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A stranger in the wings, a traitorous pair of toe shoes, and a traumatic turn dancing with The Great Rubio... For ballerina Ashleigh Keaton, it’s been one hell of a night.
But it’s not over yet. When Rubio drags her to a private party at his friend’s house in the ritzy part of London, she meets Liam Wilder, a lifestyle dominant and frighteningly seductive man. Liam pursues Ashleigh, attracted by her strength and talent, but she has secrets—an abusive past and a crippling fear of intimacy that prevents her from connecting to anyone, especially a playboy reputed to be legendary in bed.
Eventually he wins her trust and sets out to heal the troubled dancer, awakening her to a world of sensual abandon in a series of BDSM “sessions” at his home. But how pure are his motives? Is he helping her or endangering her fragile soul? Liam hides his own destructive secrets, and so does Fernando Rubio, their temperamental friend. Over time the three become embroiled in a tangle of artifice, fears, and lies that threaten to undo everything they’ve worked for.
Will Ashleigh and Liam find the strength to defeat their demons? Or are they cursed to sleepwalk through life forever, afraid to experience the passion and intimacy of love?
This 81K word romantic novel contains reflections on childhood abuse and violence which may disturb some readers.
Chapter One: Act Three
Since I was a little girl, I've wanted to be invisible. Not in a cool, magical kind of way, but in that way of please don't look at me too hard. Ballet has always been a compulsion for me, not a pleasure. It was something I got serious about because I had to, despite the trauma of being poked and prodded since my most tender years, judged and lambasted because my turnout was weak or my port de bras one degree off center. That stuff will drive you nuts, but it's always been worth it to me, like jumping upstream is worth it to a salmon. It's a survival thing.
That's why I really didn't want to dance center stage with The Great Rubio in our company's heralded production of Sleeping Beauty. I'm not being coy. I'm not pretending I didn't want to when secretly I would have killed for the chance. No. I really didn't want to, and it never should have happened in the first place. There was a clause in his contract with the London City Ballet to prevent such a farce. Mr. Rubio will dance with prima-level ballerinas only. In the event a prima dancer is not available, Mr. Rubio shall not be compelled to perform and a substitution shall be made.
But in this case, Princess Aurora pulled a muscle stretching backstage before her Act Three entrance and I was the only other dancer available with her shade of jet black hair. A stagehand yanked me from the palace set by the back of my ball gown.
"What are you doing?" I asked, pulling it from his grubby fingers.
"Do you know it?" His words didn't make sense until I saw Mariel, the injured Sleeping Beauty, sobbing a few yards away as a swarm of helpers stripped off her rhinestone-embroidered tutu.
"Do you know it?" He shook me, tugging at the straps of my "Fourteenth Wedding Guest" costume. Of course I knew it. Every corps girl knew the part of Sleeping Beauty from the opening pas de chats to the closing arabesque. Every one of us had watched Mariel dance it in practice over and over while imagining ourselves in The Great Rubio's arms. Fernando Rubio was a God to us--capital letter. He was a celebrity recognized by people who weren't even into ballet, a superstar we'd all been warned not to look at or talk to backstage.
"Yes, I know it," I said automatically, before I processed what that meant.
Four pairs of hands stripped off my ball gown costume and strong-armed me into Mariel's ornate white tutu. Oh, okay. Oh. No. I couldn't dance with Rubio, not center stage in front of a packed theater.
"I can't," I said in a panic. "I won't be able to do it. My shoes are too soft."
They twisted knots in the stretchy clear shoulder straps of the costume since Mariel was taller than me. I tried again. "Uh, really, I can't do this. My shoes aren't up to it."
See, the boxes, or tips, of pointe shoes are constructed of layers of fabric, material, and glue hardened into a molded point. If they're not broken in, those boxes sound obnoxious on stage, like the clopping of a horse. If they're very broken in, like mine, they're nice and quiet but it's impossible to do demanding pointe work--and Princess Aurora required demanding pointe work.
"My shoes are too soft, you guys." I think I said it two more times but everyone ignored me. "Why aren't you listening to me?" I finally cried, waving my hands at the stage manager.
A vein throbbed in his temple. "You've got to dance, shoes or not."
"Then I need to go grab a better pair."
"You're on in eight minutes." He looked around for someone to send but they wouldn't know which pair I needed. Hell, I didn't know which pair I needed. I didn't have a single pair of shoes that would make me good enough to dance with The Great Rubio. "I'll be back," I said, darting away.
