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Mercy

By: Annabel Joseph
Published By: Shadow Moon Press
Copyright: Copyright 2008 Annabel Joseph
Sixteen Chapters / 73,900 Words
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Lucy Merritt has always defined herself by her body, whether dancing in a small avant-garde company or posing for art. But she’s always felt as if something is wrong with her, as if something is missing. She’s never been in love. 

Suddenly, in the darkness of the theater wings, a strangely affecting man enters her life. Matthew Norris, rich, handsome patron of the dance company, has decided that he wants Lucy for his own. He makes her an offer that both frightens and compels her, and they soon begin an affair characterized by only two requirements, beauty and truth. 

But how truthful are Matthew and Lucy? How much of Matthew’s strenuous brand of love can Lucy endure? And how long can their rigid Dom/sub relationship stay frozen in time, never growing, never moving forward? 

This book contains intense BDSM scenes and dubious consent. 

Chapter One: Lucy and Mr. Norris

The floor was hard and cold against my shoulders, under my ass. He couldn’t get a carpet? At least an area rug?

I guess this is what he paid me for, this discomfort and chill. My muscles started to ache from lying still and holding the demanding pose. If I didn’t love him so much I would never submit to this, but I completely adored him, so here I was. And yes, he paid me quite well for my services and regularly asked me back, which I found both flattering and reassuring.

I looked up at him from under my eyelashes but I doubt he even noticed my gaze. His eyes were fixed, as always, on my supple dancer’s body offered before him. I watched his powerful strokes, vigorous and intense. He was quite robust for a man of seventy-five. His name was Pietro and he was an artist. And me? My name was Lucy, and unfortunately I wasn’t quite sure from day to day who or what I really was. I guess if I had to choose I would say I was a dancer first, who happened to fall into nude modeling on the side. It was high art stuff, not porn, although I knew plenty of dancers who took the porn route to make ends meet. Like most dancers, I wasn’t precious about my body. I knew it was nice and I used it when it suited me. But porn wasn’t really my thing. It seemed so squalid, so I was glad for this gig, being painted by a real artist.

The broad strokes Pietro made scratched loudly in the silence, that abrasive sound of pencil on textured canvas that I knew so well by now. Sometimes it irritated me, but sometimes it relaxed me and I floated off into daydreams listening to it go on. Sometimes, instead, I pictured the lines of my body as he put them to canvas with his hands. Pietro made large works, sprawling and spare, all shading and lines, although my body and face were definitely there. No abstract, amorphous, unrecognizable figure. It was definitely me and part of me got off on that fact. He thought I was beautiful. He’d told me so when he hired me. “I need your beauty,” he’d rasped to me outside the theater like a desperate man. The very next day, I’d knocked on the door of his studio. He’d guided me inside, coaxed me out of my clothes and said, “Beautiful girl.” Then he turned me so my back was to him and started to sketch my curvy little ass.

But it wasn’t about sex, not even for a second. Believe me, no sex was ever involved. Even though Pietro undressed me like the most solicitous of lovers every time I came over, we were not lovers. We were nothing more than friends. Not even friends really. He was more like a mentor. Or maybe a grandfather, a nice grandfather who gave me advice. I loved Pietro with my whole heart, loved him like the father I’d never had, and Pietro was always kind to me the many hours we spent together at work.

He scratched at a line with his finger, adjusting the shading with a frown. When I thought that my back would break from the strain of the pose, he smiled at me and sighed.

“It is time for a break, I think.”

“How did you know?”

“The little lines in your forehead, they draw together like this.” He made a funny face, an exaggerated imitation of my discomfort. I laughed, shrugging on the robe he handed me.

I looked at the canvas while we chatted and rested. It was almost done, I guessed. The last two works of me had been standing poses, which was much more relaxing. I could stand for an eternity not moving a muscle, piece of cake. But this pose had me on my back with my arms up over my head, and my legs curled loosely at my side. It was a lovely pose, I could see that on the canvas, but it hurt to hold it for such a long time.

