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It’s no easy feat transitioning from the disciplined arena of competitive gymnastics to the artistic whirl of the Cirque du Monde. Kelsey Martin finds secret inspiration in Theo Zamora, a dark, taciturn trapezist--until his partner dies in a tragic accident and he decides to leave the circus for good.
Theo doesn’t understand why Kelsey reaches out to him, only that she compels him with her unique combination of innocence and recklessness. Before long the two are collaborating on an aerial silks act for a new production, the Cirque de Minuit. Theo’s impatience with Kelsey’s naivete is matched only by his passion for her, and the two soon become embroiled in a tempestuous, consuming romance.
But some still blame Theo for his partner’s accident, and danger wraps up the two performers as inevitably as the scarlet silk of their act. Theo and Kelsey must find a way to connect and trust one another as he leads her deeper and deeper into a dangerous world of control and desire.
Publisher’s Note: This erotic romance novel is approximately 70K words and contains sexual content, graphic language, and situations that some readers may find objectionable: Anal play/intercourse, m/f/m menage, BDSM scenes, power exchange themes, and swinging/partner sharing.
Kelsey was lost again. She couldn’t believe it.
Four months at Cirque du Monde’s Paris headquarters, and the mazelike corridors of its training facility still flabbergasted her sense of direction. The hallways met at strange angles and the numbers followed no system she could discern. Some walls were glass, while others were painted concrete. A small meeting room might be nestled next to a cavernous rehearsal space, a dressing room next to a director’s office. She was looking for a trainer’s office at the moment.
She was pretty sure she was in the “J” corridor, but she needed to be in the “I” corridor. She opened the next door she encountered, hoping to cut across, and found herself in a dimly lit, cluttered storage room. The ceiling soared above her, dotted by skylights. She had just enough light to navigate through the densely stacked boxes, but she still managed to trip over a low-lying obstacle. Her gymnast’s reflexes were the only thing that saved her from a total pratfall. She rolled and came to a stop with her back against the side of a crate, rubbing her aching shin. Graceful, Kelsey. Thank God no one saw that.
Then she heard voices, a man’s deeper voice and a woman’s soft one. The man sounded angry. Kelsey stood and peered around the crate in front of her in the semi-darkness. The couple was perhaps twenty yards away. Minya, a gorgeous Chinese trapeze artist, and him.
Theo Zamora, her soaring fantasy. Her pirate king.
Kelsey had noticed Theo Zamora the first day of her auditions. He’d strolled through the studio around ten in the morning—she even remembered the time. Just the way he walked, the casual flick of his wrist as he passed them, arrested her. She’d been unable to look away until he’d left through the other door. She’d seen him a couple other times that week, and each time his presence had affected her in the same visceral way. When she was hired a week later, her first thought was Now I work in the same company as him.
Kelsey was always watching for him, stealing peeks into practice gyms and company meetings in hopes of a glimpse of his tall strong body, his dark eyes. She stared at him each night backstage as they performed in the Cirque Tsilaosa show. Not once—not one time—had they exchanged words.
Exchanged words? Ha. Theo Zamora didn’t even know she existed. He was unapproachable to her, a sleek and powerful idol to be admired from afar. Even now, her heart raced to be in such close proximity to him.
Kelsey pressed her hand to her mouth and stood perfectly still as she watched the couple in profile. He was scolding his trapeze partner. Kelsey couldn’t hear his words, but she picked up the inflection of French, his native language. He towered over Minya, his face a menacing mask.
Dark-haired Minya shrank away, fell to her knees. Theo pulled her up again, not roughly but not gently either, and pushed her face down over the edge of a box. Kelsey waited for Minya to pull away, but the quivering woman stayed still, her legs pressed together and her face buried in her arms.
Kelsey knew she shouldn’t witness this private moment, but she couldn’t look away. She watched with horrified fascination as Theo rummaged through his gym bag and then straightened. Some kind of belt or strap dangled from his hand. Oh my God. Kelsey felt traumatized and yet aroused by the menacing way he stood, his stern expression. She sucked in a silent breath as he braced his hand on the small of Minya’s back. The sound of the strap’s impact made her jump.
