"No, no," he insists. "I'm terrible. Never could get the hang." He gives his glass a couple of brisk twists, then, "Up for a go, though," he says, "if you'd like a turn round the floor?"
"I'd love one," says Hettie, throwing a quick glance at Di, whose dark head is bent close to Humphrey's, deep in a whispered, intimate conversation that she cannot hear.
The crashing chords of the rag are fading now, and the band is moving into a four- four number, something slow. They shoulder their way through the crowd and find a spot on the edge of the packed dance floor. Gus takes her hands in his and then looks up to the ceiling, as if the mysteries of movement might be written out for him there. Then he bounces a bit, counting under his breath, and they are off.
He was right. He is a terrible dancer. He has no sense of the music, is already two beats ahead, snatching at it, not letting it guide him at all.
Listen! Hettie wants to say. Just let it move you. Can't you hear how killing they are?
But it won't help, so she tries to fit her feet to his awkward steps.
(They have a rule at the Palais: Never dance better than your partner. You're hired to make them feel good. If they feel good, then they'll hire you again. As Di is fond of saying, It's all just economics in the end.)
After a few bars, Gus's grip loosens and he looks up, delighted. "Damned if I'm not getting the hang of this!" They go into the turn, Hettie exaggerates her movements to flatter his, and as the number comes to a close, he takes a victory lap around the floor. "Humph was right!" He beams, coming to a breathless stop. "You girls are really something. Damned thirsty work, though." He takes his hankie from his pocket and mops his face. "Hang on a tick, I'll fetch us something cold from the bar."
He disappears into the crush, and Hettie finds a spot close to the damp wall, happy for a moment to be alone, just to take it all in. A couple squeeze past her, giggling, holding each other up. The girl is young and elegant, her body wrapped in blue silk, her long neck trailing pearls, but her lovely face is blurry, and she keeps slipping off her partner's arm. It is a moment before Hettie realizes she is drunk. She stares after them, half-expecting someone to come and tell them off. But no one seems to bat an eyelid. She's not at the Palais now.
Just then someone knocks into her, hard, from behind, and she almost falls, catching herself just in time.
"Sorry. My God. Sorry." Hettie turns to see a tall man beside her. He seems distracted, an apologetic smile on his lips. "So sorry," he says again. One hand tugs at his hair, the other grips an amber- colored drink. "Are you all right? Thought you were a goner, then."
"Yes . . . fine." She gives a small, embarrassed laugh, though whether for him or herself, she cannot tell.
The man's eyes land on her properly, taking her in, and Hettie feels herself flush. He is a very good- looking man.
"My God," he says. His smile fades, and a different, shrinking expression takes its place.
Heat stings her cheeks. What? What is it? But she says nothing, and the man carries on staring, as though she is something awful from which he cannot look away.
"Sorry," he says, shaking his head as though to clear it. An echo of the smile is back. "Thought you were " He holds up his glass.
"Drink? Must let me get you a drink. Say sorry and all that."
She shakes her head. "Thank you. I'm . . . Someone's already buying me one."
She steps away, wanting to put distance between them, to find a mirror, to check that everything is all right with her face, but the man has his hand on her arm. "Where are you from?"
"Pardon?" she says. His grip is tight.
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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