Authors: Debbie Macomber
“Don't argue,” I said, smiling at him.
He focused his attention on me and returned with a half-smile of his own. “This isn't so bad.”
“See, I told you.”
“So you're one of those told-you-so women.”
“Guess I am,” I said, but we were both smiling and enjoying ourselves.
After another two or three dances, just as I thought, Rocco played those imaginary keys like he was Elton John. Soon his shoulders got into the rhythm of the beat and he moved those along with this fingers.
“Would you like me to show you how to dance to a slow song?” I asked.
He stopped moving. “You mean like a waltz?”
“Sort of. I took ballroom dancing classesâ”
“Of course you did,” he said cutting me off.
“I promise it's easy.”
He closed his eyes and shook his head. “I can't believe I'm doing this.”
The next song was a slower one, and I held my arms out to him. He hesitated for the briefest moment before pulling me into his embrace and wrapping both his arms around my waist, clasping them at the small of my back. He stood stock-still, staring down at me.
I sucked in a breath. For a moment all I could do was stare back. My heart started to race and it wasn't due to any exercise I'd gotten from teaching Rocco to dance. For the life of me, I couldn't stop staring up at him.
“This okay?” he asked, frowning again.
“Yeah, great.” Thankfully, he didn't seem to notice anything different about me.
“What do I do next?” he asked, and when I didn't answer, he said my name. “Nichole?”
I shook myself out of this trance I was in. Had I really just stood there gawking up at him like he was a Greek god? How humiliating. I quickly broke eye contact and said, “It's really no different than what I showed you earlier. Just move your feet, but at a slower pace, while holding your partner.”
“Like this?” he asked, resting his cheek on the top of my head while he held me close enough to hear his heart. Perhaps what I heard was my own, hammering at a staccato pace. It'd been nearly two years since I'd been in a man's arms. My head and my heart were swamped with feelings I was grossly unprepared to experience. I didn't make an effort to move. He was so much taller than my five feet three inches that when I closed my eyes and leaned against him my head reached only as far as his chest. His scent was distinctly male. He smelled of the forest, woodsy, with the slightest hint of diesel, which might sound unappealing, but on him it was enticing, romantic. I didn't know how to explain it. I wanted to inhale that scent and log the memory of it into my brain.
“How am I doing?” he asked in a whisper.
“Great.” My own voice sounded low and slightly odd. I cleared my throat. “Actually, you're doing really good.”
“Try slow-dancing with me, Dad,” Kaylene said.
Reluctantly I dropped my arms and stepped back. I didn't dare look up at Rocco for fear of what he might read in me. Something had just happened between us and I wasn't sure whatâ¦wasn't sure I even wanted to know.
Kaylene replaced me as I stepped back. I made a determined effort to avoid making eye contact with Rocco. Picking up Owen, I pretended to be dancing with him. My three-year-old was exhausted, and within a few minutes was asleep on my shoulder.
I motioned to Rocco and Kaylene that I was putting him down for the night and waltzed down the hallway to his bedroom. The kid was zonked-out and didn't stir when I changed him into his pajamas.
By the time I returned, Kaylene had turned off the music and they were ready to go.
“Thanks,” Kaylene said, and impulsively threw her arms around my neck for a thank-you hug.
I looked at Rocco. He didn't say anything, and if I read him right, and with men it was hard to know, he looked confused. “I'll catch you later,” he said.
“Dad did great.”
“He did,” I said. “Who woulda thunk he'd turn into another Baryshnikov.”
“Who?” Kaylene asked.
“Never mind,” Rocco muttered.
“You don't know, either, do you?” his daughter taunted.
Kaylene laughed and Rocco frowned, but he held my look for the longest moment and seemed to see straight into me.
Uncomfortable under his scrutiny, I walked them to the door and closed it, leaning against the wooden frame as I pondered what unspoken thing had just happened between Rocco and me.
Nikolai was absent Monday night and I was worried. He'd never missed class and I was convinced something must have happened to keep him away. This wasn't like him. He was my most dedicated student, the first one to arrive and the last to leave.
Right away my mind ran the gamut of possibilities. My first thought was that he could be sick or, worse, that he'd been injured, perhaps a job-related incident. My mind filled with possibilities, all of which distressed me. Throughout class I was distracted. It didn't feel right without Nikolai sitting in the front row, contributing to the discussion. I hadn't realized how much he added to the class or how much his fellow students relied upon and liked him. The two hours of class fell flat; the evening dragged.
By the time I walked to the parking lot I couldn't bear not knowing what had happened. If he needed medicine or help I'd be willing to do what I could. I had his contact information in the records that were given to me, which included his cell number.