He trailed me for a second but then he stopped and hissed, "Seven minutes, or else!"
Shit. Shit. Shit. I banged through the door into the backstage corridor and barreled toward the dressing rooms. I took the corner so fast I almost slid into the opposite wall. I couldn't fall down in this five-thousand-dollar tutu, and I definitely couldn't dance Princess Aurora in these flimsy shoes. I reached the corps dressing rooms and yanked the doorknob to the women's door. No. Oh God, no. Locked.
"No, no, no, no," I pleaded with the universe. "Oh, no. No, no, no." Every time I said no, I yanked down on the doorknob, like maybe this time it might miraculously open. I turned in a panic. Someone had to have a key, but how long would it take to find that person? Oh God, I was fucked. I was going to have to dance the third act of Sleeping Beauty with my idol in the world's shittiest pointe shoes.
I ran back down the corridor and collided full speed into what felt like a brick wall but was actually a very solid man. "Hey," he said, catching me. "Where's the fire?"
"Key." I shook my hands at him. "Key, key, key, key. Key!"
"I'm sensing you need a key." His lips tilted into a half smile, and I gave myself a second--no, half a second--to appreciate how handsome he was. Designer suit, long honey-brown hair curling around his shoulders, wide, carved cheekbones and striking amber eyes. He looked thirty-ish or thereabouts, a few years older than me. He had a golden-tan complexion like Rubio, but based on his accent, he was a fellow American. I gave myself another half second to mourn the fact that this guy probably didn't have a key.
"I need to get into the dressing room," I cried. "It's locked."
"Show me. I'll open it for you."
"I need a key."
"Show me," he said again.
I took him to the women's dressing room and rattled the doorknob. "I only have about…I don't know…five minutes to get back to the wings."
He eyed my rhinestone-encrusted tutu. "Okay. Stand back."
For one wild moment I thought he was going to shoulder through the door. He looked strong enough to do it, but what he actually did was bop the doorknob with a quick, smooth movement of his palm. I heard a popping sound. He turned it and held the door open for me.
"Oh my God, oh my God," I babbled. "How did you do that?"
"It doesn't always work. It depends on the make of the knob. With this kind of door--"
"No," I said, cutting him off. "I don't have time."
"What can I do to help?"
"I need shoes. New shoes." I ran over to my carrel, crouched down and pulled out my basket of pointe shoes. I started knocking the toes on the floor, trying to find a pair that was adequately broken in, but they were all too loud and stiff. "I'm screwed," I wailed. "I can't believe this is happening to me. These are all too hard."
He took one in his hand and started kneading it. "Want me to help you soften them?"
I grabbed the shoe back. "No! Oh, God. There's no time." I sat in my chair and leaned forward, batting away a faceful of stiff, sequined tutu. "Oh, please. Help me," I said, trying to reach past the layers of tulle to the ribbons on my ankles. "Help me take these off."
I was barking orders to a perfect stranger but he complied, kneeling to untie the pink ribbons and unwind them from my ankles while I picked out the pair of shoes that was least noisy. I dug my toe pads out of the discarded pair, wrapped them around my toes, and jammed them into the new pair. He held my tutu down and out of the way while I bent to adjust the elastics and tie the ribbons.
"Hey," he said over the frantic rasping of my breath. "Everything's going to be okay."
"Everything's not going to be okay," I snapped. "I'm about to dance Sleeping Beauty with The Great Rubio. And listen to this." I clopped the toes of my shoes on the floor and then kicked my old, soft ones across the room in frustration.
"The Great Rubio?" he repeated, chuckling. I was almost to the door when I realized how rude I'd been to him.
"I only had seven minutes," I said, turning back. "I'm so sorry. I--"
He waved me off. "Fly free, little ballerina. Go."
I ran out the door, thinking I should have at least said thank you. It was too late now. The stage manager was a deep shade of scarlet when I skidded up to him. "Damn you," he said. "You're on in thirty seconds."
Grunts attacked my scalp with hairpins as they affixed Princess Aurora's aluminum and rhinestone crown to my head. At least my black hair would hide the blood. Ouch. There had to be blood.
"Shake your head," the lead costumer barked. The crown didn't budge. Some woman pushed past him, grabbed my face in one hand and used the other to apply a haphazard slash of the dark red lipstick Sleeping Beauty wore. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed the man from the dressing room observing this chaos. His long, tousled hair contrasted with his sedate expression, his cultivated bearing. He had a great body but he was too big to be a dancer. I wondered why he was hanging out backstage.
