Miranda felt weird walking into the dance studio. On the
far side of the large room, people were practicing dance
steps under the supervision of a tall, thin man dressed in
black. The chairs against the wall directly opposite the
entry door were taken by men and women, probably
boyfriends and girlfriends or husbands and wives.
Everyone had somebody, except for her. She might as well
have a sign around her neck that said, “Can’t find a date.”
And what if the school couldn’t find her anyone to dance
with? How embarrassing would that be?

“Hi, can I help you?”

A petite olive-skinned woman—almost as ethnic a rarity as Miranda herself here in Bismarck—whose dark hair was pinned in a bun at the rear crown of her head smiled at her. Miranda found herself smiling back. “Yes. I called yesterday. I wanted to sign up for lessons, but I don’t have a partner.”

“Hopefully that won’t be a problem. We often get singles wanting lessons, but for tonight’s session we have all couples, at least so far. Tell me, are you open to coming in on a different night? You never know who might show up tomorrow, or Thursday.”

“Uh…sure.” It wasn’t as though she had anything else to do. She went to work, sometimes stopped in at the ‘Y’ for a quick workout, then came home to the TV or the book she was reading until it was time to go to bed.

“Wonderful. May I have your name, please?”

“Miranda Rhett, R-H-E-T-T.”

The woman wrote her name down. “All right, Ms. Rhett. We’re still registering. Would you like to have a seat while we see what we can do for you?”

“Sure.” The woman’s easy confidence gave Miranda renewed hopes. She watched as the woman disappeared into an office. On closer glance she realized the woman wasn’t as young as she first thought, probably in her mid-forties. But her small stature, clad in a leotard and a wrap skirt, smooth gait and elegant carriage told Miranda she was a dancer herself. She was probably one of the instructors, maybe even the owner.

Miranda wandered toward the folding chairs that had been set up in a corner, where new registrants had gathered. The ages of the group appeared varied, if not their ethnicities. One couple was about Miranda’s age, another in their mid-thirties, another in their forties, and the last couple was in their fifties. It was a good thing to see people of different ages interested in dance, but she still felt like a lone gazelle who’d wandered onto Noah’s Ark.

She sat down and said hello, and instantly found herself part of the conversation. A young red-haired woman laughingly said, “It’s a rule of the house. Everyone has to tell what brought them here.”

Miranda listened to each story. The youngest couple was getting married and wanted to be able to move in sync for their first dance, when all eyes would be on them. The oldest couple were going on a cruise for their thirty-fifth anniversary and wanted to dance aboard ship every night. The couples in the thirties and forties just thought it would be fun and different, a few hours each week spent doing something that didn’t involve their children. Then it was her turn.

She found that the words came easy once she started to speak. “I always enjoyed watching ice dancers on TV, plus the dance numbers in old musicals like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and West Side Story, and the ones with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers,” she said with a matter-of-fact shrug. “Being in a new town makes me less afraid of making a fool of myself, and since I’m a little old to learn how to ice skate, ballroom dancing seemed like the next best choice. If they can find a partner for me, that is.”

“I’d be happy to dance some of the time with you,” one of the older men said graciously. “I need a lot more practice than my wife. She’s graceful, but I’ve got two left feet.”

Everyone laughed as the man’s wife patted his hand.

“Look, there’s someone who’s alone,” one of the women said.
A dozen pairs of eyes plus one turned toward the door, and the women made a collective murmur. A very tall man whose blond hair grazed his collar was speaking with the woman behind the desk. Miranda’s lower lip separated from her upper as she stared. He looked crisply dressed in a camel-colored sports coat, yellow shirt and tie and brown trousers. Even from this distance she could see he was great looking. Certainly tall enough for her, and handsome to boot.

That could only mean one thing. He was taken. He had to be.  Nobody who looked that good would have trouble finding a date, not in Bismarck, not in Baton Rouge, in Barcelona, or in Bangkok.

“His girlfriend is probably in the ladies room,” she muttered, mentally preparing herself for the disappointment that would surely follow if she allowed herself to get too hopeful.

And if he hadn’t brought a woman with him, chances were he was looking to meet one here.

Instinct told her she wasn’t what he had in mind.
Jon faced the instructor sheepishly. She’d just asked if he had a partner. “No, actually I don’t. I’m still relatively new in town and I’m not going out with anybody yet.” That wasn’t the exact truth. He’d gotten here in May and hooked up with someone fairly quickly. It lasted the entire summer, but the relationship was in trouble by July, when he became preoccupied with the house he was buying. Now he was alone again, and if was going to meet someone special, he’d better hurry. Winter probably came to North Dakota even sooner than it did to his native southern Minnesota, and he had no intention of spending it alone. “I used to dance when I was a kid. I figured I’d get back into it again…maybe meet someone…you know how it is.”

Gina smiled at him. “I can’t imagine you’d have any problem meeting ladies even now, but it’ll be even easier after you complete the course. Women like men who know how to move on the dance floor. They think it translates into his technique in another area,” she added slyly.