Luckily, Pietro was conscientious about giving me breaks. He only refused to let me up when he was in the throes of “the muse.” When I did take a break I felt guilty, because it always took time for him to get back into that same space he’d been. It always took five minutes or more just to return my arms and legs to that perfect angle he craved. I would let him manipulate me into position, loose and compliant. It was sort of like sex, only Pietro wasn’t my lover.

No, my lover had left me last week. Did I say he was my lover? He was my fiancé, actually. The operative word being was. He was my fiancé, until he left me at the altar. He was my fiancé until he realized he was in love with someone else. He had never loved me even though he’d said he did, and I hadn’t loved him, and that was the worst thing of all.

But I preferred not to talk about Joe. I’d finally reached a point where I could conjure his face without bursting into tears. And around the time I reached that point, I decided not to conjure his face anymore at all. I was a practical person in matters of the heart. I had never been in love. I realized that now, after the wretchedness of last week, that I had never been in love and probably never would be, because there was something wrong with me. I couldn’t feel things right, or maybe I just didn’t want to.

Not feeling things came in handy in many ways. As a modern dancer, you’re grappled and grasped pretty regularly. You spend hours punishing your body at the barre, at rehearsals, at choreography, at nightly performances. As an art model, you’re manipulated and posed. When you make your life by your body, it’s actually better not to feel too much. To feel only what matters. Stretch. Breathe. Turn. Soar. I felt my body move in space and that was enough.

This would be the third work I’d done for Pietro. The first two had sold as a set to an anonymous buyer for an obscene amount. After they sold, Pietro had given me five thousand dollars and said he felt it wasn’t enough. I tried to refuse it because he already paid me an hourly wage that was more than fair, but he insisted, telling me it would assuage his guilt.

“What did you sell them for?” I had pressed.

“A lot. A bidding war. Two buyers.” Then he’d told me the amount and my mouth dropped open. I pocketed his check without another word.

But Pietro was deserving of every success. He worked hard at his art and his vision was original and striking. I wondered as we worked what this one would sell for. To me, it was even more beautiful and provocative than the others. I wondered if he thought the same thing, if it mattered to him. What will this bring me? How much money will I make? I wondered if he looked at me differently now. When he looked at me, what did he see? Beauty, as he claimed, or something else? A naked, compelling body to sell for money? Lots of money, it seemed. But I was more than happy to be a vessel for his success.

I left Pietro’s at four o’clock to go to the theater. We had no rehearsals on Tuesday, just a nightly performance at eight. I was meeting Grégoire for dinner beforehand. Grégoire, my dance partner, and my best friend.

Grégoire was a couple years older than me, thirty years old to my twenty-eight. He had cried on my shoulder the day of his birthday. “Thirty?” he’d mourned. “It’s too awful to be true.” And it was awful, because we were dancers. Our performance life spans were miserably short, especially with the kind of punishing dance we did. I already nursed aches and twinges that worsened by the week. I hoped to make it to thirty-five, but even that seemed an unlikely event. So I held Grégoire in total empathy that night, stroking his soft black hair and crying along with him. Life after dance was something I never thought of, something I hadn’t planned for, at least not yet.

“Lucy!” He waved to me as I neared the stage door. He was leaning against the wall jabbering on the phone. Talking to his boyfriend no doubt, who he claimed to love desperately, but who was rarely around. “He works,” he explained. “He’s not in the arts.” The sugar daddy, who had a real job. Every dancer needed one, just as I’d had, only I hadn’t been able to hold onto mine.

I waved back to him and crossed the cracked pavement. The ground outside the theater was littered with cigarette butts and plastic water bottle caps. Disgusting dancers, I thought to myself. I went inside to drop off my bag in my dressing room, my eyes adjusting to the darkness from the blinding light outside. I was so sun-struck I almost collided with someone in the corridor. He steadied me and I looked up at him with an embarrassed grin.

“Sorry, I’m blind.”

He answered with a smile and left his hand on my elbow just a little longer than seemed right. And I can’t explain it, but the way he held my arm felt...well...almost inappropriate in some way. When he finally let go I scurried down the hall, fighting the urge to look back.

