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Center of Gravity by K.K. Allen (1)

CHAPTER 1

Lex

I got an audition,” Shane announced when he walked into the apartment, slamming the door behind him. A grand flourish if I’d ever seen one. Not even I would walk ten blocks in four-inch stilettos. But that was Shane, my six foot two inches of a man-friend whom I’d known since our very first dance class back in Seattle at age five.

His jersey bag landed at his feet, and his hands pumped the air as they often did when he was overly excited about something. “Sorry. Not just an audition. I got an invite.”

My eyes grew wide, excitement flourished quickly, then anxiety ripped through me at the speed of a freight train. So many emotions all at once. Up until that point, everything had been good. We’d been living off our savings, spending as little money as possible, and taking a variety of classes at Gravity Dance Complex, the premiere studio of the commercial dance world. No pressure. Just fun.

“An invite? For the Janet gig?” my voice squeaked. I scrambled to my knees. “But we’ve only been here three months. Is that even possible?”

He winked. “When your name’s Shane Masterson, anything is possible, honey.”

I fought back a groan. Shane had always been innocently cocky, aware of what his charm did to the human race. He was devilishly handsome, too, with raven-black hair cut short on the sides and always spiked in one direction or the other, rarely in the middle. But it was his personality that won everyone over. And yes, for Shane, anything definitely seemed possible.

Refusing to respond to his joke, I crossed my arms. “I thought we decided to wait. We’re finally getting into a rhythm here. You can’t—”

“Lex.” He pursed his lips as if he were about to scold me. “I got an invite. I’m not going to turn it down. That would be career suicide, and you know it.”

I was speechless. Professional gigs for music videos and stage shows came through Gravity all the time. It was the mecca of dance talent where A-list celebrities and casting directors nationwide frequently recruited, primarily for stage, television, and film bookings. Shane and I had talked about attending an open audition one day after getting our feet wet. The plan was always to take the plunge together. But getting an invite to audition was rare. He couldn’t turn it down, not even if he wanted to.

My mind was still reeling as Shane started to raid the cabinets, though I wasn’t sure what for. The only food remaining was the jar of peanut butter that sat half empty on the counter. He must have realized it almost as fast as I thought it, and he slammed the door shut. “We’re ordering a pizza.”

“Shane,” I warned. We’d set aside money for one year of dance classes and rent. He knew we didn’t have money to indulge.

“Lex,” he warned back. “We dance eight to ten hours a day. You’ve still got that ass, but I will not be held responsible for you turning into a pile of bones. It’s time to indulge in a big ole pie of heaven.”

I let out a laugh despite the residual shock from the bomb he’d just dropped. Leave it to Shane to mask any tense situation with the topic of food. 

“Look,” he said, his sweet smile telling me he knew he’d won. “Just think. If I get this gig, we’ll be better off. We can’t take classes and live off Skippy and ramen while we wait for something to happen. Aren’t you tired of waiting, baby girl?”

“Yes, but—”

He popped his hip and pursed his lips. “But what?”

“You’ll get the job.” I didn’t mean for my voice to come out so whiny, but we’d just moved to LA.

“You don’t know that.”

“Maybe not this job, but it won’t take you long. And then what? You might have to leave LA … and leave me here … alone.”

He tilted his head and quirked his lip. “So dramatic.”

I bit back my smile. The exaggerated pout was a little much.

“You could start auditioning too.”

“Ha,” I said on a sarcastic breath.

“C’mon, Lex. It’s just like dating. You have to put yourself out there. Let them know you’re interested. Check out your options.” His eyes lit up, and he smacked the counter before leaning forward. “Speaking of dating options.”

Oh no, here we go. My entire body cringed.

“There is this gorgeous hunk of man who teaches some of my classes. Do you know Reggie Maynor?” He fanned himself with his hand as his lids fluttered dramatically. “Dear Lord.” But when he looked up and my expression hadn’t changed, he threw his hand down while rolling his eyes. “Doesn’t matter. You’d know who he was if you saw him. Anyway. He was trying to be sly, but he was asking about you today.”

