The Dance Off Online - Ally Blake

ONE

Loose gravel coursing through the gutter slid and crackled beneath Ryder Fitzgerald’s shoes as he slammed shut his car door.

Through the darkness of late night his narrowed eyes flickered over the uneven footpath, the barred windows of the abandoned ground-floor shopfronts, past big red doors in need of a lick of paint, up a mass of mottled red brick, over deadened windows of the second floor. The soft golden light in the row of big arched windows on the third floor was the only sign of life on the otherwise desolate street.

He glanced back at his car, its vintage curves gleaming in the wet night, the thoroughbred engine ticking comfortingly as it cooled. Since the closest street lamp was non-operational—tiny shards of broken glass pooled around its base, evidence that was no accident—only moonlight glinted off the black paint.

And he silently cursed his sister.

Glowering, Ryder pressed the remote to double-check the car alarm was set, then he glanced at the pink notepaper upon which Sam’s happy scrawl gave up a business name and a street address, hoping he might have read the thing wrong. But no.

This run-down structure in one of the backstreets of Richmond housed the Amelia Brandt Dance Academy. Inside he would find the woman hired by his sister, Sam, to teach her wedding party to dance. And considering in two months’ time he’d be the lucky man giving her away, apparently that included him.

A wedding, he thought, the concept lodging itself uncomfortably in the back of his throat. When he’d pointed out to Sam the number of times she’d done her daughterly duty in attending their own father’s embarrassment of weddings, she’d just shoved the address into his palm.

“The instructor is awesome!” she’d gushed. Better be, he thought, considering the price of the lessons he was bankrolling. “You’ll love her! If anyone can get you to dance like Patrick Swayze it’s her!”

Ryder, who’d had no idea who Sam was talking about, had said, “Life-changing as that sounds, there’s no way I can guarantee my attendance every Thursday at seven for the foreseeable future so you’ll have to have your dance lessons without me.”

Lucky for him, Sam had gleefully explained, the dance teacher had agreed to private lessons, any time that suited him. Of course she had. Sam had probably offered the doyenne enough to lash out on a six-month cruise.

“Your own fault she’s so damned spoiled,” he grumbled out loud.

A piece of newspaper picked up by a gust of hot summer wind fluttered dejectedly down the cracked grey footpath in response.

Ryder scrunched up the pink note and lobbed it into an overflowing garbage bin.

He tugged at his cufflinks as he sauntered up the front steps. It was a muggy night, oppressive in a way Melbourne rarely saw, and he was more than ready to be rid of his suit. It had been a long day. And the very last thing he wanted to do right now was cha-cha with some grand dame in pancake make-up, a tight bun and breathing heavily of the bottle of Crème de Menthe hidden in the record player. But Sam was getting antsy. And he’d spent enough years keeping the antsy at bay to know revisiting the high-school waltz would be less complicated than dealing with one of his sister’s frantic phone calls.

“One lesson,” he said, wrenching open the heavy red door and stepping inside.

A Do Not Enter sign hung askew from the front of an old-fashioned lift with lattice casing. His eyes followed the cables to their origins, but all he saw were shadows, dust, and cobwebs so old they drifted lazily by way of a draught coming from somewhere it structurally ought not to.

Less impressed by the second, Ryder trudged up the steep narrow staircase that wound its way around the lift shaft, the space lit by a string of lamps with green-tinged glass so pocked and dust-riddled the weak glare made his eyes water.

And the heat only grew, thickened, pressing into him as he made his way up three floors—the ground floor apparently untenanted, the second floor wallpapered with ragged posters advertising student plays from years past. As it tended to do, the hottest air collected at the top where a faint light shone through the gap at the bottom of the door, and a small sign mirroring the one downstairs announced that the big black door with the gaudy gold hinges led into the Amelia Brandt Dance Academy.

Ryder turned the wooden knob, its mechanism soft with age. Stifling heat