But it was hard not to, because even in my blindness I noticed he was an extremely attractive man. Even sun blind, he’d made me feel hot and agitated with nothing more than the strange firmness of his touch. Sandy blond hair, a broad face and mouth, and blue eyes that couldn’t possibly have been as light as they looked. It was just the sun, I thought, that made them so singular. It was only the sun that made me feel so unglued.

I pushed into my dressing room and found Elinor there. I dropped my bag, and I normally would have walked right back out. But he might still be back there by the stage door, and for some reason I didn’t feel up to facing him again. Instead I resigned myself to small talk with Ellie. Elinor was a dyed-in-the-wool dancer, artistic and pure. Talking to her was like driving wood chips under my fingernails. After five minutes of her prattle, I figured I’d rather face the elbow grabber in the hall.

But he was gone. I burst from the stage door and gestured impatiently for Grégoire to hang up. Grégoire, the blessed antidote to Elinor. Grégoire was as far from precious as they come, especially considering he was a gorgeous, gay euro-boy come over from Paris to the delight of us all. He spoke English like it was his bitch. I wished often that I was a man because I loved him so much.

“How are you, gorgeous?” he asked, ruffling my hair.

“I’m fine.”

“How’s Pietro? You posed today, huh?”

“Yeah, he’s fine. He’s good.”

Grégoire was both fascinated and jealous of my art modeling. When I’d first begun as Pietro’s model, he’d demanded blow-by-blow accounts of every boring session. Now he seemed to finally be getting over it. “How’s Georges?” I asked.

“He’s out of town for the week. I miss him already. He gave me quite the send off last night.”

I braced, hoping he wouldn’t go into details, but of course he did. I listened, half aroused and half aghast. Georges and Grégoire shared a pretty intense sex life, more intense than anything I’d ever had. I guessed it was a sugar daddy gay thing but yeah, it turned me on. I found my mind returning to the man in the corridor, the man of the insistent elbow grasp, and I wondered what his sex life was like. A garden of delights, like Georges and Grégoire enjoyed, or the bland but satisfying niceness that Joe and I endured? And yes, I had only endured it.

Outwardly, I guess most would have been happy. He made love to me with such care and attention, it would have made any woman pleased, but I faked ninety-nine percent of my orgasms. He made love to me with such careful attention that it crossed the line from erotic to clinical. Nothing was worse than when he went down on me. I shuddered just thinking of it, how considerate and solicitous he’d been. When I shuddered, Grégoire thought I was cold and pulled me closer.

“Let’s pretend we’re married,” he said.

“Again? We pretend that every day.”

He put his big hand on my ass and squeezed it. “This time, pretend like you mean it, Lu.”

The sway of his hips matched mine as we walked together. Grégoire was not a swishy gay man, although he could be if he wanted to. He was actually quite proud of his straight act, which he honed and perfected. His lover, Georges, was not completely out of the closet. When he took Grégoire out around town, he was expected to act straight. And of course as a dancer, Grégoire had to be masculine and he was. Actually, people assumed we were lovers because he was so absolutely masculine when we danced together. And I suppose in a way we were lovers. There’s no other way to express that dynamic between devoted partners who really know each other. Who know each other’s center, each other’s lines and planes and joints. Grégoire knew me like a ball player knows his ball, like a musician knows his instrument, like a carpenter knows his tools. He was attuned to every single thing about me and my body, and when he danced with me everyone could tell.

Of course, I had other partners. I danced with many partners in the company who were very good and skilled and knew me very well. But Grégoire was my partner, my best match, and I was his. It was a wonderful relationship, one I felt blessed to have. 

* * *

 

Later that night, I woke up at three A.M. from a nightmare. It was the same nightmare I had several nights a week, the feeling of having a hand clamped over my mouth so I couldn’t breathe and I couldn’t scream. I had the same unbearable feeling on waking, the desperate need to cry, to weep. I knew that if I could only cry, things might start to get better. The need for me to cry was so acute that it was painful. I screwed up my face, tried to force those wet droplets from the corners of my eyes. But nothing, no tears came. They never did.

