This is my happy place, pretty much my only one.
I check the form of my plié in the mirror and straighten an arm, then slide out a foot. I’ve been doing ballet for two years, ever since Dreamcatcher Dance Academy opened and accepted students who couldn’t afford classes.
But it’s time to start working toward toe shoes and begin dancing en pointe, and my instructor Betsy says I’m not ready.
I want to be ready.
The next song on the playlist begins and I move to demi-pointe for a free dance. As I turn and whirl, feeling the sheer pink fabric of my dance skirt whispering against my thighs, I am free.
My wretched home life disappears.
No overbearing father.
No forced homeschool that has now extended a year past graduation.
No rules about where I go, who I see, what I wear.
It’s just me and the dance and the form I’m trying to get perfect.
I’m surrounded by life-size images of ballerinas I admire, including Juliet, who is performing the famous entrance to La Bayadère’s Dance of the Shades. Her mother owns this academy, and they have changed my life.
After four years of house arrest by my family, I get a small measure of freedom when I’m here.
I practice my pirouette. I’ve chosen parts of The Nutcracker to dance to, since Christmas season is coming and I want to get in the mood.
Besides, the girls in the beginner ballet class I help with are using the song in the holiday recital in six weeks. I want to know it inside-out. It’s how I give back, something in return for my free lessons even though it’s not required.
I started too late for serious study of dance. At nineteen, I would normally have either joined a ballet troupe or given up by now.
But I only began learning at seventeen, and not without a fight. My father took one look at the body-hugging leotards and voiced his strenuous opposition. No matter that I was a heartbeat away from legal adulthood and could leave home anytime I wanted.
He knew I wouldn’t. I have nowhere to go. No skills. No way to earn money, at least not enough to support myself. I don’t know anything about living on my own. I’d never make it.
The music speeds up as the Nutcracker Army marches into the scene. I increase my pace, adding leaps and spins. My glossy black hair is braided into a circular crown, one of the few ways I can distinguish myself with no makeup and the plainest wardrobe imaginable. At least my hair can be beautiful.
The leotard was another victory. When I finally convinced my father to let me try ballet, he attended every single class for six months, forcing me to wear baggy pants and T-shirts. But finally he recognized the beauty and elegance of the dance, far more structured and demanding than anything he could dream up. Plus, no men anywhere. So he allowed it.
In dance attire, I look like everyone else. I fit in. I’m not talented, and this passion of mine can go nowhere, although maybe, if I stick with Dreamcatcher, I can eventually graduate to teaching toddlers, like Aurora does.
That’s one goal I have.
But first, toe shoes.
I spin, arms in, so tight, so fast, then extending up over my head. The world is a blur. I’m both giddy and fierce in my concentration, happy and determined at once. I will get those shoes. My late start in life is a problem, but I will overcome it.
I slow the rotation and circle to the floor, my arms splayed out across the glossy wood planks.
“That’s beautiful,” a low male voice says.
I leap to my feet, my heart racing, as startled as a deer.
The door is open and a man leans against the wall beside it, one foot crossed over the other. He’s clearly a dancer, wearing sleek pants, black jazz shoes, and a loose white tank.
“Who are you?” I ask. I haven’t been alone with a man anywhere close to my age since I was fifteen. My father has made sure of it. The only male instructor here is Jacob, and he is gay. All the boy students are very young.
“The more important question,” he says with an impossibly sexy smile, “is who are you?”
I resist the urge to find something to cover myself with. I’m a dancer. This leotard is standard issue, and I’ve done recitals in front of an audience wearing them.
But somehow I feel naked when this man looks at me.
His chiseled jaw is shadowed with just the right amount of scruff. He’s outrageously handsome. I can feel the pull of his sex appeal all the way across the room. I’m not scared of it. I knew it once. Knew it better than anybody.
But now that is forbidden.
“I’m only a student here,” I say. “Practicing.” I don’t want him to know my name. I can’t have him saying it out loud to someone. No one can know we met.
He seems extremely pleased with the situation. “You do ballet beautifully,” he says. “It was a pleasure to watch.”
The way he rolls out the word pleasure, his voice a rumble, wakes up parts of me I’ve forgotten about. He pushes away from the wall.
I take an uncertain step back, glancing at the open door. I’m ready to bolt.
And yet, I’m riveted to his face, his glittering mischievous eyes. He’s larger than life, pure charisma.
His approach is graceful and predatory in equal measure. I’m frozen in place now, finding it hard to believe that I’ve come to this moment after so long in hiding.
“Can you show me an arabesque?” he asks. “I’ve never taken ballet. My father thought it was too feminine. He didn’t want me to take dance at all. I had to force it.”
My shoulders relax. I definitely know all about that. “My father didn’t want me to take dance either,” I say.