Kelsey dug her nails into her palm, shocked that Minya didn’t try to get away. But she didn’t. She actually seemed to be enjoying it, squirming and pressing her hips against the edge of the box. Kelsey could hear her low, erotic moans each time he brought the strap down again. The only sign of distress was a small kick of her feet—and those muffled moans.
Theo was clearly enjoying himself too, from the aggressive pleasure written on his face. She’d read about people doing this kind of stuff, but to see it going on right in front of her eyes...to hear the cracking sounds of impact and Minya’s intimate noises...
Kelsey’s knees gave way. She huddled behind the crate, hugging herself. Blood rushed in her ears. She was freaked out, and yet… She closed her eyes and slid her hand between her legs, trying to soothe the shocking, unexpected bloom of lust. Her stomach was in knots as the strapping continued, but her clit signaled something else altogether. You like this. This passionate violence.
You want it yourself.
At last the sound of the blows stopped. Kelsey scrambled to her feet and peered over the top of the crate. Theo squeezed and patted Minya’s ass cheeks through her leotard while she remained submissively draped over the box. A snap of his fingers, and she was down on the floor again. Kelsey’s pussy seemed to pulse in time with the petite woman’s movements. How would it feel to lay at his feet, conquered by him, her ass burning and sore from his strap?
She held her breath as Theo thrust his hand down his gym pants and...oh my God. He exposed his engorged, jutting cock, beckoning his partner. Minya didn’t resist, even when he grabbed the back of her hair and... Wow. How could Minya take him so deep in her throat and still breathe?
Minya reached out to brace herself against his legs. He took her hands in his and pulled her closer. Minya gagged slightly, but she didn’t fight, didn’t resist, and he didn’t back away from her. It was so carnal, so animalistic that Kelsey forgot herself and gasped aloud. His gaze flew to hers at once, over boxes and crates of equipment. Their eyes locked, and then his lips twisted into a lurid smile.
“Hey you, girl, hiding there. Either join us or get out.”
It was the first words he’d ever spoken to her. Kelsey ducked her head and ran for her life.
* * * * *
After that, Kelsey saw him constantly, no matter how much she went out of her way to avoid him. They were all working on Tsilaosa together, so it really couldn’t be helped. Kelsey was training in order to replace one of the acrobats who was taking a break to start a family. Theo and Minya were a well-established act, one of the anchor acts for the production.
With a cast of only fifty-odd people, Kelsey was pretty visible as a trainee. Add in her distinctive white-blonde hair, and there was no chance he hadn’t recognized her. When he met her eyes the next day in the weekly production meeting, he made it abundantly clear he remembered her and what she’d seen.
Minya, on the other hand, ignored her. The doe-eyed trapezist seemed lost in her own world. Kelsey had always interpreted her standoffishness and dreamy quality as artistic affectation, but now she couldn’t stop picturing her cowering at Theo’s feet. She wondered what Minya had done to deserve that punishment—if it was even really punishment—and how often the two played out scenes like the one she’d spied on.
Kelsey had a sick feeling he knew she hadn’t been scandalized by what she’d seen. God, if he had any idea how many times she’d masturbated over it, hiding under her blankets in the company dorms... Even now, in the middle of the busy backstage, the scene replayed itself in her mind for the hundredth time. Minya’s graceful submission and Theo’s muscular arm rising and falling—
“Hey, Kels. How’s it going?”
Kelsey swung around, hoping her train of thought wasn’t written all over her face. “Oh. Hi.”
Jason Beck was one of her coaches, a fellow Californian who made the unfamiliar French headquarters feel a little more like home. Like all the Cirque’s employees, he was supremely fit and staunchly professional. He put a hand on her back. “Want me to help you stretch?”
