Please welcome the fabulous Heidi Cullinan with
Enjoy The Dance
Dance with your heart, and love will follow.
Kindergarten teacher Spenser Harris has carved a quiet, stable future out of his tumultuous past, but his world turns upside down the night a homeless teen appears on his doorstep—a boy whose story mirrors the one Spenser has worked so hard to overcome. The decision to shelter Duon is easy. What’s tricky is juggling the network of caregivers in Duon’s life, especially Tomás Jimenez.
Tomás wouldn’t have hesitated to take Duon in, but his plate is already full working three jobs to support his family. Though Spenser’s carefully constructed walls are clearly designed to keep the world at bay, Tomás pushes past Spenser’s defenses, determined to ensure the man is worthy of his charge. As the two of them grow closer, Tomás dares to dream of a life beyond his responsibilities, and Spenser begins to believe he might finally find a home of his own after all.
But Spenser and Tomás’s world is poised to crash around their ears. Duon’s grandmother isn’t sure she wants him to be raised by a gay man and challenges Spenser’s custody. Tomás’s undocumented parents could be deported at any time, and all the while the state of Minnesota votes on a constitutional amendment against marriage equality and the US Supreme Court debates whether or not Spenser and Tomás get a happily ever after. All they can do is hold tight to their love, hope for a better future…and remind each other to enjoy the dance.
October 11, 2012
One cool October day, after a dispiriting seven hours of teaching privileged kindergarten children, Spenser Harris returned to his apartment to discover a teenage boy—battered, bruised, and coiled into a ball—in front of his door.
Spenser had learned to expect any number of unexpected happenings in his neighborhood, but nothing like this. His apartment building was old, but not run-down. It wasn’t quaint enough to attract hipsters but not so low-rent it drew a bad element. People of all cultures lived there, and in the evenings a walk to the laundry room was a world tour of food smells. The family across from Spenser was Mexican by heritage, and the older couple who lived at the end of the hall was Ukrainian. A large percentage of the second and third floors were occupied by Somali immigrants, some who had been in Minnesota for a decade or longer, some who had arrived recently. The family who lived above him was in the latter category, and they argued loudly in a language Spenser didn’t understand. The neighborhood had its off-color aspects, yes, but nothing to worry about. A drunk had taken up the habit of sleeping in the vestibule last winter when he couldn’t make it all the way home, but he’d simply snored and sometimes vomited. Loud music from cars on the street was a common complaint. But it had never been unsafe, not for the residents or the people living around it.
It hadn’t brought him a young man clutching a half-full black garbage bag, bleeding and trembling in the dim, flickering light of the hall.
A boy. He’s only a boy.
He was Black, and so at first Spenser assumed he was from a family upstairs, but a closer inspection revealed Spenser hadn’t seen anyone like him in the building before. He was dressed like a thrift-store music video, whereas Spenser’s new-to-Minnesota Somali neighbors and their friends favored conservative clothes. Spenser couldn’t begin to guess who the boy was or why he was here. But when his eyes accustomed to the dim light and saw the extent of the bruises on the young man’s face and hands, the blood from his cuts dripping onto the floor, all thoughts of where he’d come from ceased.
Crouching, Spenser stayed several feet away, not wanting to frighten him. “Hey there. Can I help you?”
The boy startled despite Spenser’s gentle approach, and when he lifted his head, Spenser’s gut twisted as he got a full view of the damage to his face. One eye was completely swollen shut, and the other was a slit. His upper lip was split, rendering the boy’s words barely legible as he spoke. “Waiting for Tomás.”
Spenser was fairly sure Tomás was the younger man in the Jimenez family across the hall, the one Spenser’s age, not the older man with streaks of silver in his hair who always smiled and wished Spenser good morning with a heavy Spanish accent. “He usually doesn’t get home until after eight. Are his parents not in?”
The boy’s gaze flickered warily in the direction of the apartment. “Parents? He don’t live alone?”
Speaking the p made the boy’s lip bleed, and Spenser put down his satchel, fishing for a package of tissues. He pulled one out and passed it and the packet to the young man. “Yes. Tomás lives with his parents. I think his sister and her children live there too, at least some of the time.” He frowned as the boy bled faster than the tissues could sop it up. “I think you need to be seen by a doctor.”
The young man shrank into the door. “No hospital.”
Spenser didn’t push the issue. Yet. “Will you wait for Tomás inside my apartment with me, at least?”
