Authors: Katie Porter
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Erotica
To PK & AG
Burn for you
Lizzie Maynes couldn’t help her little strut as she passed through the brass double doors of Club Devant. As always, the music did obscene things to her sense of self-control. Hips. Ass. The tips of her toes. She simply had to move. To dance was to breathe. She winked at Mr. George, the head bouncer, and headed straight in. A few obvious tourists and bored Chelsea boys milled about the red-and-black entryway, hoping to score tickets.
Yeah, good luck with that.
Dima was headlining. He wouldn’t know how to perform without a sold-out crowd.
That night, he would perform with Lizzie in the audience.
Keeping the beat with her steps, but with a nervous twist in her gut, Lizzie navigated through the packed nightclub. Her aching knee reminded her why she wouldn’t take to the stage with her dance partner of fifteen years. Six months on from the misstep that had shredded her ACL, pain still tweaked her nerves. She had healed, yet performing remained out of the question.
Instead she would watch Dima work the Devant stage—the first time she’d found the nerve to check him out. He’d hold another woman close, guide her, move with her, meet her eyes as if no one else existed. Meanwhile, Lizzie would sip something icy and pretend she didn’t hate the hell out of her life.
She pasted on a performance-worthy smile and approached the table occupied by Club Devant owner Declan Shaw, where he held court with patrons, celebrities and his flavor-of-the-week dancers. The girl on his lap was new. She might not work at the club, but she certainly seemed eager to test-drive the ownership.
“Lizzie.” Declan’s face lit with an amiable smile. “Glad you could finally make it.”
“Better late than never?” she asked, taking a seat.
“I figure you’re, what, six weeks late? He’s been waiting for you.”
She cringed and cupped her elbows. “Don’t you start too. Watching him move on hasn’t been my idea of a great night out.”
He only shrugged. His insouciance was the hallmark of a man who’d survived three decades in show business and had the armor to prove it. Lizzie had thought herself that strong too.
Declan lifted the young woman off his lap. After one pat on her gold-lamé-wrapped ass, he said, “Off you go, love. Have Tony buy you a drink.”
Her petulant pout turned to a glare when she met eyes with Lizzie. Lizzie glared right back because she was already damn tense. Dismissively, she faced the stage. She’d spent too many frantic hours in competition changing rooms for one girl’s fit of pique to wedge under her skin. Catfights over a bottle of fake tanner—that was hardcore.
Hell, she missed it. So badly.
She wondered if Dima did. He certainly didn’t seem to, not when he talked on and on about the freedom of dancing at Devant. Just how long was he going to hold out on the obvious, that they would return to the professional ballroom circuit? Resenting him…she wasn’t used to that.
How could she not, when he continued on, dancing without her?
Because he’s paying the bills. Because, without him, I’d be back at home with Mom and Dad.
Four months of tender loving care had regressed her to a twelve-year-old girl. Escaping had been as necessary as her physical therapy sessions. The two months since her return to the Hell’s Kitchen brownstone she shared with Dima…that hadn’t been much better. Their goals were changing.
was changing—and he’d never been the easiest guy to understand even when they prized the same ambitions.
Her best friend was shutting her out.
Lizzie cupped her elbows. She needed a drink.
“You haven’t missed him,” Declan said.
Her mental response was that yes, she’d missed Dima more than she could say. For so many years, they’d kept nearly identical hours—whether at home or on tour. Now they spent most of the day divided by different commitments. He danced. She slowly went mad.
Realizing Declan had been referring to the performance, she withheld her initial reaction. “Good.”
“Sold-out crowd for the third week in a row,” Declan said. “I assume he showed you the review from Kendall Poplinski? High praise.”
“Yeah, he was stoked about that.”
Whereas Lizzie had been heartsick. The first time in her entire life that the bitchy dance critic found an ounce of good taste, all she did was feed Dima’s excitement about this new venture. The worst part had been the flash of disappointment in his soulful brown eyes when he’d looked at Lizzie. The Notorious Poplinski had seen him dance at Devant.
But Lizzie? Nope. Not yet.
She hadn’t needed a magic Dima interpreter to figure that one out. Her own guilt, plus knowing she’d be equally disappointed had their roles been reversed, had prompted her to attend.
Declan passed a hand over his head. Fit and lean, he wasn’t as old as his closely cut silver hair indicated. Lizzie balked at the realization that she might be nearer to Declan’s age than she was to the tart he’d banished from his lap.
“My offer still stands if you want to join him.” His Dublin accent had been almost entirely erased after ten years in the States. “I could sell out the club for months with Maynes and Turgenev reunited on my stage.”
“Thanks, Declan, really. But we have plans.”
“Ah.” He took a sip of scotch. “The circuit awaits.”
He didn’t say anything else, but Lizzie sensed his disapproval. She knew its weight and shape and texture because she was constantly on the receiving end of the same reaction from Dima. Different reasons. Different ambitions for her future. Same sick, liquid feeling that made her want to slam a Jäger and do something stupid.
One injury from one fall and everything had shattered. She’d thought her life built on a firmer foundation than that.
The lights dimmed. A gold-tinted spotlight hit center stage, where the lush red curtains hung ceiling to floor. The club boasted a modest stage with a slight catwalk that bisected two groups of tables. Everywhere was red and black and gold, as if Declan had transplanted a bit of Vegas kitsch to the West Side. The critics called it tacky. The applauding patrons, dolled up and craving novelty, didn’t seem to care.