"Do your lips. Do your lips!" the makeup lady hissed, smacking her own together until I mimicked her, smearing oily crimson in what I hoped was an adequate outline.
Someone tugged at my back, fluffing the tutu. The waist and bodice fit like a second skin. Apparently Mariel and I were the same size in the middle if not in height, and in fact we looked very much alike, with pale complexions, black hair, and blue eyes. Only difference was that she was a principal who'd danced this role for weeks now, and I was a faceless member of the corps. Also, my shoes weren't broken in and I was about to possibly have a heart attack.
I looked around for my lock-breaking hero but he'd disappeared again. "Just get through it, Ashleigh," said a low voice at my side. The company director, Yves Thibault. Mr. Thibault was a great director because he understood his dancers. For instance, he understood that I danced best in a group, at the back of the stage out of the spotlight. I appealed silently for him to intervene and save me, perhaps by canceling the rest of the ballet or delaying it until another principal ballerina could be fetched.
It wasn't happening.
Rubio stretched on the other side of the stage, oblivious to the drama, deep in performance mode. He wasn't called The Great Rubio for nothing. Such focus, such artistic brilliance--and the body of a Brazilian Adonis. The twenty-six-year-old virtuoso had risen from the slums of Rio to the top of the ballet world on pure, glorious talent. Me, I'd scratched my way into the London City Ballet corps and that was probably as far as I'd ever go.
I scurried to my mark, or maybe one of the stagehands pushed me. I heard the cue to enter and looked up at the same moment into Rubio's dark, wide-set eyes. My inspiration, my idol--this was both a dream and a nightmare. We moved toward each other, arms outstretched. My smile said oh God, help me, while his was more WTF? He fixed his expression first, turning to the audience with a blazing smile. I did the same. We posed, the happy couple, Sleeping Beauty and her prince.
The orchestral cue straightened my spine like the demanding tap of a teacher. I could do this. I'd been dancing for twenty of my twenty-four years. I could do it--I just wasn't ready to. Rubio swept me forward to center stage and we struck another pose. His whole body tensed, vibrating beside me. I could sense his fury like a palpable thing and it shook my already-faltering confidence. Don't mess up, my brain screamed. Don't do one thing wrong or your idol will hate you forever.
The dance began with a sustained développé facing away from the audience. I had to extend my leg to the front and then lean backward in a very slow, graceful, controlled movement. One wobble, the slightest falter, and I'd fall on my ass in front of four thousand eyes. My balance depended solely on his skill as a partner. My hands were so sweaty I was afraid my fingers would slip, but his grasp tightened like a vise. He centered me, supported me. In those slow, panicked seconds he sent me a message with his stance, his grip, his balance.
I got you. This is yours to fuck up.
Oh God, I was going to fuck it up. I knew it. A quick turn and I was in his arms. His body was solid relief after balancing so precariously on one toe. Arabesque… Graceful…graceful, Ashleigh. His hands were there when I needed them, right where they were supposed to be. He hadn't become the world's premier dancer by being a clod.
He let go and we were free of one another, sweeping the length of the stage only to turn and make lovey eyes at each other. My toe shoes sounded as loud as gunshots. I clasped my hands to my heart in an exaggerated motion I'd seen Mariel do a hundred times. Arabesque, sweep around. Oh no, our timing was off. I strained to hear the beats in the music, but all I could focus on was the thumping of my shoes. Somehow Rubio managed to look both impassioned with love and livid with me.
"I'm sorry," I whispered as we came together for an arabesque penchée.
"Shut up," he hissed through his teeth.
On that note, we moved into another series of supported and unsupported attitudes. He could have let me fall on my ass. I'm sure he wanted to, but he was steady as a rock and I felt overwhelming gratitude.
Fresh on the heels of that trauma--a lift. Oh no, and another and another. I tried to remember what I'd learned in partnering class but I'd been in the corps so long that I wasn't used to being lifted. I wasn't any heavier than Mariel but I probably felt like a ton of bricks to him. He set me down with an illusion of weightlessness but I could feel the effort in his arms. There was nothing to do but smile and pirouette. I accidentally whacked his thigh with my knee during the last turn.
"Asshole," he grunted as I arched into a fish dive. My form was so bad he almost dropped me. Through the next three series of supported pirouettes I was careful not to touch him, but that threw off my balance so his hands had to rescue me, extra effort for him.