The boy still seemed unsure, but he also looked exhausted. He surveyed Spenser critically with his good eye, clearly trying to get a read.
Still crouched, Spenser moved a step closer and held out his hand. “Spenser Harris. Pleased to meet you.”
“Duon Graves.” He accepted Spenser’s handshake with a weak, battered grip. “You let me in, I’ll bleed on your floor.”
“I don’t care about that.” Spenser rose, tugging gently on Duon. “Come on. Up you go.”
“Why you so chill about somebody bleeding out, blocking your door? Might be a gangbanger. Might steal all your stuff.”
Spenser’s lock was a bitch to open on a good day, and it was significantly more of a struggle with an armful of bleeding teen. “Honey, I’m a teacher. I don’t have any stuff to steal.”
Duon tried to laugh, but the effort made him cough and wince in pain.
The lock cried uncle, and Spenser pushed open the door, leaving the keys in place as he ushered Duon inside and settled him at a chair at the table. His injuries were more alarming in the light, and Spenser debated calling 911 then and there. Instead, he rolled up his sleeves and washed his hands briskly at the sink. “Can I get you something to drink?”
“I’m good.” Duon coughed again, glancing around the apartment. “You keep a nice place. Neat and tidy. Homey.”
The homey comment stroked something inside Spenser. He smiled as he pulled the first-aid kit from the top of the freezer, setting it aside as he filled a bowl with warm water and removed the paper towels from their holder beneath the cabinet, then carried the whole business to the table. “I do what I can.”
“You live by yourself? No roommate, no live-in girlfriend?” Duon narrowed his good eye at Spenser, then ventured, “Boyfriend?”
Spenser faltered as he removed a pair of gloves from the small box inside the kit. “I live alone. Do you have a latex allergy?”
Duon’s mouth thinned as he watched Spenser struggle with the gloves. “No. I don’t have AIDS either.”
“Gloves are standard first-aid universal precautions, and you have open wounds.” Spenser surveyed the battle-ridden landscape of the boy before him. He decided to begin with his hands, though they were less injured. He wanted to let Duon warm up to the idea of being touched by a stranger, in case it made him nervous.
Spenser kept up get-to-know-you chatter as he coached Duon patiently through cleaning up first one arm, then the other. “I teach at St. Anthony’s Catholic School. Kindergarten. My third year teaching full-time.”
“You just out of college? Look older.”
Spenser snorted as he dabbed antiseptic over a particularly ugly bruise Duon couldn’t reach, gently holding his patient’s arm in place as he winced. “I’m twenty-eight.” He eyed Duon’s left cheek as he dipped a towel into the water. “I’m going to clean your face. Is that all right?”
Duon nodded, a tight jerk of his head. He winced and focused on a point across the room as Spenser carefully cleaned his face. “You gay, right?”
Spenser paused. His gut instinct was to refuse to answer, but something about the dogged way Duon went after it made his panic falter. “Would it be a problem if I were?”
Duon stared back, unflinching. “Would it be if I were?”
Ah. Spenser resumed his ministrations. “Of course it wouldn’t matter.”
“Well, I am.”
Spenser only hesitated long enough to draw a steadying breath. “Me too.”
Duon flinched as Spenser began to clean his more swollen eye. “You should date Tomás. He’s gay too. Never has a boyfriend, but I know he wants one.”
Spenser fought a blush. He had noticed Tomás was handsome, and yes, he’d entertained fantasies about asking him out. But that was all the further he’d allowed himself to consider the matter. “He works a lot. I don’t think he has time to date.”
“Some good man should force him to make time.”
Spenser opened his mouth to answer, then bit his lip as his gentle pats inspired a cut below Duon’s eye to begin bleeding again. “You need stitches, Duon.”
“I’ll get those butterfly things the boxers wear. I’ll be fine.”
Spenser decided it was time he pressed for some real answers. He wanted to ask about how Duon got his injuries, but on instinct he adopted a more casual approach. “So. You know Tomás well?”
“Yeah. He teaches dance at the studio where I go.”
“Tomás teaches dance?”
Duon smiled enough to nearly reopen his lip. “Thinking about him in tights? A dance belt?”
Spenser was now. He made a production of peeling off a new towel, dampening it, and wringing it out. “I don’t know him well. I’ve only met him in the hall a few times.”
“He teaches modern dance. He’s pretty good, but everyone who works there is. The guy who owns the studio used to be a big-time dancer. Laurence Parker.”
Spenser had heard of him, which was saying something. “Sounds like a great place to take dance.”
