One week back in the studio, and I was exhausted. Even with the exercises the doctor approved, it felt like I had a long way to go before I was fully recovered. Of course, that didn’t stop me from pushing myself beyond my limit. I didn’t spend years of grueling and excruciating practices to get where I was and lose it all now.
It upset me to think that a woman I didn’t even know had hated me so much that she pushed me down a flight of stairs. The incident set me back, and now that I was back in the studio, I had these moments where resentment niggled its way into my heart.
I should have been here these past few weeks. On the weekends, I should have been on stage performing. This is who I was and what I was meant to do.
One woman and her jealousy could have taken it all away. I needed to trust Viktor that she was gone, and I wouldn’t have to worry about her retaliation again, but it was scary to think that I could have lost my career that night. A few weeks away was torture enough.
For my sake, I needed to let go of that resentment. It wouldn’t help me lingering on that night. Easier said than done, but I had plenty of other distractions to help push those thoughts away.
Although I had to admit that all the time spent with Viktor had been amazing. Maybe it was just from my end, but it felt as though there was a bond growing between us. Something stronger than what I could have ever expected out of this arrangement. Over time, I was feeling less like a possession to him, and more like someone he genuinely cared for.
Some small part of me hoped that was the case, and not just wishful thinking because I was in love with him. It was hard enough coming to terms with that. I knew it would devastate me if I was wrong.
“Tell me you need me, baby.” The yearning in his voice when he said that lingered with me. I could feel it in my chest, and it ate away at me. How could that not be real?
Ricky and the other dancers were so happy to see me back in the studio. It was amazing practicing with them over the week. Despite the rain and gloom outside, in the studio over the theater, the lights were bright, and the energy was high.
I was tired, but I was on top of the world to be back where I belonged. Every day at the end of practice, the others, especially Ricky, tried to convince me to go out with them. Thankfully, I had the excuse of needing to rest my ankle. In reality, I was going to the hospital to see my Papa before going home to Viktor.
Today wouldn’t be any different. Rain was still pouring down by Friday afternoon. Since I wasn’t performing yet, I didn’t need to be back in the studio until Monday, so I was looking forward to a relaxing weekend with Viktor. As long as he didn’t drag me along to any more of his clubs. Our night at Possession had been fun and stimulating, but the memories alone of being fingered on the dance floor caused me to blush furiously no matter where I was.
“Alright everyone! That’s a wrap on practice today!” Luke clapped his hands and shouted over the studio. “Everyone performing in the show tonight, go eat dinner and be back early. Not on time, because on time is late!”
“Are you sure you don’t want to grab a bite with me, Stella?” Ricky asked when we made it to the lockers.
“It would be nice, but I’m going to the hospital for a bit. Thanks for offering, though.” I changed out of my practice clothes and into something warmer and casual to wear on the street.
“You’re always welcome to join me, girl. You know that.” Ricky slipped on an oversized hoodie before leaning in to nudge my shoulder with his. “How is he doing?”
“About as good as he can be. It might be the best hospital in New York, but there’s only so much they can do. I think he’s been stable lately.”
“That’s something, at least.” Ricky smiled, trying to make me feel better when he heard me sigh.
“Better than nothing,” I agreed, but I think Ricky could tell my smile was fake.
“It’ll be okay.” Ricky pulled me into a hug before I could get away. It was short and sweet, but just enough comfort from a friend to make the ache in my chest ease up a fraction.
“Good luck at the show tonight. I can’t wait to be on stage with you again next week.” I squeezed Ricky’s hand while tuning out the chatter and banging lockers around us from the other dancers.
“I’m looking forward to it, Swan Queen,” he giggled with a wink. “See ya, babe!”
Ricky bounced away with the others, grabbing an early dinner before their show tonight. As everyone filtered out of the locker room, I took my time in stretching out my ankle before lacing up my shoes. It wasn’t long before I was alone in the silence as the last person to leave.
There were still items strewn about the locker room since most of the dancers would return in the next hour, but I ensured I packed all my things up in my bag. Closing the locker, I turned to head out of the studio. My entire body froze when I saw Luke leaning in the studio doorway, blocking the exit to the stairs.
“Luke.” I nodded my head in greeting. The smile that curled his lips up made my stomach twist.
“It’s been nice seeing you here again this past week. No one here has the same tight little body as you do.” His eyes scanned my body, and I swallowed hard, thankful that I was wearing layers.
