“Get on your toes. Now.” The soft tone of Professor McCraven’s voice was only one more reason to press to my toes as hard as I could. Pain shot through my feet and drove up my ankles and legs at a sickening rate. I ignored it. We all did. “Better. Lift and plié.”
A groan came from one of the girls beside me, and our instructor snapped her attention from the front of the large dance studio where she stood, ready to attack the weak at any moment.
“Is there a problem?” one of McCraven’s perfectly manicured eyebrow lifted sharply.
As I expected, no one responded. Nor would I. Like the rest of our dance company at Providence University, I would go home and soak my feet, slather them with ointment, and wrap them in bandages until our next practice.
“People only see the beauty you put forth, but they don’t begin to understand the effort, the emotion, the pain that goes into dancing. Your elegant toe shoes hide the truth well, don’t they?” The smirk tugging at her thin lips left my stomach sick. It always did. She was a sadist, and yet, I was in for the long haul. If I could just catch the right eye at a performance or grab the right attention, then maybe I would be invited to try out for Juilliard School of Dance. It was highly unlikely as I was a little thicker than most of the beanpoles around me, but I wasn’t going to stop dreaming and working toward that dream. Not ever.
A whimper lifted up behind me. Oh shit...
There were more rules in Janice McCraven’s dance company than I could count, but the number one rule was that we were never—ever—to let anyone see us sweat. No fear, no tears, no weakness. It simply was the way she conducted our degree program as the Dean of Arts and, more specifically, the lead advisor for the Dance Program.
“I can’t. I’m sorry. My shoes are new, and my toes are breaking.” A petite girl with a tight blond braid running down her back moved out onto the floor and dropped to her butt as she worked frantically to get her pointe shoe off.
Whispers started among the twenty ballerinas holding the long wooden pole that lay between us as we’d lined up on either side of it forty-five minutes before. I couldn’t help but glance over at the girl, my heart hurting in my chest as tears rolled down her face.
She knew good and damn well that by breaking the line, she was in defiance of the first rule in the room. The pain dancing along my toes and wrapping up my ankles made me want to drop to my rear on the floor beside her, but I wouldn’t shed a tear for any of them. It only seemed to make them stronger when they caught a scent of weakness. As a third-year student in the dance company, I’d seen some seriously messed-up shit during practice and on traveling events. There was no way I was going to be the center of ridicule anytime soon.
The laugh that left Professor McCraven was vile, and it echoed through the room and almost seemed to linger. “What. Are. You. Doing?”
“I’m sorry. Please. Really, I just can’t stand on my toes any more today. These shoes are—”
“Get out. Now.” Her voice softened to the point of sounding like she cared, which was even more disturbing. Providence University was known for their dance program, and they had the perfect boogeyman in place to ensure that everyone not worthy of the honor of being a part of it was weeded out.
“No, please. My parents would die if I—”
“Get out.” She turned back to the class and cleared her throat. “Lift and plié.”
I lifted as high as I could and forced myself into a mental state of getting the work done regardless of the physical fatigue that spiraled through my arms and legs. It was a game. A game that should have been more enjoyable, like softball was to my best friend Layla or cheerleading was to some of the girls who helped me keep the unruly hockey team together.
My mind darted off to my to-do list, which always seemed to bring in some semblance of comfort. I wasn’t emotionally connected to anyone in the dance program because it was simply easier that way. We weren’t all going to make it to our senior season in the program, and most of the girls were far more concerned with how they looked than who they were. Not my kind of people in the slightest.
As Queen Bee, a stupid name assigned by the hockey team, of the Ice Queens, I was in charge of making sure their party time for the season was properly funded, their paraphernalia purchased, and their groupies were at every event. Why I let my twin brother, Jayce, muscle me into such a stupid position was beyond me, but it was fun most days of the week. Getting to see Lucas White made it well worth my time and attention.
Lucas White. Butterflies did their own lift and plié in my stomach and up the cavity of my chest as tingles ran down my lower back. He had to be the most beautiful man I’d ever seen. To describe him as sexy or hot would be rather appropriate, and yet, he was far more than that. As the senior captain of the hockey team at Pro-U, he was mature, responsible, and demanding as hell.
Wish he would demand me into his bedroom to take out his stress on my body. Just don’t touch the feet. No feet.
A smirk tugged at my lips, but I forced the thought of Lucas away. Any expression would only gain me the attention of the Nazi walking around the room, looking for blood to spill.
“One at a time now. I want to check your positioning and your posture.” A collective groan should have lifted in the room, but no one would ever think to utter a single word unless they were spoken to. Dance wasn’t about expressing oneself, or at least not in the company of others. It was structure, elegance, a reminder of the refined nature of humanity. Or to them it was. To me, it was complete freedom to express my heart in ways that words wouldn’t do justice.