“Laurie gave me a scholarship. If I help around the studio, I get lessons. I can’t go all the time, though. Grandma says it’s too girly, and if I go too much, she gets mad.”
The mention of his grandmother made Duon’s face cloud. Spenser pressed on carefully. “Do you live with your grandparents?”
“Just my grandma. Grandpa died a few years ago. Mom’s in prison until I’m thirty.” He smiled, a thin, grim gesture made more menacing by his bleeding lip. “Mandatory minimums.”
Spenser dropped his paper towel in the water, hiding the shaking of his hands in a production of wringing it out as he schooled his reaction. He cleared his throat. “Is your grandmother good to you?”
He shrugged, looked away. “She tries, but she busy. She don’t like that I’m gay. Says it’s gonna get me beat up. And that it’s against God.”
Duon stopped talking, shuttering as if he realized he’d said too much. It told Spenser everything he needed to know, and it broke his heart, even as it stirred old ghosts. Leave it to Spenser to have a younger version of himself stop by unannounced.
Of course, Spenser had never shown up on anyone’s doorstep bloody. “Who beat you up, Duon? Did they follow you here?”
Duon’s laugh was short and sad, full of heaviness. “No. Nobody following me anywhere.”
“So it was someone at home who did this.”
Duon stiffened, his less-swollen eye welling with tears.
Spenser gentled him with a touch on his biceps. “It’s all right. They can’t hurt you now.”
It wasn’t his words, Spenser knew, but his tone that broke through. It wasn’t simply six-year-olds who responded to it. Spenser’s adoptive mother had said he could lure the devil himself to confession by asking him if he wanted to sit and talk. Everyone wanted to tell Spenser their stories.
“My cousins. Caught me with a guy. Beat on us both. They done it before, but never this bad. I think they would have killed Bobby, except he’s older and big. He whaled on them as good as he got, then ran as soon as he could. Took me a little longer to get away.”
So nice of Bobby to leave you with the people beating you down. Spenser didn’t respond, though, only waited patiently as Duon gathered himself enough to continue.
“I tried to clean up, but nobody would let me into a store all beat up. Wanted to sneak into the bathroom at home, change clothes, and make it not look so bad. But Gran caught me. Asked what happened. She was all upset, and I thought maybe she was on my side, so I told her the truth.” He huffed, a defeated, flat sound. “Big mistake. She called my cousins out, and they told her a bunch of lies. Made it all my fault somehow, like I was some big whore. Said I did this all the time, that I was having sex with older men for drugs. She didn’t listen when I told her they was lying. Didn’t matter to her.”
He pointed to the cut on his cheek. “She knocked me into the coffee table, she slapped me so hard. Told me to get my ass out if I was gonna do drugs and be a disgusting pervert.” His countenance hardened, though Spenser could still see the wounded boy beneath. “I ain’t doing none of that, but I ain’t gonna sit there and let them say shit about me, either. I’m done. I grabbed my social security card and the stuff I needed and got out. Gonna get a job and forget them, forever.”
Spenser glanced at the garbage bag Duon had brought in and placed beside him on the chair. “Are you sure your grandmother isn’t searching for you? Maybe she was upset in the moment, but she’d calm if someone helped explain?”
“Not if some white dude like you was doing the talking.” Duon rubbed his leg self-consciously, staring off into space. “She tired. She got all of us dumped on her. There’s nobody else around to take care of us, with my aunt working and everybody else a hot mess or gone. I’m better on my own. Was hoping I could crash with Tomás for the night, until I could figure something out. Didn’t know about his parents. Thought he lived alone or something. Wasn’t thinking.” He coughed and winced, the glaze of tears thickening. “Almost went to Ed and Laurie’s, but it’s their anniversary. They don’t need this shit. But it’s no big deal. I’ll find something.”
Tucking his fury into the corner where he would deal with it later, Spenser focused his mental energy on the boy before him. “Did you get anything to eat today, Duon?”
Duon nodded gingerly. He’d begun to appear dull, the fight leaching out of him. “Lunch at school.”
“I haven’t eaten dinner yet. I’ll make extra for you, and we can eat while we wait for Tomás. Why don’t you lie down on the couch and rest until it’s ready? But maybe you’d like a shower first. Do you have clean clothes in your bag? Or do you need to borrow some?”
Duon tucked his garbage bag self-consciously under his chair and made no further comment.
Spenser pressed the issue gently. “I can lend you a T-shirt and some sweatpants and a pair of thick, warm socks.”
