The constant clicking of my pen was the only sound echoing through my office. I stared off at the thick, charcoal grey clouds drifting low in the sky and squeezed the pen in my hand so hard the plastic snapped.
“All of you, Viktor. I need all of you.”
I dropped the broken pen on the desk and leaned my head back into my chair. A frustrated groan left me as I rubbed my hands over my face as if that could push away the thoughts of Stella dancing rampantly through my mind.
No woman in my life had ever squeezed their way into my head like this before. And Stella wasn’t even trying to. It was effortless. One taste of her and she slipped into my thoughts and left her mark.
Stella Sokolov was a gentle, curious, and passionate woman. Her heart was full of the type of kindness I didn’t think I would ever be capable of. But there was a sadness in her eyes sometimes that slipped through. In moments where she was vulnerable and opening herself up to me, I saw it.
Anything I could do to stop whatever thorn lingered in her heart, I needed to do. If it was because of the contracts, then I wanted to end them. I needed to take care of it. To take care of her.
What hurt me to think about was the possibility that I could pay off her debt, end the contracts, and she would still leave me. I could profess all day long that Stella belonged to me, but I knew she was a free woman. In her dreams, Stella was a dancer, and the ballet was always going to be her priority.
She was only with me now because we had a contract. However, knowing her as I did, I couldn’t believe that Stella was using me for my money. There wasn’t a malicious bone in her body to use people. I truly believed that she wouldn’t be doing this if she didn’t have to, which led me down a rabbit hole of thoughts.
What kind of debt could be so severe that she made a contract with a man like Dax? It was more than school debt. It had to be. He was dangerous and so was his family. I lingered on that until my brain felt as if it were going to burst from within my skull.
That choreographer was pimping out ballerinas when they were at their lowest. Giving them to Dax as if he was some savior when they were desperate for money. How many of the ballerinas at the New York ballet were being traded for sex in the same way Stella was?
By noon, heavy rain was splattering in fat droplets against the glass wall of windows in my office. Obscuring my view of the city below and darkening the room. The shadows grew taller, and I sank further into thoughts drifting away from my work.
A sharp knock on my partially open door drew my attention. My head snapped up, and I released the breath I was holding when I saw my aunt pushing the heavy door open to enter.
“Viktor, how are you?” She put her arms up for a hug as I jumped from my desk to meet her.
“Hello, Tetya, I’m doing well today. You know how Mondays are around here.” After a brief embrace, I pulled back and offered her a seat at the chairs across from my desk. “Please sit. What are you doing here today?”
“Oh, I came to have lunch with your uncle, but the man he is on the phone with will not hang up. Someone wants to open a franchise of one of the Novak properties in Jersey, but he’s not keen on the idea.” Annika settled elegantly in the chair, crossing her ankles and folding her hands in her lap as she spoke.
“Sounds about right. I don’t think Jameson wants anything in Jersey.” I chuckled and returned to my seat. Then I shuffled papers around on my desk to pretend I’d been working today, but Annika probably remembered me doing the same thing with my homework as a child. So, I dropped the stack of papers on the end of my desk and returned my focus to her.
She was watching me so intently; I felt like a kid once again caught not doing his homework. Those narrowed eyes caught everything, and she was scrutinizing me now.
“Tell me how the pretty girl is doing.” Annika tilted her head, watching my reaction. “She is going back to the theater soon, yes?”
“Stella is doing great.” My heart swelled to think of her and her golden smile. “She’s actually at the studio this week. Not performing, but the doctor cleared her for practice again.”
And I hated the time that it would take her away from me. However, the end of the season was coming up and that would give her a break again. As much as I wanted to be selfish and keep her to myself, I needed to face the reality that we wouldn’t always be together.
“So good to hear! Prekrasnyye novosti!” Annika clapped her hands and curled her red lips into a smile. “Will she be on stage for the final performance?”
“Knowing how determined Stella is, I think she will be. I don’t think she’d miss the season finale even if her ankle had been broken.” All that time having her to myself on the weekends and nights would be coming to an end, and it made me… irritated.
“Keep me in the loop, Viktor. I’ll buy tickets and we can all support her together.” A clash of thunder outside punctuated her words. We both looked outside, watching lightning strike through the clouds in the distance.
“Like a family?” I scoffed. I didn’t realize I said that out loud until I locked eyes with Annika again. Her stare made me freeze.
“Of course. You obviously like her a great deal. Why would we not all go to support her?” Annika pressed.
“I mean, it’s not like we’ll be together forever.” I recalled my conversation with Jameson the afternoon I brought Stella to dinner. We agreed I would tell Annika a breakup story when the contract was over and Stella left me.
“Fignya!” Annika cursed, and dramatically rolled her eyes at me. “Anyone with eyes can see that you adore the girl, and she’s completely smitten with you.”
“Tetya, I don’t think…”
“Net,” she cut me off. “You and your tupoy contract. You can’t convince me that what you have with that lovely girl is nothing more than a transaction.”
My body froze as if I turned into stone. “How do you know about the contract?”
“You think you and your uncle so clever? Can hide anything from me? Net.” She waved her hand, closing it into a fist. Her Russian accent grew thicker while her temper rose. It always had. “You sign dumb contract for ballerina, and now you have feelings.”