Sitting in my car in the Community Center parking lot, I debated whether calling him was the thing to do. The decision came when I realized I wouldn't rest easy until I talked to him.
I punched in his number. Nerves caused my finger to tremble and I held my breath when the phone connected. After four rings I was prepared to disconnect when he answered. He sounded groggy, as if I'd woken him from a sound sleep.
“Hello,” he said in that deeply accented voice I had come to enjoy.
“Teacher?” Right away he brightened and I could imagine him tossing aside the covers and bolting upright.
“Did I wake you?” Clearly I had, but I asked anyway.
“You okay?” he asked, fully alert now.
“Of course I am. I'm calling about you. You weren't in class tonight.” I probably sounded like a dunce telling him something he already knew.
“No.” His voice dropped to that of a whisper.
“Are you sick?”
“Were you injured on the job?”
“No, no hurt, no pain.”
“Then you must be overly tired and then I woke you. I apologizeâ¦”
“I stay home.”
He hesitated. “You know Milligan's?”
“Milligan's?” I didn't know why he was asking or what that had to do with him not being in class. Perhaps he'd taken on a second job. “You mean the bar close to the school?”
“Yes, bar. You meet me, have beer.”
“You no want beer with me?” He sounded deflated, as if I'd insulted him.
“Noâ¦I mean yes, I would be happy to have a beer with you.” I pressed my hand to my forehead, unable to believe I'd agreed to this. I'd assumed I'd drive back to my apartment the way I always did.
“I be there soon. I get table, order you Ukrainian beer. You like?”
To my surprise, I found myself smiling. “I've never had Ukrainian beer, Nikolai. Is it like American beer?”
“No, no, much better. You judge.”
“Okay, I'll judge.”
We disconnected and I had the strongest urge to press my hand over my mouth and laugh. I couldn't believe I was actually meeting Nikolai for a beer. Even more of a surprise was how much I looked forward to it.
As he promised, by the time I arrived, he had gotten a table in the popular Milligan's Bar. When I walked inside, Nikolai leaped to his feet and waved, his face bright with eagerness. He pulled out a chair for me and then hurried around to his side of the table.
“I didn't know Ukraine produced beer,” I said, but then I was ignorant when it came to most everything about Ukraine. Well, ignorant of anything other than the current troubles the country and the people had experienced with Russia.
“You not know about Chernihivske?”
“Say that again?” The noise level was high with music and lively talk. I strained to hear the unfamiliar name he mentioned.
“Chernihivske? A popular beer in Ukraine.”
“No, sorry, I've never heard of it.” I couldn't seem to stop smiling.
Nikolai's eyes were intense, focused solely on me. “You must taste. You like.”
Apparently he'd already placed the order, because a server delivered two chilled mugs and two bottles of beer.
Nikolai poured my beer first, tilting the glass at an angle. “Key to good beer is lots of foam. Taste better with foam.” When he finished he placed the glass in front of me, waiting for me to take a taste before he poured his own.
Because I wasn't much of a beer drinker, I was uncertain how to respond. I didn't know what I'd say if I found the taste not to my liking. Hesitantly, I lifted the glass to my lips and took a small sip.
Nikolai studied my face, patiently waiting for my reaction.
Truthfully, it was good, although not unlike other beer I'd tasted. But then I am no beer connoisseur.
As soon as I made my pronouncement, Nikolai's face broke into a huge smile. “I know you like.” He poured his own glass and took a deep swallow, his Adam's apple moving up and down in his throat.
As if he'd forgotten, he reached down and set a loaf of bread on the table. “I make you brown bread. You eat with beer, okay?”
I smiled and nodded. My mouth hurt from smiling so much. This wasn't like me. My heart felt light and carefree, sitting in this loud bar with this man I barely knew, drinking Ukrainian beer.
We chatted for a good thirty minutes while I discussed with him a few of the slang words and idioms we'd talked about during class that evening. His mind was quick, and we laughed and joked with each other.
“We missed you tonight,” I said when conversation lagged.
Nikolai instantly dropped his gaze, avoiding eye contact withÂ me.
“You're not only my favorite student, but it seems everyone else thinks highly of you, too.”
“I am your dog?”
“Teacher's pet,” I corrected.
“Oh right, I your teacher pet.” A hint of a smile showed, but he still didn't look up.
“Nikolai, can you tell me why you skipped class?” He seemed to be in good spirits and he wasn't ill.
He exhaled and his shoulders rose and sank when I pressed the question. “I didn't think you like me no more.”
I blinked, finding that hard to understand. “Why would you think such a thing?”
“I embarrass you.”
“When?” I couldn't remember anything he might have done to embarrass me, especially lately.
“At my work,” Nikolai said, keeping his head lowered. “When I introduce you to my friends as my teacher.”