These nightmares had been happening for months, long before my recent breakup with Joe. That dry tense feeling when the tears wouldn’t come, it drove me to desperation. In the beginning I used to scream trying to bring the tears to my eyes, but all my screams brought were the police, yelling and banging on the door to see if I was all right. I assured them that I was fine, that’d I just had a nightmare. Thank you, officers. Sorry. Good night.

If you saw me from the outside, you would never suspect that I was a person who woke up regularly with the excruciating need to scream. That I was a person who couldn’t bring tears to my wide green eyes no matter how hard I willed it. That I was a person who was dead inside. The truth hurts, but that’s what I was. My body was the only thing that made me alive.

On the outside, I looked like a normal person. A dancer with a healthy body, muscular and lithe. I had very pale skin, the result of a life inside theaters and studios, hours at the barre. My hair was red, longish length, and waved into curls when I didn’t have it up. And my dark green eyes, they were nothing spectacular either...not like his, I found myself thinking. No, I looked totally typical and normal from the outside. Not to say I was a depressed, unhappy person either. I don’t know how to describe what I was. I guess I was someone who was waiting to become someone. Which was unfortunate, since I was pushing twenty-nine.

* * * 

On Wednesdays my company had a traditional class before rehearsals. I came in the stage door almost hoping to collide with the blue-eyed man again, but he wasn’t there. Why couldn’t I get him out of my mind? We had exchanged one touch, been in each other’s space five seconds at most.

What had he been doing backstage? I knew he wasn’t a dancer. He was too old, and had been wearing business clothes. I didn’t recognize him as any of the administrative suits. He certainly wasn’t the type of man who organized and ran small dance companies. What type of man was he, then? What did he do? Something very powerful, I thought, and I don’t know why I was so certain of that. Had he ever seen me dance? And why should I care? I went into the rehearsal room and threw down my dance bag in frustration. I started to stretch next to Grégoire at the barre. Reach. Bend. Breathe. Point. I flexed my feet, went up on my toes, felt the strength in my muscles along with that faint but ever present twinge of ache. My mind emptied as the rehearsal captain began and I soon lost myself to the push and pull, the straining and agony, the soothe and sweep of modern dance.

Our company was considered avant-garde, although we used classical technique and even sometimes danced en pointe. We used new and buzz-worthy choreographers and non-traditional music, and performed acrobatics that made people marvel, bringing more and more fans to our shows. We were a relatively small company, twenty-four dancers, but we were growing and had just moved into a larger theater space earlier in the year.

And my place in this scrappy little company? I suppose I was one of the stars, although when you dance for a small company and don’t make much money, you don’t feel like a star. Nor did I have much of an ego. I didn’t dance for the ovation. I danced because I had to dance, because it was who I was. But I was able to do the more spectacular tricks of the choreography, which earned me respect and made the roses fall at my feet. It was a good life, and now, since my breakup with Joe, it had become my whole life, for better or worse.

These exercises were bone memory, a meditation. I could cycle through them half asleep. Point. Reach. Turn. Bend. It was so simple and precise. It was comfortable absentia, a mantra for the body that I couldn’t live without. I leaned back into a graceful, languorous stretch. I smiled, catching Grégoire’s eyes over my shoulder. Then my smile froze and I almost fell off balance, because there, over Grégoire’s shoulder, my eyes found him.

It was all I could do not to whip my head around, turn back to take a longer look at him leaning against the wall. He stood casually, his arms crossed over his chest, but his eyes had been fixed on me.

I swallowed hard, tried to keep my mind on my work. A flush rose in my cheeks as I realized I’d flubbed a tendu. Somehow I knew without a doubt that he noticed. In fact, I pictured him smiling that same amused smile he’d given me in the hall. I fixed my eyes on some point across the room and kept them there. I refused to look at him even when I turned to work his way. I was so tired of thinking of this man and now he here he was, in class, the one place I could usually relax. The whole time I fought with myself to put him from my mind, all I could think was that his eyes were really that blue.