I knew exactly who he was talking about, but I didn’t come to LA to find a man. So I chose to ignore his second attempt at changing the conversation.

“You know I’m not ready to audition yet. I thought we both wanted to get some training first and—”

“We’ve been training our whole lives. This is why we’re here. Besides, what better training than to audition and check out the competition?”

I snapped my mouth shut. He was right, but I wasn’t ready to pay the ultimate price of my dream—losing my best friend. Not yet. Frustration shook through me. “Who gave you the invite?”

“Her name’s Janelle. She scouts for a bunch of artists. Heard she’s friends with that dreamy choreographer you love too. Theodore Noska.” When his eyebrows wiggled suggestively, I picked up the nearest object and chucked it at him. My black-and-pink tennis shoe smacked him in the chest, causing him to shoot me a glare and stab a finger in the air. “I’m dragging your freckled ass to the next open audition just for that.”

I wanted to scream. He didn’t get it. In this industry, it wasn’t enough to be the best dancer in the room. It was about friendships, connections, timing, and a little bit of luck. I saw the way the veteran dancers had looked at Shane and me when we first arrived, some with their side-eye glances or, worse, those who didn’t see us at all. We were blips on their radars, passersby there for the experience, and immediately dismissed as contenders. I wanted that to change—I wanted to earn my spot.

And maybe somewhere deep down there was fear of failure too. Of getting rejected for the one thing I loved most in the world. I’d only ever had a plan A, despite my parents’ wishes. And taking class was fun. Taking class didn’t lead to the inevitable disappointment that came with this industry.

I was comfortable, but maybe that was a bad place to be. Still, the insecurities swarmed my chest, and I couldn’t let them go.

“Do you know how many times I’ve been told I won’t make it as a professional dancer? I’m not ready to hear it from the people who matter. This studio … those dancers … the choreographers. I need this community to accept me. If I ever get a job, I want them to know I earned it.”

Shane’s expression changed drastically from the happy-go-lucky man who walked through the door minutes ago to someone with only my best interests at heart. I cringed at the ass kicking to come. 

“Don’t let your father’s words hold you back, Lex. That’s all they are. Words. You’re here because you belong here, and you’ll see in time, it was the right decision.”

His comment hit me in the gut.

“I will?”

“Yes.” He leveled me with his eyes. “You’re the biggest fucking rock star on that dance floor, Alexandra Lorraine Quinn, and I’m not just saying that because you bought me my first pair of stilettos.”

I giggled, but his eyes remained serious.

“You think those dancers are going to respect you if they see you taking a million classes before you ever audition?” He shook his head emphatically. “Wrong, sweetheart. They won’t even know your name until you slap a numbered sticker on those tight abs of yours, strut onto that dance floor like you think you’re Beyoncé, and then fail—and then fail again. And third”—his eyes narrowed on mine, silencing my giggles—“the only person holding you back from your dream is you.”

My eyes filled with tears as he made his way over to my air mattress, plopped down, then pulled me into his arms. I loved the closeness we’d maintained all these years. I loved how Shane had always been the one to push me toward my dreams and comfort me when things didn’t go as planned. So yeah, I was terrified for all of that to go away. And I could feel it in the air; the time was coming.

Shane lived life full out. Nothing scared him. Nothing was worth backing down for. That might have been what I loved most about him. He’d faced all kinds of adversity, from his sexual orientation to surviving a toxic home life to always being considered freakishly tall compared to the rest of our peers. And all that was mixed with the ridicule he’d received for being a male dancer among our adolescent peers. He never let anything stop him from reaching what he wanted.

Shane and I were opposites.

Doer versus dreamer. Life of the party versus wallflower. And for some reason, we loved each other more for it all. We balanced each other. Or rather, he balanced me.

When Shane spoke next, my head was tucked safely under his chin.

“You might never feel ready, Lex. You just have to take a leap at some point. It might as well be now. It’s time to fly, baby girl.”