Rihanna’s latest single drew to an end. Fabian, the club’s MC, stood to one side of the stage. He wore military-inspired boots, black leather hot pants and a frilly pink lace shirt which actually suited his dark coloring. He did a little shimmy before tucking the mic close to his lips.
“Welcome to Club Devant, you dirty bitches!”
Lizzie had to smile. She held no aspiration to dance on that sleek black parquet stage, but she enjoyed the people who worked there. Anymore, finding Dima meant heading to the club. She’d gotten to know Fabian, Declan and the rest out of pure necessity. A little lonely, a little lost, she hadn’t needed more than a few minutes to learn names and share stories. Still, getting along with the staff wasn’t the same as spending the rest of her career in a Chelsea burlesque club.
“Show some kinky love for tonight’s headline performer. Three-time international Latin ballroom champion Dmitri Turgenev and his partner, Jeanne Copeland.”
He hadn’t won the world title three consecutive years with some stand-in named Jeanne.
Fear became a nasty creature digging into the base of Lizzie’s skull. She dug deep for an even brighter smile, knowing the expression would’ve been joyful and honest had she been ready to join Dima on stage. They hadn’t danced together since the accident. Might as well be a hundred years ago. She missed their closeness like she missed rhythm and power and applause.
Oh yes, Lizzie needed a drink.
However, she’d gathered guts enough to show up and didn’t want to miss the performance. The bar area was unusually crowded, which meant a wait she wasn’t willing to endure. She wondered if that had anything to do with Paul Reeves, the hot new bartender. Rarely did she catalog bartenders’ names, but Paul was well worth remembering.
Fabian sauntered stage right with a wave and a few air kisses. The applause kicked up a notch, followed by an Indian-inspired hip-hop track. Curtains parting, the spotlight found a man standing alone in the middle of the stage, his back to the audience.
Lizzie sucked in a quick breath of air. What the hell was he doing without a shirt on?
Dmitri Turgenev was one of the best Latin dancers in the world, not some sideshow sex attraction. She’d known Devant was a burlesque club, but she’d convinced herself that Dima would rise above it. He always brought years of training and undeniable class to any venture.
Not there. Not then. Despite the up-tempo beat, he turned at half time and strode forward as if he were opening a paso doble, not a playful cha-cha. The play of shadow and light over his bare skin made him beautiful. The way he moved made him a god.
Deities deserved applause as loud as a locomotive.
If even Lizzie was momentarily struck dumb by the wide, gleaming spread of his shoulders and the lithe, sculpted muscles of his lean chest and arms, she couldn’t imagine what spell was weaving over the rest of the club. After all, she’d been dancing with him since before his voice changed. Only she knew how shy he was, how reluctant he was to open up about anything personal—a constant point of frustration in their long partnership. A point of frustration that was breaking them in two.
None of that showed when he hit the stage and set it on fire.
The moment was ruined, however, when a skinny blonde with only a little more grace than fashion sense strutted out to meet him. She swished her lime-green spangles for all they were worth, but her feet sloshed around the parquet.
Lizzie squeezed sharp fingernails into her palms. All wrong. Just…
. Dima was shirtless and bathed in gold and reaching out to a stranger. Only one word thundered through Lizzie’s head.
They were partners. She belonged up there with him, even when that chorus of
mine, mine, mine
didn’t feel professional. It was scary as hell.
She couldn’t change the situation, but she could find some means of staying sane. The last six months had proved that.
“Hmm?” The man was a flirt and a kinkster, but he was also an amazing artist. Outside of hedonism, the only thing he seemed to take seriously was assessing dancers. The play faded, and he judged them with an astute eye.
He was studying Jeanne that way.
“Tell her she shouldn’t wear black shoes anymore,” Lizzie said over the thumping music. “Her feet look like lumps of coal on the end of her legs.”
“That’s what it is. Was bugging me. Well, at least she didn’t wear red.”
Lizzie grinned past a grimace. She hadn’t worn her trademark red dance heels since her injury. If she didn’t get back on the circuit—tugging Dima away from this low-rent distraction—she never would.
The performance slid from straight-up Latin ballroom to something…other. Lizzie’s stomach fell and her heartbeat sped. The blonde slinked rather than stepped. Even Dima shed his exacting posture for a bit of bump and grind that dragged hoots and catcalls from the audience.
“What the hell is this?”
Declan laughed. “Remy got hold of them, I’m afraid.”
“Your choreographer? But we’ve always done our own choreo.”
“Wasn’t my idea,” he said. “Dmitri asked to work with him. He’s been all about exploring new avenues. Surely he’s mentioned as much.”
“Of course.” The words sounded wooden, but spoken so softly, she doubted Declan heard them.
She’d known it would be difficult to watch Dima dance with another woman. That wasn’t the surprise. Instead it was some combination of envy, resentment and even arousal. She blamed the imposed distance. She literally couldn’t be up there with him, forced instead to admire his hard-earned skill and sweat-sleek body. And her frustrations?
worth of frustrations? They had nowhere to go. She could tap her toes and watch the lanky blonde trail her hands over Dima’s bare chest.
What little enthusiasm she’d mustered on that evening dried up like a slice of apple left in the sun.
“I’m gonna get a drink. You need anything?”