Duon’s gaze cut to Spenser, the swollen eye cracking open, weighing the man before him as fully as possible.
Spenser held still under the assessment. “We can call someone else, if you want, or wait for Tomás. I can set us up some chairs in the hallway.”
Duon smiled around his split lip. “Dude, I know you ain’t gonna hurt me.” Duon touched his wounded cheek with his fingers. “I can hold it shut with clear tape, if you got some. Done it before.”
“Sure. I’ll put it on the table so you can use it after your shower.”
Spenser helped Duon to his feet and led him to the small bath off the living room. Laid out a towel, a washcloth, a change of clothes. Noted how Duon’s gaze lingered on the socks, which were indeed thick and cozy-looking. Spenser put a large glass of water on the tank of the toilet too, after he showed Duon how to work the old-fashioned taps.
“Take your time, okay?” He gestured to the old-fashioned lock. “The door locks. Just turn this knob here.”
Duon kept his gaze on Spenser as he clutched the towel. “Thanks.”
“No trouble at all.” Spenser waved goodbye, shut the door, and went to the kitchen.
He stood at the sink, rigid, barely breathing until he heard the shower running. Then he let out a breath and went to the table, crouching beside Duon’s garbage bag.
It was the smell that got him. Not a stench, not an odor, only a smell. The kind Spenser had caught on a few of the children when he was a student teacher in a public school in Minneapolis. The smell and the memories it brought had made him take a lower-paying job at a private school in hopes it meant he wouldn’t encounter the scent again. Now here it was, blooming out of a plastic bag, taking Spenser to places he’d never wanted to return. The smell of unwashed things marinating on a dirty floor. Of a body sweating a little more than it should, of nervousness and fear. Of clothes aired in the out-of-doors on the body of a boy who didn’t want to go home.
Or maybe his discomfort had nothing to do with any of those things. Maybe it came from something else, and Spenser’s murky memories filled in the rest. Memories involving hastily packing a black garbage bag of his own.
Holding the edges of Duon’s garbage bag tight in his fists, Spenser wept quietly for about three minutes. He made silent vows, hatched plans, and outlined stratagems for what he would do if, in fact, Duon was right and his grandmother didn’t want him, if there was nowhere else for him to go. If Tomás didn’t turn out to be the savior Duon was hoping he would be.
If Duon turned out to be exactly like Spenser after all.
After shutting the bag and tucking it under the chair where Duon had left it, Spenser blew his nose, dried his eyes, and busied himself with making dinner. But the smell of the bag lingered, as did the memory of Duon’s too-sharp, weary gaze as the bathroom door closed between them.
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Heidi's interview with Laura Adriana:
Interviews are a staple of blog tours, but this time I’d like to shake things up, because while I did my homework as best I could to write Enjoy the Dance, I’m by no means an expert. I wanted to let you hear from some people who know a lot more than me about the subjects touched on in the story, and one of those people is my friend (and friend to many of you!) Laura Adriana.
Thanks so much for letting me interview you, Laura Adriana! Would you like to take a moment to introduce yourself to the readers?
I’ve been a gay romance reader for a long time now, about seven years now. One of the things I love about this genre, specifically your work Heidi, is that it the stories have a lot more depth than straight romance. I specially love when I read characters with real life struggles or get to read about people that remind me of the people that I meet in my work.
I know you’ve worked in many different capacities in social justice and advocacy, and worked specifically as an immigrant advocate. Could you tell us a little bit about the work you did?
Yes, I’ve been working in social justice issues for about 11 years now. I began my work in Ethiopia, in Eastern Africa, working with rural communities to develop programs where women and youth were empowered to self-advocate to diminish harmful traditional practices like female genital mutilation and child marriage, I later worked in Central and South America doing HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment with high risk populations.
I came back to the U.S. in 2011 to Ithaca, NY there I began working as an immigrant advocate, in that job I worked with families who had come to the U.S. as refugees, as well as with immigrant families who needed assistance in gaining a path to citizenship, entering the workforce and advocacy within the social services systems. Finally, for the last two years I’ve worked as client services director for the agency that provides services and support to survivors of domestic violence, adult sexual assault and child sexual abuse in the county.
What was the most difficult part about your work in immigration advocacy?
The hardest part was having to tell families there was nothing I could do for them to gain legal status. It is not easy looking at people who have been doing back breaking work in this country for decades, who have raised their children here that they need to continue to live in the shadows and in fear, because they are not welcome here.
What was the most rewarding part?