She didn’t take it as a come-on even though, before Theo, Jason would have been her type—tall and muscular, with longish chestnut hair he tamed into a ponytail at the back of his neck. Kelsey knew the countless times Jason touched and manipulated her each day had nothing to do with sex or flirtation. It was just part of his job.
Jason had a reputation for being zealous about his new recruits, about getting them acclimated and involved in one of Cirque du Monde’s fifteen currently operating shows. So Kelsey tolerated his poking, pushing, prodding, and general questioning as the practice space around them ratcheted up in motion and noise.
Unfortunately, since she’d turned to talk to Jason, she saw Theo saunter past jugglers and a troupe of musclemen to lean against the pull-up bars. He scanned the room with haughty disinterest. Kelsey looked away before he caught her staring, but Jason noticed and turned to find the object of her scrutiny.
He turned back to her a moment later with pursed lips, pushing her ankle back nearly to her shoulder. “I wouldn’t recommend getting tangled up with the likes of him.”
“‘The likes of him?’ You sound like my grandma.”
“Grandma knows best,” he said, releasing her. “Listen, all the new girls—and guys—get fascinated with him in the beginning. But he’s not relationship material.”
“Minya likes him.” Kelsey watched Theo’s partner do some half-assed warm-ups on the practice trapeze. Theo glanced at Minya, then away. Kelsey studied them from behind Jason’s back, trying to decode their body language. “So, are they a couple or what?”
Jason rolled his eyes. “I’ll go with or what. You’re probably better off not knowing.”
“What does that mean?”
“I mean, they’re weird. He’s weird, she’s weird. They belong together. You, on the other hand, are very normal and well-adjusted, and I’d hate to see that change.”
“Well-adjusted? Really?” Kelsey frowned. “That means I’m boring.” Since coming to train at the Cirque, Kelsey had the sinking feeling she was hopelessly dull compared to everyone around her. Being focused and responsible had worked great for her in the world of competitive gymnastics, but now...
“Kelsey, you are a breath of fresh air,” Jason assured her. “Too many over-the-top personalities around here. It gets old.” He finished with her other leg and shook his head. “What is this place, when two Californians are the most normal people to be found?” He started on her core, helping her twist and warm up her arms and shoulders. “While we’re on the subject, I would also avoid the parties he and his cronies attend.”
Kelsey frowned. “Drugs?”
“God, no. You know they test here. Therefore...they get their thrills in other ways, and Theo happens to be one of the ringleaders. He’s not a nice guy.”
“He doesn’t seem that nice.”
“But he’s good at trapeze. One of the best in the business.”
“So I should admire him professionally, but avoid him socially.”
“Like the plague.”
Kelsey laughed. “Okay, I’m sensing you feel strongly about this.”
“I just think you should be concentrating on your training right now. This is a transitional time for you in the company. They have high hopes for your future, but you have to give them what they want.”
“Do you think I haven’t been concentrating on my training? I’m working damn hard. Ow!”
Jason ruthlessly worked at a knot in one of her back muscles. “I didn’t say anything about you not concentrating. Let’s keep it that way. New people sometimes get too caught up in the partying and backstage shenanigans. I call it the circus underbelly. I’ve seen more than one promising recruit go down.”
“Yeah, way down.”
Kelsey looked around at the assembled company as the stage manager called out “Ten minutes to animation!” None of the performers looked especially dissolute or seamy. Well, most of them didn’t, she thought, with a sidelong glance at the object of her obsession.
“Don’t worry,” she said, shrugging away from her coach’s prodding fingers. “I’m not taking chances with anything right now.”
“Genevieve says you can take Marisol’s place in just a few weeks, if you feel ready. How are things going with you and the other acrobats?”
Kelsey turned to take in the group of Argentinean tumblers she’d been rehearsing with. She was getting the routines okay. They were certainly within her physical skill set. The greater challenge was growing more natural as a performer, and tapping into the communal synergy. The Argentineans were a smooth, well-oiled machine, while she was still a misfiring spark plug. She didn’t even speak their language. She looked back at Jason and shrugged. “I just need practice. I don’t feel ready yet, but I’ll get it.”