“I can appreciate that, but I can’t ballroom dance by myself. I suppose you’re taken,” he said with a smile. Gina had introduced herself as the instructor when he first came in. She wore a wedding ring, and she probably had a dozen years on him, anyway. He did hope she could find him a partner. It would be fun, something to fill up one of seven evenings a week, at least for the next ten weeks. If he got lucky he’d meet someone with whom to spend what was certain to be a long, frigid winter.

“As a matter of fact, there is a young lady who is here alone and hoping for a partner. Uh…”

Her hesitation struck Jon as ominous. Gina acted like she thought he might not want to dance with the woman who was available. That meant she was probably homely. Or maybe she was under five feet tall. That would certainly be awkward with him being six-four. Or maybe she was sixty, or even older. Or maybe—God forbid—she weighed three hundred pounds. “Is there something wrong?” he asked.

“Not that I can see. But I’m in a bit of an awkward position here, Mr. Lindbergh…may I call you Jon?”

“Please do.”

“Jon, people walk in here all the time looking for partners, and I have no idea of their opinions and beliefs. I don’t know how you’d feel about having a partner who’s….” she trailed off as she looked across the room.

He turned to see what she was looking at. A tall black woman seemed to float toward them. Jon found he couldn’t look away. Tall, slim, graceful, and very pretty, with glowing brown skin and hair pulled back.

It occurred to him that he he’d only seen two or three black women since he left Minneapolis…and this woman looked better than any of them. What had brought her to Bismarck, he wondered? Clearly she was single, if she was here with no partner. He’d been told by an African-American business associate that the majority of African-Americans in North Dakota lived around the military bases in Minot and Grand Forks, but that the people of Bismarck had been very welcoming to him, his wife, and their children. He said his only concern was the possible effect the lack of diversity would have on his children, who were biracial.

The woman had reached them. “Excuse me, Gina,” she said in a melodic speaking voice, with a polite nod in his direction. “I just thought I’d check to see if you had any luck finding me a partner.”

“Uh…” Gina looked at him uncertainly.

He stepped forward and held out his hand. “Jon Lindbergh. I’m in the market for a partner, and I hear you are, too. What do you say we give it a try?”

She accepted his hand and shook it. “Why not? I’m Miranda Rhett.”

Jon smiled at her. He’d shaken many a woman’s hand before, but never one so soft. The rest of her was just as appealing. She was model-tall, and her rather severe hairstyle of a bun at the nape of her neck only served to make her pretty face more prominent. Jon supposed she wanted to look professional at work. He couldn’t really object, for too many women today dressed in a fashion overly sexy for the office, with low necklines and impossibly high heels.

His eyes traveled downward as he did a quick head-to-toe survey of her, lingering on the tapered ankles and shapely calves that protruded from her brown tweed skirt. This woman just might have the best legs he’d ever seen. They were flawless, not only beautifully shaped but completely straight.

“Legs,” he said softly, without thinking.

She lowered her chin to her chest. “I beg your pardon?”

“Oh. Nothing. I was just, uh, thinking out loud.” He grinned sheepishly. He could hardly tell her the truth, even though the knowing look on her face told him she’d overheard his breathless thought.

Now, of course, he understood what Gina meant with her talk of not knowing what kind of beliefs people held. But he certainly would have no problem with dancing with Miranda Rhett.

Jon loved women. All women.

Gina clapped her hands over her chest. “I love it when things work out,” she said, obviously relieved. “Let’s get you two registered.”

Miranda and Jon filled out a brief registration forms and produced payment for the ten-week course.

After completing the process and handing them each name badges, Gina said, “If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get my husband. He usually works with new groups.” She began walking toward the other side of the ballroom, her heels clicking on the faux hardwood floor. Miranda knew it wasn’t real hardwood, or it would be patterned with indentations from countless pairs of high heels. But she marveled at the flow of Gina’s movements. Just watching the dance instructor’s erect carriage made her stand with her spine straighter.

“So Miranda, what brings you to the Hot to Trot Dance Studio?” Jon asked.

She shrugged. “New town, don’t know many people, and a deep-rooted desire to be like Cyd Charisse.”

His right eyebrow shot up. “Why Cyd Charisse?”

“Because she was tall, but every bit as graceful as those petite dancers.”

“Actually, she was only five-six,” he remarked.

She wondered how he would have known that. Oh, no. Surely he couldn’t be…

“She looked taller, probably because she was all legs. Now, Ann Miller was tall,” he said.

“Yes, but she did mostly tap dancing. I’m talking about the ballroom dancers: Ginger Rogers, Vera-Ellen, Rita Hayworth. They were all average or shorter.”

“So Cyd was your favorite?”

“My idol was actually Katherine Dunham, but she was more of an artistic dancer than ballroom, and I think she only appeared in one movie.”

“Stormy Weather,” he replied.

She looked at him in surprise. “Yes, that’s right.” Again she wondered how he happened to know so much about dancers. Somehow he didn’t strike her as the type to be sitting around watching old movies on TV especially ones with all-black casts. “There was wonderful dancing in that movie, but unfortunately none of it the ballroom that’s my favorite.” Miranda privately resented that classic Hollywood generally didn’t allow black love to be shown on-screen, even if only while dancing. Black dancers either appeared solo or as part of a group. Two people dancing would always be the same gender, like the elegant Nicholas Brothers. But to say her thoughts aloud would be insensitive and brand her an angry black woman, and she didn’t want to scare Jon away.

