Chasing Alys by Morgana Bevan

Chapter One

My way of celebrating the end of a job would seem weird to most people. After eight months spending long, unsociable hours on set, most would head straight to the nearest bar. A good number of my colleagues did just that. But not me. I chose to dance.

On that last day before break, I was bone tired and relieved to have some much-needed downtime until the end of January. I was looking at nearly two and a half months off work. Some would panic at that number, but this was TV. Periods of intense work and then a break for weeks defined the industry.

Here we worked insane shifts, cranking out hours of drama, sacrificing a personal life outside the set. We embraced our time off, meticulously planned for it, and somehow, in the gap, we would always forget. We’d forget the hours and the stress, remembering nothing but the exhilaration and the banter shared with long-term colleagues, our second family.

That all sounds ridiculous, I know. Still, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. Nothing else could put me through my paces and give me such a strong sense of accomplishment. But every time a break came, I welcomed it the only way I knew how.

While my colleagues got buzzed in a bar, I leaned into a different type of buzz – one that could just as easily lead to addiction: dancing. We’re talking complicated jump steps, turns and flips. My work schedule didn’t allow for much dance time through the year, so whenever I found myself in a lull, I’d head straight for a class or five.

Cardiff city centre was home to many dance instructors and full of bars with decently sized dance floors to allow for almost any style of dance. I still had to trek out to the yacht club in Penarth for ballroom, but for salsa and swing dance, I could get my fix without leaving town. Tonight, I chose a swing dance class at the Old Ballroom to stretch my legs and celebrate the end of my latest project – a new private detective TV show – in style.

The last few months had been challenging, but high-end drama always was. Thankfully, the show had been filmed entirely in Wales, between a studio in Cardiff and on location in West Wales. That meant less jet lag and logistics on my end, and for that I was grateful.

Tomorrow I’d wake up too early, confused by my lack of alarm, but right now, I was determined to dance until my ankles gave out and my muscles ached.

The venue had three rooms split across two levels, with the bar taking over most of the space up front. In the back was my heaven, a dance floor with a vaulted ceiling. It promised a full two stories of head height with a balcony overlooking the dance floor. Some beginners found that aspect intimidating – worrying about strangers watching them dance from up there – but I’d never cared. Stick a spotlight on me and that would change, but to anyone watching, I’d be nothing but a red-haired blur in a sea of colour.

“I’m so glad you suggested this, Alys.” My best friend Emily laughed as I rushed her in a quick tuck spin around the edge of the dance floor.

“And you thought it would be too hard.” I pulled her back in for a basic six-step, smiling at the spark in her eyes. I expected she saw a similar light in mine.

“With good bloody reason! I’ve seen you dance. Everything you do looks difficult to my untrained eyes.”

She’d failed to connect the dots between my years of dance training and the difficulty of the moves I favoured. Of course it looked complicated to someone who’d bailed out of ballet after a year.

To Emily, dance was just dance; sometimes it was fun, and sometimes it was downright torture. For me, it was a challenge and a comfort. I hated the shows as a kid, hated being the centre of attention, but with little else to do in a small village, I’d forced myself through them. At some point, my teacher’s drive for perfection seeped beneath my skin. Dance stopped being a set of steps I had to learn and started becoming a technique I wanted to perfect and enjoy.

When the steps were easy, I struggled to stay present, and disappearing into my head quickly became a problem. Little thoughts and doubts rushed in when I wasn’t engaged – which is why I found swing dancing most exhilarating. It was all about detail and gave me plenty of challenges. It encouraged me to try new combinations and tricks, sometimes dangerous lifts. My partners loved me because I would happily volunteer while they practised something new.

Despite my fear of heights, being flipped over some guy’s arm or shoulder gave me a thrill. I guess the ground was rather close and the life-threatening damage limited. I wasn’t scared of landing wrong. It had happened many times, but I always got up, took a moment to let the sting fade, and tried again.

There was something addictive about it – the challenge of learning something new, the rush of endorphins when I figured it out.