“Do you need something, Luke?” He was being awfully bold, and I felt the need to get out of here as quickly as possible.
“I could list all the things I need from you, Stella.” Luke licked his bottom lip while staring at my legs.
“Well, I’m the Prima and you’re the choreographer, so I’m sure there’s at least one thing.” I tried to keep the subject on the only thing we had in common. But his eyes snapped up and narrowed at me like daggers I could feel on my face.
“Prima Ballerina, huh?” He scoffed and pushed off the doorframe. This was the only exit out, and he was blocking my path and walking closer until he was in my space, sneering at me. “Anyone in this city with big enough pockets can have you, Stella. You’re nothing more than the whore of the richest men in the city.”
My heart dropped into my stomach and they both fell to the floor. Luke’s words hit me harder than if he had simply slapped me. I think I would have preferred it if he had hit me instead.
I felt like a puppet when I snapped and locked away my emotions into a dark crevice in the back of my mind. The prickle of tears behind my eyes only lasted a second before it was all shoved deep down and out of sight. Feeling empty, I locked eyes with Luke and plastered a wide, vicious smile on my face.
“If you’re upset that you can’t afford me, Luke, then just say that,” I purred, looking away nonchalantly. As if this interaction meant nothing to me.
Luke clenched his jaw so tight I thought I could hear his teeth grinding together. A vein throbbed in his temple, and he visibly stopped breathing. You could have heard a pin drop in the strained silence between us.
He didn’t move, and with this moment of victory, I found the strength to push past him. For a moment I thought I was in the clear, but his voice trailed after me when I reached the top of the stairs.
“If it were up to me, you wouldn’t be dancing in the finale next week! The New York City Ballet deserves better than spoiled goods.” Another punch to the stomach.
Without looking back at him, I kept my head high and took a steadying breath. “Well, good thing they don’t leave the important decisions up to you.”
Stomping, followed by the slam of a door, made me jump. I was made of stone at the top of those stairs until I knew I was completely alone.
I’m not sure how I made it downstairs and out into the rain without breaking down, but I’m glad I did. Despite the frigid rain, I didn’t pull up the hood of my coat. Instead, I closed my eyes and leaned my head back, allowing icy droplets of rain to wash over my flushed face.
Gasping in a deep breath of cool air, I tried to untangle the turmoil building inside of me. Those emotions I locked away for that interaction were trying to claw their way back out.
How dare Luke talk to me like that. As if he isn’t the man who preys on ballerinas and introduces them to Dax. I was nothing more than a dancer until he overheard me talking about money concerns when Papa got sick.
He was a brilliant choreographer, but he was a terrible asshole. I knew he profited from the contracts with Dax, but he didn’t suffer like the dancers he coerced into the contracts did. Luke’s inappropriate comments to me didn’t start until after I took on my first contract. His eyes had always wandered more than they should during practice, but it seemed as if he thought he had a chance.
I don’t think Luke could fathom that my standards weren’t suddenly in the gutter just because I was desperate to help my grandfather. If he wasn’t paying for my time, he would never get it.
Finally pulling up my hood, I hugged my coat tighter around me and hailed for a cab to take me to the hospital. Viktor might not like the thought I wasn’t using Antonio for my rides after practice, but I needed this time to myself to go see Papa.
Thinking of Viktor when I got into the back of a bright yellow cab, some of my emotions slipped free of the loose binds I had them in. A sharp twist hit me in the chest, and I thumped my face against the cold glass, watching my breath fog the window as the cab pulled onto the wet streets.
The sidewalks were lined with colorful umbrellas and coats. People without cover from the rain tried to run through the crowds and others continuing walking as if they didn’t have a care in the world. Lightning flashes in the deep grey sky, followed by a boom of thunder so loud I felt through the car.
Viktor had my time because he paid for me. That conversation with Luke slapped me with that truth once again. I was in this contract because I needed the money to help Papa. Otherwise, Viktor and I might never have crossed paths.
It was his money that landed me in his life, and I felt terrible for loving him now. Viktor deserved someone in his life that didn’t have the baggage I did. Not someone who was with him for gain.
I didn’t want to use him, and I hated we met this way. If I could pay back the money, I would.
Luke was right that I was spoiled goods. If I told Viktor how I felt, I would only wind up hating myself for tainting a man as rich and powerful as him.
What could my love ever do for a man like Viktor when he has the world at his fingertips?