A tale of seduction, scandal, and the fight for self-respect.
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Every Little Step She Takes
Carolyn Steele Agosta
Scandals can be fun to read about in the newspaper, but not if they've happened to YOU. How does a person recover from publicly making such a mess of their life? How do they get past a colossal mistake? And how does their family survive and rebuild?
When 18-year-old Amanda Long, ballet student, meets Richard Gessler, the college's benefactor and a high-profile businessman, he offers to take her under his wing and become her mentor. However, in a slow step-by-step seduction, Amanda is drawn further and further into a dangerous dance. The dark romance between the two takes an ugly turn, resulting in attempted murder and suicide. The spotlight's glare drives Amanda further away from her home and family until she has to find a way to start a new life for herself. Just when it looks as though Amanda and her family might reconcile, Richard steps in again and she must figure out how to truly stand on her own two feet.
The first time Richard Gessler gave me a bath, I was still a virgin. He was fifty-two and famous, and I was an unknown eighteen-year-old dance student. The tabloids would later claim that he targeted me from the start, but it’s not as simple as that. We had a mutual need and if it was seduction—if it was seduction—then by God, it was sweet.
For everything else that came after, I hold my share of the blame.
A bird in flight, that’s how Mom always described me. Vivid, alert, nothing could hold me down. And that’s exactly what I was on that afternoon in May—a cygnet, dancing across the floor in Act II of Swan Lake. In less than a week, the opening ceremony for the Gessler Center for the Performing Arts would take place, and our rehearsals were beginning to reflect the pressure.
The dance hall smelled of dust and sweat. Sunlight poured in at an angle from the clerestory windows, revealing swirls of dust motes stirred up by our actions. Julie, the pianist, gave us two bars to catch the beat, and then Heather, Beth, Moira and I linked hands and began again, dancing combinations that moved us across the floor in a series of arcs and diagonals. Our toe shoes provided a muffled clop-clop on the wooden floor, counterpoint to Tchaikovsky’s timeless melody.
The combinations were part of me, absorbed through weeks of practice, months of effort. Pointe work, grapevines, pas de bourré and sissones fermé—all were as natural to me as breathing. Mme. Trohatchev’s critical eye caught any mistakes and she called out instructions. “Amanda, your arm should be higher. More arc, girls, more arc, you should be further upstage. Beth, you’re late on the relevé.” Her rebukes didn’t matter. We were dancing. Instinctively, I took note of position and angle and spacing, but my heart and soul lifted me through the dance, the music carried me on its back.
For days, he’d been watching from the sidelines. I’d almost forgotten he was there, although Mme. Trohatchev made a point of reminding us before we began. Richard Gessler, Burgess College’s most famous alumnus, honored benefactor and patron of the arts. He sat on the edge of a folding chair, elbows on knees, hands lightly clasped. A crisp white curl at the very front and center of his black hair shone as distinctively as a blaze mark on a shiny black stallion. He had the look of a racehorse, too, sleek and well-fed, with a vigor and energy barely contained. He was a man who looked like he was fully alive.
A film crew taped the rehearsal, running to shoot us from different angles, scuttling sideways like crabs to avoid capturing themselves in the mirror. Their movement drew my gaze and I missed my count. The director’s voice cut through the music, calling out instructions, invading my senses. There were too many distractions, too many eyes watching. This wasn’t like recitals where the audience was at a comfortable distance.
Mme. Trohatchev called a halt for a minute and Heather, to my left, whispered “For an older man, he’s pretty good-looking.” She nodded in Mr. Gessler’s direction. “Rich as hell. I wouldn’t mind grabbing a piece of that.” I stole a look at him, wondering if he had ever been a dancer, and decided probably not. He was built more like a football player, big and solid. Our gazes met and he smiled, little crinkles appearing at the corners of his eyes.
“Amanda, what are you doing?” Mme. Trohatchev’s voice brought me back to attention. I blushed, aware of people watching. “Pay attention,” she commanded. “What step are we on?”
Mr. Gessler watched. Everyone watched. I could hear a tiny whir as the cameras honed in on me, the director almost spastic with gestures. He looked so thrilled to finally see a bit of drama. I couldn’t speak, flooded with embarrassment and standing there like an idiot, twisting one foot back and forth. The longer Madame waited, the more foolish I felt. Sissone fermé, entrechat quatre, my brain told me, but somewhere between my thoughts and my lips the connection broke. I began to sweat. Little curls formed at my temples, those giveaway knots that would forever ban me from being a liar or even a really good poker player.
“Answer me, Amanda. We’re waiting.” Rather than speak, I did the step, a sideways leap with one foot extended. Madame accepted this with a dour look and indicated we should start again. Pressing my hair back with both hands, I took another surreptitious peek at Mr. Gessler. He continued to watch, and as I placed the back of my hand against my hot cheek, he winked.
“You were embarrassed in there. I’m sorry.” Mr. Gessler stood at the foot of the steps of Langley Hall, hands in his pockets, rocking back on his heels as if he were waiting for someone. “I didn’t want the filming to discompose anyone, but . . .” I shook my head and gave him a little smile, hurrying down the path with my dance bag slung over my shoulder. He walked alongside, glancing around campus and then at me. “Or maybe you’re just shy. Too shy to speak to me?”
