Darrell Hughes sat in the back the auditorium watching a vision of loveliness promenade across the stage in a pair of nude tights, pink point shoes with matching leg warmers, and a white leotard with spaghetti straps crossing in the back. He’d been waiting a lifetime to claim his mate, and Princess Lady Avery Windsor wasn’t just any mate.
He winced as she favored her right knee doing a basic grand pas de chat. Most people wouldn’t notice the slight deflection, but his seasoned eye had seen more than one ballerina a performance away from the end.
Tucking his hair behind his ears, he shifted in his seat. He’d imprinted on her when she’d been only five years old. He’d been eleven and her partner for the audition that would change her life. She’d been so much younger than everyone else in her class, but she’d been a natural and all the girls resented her for it.
She had a real knack for picking up the steps with perfect technique and very little correction. He knew back then, as did everyone, she would be a principal dancer.
He’d already landed his first major role as one of the youngest prodigies in a local ballet, but he’d left his heart with Avery the day he walked out of the studio.
Yanking his wallet out of his back pocket, he pulled out the picture of him and Avery her technique teacher had taken that fateful year.
He knew Avery would be the love of his life, but he also hoped her father could save his pack from whatever curse or spell had caused his father’s sudden death. Holding his breath, he blinked a few times. This wasn’t the time to fall apart. His family needed him to find the source of the illness that threatened to wipe out every male in his pack.
“Stop the music,” he said as he stood and made his way down the aisle. The cast of dancers came to a slow halt. They exchanged confused glances as they stepped to the side.
All except Avery.
She stood at the center, with her hands on her hips and a scowl on her face. A piece of auburn hair fell from her bun. She pursed her lips and blew it to the side. “Who are you?” She held a hand over her squinted eyes from the lights shining down in her face.
Talk about a loaded question. “Darrell, the new choreographer,” he said, contemplating his next move. The call had come three weeks ago, asking him to take over, and he’d jumped at the chance. He’d always preferred being behind the scenes over actually being on stage. Not that he didn’t love dancing, because he lived for it. Only he preferred to see his visions come to life. There was no bigger rush than to sit back and watch the movement of bodies across the stage while music echoed off the walls, telling a story that broke your heart into a million pieces.
However, he’d taken the job because Avery was the principal ballerina.
The time had come to meet his mate.
“Darrell? As in Darrell Hughes?”
Whispers erupted from everyone in the background.
He ignored them. “Where’s Olivia?”
Avery opened her mouth, but the sound of hard point shoes flattened on the stage filled the air.
“I’m right here,” a young girl said, skidding to a stop next to Avery. “Oh my God. It’s such an honor to meet you.”
“I want you to try part of this number from the double cabriole to the relevé in fifth.”
“Excuse me?” Avery shifted her weight to her stronger leg. “We’ve only got five more days before we perform live. I need the practice.”
“So does your understudy. Just in case.” He arched a brow. “And I’d like a minute to talk with you.”
“About?” She shot her hip to the side, planting her hand firmly on her tiny waist.
“Places everyone,” he said, eyeing her knees. The right sported a thin layer of tape, as did her ankle. She wouldn’t be able to wear those during performances. “Join me in the audience.”
“Fine.” Avery ducked backstage for a second and returned with a towel. As she took the steps into the audience, she dabbed her forehead.
Olivia, an eighteen-year-old with a lot of talent, but in desperate need of a bit of maturity, would soon be taking over as principal dancer. A fact that Avery had to know was inevitable.
Better to leave gracefully versus being pushed out.
He sat ten rows back and watched as Olivia began the piece, impressed by her skill and enamored by her excitement.
But she was no Avery.
“We were not told we’d have a new choreographer, much less the great Darrell Hughes.” Avery settled herself in a seat two over from his, her towel draped over the back of her neck. “What happened to Brandon?”
Darrell had asked the board of the ballet company not to tell the dancers about his arrival, which meant no one knew Brandon had cancer. Not yet anyway, but that wasn’t his story to tell. “He’s coming in at the end of rehearsal today to talk to everyone.”
“That doesn’t sound very good,” Avery said, glancing between the young ballerina on the stage and him. “And neither does you pulling me from rehearsal. Olivia does one run-through a day, not random stuff in the middle.”