When we finished at the barre, I turned to Grégoire.“Who is that?” I asked, nodding over my shoulder.

Grégoire looked in his direction. “That, my dear, is a new patron of our company. Smile nicely for the very rich man.” He gazed over at him with a broad, fake smile. I pinched his arm hard.

“Stop it, G! What is he doing here?”

“I don’t know what he’s doing here. Seeing where all his hard-earned dollars go. Watching class. Watching you, right now.”

“Stop looking at him.” I felt like I was back in middle school, in the cafeteria checking out boys.

“He’s still looking at you,” breathed Grégoire.

I looked over at the man finally, and his eyes met mine and held them until I flinched first and looked away.

“What is he, some kind of businessman?”

“Yes.”

“He dresses like one. Is he gay?”

“He’s a very rich and very straight developer,” Grégoire chirped back. “His name is Matthew Norris.”

“How do you know that?”

“Because I met him yesterday. We were all drooling over him. He was meeting with Maureen.”

Maureen, the business manager of the company. I glared at Grégoire as he shot another admiring glance Mr. Norris’s way. “I thought you had a boyfriend that you just adored.”

“I do. I can look. He’s looking at you again.”

“So what?” I feigned disinterest but Grégoire saw right through me.

“You’re not attached anymore,” he said with an all-too-knowing grin. “He’s still looking at you.”

To my relief, the rehearsal master called us to attention and continued the class.

* * *

After the show that night I went back to Georges’s place with Grégoire. He’d begged me to come since Georges was out of town, but as soon as we got there, I figured out what he was up to. He immediately booted up his boyfriend’s computer.

We searched using the keywords Matthew Norris, developer, New York, and I was amazed at how many results came up. I browsed over the pages for a while until I started to feel like a stalker, and then left with a show of boredom and went into the other room. But Grégoire kept at it, dug through articles and postings to turn up facts on him. He called them out while I pretended disinterest in front of the TV.

“He’s divorced,” he yelled. “Years ago. And you wouldn’t believe what he had to pay her to get out of it.”

“Did he cheat on her?”

“It doesn’t say. Hold on, I’ll try to find out.”

I rolled my eyes. Even if he discovered Mr. Norris was a cheating scumbag, he wouldn’t have told me because he clearly wanted me to hook up with him. Even if he discovered he had leprosy, ate babies in satanic rituals, and ran a meth lab, he still wouldn’t have told me on the off chance we’d go out.

“Damn, he has a girlfriend,” he sighed a moment later. Then, “Oh, they recently broke up. Ha!” A triumphant laugh. “He’s available, Lu.”

I didn’t reply but a part of me got excited. He’s available. Did he want me? He was a single man, rich, handsome, a patron of the arts. Grégoire said he’d been watching me during class...

But what did he want with me? The way he’d looked at me... He’d looked at me like he already knew me. He’d handled me in the hall like I was already his. That’s why it had felt so strange. It had been a possessive grip when he had no right to possession. He was clearly a man who was used to getting anything he wanted, but just because he donated to the company didn’t mean he could choose a girl from the ranks for his pleasure. For his pleasure. Why did my mind automatically go there? Maybe he only liked my dancing. Maybe he just wanted to be friends.

No, I didn’t get that vibe from him. When he looked at me, when he’d touched me, it wasn’t friendliness I felt. My mind snapped from its train of thought when Grégoire started printing. “God, G.” I sighed, rolling my eyes. “Why are you doing this?”

“For you, dearest,” he said in my ear, and then dropped a photograph in my lap.

Yes, it was him, larger than life. The blond hair, the blue eyes that haunted my dreams. The broad face, the masculine features, the perfect smile. I shivered and felt strangely afraid. I handed it back to him. “I want you to have it. Something to stroke to while Georges is out of town.”

“Oh, come on!” He shoved the picture back into my hands. “It took me fifteen minutes to figure out how to blow that up for you.”

“I don’t want it.” I ignored him even though he was inches from my face, smiling his mischievous smile. “I have absolutely no interest in this rich prick.”