Tonight, all around us couples and friends worked through the basic principles of swing dance – rock steps, twirls and finding a beat. More experienced dancers, dressed in the vintage styles from the 1930s and 1940s, took things up a notch with more complicated moves. Colourful skirts flew up as they spun and dipped in sensible Mary Janes and brogues. A couple of girls had turned up in high heels and promptly kicked them off in favour of dancing barefoot (not advisable, but better than a sprained ankle or worse).

I’d meant to go home to change before the beginners’ class, but the furniture collection on set had been delayed, which knocked on the shipping container pickup, and I ended up running late. Luckily, I’d anticipated it and packed a skater dress and my usual swing dance shoes: wide-heeled brogues.

The steps were easy, but it felt like I was stretching muscles I hadn’t used in more than eight months – and oh boy, had I missed it. Stopping was going to be difficult. Laughter filled the air, and the ornate hall hidden in the back of the bar vibrated with the roar of brass instruments. It fuelled some unstoppable fire inside me, burning off the stress of today’s production shutdown.

“Okay. Nice work, guys,” the instructor called, talking the small group of beginners through their next steps. “Now we’re going to try something new. We’re going to rock step, walk, walk and kick. Watch again and try it yourselves.”

I’d lucked out tonight as my usual instructor was running the beginners’ workshop. I’d been begging Emily to try swing for years, but she’d always made some excuse or another. To my surprise, she’d rushed to say yes when I invited her this time.

With an all-levels practice session planned for after the class, I got to introduce Emily to swing dance and work out some frustrations on the dance floor with my regular dance partners.

“Where’s Oliver tonight?” I asked as I walked her through the new steps at half pace.

Had I not been standing so close, I would’ve missed the slight dulling of the excited light in her eyes. That’s weird.

She shrugged, avoiding my gaze. “I asked him, but he had to work late.”

Oliver was her boyfriend of three years. She was convinced he was the one, her first and final love. Growing up, Emily had been reserved with her heart – not so surprising, given that she had the perfect cautionary tale as an example: me. She’d nursed me through every heartbreak, every failed date, every ghosting. I’d thought I’d been lucky to have her through it all, but sometimes I worried that my bad luck would rub off on her. Before she’d met Oliver, there had been days when she’d ignore guys and turn them down flat if they asked her out. The bottom line was: love and I didn’t really see eye to eye, and I’d had more than my fair share of failures. Yet thankfully, since dating Oliver, Emily seemed to have been doing just fine avoiding my large footsteps on the road to heartache.

“It’s fine. He said he’d come next time.” Her smile didn’t reach her green eyes, and it was anything but reassuring.

Or maybe not…

“Who needs the gym when you can do this, huh?” she said, trying to distract me.

For now, I let her get away with whatever bothered her. She’d share when she was ready. And if she let it fester too long, I knew she’d just start blubbering in front of me and out herself. I’d rather she talked before she got to that point, but I could wait.

“Right! Best workout there is.”

“How was the shut down?” Emily asked, puffing slightly from the new combination.

My temples tightened as the day’s rush forced its way back into my mind. “It was the same old, really. Too much to do and far too little time to achieve it.”

“Did your printer man follow his usual MO?”

“Oh, yeah! He rocked up before noon while I was frantically trying to get the paperwork in order.” I could chuckle over it now, but the sight of Joe coming for my printer while I tried to finish the last of my shutdown duties would always feature in my stress nightmares.

Emily grinned. “And you chased him off, I bet. When is that guy going to learn not to mess with you?”

“Honestly, I think he enjoys messing with us. Anyway”—I shrugged, pushing the annoying man out of my thoughts—“the shipping containers were late being collected, which is why I was late here, but we got it all done and shut down. Mystery Lines is officially wrapped.”

“Until next time.”

“If there’s a next time.” It wasn’t my job to speculate on whether the shows I worked on would get renewed. As a production coordinator, I just kept the cogs turning in huge high-end dramas and left those kinds of worries to the producers.

“What’s next?” Emily asked as I spun her.

“Sleep. So much sleep.”

Emily laughed. “I hope you’re not going to sleep for two months. We have so much catching up to do.”

