At sixteen, Lizzie Gatz had bright blue eyes and a winsome smile, and Huck Haines couldn't have been more in love with her if he'd tried.
He had yet to figure out what to do about it besides stare moonily at her when he thought she wasn't looking. Such as this moment, when she was using a stack of hay bales as a makeshift barre, warming up before they rehearsed a number for their latest show. He was supposed to be setting up the phonograph, but had stopped to watch her as she stretched, leaning over the leg that was propped on the hay, lightly grasping her toe before standing back up and swinging her leg down.
She caught his eyes on her as she turned, and he quickly busied himself with the hand crank on the machine.
"Should we just go straight through from the beginning?" she asked once he'd finished.
He nodded, slipping the record onto the turntable and holding up the needle. "There's still that bit at the end we haven't figured out what to do with."
"Oh, right." She frowned. "Well, let's go through it anyway. I want to make sure we've got the steps in the middle right."
"Okay." He set the needle down and took her hand.
This dance was a departure from the usual numbers they did in their show, which tended to be something of a neighborhood variety hour, featuring everything from little Neil Conley's magic act to musical numbers with a chorus of whoever wanted to be in it. For the past year and a half, they'd mostly choreographed up-tempo tap and softshoe numbers for themselves and the other performers. But when Lizzie had bought the record of "Coney Island Kind of Love," they'd decided to stretch themselves with a romantic duet.
However, Huck's mind had not been entirely on artistic development when he'd suggested using the song. No, his driving ambition had been to dance as closely to Lizzie as possible and, in so doing, perhaps find some way of showing her how much he adored her. So far, nothing had happened, but he still held out hope.
The music began, and he led her into the slow foxtrot steps they'd chosen to open with. They danced their way through two verses and a chorus, their steps echoing off the wooden floor of Lizzie's family's barn. At the bridge, the song quickened from adagio to andante, and so did they, drawing closer to each other. The rest of the figures they'd created so far were in the standard closed position, their centers pressed tightly together while they covered the floor.
Six measures from the end, they ran out of choreography. The momentum from the slip pivot they'd just done carried them a few feet further before they faltered to a swaying stop. He used the closed position they were in as an excuse to hold on to her, their bodies so close that he felt the air between them was charged. The phonograph wound down as he stared at her, a hundred words on the tip of his tongue.
"Huck," she said, a strange expression on her face. "Are you..."
He suddenly knew what to do for the ending.
"I've got it!" he exclaimed, cutting off whatever she was about to ask. The jittery excitement that holding her produced in him made the words come out quickly. "Right before the crescendo, we go sort of like this" - he spun her so that they stood side by side, her a little in front of him - "and right when she stops singing, you fall backwards, and I catch you."
She looked dubious.
"Oh, come on. You can't be afraid I'd drop you."
She raised an eyebrow. "Remember that time you said you'd catch me when I jumped out of the old tree in your yard?"
He stared at her. "You were six."
"I was a six-year-old with a sprained ankle thanks to you."
"Lizzie, that was ten years ago."
She looked like she was about to argue the relative importance of a decade's passage, but then dropped the subject. "It just seems a little overdone, especially to end with."
He chuffed a sarcastic laugh. "Have you listened to the song at all?"
Her lips twisted sheepishly. "You have a point there."
"Come on, let's try it." Counting the "slow, quick, quick, slow" of the foxtrot beat out loud, he took her hand and twirled her so that she was facing forward again. "All right. On three. Just fall back; I'll catch you."
"Okay," she said, sounding resigned.
He raised his arm, ready to stop her descent, and counted to three. He saw her take a breath, and then lean back and let gravity take over.
He was there to catch her, as he'd promised. She was lighter than he'd expected, a delicate weight on his arm, and he let the dip extend much longer than the few measures of music he'd planned to use it for before carefully raising her back up. He still had his arm around her, his hand resting on her hip, and couldn't bring himself to speak as he looked at her.
Just a few years ago, he'd been pulling her hair as they walked home from school. If they'd been in the same grade, more than once she would've come home with the ends of her blonde curls soaked in ink. Funny how back then, he hadn't known why he wanted to pull her hair and steal her books, only that couldn't help himself. Now he knew exactly why he wanted to do what he wanted to do, but he couldn't quite gather up the courage to take her in his arms and -
"Oh, Huck," she sighed. "Are you ever going to kiss me?"
He almost fell over.
She raised an eyebrow. "You looked like you wanted to."
"Well, I did - I mean, I do."
She smiled. "And I've wanted you to kiss me for a long time now."
"You have?" She nodded. "Why didn't you say anything?"
"I thought boys liked to be the ones to make the first move." She shrugged.
"Well, we do. I guess." Actually, he wasn't entirely sure of that; her kissing him certainly would've simplified matters.
While he mulled this over, her expression changed from one of gentle amusement to exasperated impatience. "So maybe you should make one," she hinted through gritted teeth.
Lizzie always knew how to get things done. Huck didn't know what he would do without her.
He leaned forward to meet her lips, making sure to tilt his head so their noses wouldn't collide. (He'd learned that trick from his friend Jim, who had much more experience in these matters and who liked to give advice to his friends because it reminded them of how many girls he'd kissed.) It was awkward in the way that only first kisses could be, but what they lacked in experience, both made up for in enthusiasm.
They only improved as the summer went on.
"You know, I think this song might actually best me," Huck said, slumping onto the little staircase which divided their dance floor from where the band would play.
Lizzie joined him, bumping her shoulder gently against his. "We've still got a week before the show. We'll figure something out."
He sighed. "Seems like I've lost any knack I had for slow songs. I like it, but I can't figure out how to make it interesting."
She thought for a moment. "You remember that dance we did to 'Coney Island Kind of Love'?"
A ripple of electricity zipped through him. It did every time he heard that song. Six years might have passed, but he remembered every second of the rehearsals—well, more specifically, of the hours after the rehearsals—like they had just happened. He nodded.
She stood up and tugged his hand to get him to follow. "If we did the dip a lot more suddenly, it might work for the crescendo."
"You think so?"
She settled his hand around her waist. "All right, so we're done with the turns and we've ended up like this. We've got, what, another measure before it slows down?"
He quickly thought back over the music. "Yes."
She furrowed her brow. "So maybe if we did sort of a windup..." She stepped backwards, and he followed; little steps took them in a tight circle for four beats. "Now I lean back..." She did, and as always, he was there to catch her. For a moment, he was no longer in Paris; he was back in Indiana, on a warm summer night filled with the smell of hay and the feeling that possibility stretched endlessly before him as long as he held her in his arms.
Slowly, he brought her back up. Though years had passed since he last saw it, he recognized the expression on her face.
"Do you remember what comes next?" she asked softly.
"I think it goes something like this." Cupping her cheek, he leaned forward - making sure to tilt his head - and kissed her.
When they parted, he grinned at her, feeling like he might float, kite-like, past the balcony and up to the ceiling. "I missed you, Lizzie."
She smiled back, her fingers tightening around his shoulder. "I missed you too, Huck."
He would've been content to spend the rest of the afternoon standing there kissing her, but she said, "Don't you think we should finish the dance?"
"The dance? Oh, yes, the dance." She had a point, he thought reluctantly. If they were going to save Roberta's, they had to make this look spectacular.
"And once we're done, we could take a walk along the Seine, maybe stop at one of those cafes they have along the river...and see what happens?"
How had he managed without her all these years? "That sounds swell," he said, already envisioning them walking arm in arm along the cobbled streets by the river.
Her hand slid down to his upper arm, and his naturally found its place on her back. The future seemed full of promise again.