“That’s not true.” I lied. “Stella and I just have an understanding with one another.”
“Stop lying, Viktor. You are good boy. I hate to hear you lie.” Annika rubbed her temple and sighed. Her red manicured nails fell to her neck where she fiddled with her luxurious gold necklace.
My aunt was the closest thing to a mother I ever had growing up while knowing we lost my parents to the void somewhere back in Russia. Annika Novak knew when I was lying, as if it was a second sense. It made lying to her as a teenager impossible.
“Say there is a contract,” I shrugged and crossed my arms, “in the end Stella leaves. Whatever feelings you think you see will be gone.” I needed to hear myself say it, but it made my chest hurt. My palm rubbed over the strange weight on my chest like that could make the feeling go away.
“Muzhchiny idioty.” Annika pointed a sharp nail at me.
“That’s not very nice, Tetya.” Though I couldn’t exactly disagree with her that men were idiots, and I needed to stop lying to her.
“Be honest with yourself, Viktor. Please. Stella is such a good girl, pretty girl. Be honest with her,” she said, clasping her hands in her lap. “You look at her like she is a light in the dark, and she watches you with such yearning it makes my old heart break.”
“It doesn’t matter how I feel, Tetya. It doesn’t matter how badly I want Stella to stay with me in the end. She’ll go back to the theater.” Something in my chest panged hearing myself say that.
“Not just the theater, no?”
“No.” My throat constricted, and my chest felt heavy. “She’ll take on more contracts to pay off some debt she has. There will be other men taking her, laying their filthy fucking hands on her.” My fist slammed on the edge of the desk and my eyes widened when the wood groaned.
“Hm,” Annika’s soft hum pulled me out of the rage threatening to consume me. “Jameson thinks you are obsessed with her, and that you will go into debt yourself just to keep her.”
“No, I know that I have to let her go. It’s not fiscally smart of me to keep paying for her time.” But she’s mine.
“Maybe if you talk to her, you can help her. I’m not saying to pay her debt off or anything, but you could do something, Viktor. Instead of giving up on her like a weak truslivyy.”
“I am not a coward,” I snapped.
“But you would give her up. Possibly the best thing to ever happen to you. I’ve seen you with her, Viktor. You’re smiling more than you have in years. Even Jameson says that your mood at work and around the office has improved. You’re smoking less too, aren’t you?”
Of course, she was right. Stella was indeed the best thing that had ever happened to me. When I thought of the pack of cigarettes in my suit pocket, I didn’t think I’d had one yet today. But this conversation was making me want one.
“What does it matter how much I’m smoking?” Annika rolled her eyes at my retort. “Stella is her own person. She isn’t some doll that I can keep. Once our contract is over, she’ll go back to her life, and I’ll go back to mine.” Smoking, drinking and fucking myself into an early grave, if I’m lucky.
“Viktor,” Annika’s voice was gentle, taking a motherly tone that made the young boy in the back of my mind thankful he had a childhood thanks to her and my uncle.
“No.” I closed my eyes, fists clenching as I turned away from my aunt. “She’s the Prima Ballerina of New York and she doesn’t need to lower herself to stay with me. Stella is better than that. She deserves so much more, and so much better than me.”
“All of you, Viktor. I need all of you.” Did that really mean anything when I coerced her into saying it?
“Did she tell you that?” The soft question caught me off guard.
“What?” My face lifted back to Annika’s gentle gaze.
“Did Stella tell you she wanted to go back to her life and other contracts? Did she tell you she needs or wants anything other than you? Come on, Viktor, open your eyes. I’ve spent time with her, and it’s as clear as day that the girl cares deeply for you.”
“We don’t really talk about it, the end of the contract, that is. I can’t, Tetya, not without thinking of her leaving and,” I cut myself off. I looked down at my curled fist, white knuckled at the force of how tight it was.
There was a hollowness in my chest thinking about the end, and rage at the thought of Stella moving on with someone else while knowing she hated the need for those illicit contracts.
Oh god, I don’t want her to go. How can I let her go when I’m the one who so clearly needs her?
A deafening silence fell on me as Annika sat back in her seat, simply watching me and the thousands of thoughts flickering behind my eyes. I swallowed past a dry lump in my throat and pushed my hand over my face.
“Is she the one?” My eyes locked on Annika, waiting patiently for me to answer.
By this point, I didn’t need to dig deep to respond. It was a simple question, and the answer was clear to both of us.
“I didn’t even believe in such a thing until I met her.” That weight finally lifted off my chest at the admission.
Annika relaxed, but her smile was sad. “Then you need to figure it out. Until then, we all go to her finale of this season and see her perform as the Swan Queen, yes?”
“Yes, we will.” Annika left after that, going back to Jameson’s office to see if he was ready to leave for lunch.
Alone once more, I watched the storm for the rest of the day through the tinted windows. It was dark and cold outside, but somewhere across the city I hoped Stella had a smile on her face being back in the dancing studio. If she was happy, then I could be too.
Even in the silence, Annika’s question repeated in my head over and over again. “Is she the one?”
“I know I’m not a very religious man, but God, if you are listening to me, please give me strength. Because, she’s the only one.”
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