Winter King. You've never heard of it, you say? I know. Me, either. But it's a huge deal here. Huge!"
   She paused for breath, wondering if it was possible for her head to actually explode
   She could feel a sort of panicked pressure building
   It was as if she was in a nightmare where she was going to be naked in front of a room full of strangers
   Not that being naked in front of a room full of people she knew was any better
   "I won't go into the details about the storyline," she continued, her chest getting tighter and tighter
   "Let's just say it's a lot of students dancing
   Oh, and the dances they're doing this year are different than the ones they did last year because, hey, they move up
   Which wouldn't be a problem because there's always Miss Monica, who's been teaching here for the last five-hundred-and-fifty years"
   She was getting shrill again, she realized, and consciously lowered her voice
   "The only problem is Miss Monica has run off with her gentleman friend. The woman has to be pushing seventy, so I should probably be impressed or at least respectful that she has a love life, except she took off with no warning. She left me a note"
   Evie pointed to the piece of paper still taped to the mirror
   "She's gone," she repeated
   "Left town
   Flying out of the country first thing in the morning
   Which leaves me with close to sixty girls to teach dances I don't know for a production I've never heard of, let alone seen
   There's no choreography to speak of, I'm not sure of the music and I heard the sets are old and need to be completely refurbished
   In the next six weeks"
   She paused for air
   "It's up to me
   Do you want to know how long I've been teaching dance? Two months
   That's right
   This is my first ever, on the planet, teaching job
   I have sixty girls depending on me to make their dreams come true
   Their dreams of being beautiful and graceful, because you know what? For some of them, this is all they have"
   She knew she was skating uncomfortably close to talking about herself
   About how, when she'd been younger, dance had been all she'd had
   She might not have any teaching experience, but she knew what it was like to want to be special and, by God, she was going to make that happen for her students
   She stalked toward him and jabbed her finger into his chest
   More specifically, she felt the cool silk of his fancy tie
   It probably cost more than she spent on groceries in a month
   She didn't know very much about Dante Jefferson beyond the fact that he was her brother's business partner and therefore disgustingly rich
   Okay-he was reasonably good-looking, but that didn't help her right now, so she wasn't going to care
   "If you for one second think I'm going to stop having practice here," she told him, "you can forget it
   I have a serious crisis
   If you want to have a conversation with Shanghai, you can do it somewhere else
   I'm hanging on by a thread and when it snaps, we're all going down"
   Dante stared at her for a long moment, then nodded
   "Fair enough"
   With that, he turned and walked out of the studio
   She glared at his retreating back
   He got to leave and go back to his fancy life
   Not her
   She had to figure out what to do next
   While running in circles and screaming might feel good in the moment, it wasn't going to get the job done
   Nor was railing at the unfairness, kicking something or eating chocolate
   She might have failed in other areas of her life, but she wasn't going to fail her students
   "You have to rally," she told herself
   "You're tough. You can do it"
   And she would, she thought as she sank onto the floor and rested her head on her knees
   She would figure out The Dance of the Winter King and teach her students and let them have one magical night
   First thing in the morning
   But now, she was going to take a few minutes and feel massively sorry for herself
   It was a small thing to ask, and she'd earned it
   The next morning, Evie started her day with a heart full of determination
   She had survived worse than this before and probably would have to again
   Mounting a production she'd never seen with no help might seem daunting, but so what? Her pep talk lasted through her first cup of coffee, then faded completely, leaving the sense of panic to return and knot her stomach
   Obviously the first step was to stop trying to do this all alone
   She needed help
   The question was, where to get it
   She was new in town, which meant no support network
   Well, that wasn't totally true
   Her brothers had taken a surprising interest in her lately
   Rafe had even prepaid for her townhouse, against her wishes
   But they would be useless in this situation, her mother wasn't an option and going up to strangers to ask them what they knew about The Dance of the Winter King seemed questionable at best
   Which left the women in her brothers' lives
   She had one sister-in-law and two sisters-in-law to-be
   Of the three of them, Charlie seemed the easiest to approach
   She was blunt but kindhearted
   So after a quick routine of stretching to overcome the stiffness of her still-healing leg, Evie got dressed and started out for the center of town
   Fool's Gold was a small town nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada-on the California side
   The residential areas boasted tidy lawns and well-kept houses while the downtown held nearly a half-dozen traffic lights, making it practically metropolitan
   There were plenty of pumpkins by front doors and paper turkeys in windows
   Orange, red and yellow leaves flew across the sidewalk
   It had yet to snow at this elevation, but the temperatures were close to freezing at night, and the ski resorts higher up the mountain had opened the previous weekend
   The whole place was one happy small town postcard, Evie thought, shoving her hands into her coat pockets and longing to be somewhere else
   Los Angeles would be nice
   Warm and, hey, big enough that nobody knew her name-which was how she preferred things
   She just wanted to live her life without getting involved with other people
   Was that too much to ask?
   A stupid question, she reminded herself
   She was here now, and responsible for a holiday tradition
   She would get it right because she knew what it was like to be disappointed, and there was no way she was doing that to her students
   She rounded a corner and walked up to the fire station in the center of town
   The building was older, mostly brick, with giant garage doors that would open if there was an emergency
   Charlie was a firefighter
   From what Evie had been able to piece together, Charlie drove one of the big trucks
   She was competent, sarcastic and just a little intimidating
   She was also a bit of a misfit, which made Evie more comfortable around her
   In addition, Clay, Evie's youngest brother, was crazy about her
   Over-the-moon, can't-stop-looking-at-her in love
   Clay had been married before, and Evie had adored his late wife
   Now that she thought about it, Clay kind of had extraordinary taste when it came to women
   After years of mourning his first wife, he'd stumbled into a relationship with Charlie, only to find himself giving his heart and everything else he had
   It was kind of nice to see someone as perfect as Clay brought to his knees by an emotion
   Evie hesitated by the entrance leading into the fire station
   She told herself to just open the door and walk in
   Which she would
   In a second
   It was justàasking for help was not her favorite thing
   She could easily list ninety-seven ways she would rather spend her time
   Maybe more
   The door swung open unexpectedly, and Charlie Dixon stepped out
   "Evie? Are you okay?"
   Charlie was a little taller than Evie, and much bigger
   The other woman was all broad shoulders and muscle
   The latter no doubt necessary because of her job
   Evie had spent her life in search of the perfect combination of being strong enough to dance and thin enough to look good in whatever costume her job required