“I’m sure I can squeeze you in between naps.”

She snorted. “You’d better.”

The class passed far too quickly for my liking, but at the end of the hour, Emily seemed more than ready to put up her feet. A sheen of sweat glistened on her pale skin, but her short dark hair still looked immaculate. My long auburn hair, meanwhile, stuck to my neck, while my blue eyes probably looked far too big and excited for my small face. Maybe I should consider a pixie cut too…

My foot tapped against the wooden floor, the sound lost to the chatter of the other dancers. Sweaty mess or not, my entire body itched to jump straight into another dance.

“Do you mind if we stay for the social?” I asked. “I’m not ready to stop yet.”

“Of course. I’ll just grab us some drinks and find a corner to watch. I’ll have the camera ready,” she said before abandoning me for the bar.

I turned to the floor once again, which the more experienced dancers had now flooded, taking over the sound system. I had a second to catch my breath before someone caught my hand and dragged me towards them.

Eric’s grinning face filled my vision as he pulled me into his arms.

“Well, if it isn’t the Alys Morgan. I was starting to think you’d moved away. It’s been ages, babes!” he cried, his voice ringing out over the jazz music filling the space to the rafters.

Eric and I had started swing dancing around the same time, and in those early days we’d spent my rare weekends off in the summers at the park practising with a couple of other dancers. Those days were long gone now and, aside from a social here and there, I hardly saw any of them anymore.

“I know! Work’s been keeping me busy. How have you been?”

We fell into a comfortable rhythm while we caught up on life and the drama I’d missed. Dance friends hooking up, breaking up, getting married, getting divorced, promotions and career changes. They’d all been busy, and here was me, unable to hold a relationship or do anything but work. But if I was being truly honest with myself, I loved my job and I’d lost interest in the whole relationship thing years ago. I didn’t really feel like I was missing out.

I mean, sure, I’d love to have someone to cuddle up with. But I had so little time, and wasting it on some guy because I suffered from FOMO was not my idea of fun. One-night stands had filled a void for a while, but at twenty-six, I was bored. They either got clingy fast or their girlfriends called far too early in the morning. It felt like I’d swallowed a homing beacon for cheaters, and it was not a welcome realisation.

Before I could get too stuck in those unhelpful thoughts, the song changed and Eric moved us to a quieter part of the floor, switching up the pace. Before long, we’d graduated to flips, and my heart raced as the adrenaline coursed through me. Each time I’d land a flip or jump, we’d laugh like two fools, enjoying our success. We started easy, allowing ourselves to remember how the other worked, but basic lifts quickly turned into Charleston flips and advanced to even more complicated air steps.

My demons were well and truly locked in their boxes, and I was having more fun than I’d had in months. In fact, I was so caught up in the buzz that when our hands slipped, I didn’t notice until my head hit the floor. The air exploded from my lungs and for a moment, I couldn’t drag it back in as the pain radiated out, winding me.

“Shit, Alys! Are you okay?” Eric’s concerned face hovered over mine.

“I’m fine, just a little winded.” I held out my hands for an assist off the dirty floor. Eric pulled me up so fast that my feet left the ground. I laughed. Old habits die hard.

“I’m losing my touch.” Eric frowned, dragging a hand through his hair.

“I highly doubt that, but I’d say that is my cue to stop.”

I always did this in some form, danced until I sustained some kind of injury. Normally, it was a twisted ankle, but a small knock on the head was close enough for me to pay attention. I might be high on the fun, but my body was tired.

Eric and I hugged, promising to catch up again soon. He didn’t stop apologising until I’d walked away.

After I left the room, I went in search of the toilets. Best check that my make-up wasn’t running down my face or that I hadn’t actually hit my head hard enough to open a gash. I was pretty sure neither was the case, but I needed a minute to catch my breath and come down from the high before we left.

As I ascended the narrow stairs, a tall, blond-haired man with the most stunning blue eyes I’d ever seen jogged towards me. His hair was tied back. When he smiled, it lit up his entire face and pulled an answering one from my lips, setting butterflies loose in my stomach. He slowed as we reached each other, turning his body so that we could pass. His deliciously spicy scent made my mouth water. He nodded as we traded places but kept moving down the stairs.