“He’s not a prick. I know you’re not big on guys right now,” he said, “but this guy! What do you think he’s worth? How many millions?”

“Why does that matter?” I shook my head. “It probably just makes him weird.”

“Weird?”

“Yes, weird. All rich people are weird. And he’s totally weird. I can tell he is.”

“Georges is rich, and he’s not weird.”

“Yes he is, if what you tell me about your sex life is true.”

Grégoire laughed, jumped over the sofa and curled up with his head in my lap. “Oh, Lucy.”

I didn’t reply, just ran my fingers through his sleek black hair.

“You know what? I think you’re really, really sad.” He stroked my leg, soft and slow. “I think this thing with Joe has tripped you up.”

“It hasn’t. It’s just made me realize some things about love.”

“Love?” Grégoire snorted. “You don’t know anything about love, Lucy Merritt.”

He teased, but his words hit a little too close to home. Anyway, who was he to lecture me about love? “I’m going,” I muttered, pushing him out of my lap.

“Aw, don’t be mad.”

“I’m tired. It’s late, you stupid French pretty boy. I’ll see you tomorrow. Have a nice night.”

“Don’t forget your photo,” he said, holding out the picture of Matthew Norris.

“Thanks.” I crumpled it into a fistful of paper before shoving it in my bag, feeling full of fear and frustration and lust. 

* * *

As soon as I got home, of course, I took out the photo, smoothed out the wrinkles as best I could. I lay on my bed and looked at it a long time, trying to inure myself to the beauty of his face.

And yes, I found him unbearably beautiful, which was strange, because he was far from a classically beautiful man. He looked rather coarse and rough around the edges. Animalistic, my uncooperative mind whispered. Yes, that was exactly what he was, animal male disguised in a suit. The proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing, and me, I was the sheep. I looked at his eyes a long time hoping and wishing it wasn’t true, but then I remembered his hand on my arm, his look in the rehearsal hall, and I knew it was true. I was his prey.

As much as he compelled me, I was scared that he wanted me. Really scared. I was pretty sure he wasn’t a criminal or a rapist, and the truth was, if I didn’t want to see Mr. Norris, I didn’t have to. I thought about all the trivia Grégoire had yelled out to me. He mentors inner city children for Big Brothers and Big Sisters! He donates a ridiculous amount of money to charities. He owns that beautiful new skyscraper over on Marsden. He’s made all his millions from nothing, he came from a dirt poor family in the Midwest!

I looked into Mr. Norris’s sharp, piercing eyes and tried to imagine him as a young child, poor and hungry. I studied his perfectly tailored suit and crisp white collar and tried to imagine him in ill-fitting clothes, no books or toys to play with, no trips to the doctor when he was sick. I thought I could see it there a little, in the small wrinkles around his eyes. Or maybe he was just tired. I didn’t suppose rich, sexy businessmen like him had much use for sleep. I’d grown up poor too, in the Deep South. Raised by a single mother who’d sacrificed everything—her youth, her money, her happiness, so I could dance the way I’d been born to. Just after I’d finally “made it,” been hired into a company in Atlanta, she’d been hit by a car walking to work.

I crumpled the picture back up. Ludicrous to think we had anything in common. Just because we were both born poor trashy people didn’t mean we belonged together now. All we had in common was that he was a new patron of my dance company, and that he seemed to have a hard on for the talent, which was me. I uncrumpled it and tore it into a thousand pieces so I wouldn’t be tempted to look at it again.

I lay in bed late into the night though, trying to erase the photo from my mind. Trying to erase the feeling that we had more in common than dirt poor beginnings.

* * *

I was really tired the next day and dragged myself to rehearsals in a funk. I avoided Grégoire and hid out in my dressing room until Elinor arrived, at which point I grabbed my pointe shoes and settled on the floor in the hall. I buried my face in the newspaper, working on the crossword puzzle. I was just tying my shoes, trying to figure out a nine letter word for love, when a pair of expensive loafers came to a stop on the floor beside me.

Holy shit.

I looked up at him. My heart pounded in my chest and I had to make myself breathe.