“Yes, you will.” He manipulated her feet now, paying careful attention to her joints. “You can do all the things Marisol does. Easily. It’s just about getting into the rhythm of the group.”
“And learning Spanish.”
“Sí, querida. It will come. If you want to stay with Cirque du Monde, it wouldn’t hurt to learn French and Russian too. Mandarin, if you’re really ambitious.” He winked and patted her thigh, then moved off to help some of his other charges.
Kelsey lay back with a sigh and stared up at the beams in the ceiling, and the air conditioning ducts painted in red, orange, blue, and fuchsia. Kelsey had on a similarly multicolored leotard, along with her puffy blue plastic wig. Her light blonde hair was tucked securely underneath. Her makeup was just as involved as the main performers’, even though for now she was only an extra, cavorting during act changes and helping move equipment.
Kelsey was anxious to get involved in one of the actual acts, but in the circus, you paid your dues and worked your way up. In the world of gymnastics she’d been a luminary, making it as far as a U.S. Olympic team alternate. Now she was an alternate again, training to step in for someone else. But she was here. The Cirque du Monde. Isn’t that what she’d wanted? She was tired of being the good girl, the disciplined Olympian. She was as creative and passionate as anyone else, and she was eager to let that side of herself out into the light. That’s what she’d said during her interview with Genevieve, the director of the show.
Now she just had to get it done.
Kelsey sat up and looked around, noting that only Theo and Minya weren’t outfitted in rainbow hues. He was stark black from head to toe. No wig needed...his natural hair was black as midnight. Minya was light to Theo’s dark, in a shimmering white and yellow bodysuit studded with crystals and topped off by a wig of fiery orange hair. For performances, she streaked the wig with red and gold highlights, to stunning effect.
Theo took his partner’s hand, and Minya looked up at him sideways. Kelsey couldn’t see her expression. Was she smiling? Seductive? Or questioning? Theo looked at her so intently. What must that feel like, to be the object of his undivided attention?
“Three minutes to animation!” The stage manager’s voice boomed in the backstage area. Kelsey shook off her horny daydreams and leaned to fish a red sugar straw out of her bag, tearing off the edge and upending it. A small, tart cascade of candy landed on her tongue. Across the room, Jason shook a finger at her, but she didn’t care. It was her pre-show ritual. The tart sugar was the taste of her dreams coming true.
Kelsey pranced through her roles in the production, enjoying every moment of it. Bystander #3. Villager. Spotter. Minor roles, but each necessary. A small opportunity to shine. After she finished helping the juggler pull her stuff off the stage, Kelsey settled down in the shadows of the wings to watch Theo and Minya’s act at the top of the vast auditorium. The couple clasped the trapeze together and a cable pulled them up, so far up, at least eighty feet in the air to the bird’s nest. They checked lines and the balance of the bar, and the act began.
Kelsey had watched them fly so many times, she knew every release, every trick. Minya catapulted from Theo’s arms into a breathtaking somersault, and then back to his grasp. They flew side by side sometimes in a sinuous dance of strength, and at other times, Minya hung from his hands, his knees, his shoulders. It amazed Kelsey, their strength and dexterity while swinging from a bar so many feet off the ground. There was no net, no spotters. For the final, most difficult trick, Minya wore a single safety line.
Kelsey could never have done it. You can never have him, trapezist or no. He’s not for you. No, they belonged together, Theo and Minya, the pirate king and his orange-gold shadow, flung and then caught up again in space. The beauty of their dance brought tears to Kelsey’s eyes. Theo swung high, higher. It was time for the big finish. Minya flew upwards, her arms spread wide—
Kelsey knew right away something was wrong.