I stared at his retreating back, frowning at him and myself. What was that all about? I didn’t want him to stop, but I found myself wishing I was braver, unscarred and able to follow that tiny spark of possibility.

When he reached the bottom step, he turned, glancing up at me. He gripped the banister, studying me. All you have to do is nod, walk back down the steps and talk to him, Alys. Simple actions in theory, but after nearly nine years of knockbacks, brave wasn’t a word I associated with myself. I was definitely scarred, and I was a realist. I was attracted to cheating assholes. I didn’t want to believe one could hide behind that face, but my luck had been non-existent for far too long. No, it was far better this way. I could remember his smile in my dreams, and he’d remain a nice guy.

I continued up the steep stairs, my back rigid as I willed myself to keep going. But that didn’t stop me from searching the crowd for his crystal blue eyes when I went back down.

With a smudge-free face, I returned to Emily and gratefully accepted the drink she’d bought for me nearly an hour ago.

“There was a reason I agreed to dance tonight,” Emily said when I collapsed at her side, all thoughts of my brief encounter forgotten.

“Oh?”

“There’s this thing happening tomorrow night. It’s kind of a big deal.”

I’ve heard that one before.My eyebrows rose as I considered her.

“Okay, so it’s a big deal to me. Rhiannon are playing their first gig in Cardiff, and I’d really, really like you to come with me.” She held up her hand at my grimace. “I know you hate loud music, but I promise it’ll be worth it. Plus, we’ll have fun, get drunk and enjoy some good songs.”

I’d never been the biggest fan of concerts. Too many people crowded into one room, the bass turned up so high that the floor and my heart vibrated unnaturally. It made me uneasy. I’d grown up in a village with one pub, and it was a place for more than getting sloshed. And being a small village, it was never jam-packed. Case in point, when we’d first turned eighteen, Emily had stolen the remote control from the bartender, and it did not go down well. She’d set the music to blaring, and the retirees who propped up the bar to catch up with their friends had scolded her. These were men who had been our loveable surrogate grandfathers for most of our lives. They’d always been free and easy with the praise. But turn the volume up until they couldn’t talk, and the claws came out.

“Why can’t Oliver go with you?” I asked.

“I don’t want to go with him.” She held my gaze, her eyes imploring. “I want to spend time with my best friend, making up for lost months. We should have had at least six hangovers by now – we’re behind schedule. And we’re not all lucky enough to finish work on a Thursday.”

I laughed at that, raising the wineglass to my lips. She had a point. Normally we’d have partied and buried the latest loser to mess with me under a barrel of alcohol.

“Did anyone catch your eye on your last show?”

“I knew I forgot to do something,” I joked. Emily laughed, but I could see the concern in her eyes. “I was too busy most of the time to even think about it. Plus, the last thing I’d ever do is get involved with an actor. That would be a whole other level of drama.” I shivered at the idea.

It had been nine months since my last attempt at a relationship ended in an explosion of mortification and tears. One day we were assigning labels, and the next he ghosted. Part of me suspected that he’d already been in a relationship, but of course, I hadn’t realised that until I was too far gone.

After that, part of me had wanted to get blackout drunk, yet I’d restrained myself due to an intense work schedule. I couldn’t drown the memories when I had to get up at 3AM to beat a bunch of actors to set.

It turned out that all I needed to exorcise him was a crazy and exciting production to keep me busy and remind me of the things I truly loved. From then on, I decided I was done with men. I wanted easy, drama free, and I wasn’t getting it from the men in Cardiff.

However, in the process of losing myself in my work again, I’d barely seen Emily. Now, knowing that her favourite Glasgow band was on the billing and I had nothing else grabbing my attention, saying “no” felt next to impossible. So I agreed to go with her. I was grumbling while I did it, but after tonight, I couldn’t deny her. Really, I should have seen it coming as soon as she’d decided to try swing dance.