Another eye contact moment. Both our smiles were forced. His gaze looked demonic. I skittered downstage left. Thunk, thunk, thunk, thunk, thunk. One of the ball guests actually broke character to grimace. Ignore her, Ashleigh. Pose, smile. Rubio pulled me into a sweeping arabesque. More pirouettes, another lift, fish dive. Somehow I survived it.
"Thank you," I said under my breath as he led me forward for the bow or reverence.
His reply came through a tight, fake grin. "Get off the fucking stage."
I waited in the wings while he did his solo, trying to process the emotions I felt. Part of me was giddy to have been partnered by The Great Rubio, while another part of me was devastated by his scorn. I took slow, deep breaths as I watched him perform. His solo was a parade of soaring leaps and intricate steps--and he made it look effortless. I was supposed to follow this? I felt a sense of panic, of being trapped. It was like being strapped into a roller coaster car, heading straight up the tracks even though you'd decided on second thought you didn't want to ride. Click click click click.
But I had to ride this one out, especially with Mr. Thibault staring at me from the other side of the stage. Rubio swept through his bows to a rising din of applause. As soon as he exited, I took a deep breath and made my entrance. The applause died. The audience surely realized by now that I wasn't Mariel, the much-loved ballerina who'd danced the previous two acts.
The orchestra launched into my solo, the conductor watching my cues to guide the tempo. I didn't know if I was dancing too slow or too fast. I performed leaps, attitudes, battements in my sparkling white costume and crown, mentally ticking through the combinations. I focused on executing each step and tuned out the clopping of my toes. I nailed the technique out of sheer desperation, and halfway through I realized I was going to survive. After the last racing slew of pirouettes I rose en pointe and halted in perfect concordance with the music. No toppling over, no weak ankles. My spine was tempered steel. I smiled joy out of every pore in my body and was rewarded with louder applause this time. I wasn't Mariel, but they recognized my effort.
Rubio came sweeping back and we pranced through the last few lifts. I felt lighter this time, or maybe we were getting used to each other. " Jesus Cristo," he muttered. "You whale." Maybe we weren't getting used to each other. His hands bruised my thighs with a death grip and he bit out something else in Portuguese that I was glad I couldn't understand.
One last pose to this set of dances, and the gracious, swoon-like bow. He held my hand, dipped down into reverencelike silk. Applause bloomed and rose to a roar of sound. Wow. This was fame, glory, adulation. It wasn't adulation for me, of course. I understood that, but a smile still stretched across my face. Rubio was furious--I could feel it in the rigid set of his arms as he led me offstage. We waited in the wings as the corps, minus one member, moved through the formations of Act Three's final number.
"Where is Mariel?" he spat.
"She got hurt. I had to fill in." I'd lived so long with the injunction against talking to him that I didn't dare say more.
He moved past me, advancing on Mr. Thibault, who'd joined us at the side of the stage. "Why?" he barked, flicking a finger to indicate me. "Why this?"
"There was no one else. It was an issue of time."
"She is…" He threw up his hands as if adequate criticism escaped him. "Terrible balance. She kicked me." He glared at my offending toe shoes. "The noise of her. I will never forget."
"She got through it." Mr. Thibault looked briefly at me, tension hardening his blue eyes.
"Come," Rubio ordered, holding out his hand. "Finale." We joined the company onstage for the closing tableau, and I executed my final graceful arabesque as we gazed adoringly at one another. It was all I could do to maintain the necessary eye contact. In the glare of the stage lights his eyes were black as the depths of hell.
The music ended and the audience exploded into applause. I felt more like a side of beef than a ballerina as Rubio hauled me through an endless series of bows. Roses flew at us like projectiles. "This is Mariel's applause," he snapped when I stayed a little too long en reverence, "and those are Mariel's flowers."
"They're your flowers too," I said. "They're well deserved." His only response was an irritated snort. For my part, I'd never fake-smiled so long or so hard in my life, but I didn't dare stop, not here at his side with flowers raining down and the spotlight on both of us like some waking dream. Rubio, Rubio, Rubio, bravo! The chants came from every corner of the theater while the living legend bowed and flashed his signature megawatt grin. Finally the curtain fell, bringing the performance to a close.
My smiling, princely idol turned on his heel and walked away. Thank you, Mr. Rubio. I'll never forget this. I didn't say it. I wasn't contractually allowed to say it.
My fellow corps members surrounded me as Rubio stalked down the backstage hall spouting foreign expletives. He slammed his dressing room door with a resounding crash. "You did a great job, Ash," said my friend Desiree, tucking me against her side. A few other corps dancers congratulated me and made wry comments about my big break, but they were just being polite. I didn't feel happy or celebratory about my performance, especially after Rubio stormed off cursing. I didn't know how I felt. Maybe numb.