Whether greatness ever came calling or not, I would open my own dance studio here in Providence, Rhode Island one day. My studio would be nothing like the stuffy, cold atmosphere of all the ones I’d haunted over my sixteen years of dancing.
“Excellent, Aubrey. Everyone but Aubrey, fall out.” Her hand pressed into my lower back as the other rested just below my breasts. “Look at the way her back curves just so. Gather around me now.”
I took shallow breaths and remained focused on a painting that hung on the wall ahead of me. The dancers in it were wrapped up together in an embrace that spoke of love and lust, all in the same moment. I let the beauty of it comfort me as I stood on display for everyone to ogle at. It was something I was getting rather used to.
“Her chin is lifted beautifully, her shoulders rounded, her fingers curved just so.” The professor glanced around and moved back, releasing me. “Aubrey, lift and plié.”
I did as I was asked to do with supreme concentration to do it perfectly. Where I knew McCraven was impressed with my skill and level of detail on the dance floor, I also was well aware that she had no favorites. She didn’t like anyone.
“Excellent. Even with her being a little bigger than I’d like and her breasts being ungodly large for a dancer, still beautiful posture and form.” She clapped her hands and walked from the room. “Class dismissed.”
I dropped down off my toes and let out a ragged breath. Someone should have come up to pat me on the back and reassure me that I was perfectly fit and my boobs were a great asset, and yet, no one said a word to me. Three years of dancing beside most of the girls in the room and not a word.
After gathering my stuff, I bypassed the locker room and walked out in the chilly late afternoon. My brother’s smile caused me to return the gesture. I didn’t need any of the bitches in the room behind me. I had my twin brother, my best friend, and the hockey team to remind me that I was worthy of someone’s time and energy.
The dance building was on the far northern side of campus and sat perched on a hill as if to draw attention to the fact that Providence had an outstanding program of top-notch performers at its beck and call, and it did.
“I saw you through the window over there. Was she being a bitch again?” Jayce stood up and reached for my backpack.
“No. Well, other than calling me a fat cow with big udders, no.” I pushed him away. He was too good of a guy most days of the week. I couldn’t figure out why in the world he wasn’t dating, but it wasn’t a conversation he would appreciate me bringing up again. No one would ever guess that under all his muscle and alpha-male persona, he was a sweetheart—a teddy bear—the occasional wuss.
“A fat cow, hm? That’s interesting. I wonder what she thinks about the other ninety percent of college kids walking around campus.” He jogged to his side of his black Mustang and unlocked the doors. “You’re one of the skinniest girls I know.”
I brushed my hands over my sides and cupped my hips as I lifted my eyebrow at him. “Other ninety percent? No. If you aren’t in dance, you don’t exist!”
“Well, shit. Smack my ass and call me irrelevant.” He got in and buckled up as I laughed at him.
“Where are we going? Is the party at the Ice House still on for tonight?” I reached up and turned the radio down as he started the car.
“Yeah. You ordered the kegs, right?” He pulled a protein bar from the side door and tossed it at me. “Open that and we can split it.”
“I didn’t order them, but Dana did.” I did as he asked and smiled as he growled.
“Dana? Well, I guess she’s better than any of the other Hockey Hussies in your group.” He took half the bar and ate it greedily.
“My group?” I laughed and took a small bite, grimacing at the nastiness of it. “They belong to you guys. I just try to lead them from time to time.”
“Good luck with that job.” He pulled up in front of my dorm and glanced out the windshield. “You bringing Layla tonight?”
“Of course, but why do you care?” I opened the door and stifled a chuckle that pressed against my teeth. He’d always had a slight crush on my best friend but, for some odd reason, had never done anything about it. Even when she’d wanted him to in our teenage years.
“I don’t care. I just figured that if you got sloppy drunk again that it would be nice to turn you over to someone I trust.” He shrugged but wouldn’t look over at me.
“Oh, okay. How about this?” I leaned down and pressed my hands to the seat. “Turn me over to Lucas and just make sure I have an oxygen mask and a handful of condoms for the night.”
“What? Hell no.” Jayce jerked his head toward me and pinned me with a hard stare. “No dating the hockey guys, and sure as fuck no sleeping with them. You might be head of the Ice Queens, but you aren’t acting like one of them. Got it?”
I rolled my eyes, moved back, and closed the door without another word. He had nothing to worry about and he knew it. I respected myself a little too much to spread my legs for the guys on the team like my Ice Queens did.
Now, if Lucas came a calling…