“Hi! I’m Jules. Sorry, I was just texting my husband. He’s worried about Stella. He always worries.” She laughs and tucks her phone in the Louis Vuitton sitting at her feet. “It’s really very cute.”
“Not your baby, then,” I say to Mark and am mortified to hear the relief in my voice.
“No, Nate might have issues if I had children with Mark.” Jules laughs and nudges him with her shoulder. “Mark might not survive Nate’s wrath if that happened.”
“I would be a dead man,” Mark agrees with a laugh.
He kisses Stella’s head again with that naughty smile on his lips that I’ve always loved. He looks delicious in a red T-shirt and worn jeans.
“Maddie, Josie and Sophie are my nieces,” Jules continues and takes Stella back from Mark. “This is our family.”
My eyes follow her gesture and then I feel them just about bug out of my head when about twenty people wave at me, including Brynna and Stacy, whose daughters are in my class.
“You brought the whole family to a dance recital?” I ask in surprise.
“Maddie and Josie pretty much guilt-tripped us all into coming,” Mark replies. “Apparently, they’ll be heartbroken if everyone isn’t here.”
“Extortionists,” Caleb mutters.
“Hello, everyone. I’m Meredith Summers. I own this studio. Thanks for coming! I hope you enjoy the show.”
I turn to leave and am just inside the curtain to backstage when a strong hand grips my arm and spins me around and I’m looking at a very sexy Mark Williams.
“Did you need something?” I ask as calmly as possible. His lips twitch, and I know I’m not fooling him.
“I don’t have a wife and kid, Mer.”
I shrug a shoulder and gaze blindly around, avoiding his face. “Okay. It’s really none of my business.”
“No, it’s not,” he agrees softly. “How are you, M?”
I bite my lip and cross my arms over my chest. “I’m fine. A little busy right now. I’m sorry that I flung myself at you at Mom’s funeral, I was just really emotional and—”
“It’s okay,” he interrupts and shakes his head. God, he grew up nice. He’s filled out, his shoulders are broad and strong and his biceps strain against the sleeves of his T. He’s grown a couple of inches. His hair is a little longer than he used to wear it, just a little shaggy, like he hasn’t had a haircut in a while.
“Well, enjoy the show.” I turn to leave but he stops me again with his hand on my arm.
“How’s Mr. Wonderful?” he asks abruptly. I scowl up at him.
“Hey, we go on in five, snowball,” Jax says as he hurries past. He winks at me and smiles at Mark and hurries away.
“Him,” Mark says with a cringe, and it occurs to me that he must think that Jax is my man.
“Jax is fine. He’s my partner.” Mark nods, and if I’m not mistaken, his eyes look hurt before he blinks and offers me a small smile. “He’s my dance and business partner,” I clarify.
He tilts his head, watching me.
“He’d be more interested in you sexually than he is me.”
Mark blinks twice and when the realization of what I’m saying sinks in, a slow wide grin spreads across his handsome face.
“Can I see your phone, please?” he asks and holds his hand out expectantly. I pull my phone out of my pocket and hand it over to him. “You need to key in your passcode,” he says dryly. I bite my lip and grin, take the phone back to key in the four-digit code and pass it back. He taps the screen with his thumbs, concentrating with a frown between his eyes.
I have to clench my hands into fists to keep from reaching out and smoothing my fingers over that frown.
“Are we still friends, M?” he asks, his face suddenly very serious and I’m suddenly as sad as I’ve ever been as my eyes travel over his handsome, familiar face. His deep blue eyes and square jaw. Full lips. Blond hair.
“We’re not friends, Mark,” I reply sadly. “We’re strangers with memories.”
He nods and looks down at my phone still in his grasp. He passes it back to me with a half-smile that makes my stomach and thighs clench. “Let’s see what we can do about that. My number is in there. The next step is up to you.”
He winks and turns away just as Jax pulls on my hand, catching my attention. “Come on, it’s time.”
I nod and shake my head, shaking Mark off as I stuff my phone back in my pocket and get back to business. I have twenty little girls who want to show off for their parents.
And apparently all of their aunts and uncles too.
“Come on, ladies! It’s time to show ’em what you’ve got! Don’t forget what Jax and I told you about breathing and focusing on me. I’ll be out in the audience, helping you remember the steps, but you won’t need me. Okay?”
They all nod with great big eyes and I smile encouragingly. This is one of my favorite parts of this job. Jax leads the girls to the stage and I take my place in the audience, standing near the stage so the little ones can see me. The music begins and camera flashes start going crazy around me as parents take photos of their little girls twirl and smile on stage, waving at their moms and dads. Sophie smiles big and says, “Hi, Daddy!”
They are so freaking adorable.
When their two songs are over, they wave and leave the stage and a few moments later the older girls replace them on the stage.
They’re so funny as they try to act more sophisticated, remembering their steps and singing along with Kelly Clarkson as she sings about being stronger.
There are loud applause and whistles when the number is over, then all of the girls come back out on stage for one more dance.
When all is said and done, the girls are bursting with excitement, so happy about how their performance went. Jax and I are given lots of hugs and kisses on the cheek.
“I love you, Miss Mer,” Maddie Montgomery says and wraps her arms around my neck. “I want to be a dancer just like you and Mr. Jax when I grow up.”
“You do?” I chuckle and hug her back hard. “I know you can make that happen, sweet girl. You are a talented young lady.”
“Really?” She braces her hands on my shoulders and gazes at me with wonder.
“Absolutely.” I nod with confidence and smile widely.
“Will you help me?”
“I would love that.”
She smiles again and runs to her daddy, Caleb, who is cradling a newborn baby against his big chest.