I am immigrant myself, I came from the Dominican Republic at the age of 23 to attend graduate school in New York City. Although I had huge privileges, I still came here by myself and know how daunting it is to be in a new place and having to make your own way. It was a huge honor to be able to be part of the story of people who came to this country to work hard and build a life here. For a lot of us the reality is that in this country we can do much more than we could in our own, and being able to be part of that narrative for others made me very proud.
There’s more to this interview! Come read part two at Back Porch Reader on October 4 and part three at Bike Book Reviews on October 5. Follow the rest of the blog tour, with other interviews and information at Heidi’s website.
About the author:
Heidi Cullinan has always enjoyed a good love story, provided it has a happy ending. Proud to be from the first Midwestern state with full marriage equality, Heidi is a vocal advocate for LGBT rights. She writes positive-outcome romances for LGBT characters struggling against insurmountable odds because she believes there’s no such thing as too much happy ever after. When Heidi isn't writing, she enjoys cooking, reading, playing with her cats, and watching television with her family. Find out more about Heidi at heidicullinan.com.
This story is the 2nd book in the Dancing series, and picks up after Dance With Me concludes, which means it takes place toward the end of 2012 and the beginning/middle of 2013.
During this time, Minnesota, where Spenser and Tomas (and Ed and Laurie) live, had a Marriage Amendment on the ballot, which would, as a state constitutional amendment, banned same-sex marriage in the state. DOMA is also still in place when this book begins.
We first meet Spenser when he comes home to his apartment to find a young man slumped in the hallway, clearly showing signs of having been in some kind of fight. He's bleeding and hurt, and looking for Tomas, who lives with his parents in the apartment across from Spenser and is a dance instructor at Laurie's studio, among other jobs.
Spenser is an elementary school teacher, and he wastes no time in coaxing the young man into his apartment to take care of the wounds and offer him a shower, while they wait for Tomas to come home.
The young man is Duon, whom you might remember as one of Laurie's students from the first book.
While the romance that develops between Spenser and Tomas doesn't exactly take a backseat to the rest of the plot in this book, it is quiet and subdued, but provides the backbone to everything else that happens within.
Tomas' parents are illegal immigrants, and while Tomas and his sister were born in the US, his parents could theoretically be deported. Tomas' sister also tends to dump her children at her parents place while she runs off living her life, which has Tomas working multiple jobs to make ends meet. There's not a lot of time for him to date, but after he sees Spenser take care of Duon, and then apply to be the young man's guardian/foster parent, a spark begins a slow-burning, smoldering fire.
Spenser knows what it's like to be in the foster system, having grown up in it, and he has built a bunch of walls around himself, to avoid being hurt. He had two foster mothers, with whom he lived after aging out of the system, and while one has passed on, the other is still somewhat prominent in his life, an anchor of sorts, someone he knows he can rely on if he needs it. He immediately jumps in when it's clear that Duon cannot return to his grandmother's house, not wanting the boy to be sent to a group home.
The book has a very political overtone, considering that DOMA is still in place, a state amendment banning same-sex marriage is on the ballot, and they're still four years away from the SCOTUS decision in the Obergefell case. Even though Laurie and Ed are married, their marriage might not be valid in Minnesota if the amendment passes. (Spoiler alert: It doesn't) The author also makes a point of showing the lack of funding and resources that plague many Social Services departments, as well as the difficulty in securing citizenship for illegal immigrants.
The romance is by design slow-burn, and not front and center in this book, but it is there, smoldering and providing warmth. There are some hot as hell scenes too, when Spenser and Tomas finally get it on, and boy, oh boy, Tomas talking dirty is super sexy.
Both Spenser and Tomas are givers. They care so much about the people in their lives, and find joy in helping others, in being there for each other, in doing little things to make the other's life easier. I enjoyed that part of their romance so much, because it showed me how much they truly care about each other. Tomas draws Spenser out of his shell, and Spenser is a safe harbor for Tomas to cast his anchor. They meshed so well, despite their differences, and it was a joy to read their story.
While this surely isn't your typical Heidi Cullinan romance, I would still recommend you read this book. And above all keep dancing.
** I received a free copy of this book from its author. A positive review was not promised in return. **
Enjoy the Dance Prize Pack:
Enjoy the Dance paperback, Dance with Me paperback, No House To Call My Home paperback, MIKA The Origin of Love CD, a box of Lady Grey tea,
and a bottle of Tajìn seasoning.
Promotional materials provided by the author.