Desiree dogged me to the dressing room, where I surrendered Mariel's beautiful costume to a stagehand.
"I can't believe how lucky you are," she sighed.
I made some vague, equivocal sound, throwing on a robe. She parked herself next to me while I removed my makeup. "How did he smell?" she asked. "Did he smell really virile? How did it feel when he smiled at you?"
But he hadn't smiled at me, not once. "It felt great to dance with him," I lied, only because I knew that was what she wanted to hear.
"How did his hands feel? Did they feel strong? Warm?"
I put down my towel and gripped the edge of my carrel. "Des, can I tell you about it later? After I've processed it for a while?"
"Sure. Hey, where are you going?"
I waved a hand at her and ran for the bathroom. She trailed behind me. "Ash, what's wrong?"
I threw open the stall door and leaned over the toilet. Everything in my stomach came up.
"Oh God, hon. You're sick."
I retched again, an awful, grating sound. Tears oozed from my eyes. When I felt able, I reached back to shut the stall door.
"I'll go get help."
But she was gone and I didn't feel strong enough to stand up yet. I gripped the edge of the seat, unsure if I was crying from sadness, nerves, or throwing up so hard. I heard someone in the bathroom whisper, "She wasn't that bad."
Asshole! Whale! The words, with his accent's inflection, sounded over and over in my ears. I retched again and I think I brought up some of my stomach lining. I felt devastated, completely emptied out. I heard a crisp knock on the stall and Mr. Thibault's voice.
"Ashleigh, when you've finished vomiting, I would like to have a word."
I bunched up a handful of toilet paper and held it to my mouth. "Are you going to fire me?"
"I have no plans to fire you." His French-inflected words were low and reassuring. "You haven't practiced the role of Aurora. I appreciate your attempt. It was adequate, things being what they were."
Out of everything he said, I only heard two words. Attempt and adequate. It was a kind way of saying my performance sucked. I wiped my mouth again, dried my eyes, flushed the toilet, and opened the stall door. He held out a bottle of blue-tinted sports drink.
I flinched and shook my head.
He had bottled water in his other hand. Like I said, he was a good company director. I opened it and took a drink. "I'm sorry I didn't do better. I'm sorry my shoes were loud. I wasn't prepared."
Mr. Thibault smiled, his brow crinkling behind wire-rimmed glasses. "None of us were prepared. I never saw such a fast costume change."
"I don't think the injury is as serious as we feared."
"Will they save the flowers for her? From the curtain call?"
He patted my arm. "I'm sure they'd mean more to you than to her. They're collecting them right now to donate at the hospital. Before you leave, run and fetch an armful. Take them home and put them in a vase for a job well done."
I felt a sudden impulse to hug him, and squelched it just as quickly. One did not hug the tall, slim, ultra-reserved ballet director. I didn't believe even Rubio could hug him. I showered quickly, dressed, and packed up my dance bag, but by the time I reached the stage someone had already gathered all the roses. Then I noticed a small pink one shuffled under the edge of the curtain.
I tucked the rose into my bag and headed backstage, past the entourage of pretty women and well-dressed men spilling out of Rubio's dressing room. They weren't dancers. He had a posse. I tried to duck by, only to come face-to-face with The Great One himself.
"Ah, look," he said, opening his arms to me. "My partner. Such beauty and grace."
His voice dripped with sarcasm. I might have cowered. It wasn't my finest moment. I was afraid he'd see the rose in my bag and take me to task over it, maybe call me an asshole again. His friends barely spared me a glance before turning back to their conversations, half in English, half in Portuguese. I opened my mouth to say good night, only to be pulled into the crook of his arm.
"You come to the party, eh, girl? Come on."
I was about to refuse when I glanced into the half-open door of his dressing room. The tall man from backstage was hanging out in there, leaning against the far wall. In a weird, flashback-y way, I remembered the feel of his fingers brushing over my ankles as he untied my shoes. I hadn't really taken it in while it was happening, but I remembered it so vividly now.
I had no business partying in my condition, but it might be the only opportunity to talk to the guy and express my thanks. I let Rubio sweep me along with his group, past the milling eye-contact-restricted dancers, past Mr. Thibault, who raised one finely manicured eyebrow. He seemed to ask, What on earth are you doing?
And honestly, I didn't know.