The angle was too great, the height was off. The audience didn’t know. They gasped in awe at the way Minya soared. Kelsey watched Theo, her blood pounding in her ears. He swung back, a twist of his body, and tried to catch her on the way down. His legs strained and he arched, reaching for her. Even from eighty feet below, even petrified with horror, Kelsey noted the mortal concentration on his face. He caught his partner for a moment, grasped her by the hand. His grip arrested her arc and she jerked. She no longer looked graceful.
Now, with that jerk and break in formation, the audience knew something was wrong, and the gasps turned to silence and panicked sharp screams. Kelsey’s own scream caught in her throat as the trapeze still swung and Theo lost his grip. Minya flew down, down, her yellow-red-orange-gold hair streaming behind as she fell head first toward the earth. It might almost be part of the act, it looked so graceful and dramatic. Kelsey waited for the safety to jerk Minya back, to halt her swan dive toward disaster. She saw the spotter pull the rope, faster and faster.
The safety never caught.
* * * * *
Kelsey didn’t cry like the other performers huddled around her. She felt too numb, too shocked to cry. The Cirque gathered its members backstage and they clung to one another, trying to process the tragedy they’d witnessed. Minya was gone, taken away in a silent ambulance with no lights. Theo was gone too, nowhere to be seen.
Kelsey closed her eyes and buried her head in her hands. She couldn’t get the vision out of her head. Minya flying, so beautiful. Minya falling. Minya twisting and crumpling as she hit the ground. Kelsey had looked up and seen Theo still hanging there, arms extended helplessly. He’d had her, and lost her.
People sobbed and shifted, hugging one another. Jason came over and embraced her.
She gazed over into the searching blue eyes of her coach. “Did you...did you see it happen?”
“I saw it on the monitor backstage. Did you see it?”
Kelsey nodded briefly, not trusting her voice.
Jason took her hand. “Just...please understand, this never happens. We’ve never had a fatality before.”
Kelsey nodded again, then shook her head, confused. How could it happen? “Didn’t she...” Kelsey rubbed her forehead. How could he drop her? “I don’t understand. What happened to the safety line? It failed?”
“They think so. The spotter was there and he was pulling like hell, but...”
In the corner, the shaken safety operator was surrounded by fellow riggers. They were obviously trying to comfort him, but he didn’t look soothed as he dragged violently on a cigarette. At the front of the group, a Human Resource exec from headquarters wrung her hands and spouted empty reassurances.
Kelsey tuned her out. There was nothing the woman could say that could erase the ghastly tableau of Minya’s fall. The stricken faces of the other performers were mirrors for her own shock and disbelief.
Circuses were like families. Dysfunctional families a lot of times, but even in her short time there, she’d come to understand that circus people stuck together through thick and thin. To lose one was to lose everyone. Each performer grieved not just for Minya, but for the loss of their own sense of invulnerability.
“You just think of it as being safe. You know?” Kelsey looked at Jason, wishing for answers. “They work so hard to make all this safe. All the safety harnesses and practices and repetition to make things happen right. I mean, what went wrong?” Her voice finally quavered, and she broke completely, broke down into the same sea of tears that surrounded her.
Jason hugged her close. “You’re scared right now. It’s normal, it’s okay. It’s a scary thing to witness.”
“Jesus, I mean...” Kelsey hiccoughed against his ear. “It’s just so sad. I can’t believe she’s gone. Just like that.” She drew away and lowered her voice to a whisper. “What about him? Where is he?”
“I don’t know. He’s being taken care of, I’m sure.”
“But will he be okay?”
Jason’s face seemed to harden a little. “That’s for him to deal with. Circus people can be surprisingly resilient. There will be a show tomorrow, if you can believe it. He won’t be in it, but there will be a show.”
Kelsey hugged herself as Jason turned his attention to the woman from Human Resources. Kelsey didn’t believe it, not for a second. There could be no show without her pirate king sailing overhead. There could be no more fantasies, no more desire or excitement. No more vision of Theo and Minya in the storage room. That vision was replaced forever by the sight of a shooting star arcing outward and falling...falling. Kelsey dropped her forehead onto her knees and wept.