“Things will be done differently with me in charge, and I hope being principal, you’ll help with the transition.”
“Is that why you brought me down here?”
He couldn’t come right out and tell her she was his fated mate. That would be insanity. Asking her out on a date would make him look like a creeper, and she’d probably slap him. So, he’d settle for a trip down memory lane.
He handed her the image of them dancing, wishing he had more than the one snapshot. They had performed in front of her class flawlessly. The other students that he’d done the same routine with didn’t have that special something that she had.
“Oh my God,” she said, the corners of her mouth turning upward, lighting up the room. “I can’t believe you kept that.” She blinked, her thick eyelashes fluttering over her light-cobalt eyes.
“You remember our dance.” His heart swelled with pride. Now that they were adults, the attraction kicked in as if he were a horny teenager. But he was a man, and he could control his animal instincts.
“Like it was yesterday.” She turned her attention to him. “I watch your career as both a dancer and a choreographer. You made me believe I’d be a star.”
“I was right,” he said, biting back a smile. He’d never wanted to be in the spotlight, but he was smart enough to know that if he wanted to make it as a choreographer, he needed to spend a few years on stage.
Avery enjoyed the spotlight, so it would be a major adjustment to hang up the pointe shoes, but there were other kinds of performances she could do that would keep her passion for the art stronger than ever.
“Dancing with you that day sealed my fate.”
His breath hitched. Could she possibly know? He didn’t see how unless maybe she sensed something, but no way could she possibly feel the deep connection he had.
But she will, and he prayed he wouldn’t have to break her heart.
“I thought I loved to dance before that day, but when the music stopped, and you left, I knew I was meant to be a ballerina.” Her enthusiasm coated the sound of her voice like warm butter melting in all the nooks and crannies of an English muffin.
“I’ve enjoyed watching your career,” he admitted, stretching his arm over the back of one of the chairs between them, wishing she were closer. “And I do look forward to working with you.”
“Why do I sense a but coming?” When she handed him the picture back, he took advantage of the opportunity to touch her soft, velvety skin.
He’d yearned for this moment for so many years.
“If you sense it, then you already know what it is.” He held her hand, fanning his thumb over her soft skin, staring into her orbs of desire, wishing he could snap his fingers and she’d be his forever.
But it didn’t work that way. She’d have to claim him as he had her. Not to mention a dark, stormy cloud lingered over his head.
“I barely know you, so I can’t tell what’s on your mind.”
“But you are a witch, so you can see my aura.”
She pulled her hand away and scowled. “I can’t see yours.”
“Seriously?” He cocked his head. “I thought that was a skill all witches had.”
“It is,” she said with a scowl. “I remember your aura years ago, and it was filled with joy and passion.” She narrowed her eyes. “I get nothing now, and I’m trying.”
He glanced to the stage as the music faded. Mating was going to have to take a back seat to saving his pack. “Take it from section four right through to the end.” Turning his attention to back to Avery, he felt a sudden chill deep in his bones. The same chill his father had felt before he died. “One of the reasons I wanted to talk with you privately is I need a favor.”
She shifted, folding her arms. “You interrupted rehearsal for personal—”
“High council members and male Alphas in my pack are sick. One died.” He opted to leave out who passed away. He just couldn’t bring himself to go there right now. “We’ve had specialists in, and they have no idea what the illness is or how to treat it.”
“And this has to do with me, how?”
“We called in a witch doctor, who said a black spell was cast on someone in my pack.”
Avery let out a puff of air. “Any witch doctor can cast a reversing spell.”
He shook his head. “I’ve been told this particular black magic has been locked. I don’t know what that means, really.”
“All black magic has been banned, but some covens have cursed their black magic, which is also illegal because it has devastating effects and can be irreversible.” She reached out, placing her warm hand on his aching knee. “You need to find the source of the spell.”
“First, as told by the witch doctor, we need to find the wolf that carries the cursed spell, but since all high council members, all alpha males, and our pack leader exhibit signs of this illness, he couldn’t find the carrier.”
“Who is the pack leader?” she asked, tilting her head.
“I am,” he said, sucking in a deep breath. “Every male is affected, and we are all slowly dying.”