“That was a week ago.” He'd been to class that night and the following Wednesday.
“Mr. Koreski ask this afternoon. He ask if you'd forgive me for embarrassing you. Until then I not think. I not know. I feel bad in here.” He pressed his hand to his heart. “I feel embarrassed.”
“Are you saying you didn't come to class because of that silly offhanded comment?”
“What is offhanded?”
“Mr. Koreski was making a joke. He wasn't serious.”
“But it is true. I remember look on your face when I showed you my friends. You get red face.”
“I was embarrassed,” I admitted, “but only because I'm not accustomed to being the center of attention.” Thinking he might not understand, I elaborated. “It's uncomfortable for me to have people looking at me.”
“Ah. I no mean to embarrass you. I am proud you my teacher.”
“And I'm proud to be your teacher.”
He looked up and his eyes held mine. He grinned and it seemed as if a weight had been taken from his shoulders. “We good?”
“We're good,” I assured him. “But, Nikolai, the next time you have any doubts I want you to ask. Don't make assumptions.” He might not understand that, so I added a bit more. “Ask and let me explain. Don't decide what you think I feel. Ask me instead. Okay?”
“Okay, I ask.”
“You missed an important lesson tonight.”
He laughed. “I'm happy I miss class.”
“You're happy?” That didn't make sense.
“You call me. You miss me.”
He had me there. “Yes, I did miss you. We all did.”
“But you more?” His face was bright with hope.
My admitting this seemed important to Nikolai. A tingling sensation went down my arms and suddenly I was nervous. Uneasy. In that moment I realized he was right. I had missed him more than I would have any other student.
Right then I knew my heart was tender toward this man. It startled me how quickly he'd become important to me. I suppose it was understandable. I was single for the first time in thirty-five years and here was this attractive man full of respect and appreciation for me. I hadn't felt that in a very long time. I soaked up his words like a parched garden in the heat of a summer drought.
I made a show of looking at my watch. “It's time for me to go.”
“You no finish beer?”
“Please, Nikolai, it's late and I should go.”
His forehead compressed into a frown. “What I do? What I say? You not smile now.”
“Oh Nikolai, you did nothing. You're sweet and caring and Iâ¦need to get home. It's late and Iâ¦I have things to do in the morning.”
“You tell me to ask and I ask,” he said, serious now. “What I say that make you run like frightened hamster?”
“You go pale and say you must go. I embarrass you again?”
I shook my head and stood, grabbing hold of my purse. “I'm sorry. Really sorry. I'll see you Wednesday in class.” Reaching for the bread in the middle of the table, I rushed out of Milligan's Bar as if the building was on fire. I felt foolish and ridiculous and wanted to place my hands on my cheeks for behaving like a schoolgirl on her first date.
I'd gone only about half a block when I heard Nikolai call my name from behind me. I refused to stop and picked up the pace.
Nikolai followed me.
I was horrified by my behavior. My insides were shaking, and for just an instant I was afraid I was about to throw up on the sidewalk. God help me, I continued walking so fast I was nearly trotting.
I should have guessed my rushing away wouldn't stop Nikolai. He followed me to where I'd parked my car on a side street. I wasn't sure what I would tell him.
His voice was soft and so caring that I nearly dissolved into tears.
He stood on the street beside me and my car, his eyes full of questions as he searched my face. “Why you run from me?”
I shook my head, unable to answer. “I shouldn't have called you.”
“Why? You make me happy when you call. So happy.”
I couldn't look at him, afraid if I did he'd see the longing in me. It pooled in the pit of my stomach, so unfamiliar I didn't know what to make of it. “It's not appropriate that I see you.”
“What this appropriate?” He raised his hands in question.
“I'm your teacherâ¦it's not seemly,” I said.
“I quit class, then it be thisâ¦what that word? Appropriate?”
“Oh Nikolaiâ¦” I looked up and raised my hand to cup his strongly defined chin.
His hand joined mine, and he turned his face and kissed the inside of my palm.
The sensation that shot through me was so strong my knees nearly buckled. “I don't know what I'm doing,” I whispered, looking away.
“I'm glad you call,” he whispered, inching his hand around the side of my neck. “All day I think about you. I want to say how I feel, but I don't know right words.” His dark eyes grew more intense as he looked down at me. “I give you bread to say what I not able to say with words.”
My whole being hungered to hear those words. His eyes held mine, bright and unblinking, filled with longing.
With pressure at the base of my neck he eased my head forward and settled his lips over mine. I am at a loss to describe what his kiss did to me. I felt that single kiss in every part of my body. My response was immediate. I opened to him like a desert flower after a cloudburst that flooded the arid soil. My heart beat so hard I was afraid it might injure one of my ribs.