“Here comes the instructor,” she said, glad to have something to say after he’d left her speechless with his familiarity with one of her favorite films. “We probably should go join the others.”

The trim dark-haired man who had been working with the other group gestured for Miranda and Jon to come toward where the rest of the class was gathered. Then just as quickly he looked toward the entrance and changed direction.
Both Miranda and Jon turned to see what had caught his attention. A flushed woman with long, curly blond hair entered. She was no Grace Kelly, but she was quite attractive just the same, with that California beach girl look, if a little pale—after all, the sun wasn’t as strong in Bismarck as it was in Malibu. Miranda glanced at Jon, who had stopped in his tracks to size her up with suddenly heavy-lidded eyes, and she sensed a disaster coming on.

“Is this where I sign up for lessons?” the woman asked breathlessly.

“Yes, it is,” Ralph said. “Welcome. Do you have a partner?”

“I thought there might be a single man I could team up with.” She’d noticed Jon by now and gave him a smile that would make Christie Brinkley proud. She seemed to have caught her breath, and her cheeks had a nice rosy color to them.

“I think we’ve got a full class for tonight,” Ralph said. “But if you’ll sign the sheet, if we get a male without a partner later on in the week we can call you.”

Her face fell, and Miranda could tell that idea didn’t go over too well. She didn’t want to commit to a partner unless she had a chance to look him over first. Miranda suspected she’d come here expecting to be able to choose from a group of salivating men.

The blonde’s eyes went from Miranda to Jon and back to Miranda again. “That’s too bad,” she said. “I guess I should have gotten here a little earlier.”

A tightness developed in Miranda’s jaw. How dare this woman imply that Jon would have chosen her if he’d seen her first…even if it was the truth. She couldn’t blame him; she knew that if she had a choice between Jon Lindbergh and someone who looked like, say, Terrence Howard, she would choose Terrence hands down.

“Come on, Miranda,” Jon said suddenly. “Nothing we can do here. Let’s join the others.” He took her arm.

“Wait,” the blonde commanded.

They both turned, and in a slow, deliberate movement she reached into a side pocket of her purse and pulled out a business card, a dangerous smile on her face as she approached, holding it out to Jon. “I just thought I’d give you this,” she purred.

“Thanks.” He slipped it in his jacket pocket, then guided Miranda away by her arm. She resisted the urge to jerk it away, for she felt that he had walked away from the confident blonde simply to spare her feelings. Maybe he thought she hadn’t noticed how he’d practically salivated looking at her. When he contacted her—and Miranda had no doubt he would—and they started dating he would naturally share the details of dancing with her every week, probably adding something like, ‘I wish it could have been you I’m dancing with.’ In the face of him having regrets about partnering with her, Miranda was tempted to tell him to go ahead and take her as his partner.

She was unreasonably angry about the entire situation, and she wanted to strike out. She settled for saying, “I guess it is too bad.”

“What’s that?”

“That you didn’t get to dance with the blond bombshell there.”

“I may never recover from the disappointment,” he said dryly. When she whipped her head to the side to glare at him, he said, “Take it easy, will you? That was a joke.”

“I don’t appreciate her implying that if she’d been a few minutes earlier she could have saved you from the terrible fate of having to partner with me.”

“Who cares what she thinks? I know the type, believe me. She’s not accustomed to being disappointed, and she also thinks that blond is best. The funny thing is that her hair color probably isn’t even natural. Most blonds aren’t, you know, at least not as adults.”

They were getting close to where the other students sat, and because Miranda didn’t want to be overheard, she stopped walking. While she was pleased to hear that Jon, whose knowledge of Cyd Charisse's height and familiarity with the movie Stormy Weather made her a little suspicious, had experience with women, the only certain way to determine whether or not a woman was a natural blond made her wrinkle her nose in distaste. “I wouldn’t know anything about that.”

“No, I suppose not.” His index finger tapped her sweater. “That’s a lovely color on you,” he said, changing the subject in an obvious attempt to put her at ease. “It reminds me of a persimmon.”

She looked askance at him. A persimmon? She was pretty sure that was some kind of fruit. She might have come across one in the produce section of the supermarket, but she’d certainly never eaten one, and she doubted she I knew anyone who did.

“Jon, I try not to use generalities, but I feel entirely comfortable saying that most black people don’t eat persimmons...or pomegranates, or any other P-fruit with ten or more letters. I wouldn’t even know a pomegranate if I saw one.”

“Well, if you ever get an opportunity to sample one, I highly suggest you try it. It’s tough on the outside, but the inside is extraordinarily…succulent and sweet.”

Miranda’s eyebrows shot up, and her mouth suddenly felt dry. He’d said the words in a deliberate enticing manner…Jon Lindbergh was flirting with her!

She met his gaze, only to find him smiling at her like she was a long-lost pomegranate.

A ladies man, getting his flirt on.

And her suddenly audible breathing told her she was far from immune to his charms.

Excerpt, A Kiss of a Different Color
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