“So we have something in common.” His smile draws my eyes like a hypnotist’s charm. His mouth is beautiful. I can already feel his lips on mine.
I shake that thought away. “I’ve only had two years, but I’m happy to show you an arabesque,” I say. I gesture to the oversized photographs on the walls. “The perfect examples are all around you. It’s a beautiful extension, but fairly strenuous to hold for long.”
“Try me,” he says.
I move into an arabesque, my belly quivering a little as his gaze travels along my body.
I return to standing. “You try,” I say. “Keep your chest high and lift your back leg.”
He leans over too far, and I touch him lightly to lift his chest. He is muscled and hard. He must work out a lot.
“Now your arms,” I say.
He lifts them, and I adjust his form. The touch is electric, sizzling through me. I’ve forgotten what this feels like.
“You’ve got it,” I say.
He straightens. “I want to do more of this. I haven’t had a chance to take an actual class in years.”
“Well, we have a few adult classes, but I think you’ll find they are mostly older women. It might move too slowly for you.”
“How about you teach me?” He moves into a lunge, one leg behind him, his arm outstretched as if he wants me to take his hand.
His form is perfect on this. He obviously has a lot of training in something. Jazz, maybe, judging by the outfit. Possibly contemporary.
“Who are you again?” I ask.
“Benjamin,” he says. “And I am so glad to meet you…”
He pauses, expectant for my name.
I relent. “Livia,” I say. “But I really think you’ll be better off with Betsy. She does the advanced ballet here.”
He stands up from his lunge. “All right, Livia. Well, thank you for that recommendation.” He bows at the waist, a gesture so old-fashioned and charming that I almost regret turning him down.
“Suze is at the front desk,” I tell him. “She can help you with that.”
Benjamin nods at me. “It’s been most enjoyable meeting you. Perhaps if I hang around a bit, we’ll cross paths again.” He takes my hand, and before I realize what he’s doing, he’s kissed my knuckle.
“Oh!” I exclaim. I’m completely overwhelmed by this gesture. Who is this guy? Can he be for real?
He releases my hand and I immediately clutch it against my chest as though my own fingers are a prized possession.
Then he’s gone.
I turn back to the mirror and look at myself. It’s still plain old me. Pink leotard, a little worn, and the pale pink sheer skirt. My threadbare ballet slippers, dirty at the toes. I clasp my hands to my cheeks. What just happened?
Aurora dashes in.
“Holy cow, Livia, did Blitz Craven just kiss your hand?”
I turn to her. Her face is bright red. She’s the toddler teacher, petite and adorable in her sunny yellow leotard.
“He said his name was Benjamin.”
“Oh my God.” She turns in a circle, hands on her head. “You really don’t know who that was!”
I want to calm her down. She looks like she’s ready to explode. “He didn’t introduce himself as Blitz anybody. But he does look like a dancer.”
“Livia!” Aurora puts her hands on my shoulders. “That’s THE Blitz Craven. The host of Dance Blitz! The reality TV show!”
“I don’t watch TV, remember?” I say. “And my dad thinks the Internet is evil.”
I’ve never had a cell phone or a computer. If we need to know something, Dad gets a book about it at the library.
Aurora lets go of me. “Well, he’s huge. Like, bigger than huge.” Her eyes go wide. “And he’s here. That means Danika let him in!” She turns in a circle. “This is so crazy! Blitz Craven at Dreamcatcher!”
I grab her arm so she’ll stand still and explain things. “Why is this such a big deal?”
“This academy is going to be famous!” she says. “Blitz is going to help out around here! We could end up on his show.” She gets thoughtful. “Well, I wouldn’t. I have Samuel. But you could! And Suze! And all the single dancers!”
“Why does it matter if we’re single?”
“It’s like the Bachelor, Livia. Blitz has been looking for the perfect dance partner for two years and hasn’t found her.” She frowns. “Though I can’t believe Danika let him in here after the scandal.”
I have no idea what the Bachelor is and can’t imagine what sort of scandal that old-fashioned romantic boy could get into. But it’s all pointless for me.
“It doesn’t matter,” I say. “And PLEASE don’t tell anybody he kissed my hand. If my father found out, I couldn’t come here anymore.”
Aurora’s eyes get sad, an expression I’m used to when people realize my situation. “Livia, you’re nineteen. Can’t you just try to get out of that house? Live your life?”
I’ve heard this too. “I will,” I say. “I just have to figure things out.” I head to the corner and pick up my bag. If this Blitz guy is going to be here, I should probably avoid the academy except when I’m in class. My dance is important to me, and the last thing I need is some reality TV Romeo jeopardizing it.
Even if he is the most thrilling thing that’s happened to me in a long time.