I started to shake my head again and caught myself. “It wasn’t the cameras. Just my own stupid self. I should have been paying attention.”
“You’re a good dancer. I can tell. You stand out among the others.”
“Oh, I hope not. In the corps de ballet, we’re supposed to all look the same. Not draw attention, not pull the eye. It would be like a wrong note in an orchestra.” I hurried, wondering why he didn’t have something better to do than talk to me. He kept pace, shortening his long stride to match mine. We waited for traffic on College Street and he turned to look down at me, his eyes crinkling at the corners again.
“And how do you like that? Being in the corps de ballet, I mean. Seems like it would be frustrating, having to be just like all the rest. Anonymous. Or is that simply part of the dues you pay before becoming a prima ballerina?” His voice, deep and melodious, held only a trace of Southern drawl.
“I don’t mind.” Shrugging, I looked down and away, flexing my foot against the curb. “It’s a challenge. Sometimes I think being in the corps is harder than the solo positions. You have to be able to concentrate. You know? Make sure you’re doing exactly the same as all the other girls, stay in position, have your timing right and all without having any special attention on you. It’s—oh, I can’t explain—but you’re part of something and you have to give the others strength too, by holding up your end.” I could feel myself blushing again. “I guess I’m not saying it very well.”
“On the contrary. You just gave me a glimpse into a dancer’s life.” The light changed and we crossed the road. He kept to my side as we passed cafés and bookstores, discount video places and a shabby second-run movie theater. “Let’s stop for coffee.”
I looked up at him. “Why?” Then, feeling even more embarrassed, stammered something about having to do homework. He smiled at me, unperturbed and I apologized, feeling more and more foolish. “It’s just—I figured the trustees or Chancellor or somebody would be looking all over for you. Why have coffee with me?”
He chuckled. “I enjoy staying in touch with the students. Besides, I’m tired of talking business. Come on, humor an old man. Have coffee.” He pushed open the door of Woodbine’s and we went in. The narrow diner was only half full at that time of day, but I saw a few heads turn. A grill and counter ran along the left side of the room, booths along the right. We took a seat about halfway back and he ordered coffee for himself. I asked for lemonade “Tell me about yourself,” he said.
There wasn’t much to say. I was a freshman, three months away from my nineteenth birthday. I’d been dancing since I was five, en pointe since age twelve. I hoped to someday dance in New York.
“That’s where I live.” He sat back, his hands palm-down on the table. “I work in Manhattan and live in Connecticut, but my office maintains an apartment for me on the upper west side, near Lincoln Center. Opera, ballet, theater, concerts, it’s all there.” He nodded to the waitress who refilled his cup, then fixed his gaze on me again. “And your family? Where do they live?”
I fiddled with the paper wrapper that had covered my straw. “Painter’s Creek. Near Charlotte. My mom teaches history at the high school and Dad sells insurance.”
“No siblings? Brothers? Sisters? Do you have a boyfriend?” I shook my head and began folding the wrapper into accordion pleats. He watched me for a minute. “When I first saw you, I wondered what you were doing in that class. You look like you’re only fifteen, maybe even younger.” His voice got deeper, sounding amused, and he put one hand on mine. “And I can see you’re very shy.”
I dropped the paper wrapper and grabbed my duffel bag. “I really have to go. Term paper due. Thanks for the lemonade, Mr. Gessler.” I did not want to embarrass myself further. If I kept babbling, he’d think I was a total idiot.
“Call me Richard. Wait a minute.” His hand shot out and grabbed my wrist, gently but without letting go. He looked me up and down, speculatively, as if he were deciding about something. “I want to ask you a question. Do you have someone, a mentor? Is anyone helping you, guiding your career?”
His fingers were still wrapped around my wrist. Tentatively, I pulled back. Mentors were for prima ballerinas, for stars. He wasn’t, like, coming on to me, was he? “I don’t know what you mean. I’m assigned to a faculty advisor, like everyone else at school.”
“No, more than that.” He stood and I was freshly aware what a big man he was, over six feet tall and wide through the shoulders and chest. “I mean, has anyone taken you under their wing? Helped you to plan ahead, figure out what you’ll do beyond Burgess?” His other hand came up and rested on my shoulder. “You remind me of my daughters. I have two, you know, wonderful girls but grown now.”
I stepped back, wondering if everyone in the place was looking at us. His hands were still on me, and I thought, this is getting weird. If he didn’t watch out, people would think he had a thing for me. Jeez, a middle-aged man like that. Give me a break. “I have to go now.”
“Stay in touch.” He tipped my chin up so I had to look at him. “Think about it. You have a special gift. A good mentor could make all the difference. With a little assistance, you might be famous someday.”
Heat rose through my body and I pulled my hand loose. “I’ll think about it.” I hurried out of the coffee shop and nearly got blinded by the sun. And a bit dazzled by the turn of conversation. I could still feel his hand on my shoulder. What did he mean? Was he suggesting himself as a mentor? Was he hitting on me? No, that was ridiculous. The poor man would probably be shocked to know I even considered it. But what was that conversation all about then?