“Hello, Lucy,” he said.

“Hello, Mr. Norris.”

He frowned a little. “How did you know my name?”

“How did you know mine?” I said right back, before the politeness filter in my brain kicked into gear.

He laughed. “Please call me Matthew.”

“Okay, Matthew.” But it felt strange to call him Matthew. He looked like someone I should call Mr. Norris, especially looking down his nose at me as he was. I looked back at my puzzle and recommenced tying my shoes. My heart was beating so hard I was sure he would hear it.

“You can do that without even looking.” He sounded impressed.

“Yes. I’ve tied these shoes thousands of times.”

I looked up again and he smiled down at me, and I hated how I felt under that breathtaking smile. He offered his hand.

“We haven’t met properly, have we?”

I stood up then because he expected me to. It’s more accurate to say that he pulled me up, although he did it so naturally that there was no hint of force. But I came to my feet as if something propelled me, and what propelled me was his large, impossibly strong hand. He introduced himself formally, in a deep voice that held only a trace of Midwestern accent.

“Matthew Norris. I’m a big fan of your dancing.”

“Lucy Merritt,” I replied. “Merritt with two t’s.”

That seemed to amuse him and he smiled.

“It’s nice to meet you, Lucy Merritt with two t’s.”

I stood there feeling ridiculous, seeing Grégoire out of the corner of my eye, and a few other dancers eavesdropping on our conversation like a bunch of gossip whores.

“What are you doing here again?” I asked, a little peevishly. “Don’t you work?”

“Oh, yeah, I work,” he said, and the smile he gave me then didn’t quite reach his eyes.

“A busy patron of the arts... So you’re here checking out your investment?”

“One of them, yes.”

I looked down at my feet, hating the blush in my cheeks. I was irritated that he made me feel this way. I couldn’t quite believe he’d come out and said that to me, especially with half the company watching.

“I find your dancing very inspirational,” he continued. “You’re a true pleasure to watch.”

“Thank you,” I mumbled to the floor.

“Am I making you uncomfortable?”

“A little.” I looked pointedly at the dancers milling around.

“I’m harmless, I promise.” He leaned closer and I had to look up at him, look in those piercing eyes that seemed far from harmless to me. “I just appreciate a thing of beauty when I see it, Lucy Merritt.”

I panicked. I threw a glance at the other dancers and blushed an even deeper shade of red.

“I’m not a thing,” I finally managed to say. “And I have to go to class now. Excuse me.”

I didn’t wait for a reply, just shouldered my bag and practically ran down the hall. And prayed, really prayed that he wouldn’t be watching class today. Thankfully he wasn’t, although Grégoire frowned at me from across the barre.

“What is wrong with you?” he sniped while we stretched. “You really pissed him off, you know.”

“So what? He’s a big boy.”

“Yes, he’s a very big boy and he just donated a lot of money to the theater.”

“So that means he can take his pick of the dancers?”

“Oh, come on. He’s interested in you. What’s so bad about that?”

“He’s weird, G!”

“No, he’s not. I talked to him after you left. He’s a really nice guy. I tried to defend you, you know. I told him you were actually a pretty nice person. Which you used to be.”

“I don’t need you apologizing on my behalf. Anyway, he called me a thing.”

“He was complimenting you, Lucy. I heard the whole conversation, believe me.”

“Well, he looked at me like I was a thing. Like I was his thing. Just because he donates money to the company—”

“Oh, Jesus. A rich guy wants to ask you out. Cry me a river! Don’t you see? This is what you need right now, a nice sugar daddy rebound romance.”

I stretched with punchy intensity, leaning over to touch each toe. What I needed was for him to shut up, which he never seemed to do. “I don’t need anything right now, okay? No men, no dates, no rich creepy guys looking down their noses at me.”

“Whatever.” He did some effortless jumps, then leaned down to hug his ankles with a sigh. “Lucy, I love you,” he said, his voice muffled by his shins. “Don’t be mad at me. I just want you to be happy again.”

“I love you too, G,” I finally muttered. “And I am happy,” I lied.

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