"Henrietta." She holds out her hand.
He is not much older than them, has an easy handshake and a pleasant, freckled face. He looks nice, at least. Not like some of the ones Di has been with in the past. After a year at the Palais, Hettie has a compass for men. Two minutes in their company and she can tell what they're like. Whether they are married, sweaty- guilty, sneaking out for an evening alone. That glazed look they get when they're imagining you without your clothes. Or sometimes, like Humphrey, when they're actually sweet. "Come on," he says with a grin, "we're over here."
They follow him, picking their way as best they can through the crowded tables. Hettie makes slow progress, since she keeps falling behind, twisting to see the band and their singer, whose skin is so astonishingly dark, and the dancers, many of whom are moving wildly in a way no one at the Palais would dare. Eventually they arrive at a table in the corner, not far from the stage, where a short man in tails scrambles to his feet.
"Diana, Henrietta," says Humphrey, "this is Gus."
Hettie's companion for the evening is thickset and doughy, barely taller than she is. His hair is thinning, his scalp shiny in the heat. Her heart sinks behind her smile.
"May I take your coat?" He hovers around her, and she shrugs it off. Her old brown overcoat is bad enough, but beneath it she is wearing her dance dress, the only one she has, and after a double shift at work already tonight it is none too fresh.
On the other side of the table, meanwhile, Di unwraps, revealing the dress she bought with Humphrey's money just last week. Hettie sinks into her seat. The dress. This dress has a physical effect on her; she covets it so much it hurts. It is almost black, but covered with so many sequins, so tiny, so dazzling in their iridescence, that it is impossible to tell just what color it is. She was there when Di bought it, in the ready- made at Selfridges. It cost six pounds of Humphrey's money, and she had to swallow her envy and smile when afterward, for fun, they rode up and down in the lifts.
Both men stare until Gus, remembering his manners, takes the seat beside Hettie's, pointing to a plate of sandwiches in the middle of the table. "They're rather grim," he says with a smile, "but they have to serve them with the drinks. No license, you see. We'll just pile them up on the side." He lifts them away, and she watches them go. She could murder something to eat. Hasn't had a thing since a ham-and-paste sandwich in the break between shifts at six. "So"Gus pours from a bottle on the table and hands her a glass"I s'pose you're awfully good, then. You pair, Humph told me, dance instructresses at the Palais, aren't you?"
"Oh . . ." Hettie takes a sip. The drink is fizzy and sweet. She can't be sure, but she thinks it might be champagne. "We're all right, I suppose."
They're better than all right, really, she and Di. They've been practicing their steps for years, in carpet- rolled- back living rooms, singing out the tunes they've memorized, poring over the pictures in Modern Dancing, taking turns being the man. They're the best two dancers at the Palais by far. And that's not boasting. It's just the truth.
"I'm a terrible dancer," says Gus, sticking his lower lip out like a child.
Hettie smiles at him. He may not look like much, but at least he's harmless. "I'm sure you're not."
"No, really." He points downward, grimacing. "Left feet. Born with two."
There's a raucous cheer from the dance floor and she turns to see the singer goading his band, urging them on. They are American, they must be. No English band she knows looks or plays like this; definitely not the house band at the Palais, not anymore, not since the Original Dixies left, with their cowbells and whistles and hooters, to go back to New York. And the crowd they're dancing crazily, as though they don't care a fig what anyone thinks. If only her mum could see this. Respectable is her favorite word. If she could see these people enjoying themselves, she'd throw a fit. Hettie turns back to Gus. "It's just practice," she says, taking another sip of the drink, her body itching with the beat.
Excerpted from Wake by Anna Hope. Copyright © 2014 by Anna Hope. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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