He’s a fiery celebrity chef. And I freeze when the lights come up.
Right after I’ve blown another audition, we meet.
Dane Forest gets under my skin.
He pushes all my buttons.
He’s also my best friend’s crush, and he’s off-limits.
I run into Dane on the street.
I run into him at his restaurant.
I run into him at a party.
He taunts me. Feeds me. Pushes me to face my greatest fear.
Dance is my life.
I don’t want to give it up.
And I don’t want to leave New York.
Unless I make the cut soon, I will have no choice.
Dancing with fire could be dangerous.
It could also set me free.
Targeted Age Group:: Adult
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I used to be a professional dancer and I wanted to write something to bring people inside of that world. I also wanted it to be entertaining, so I decided to make it a romance series. I love the tension and emotion that the romance genre allows. My idea was also to write something slightly edgy and fashionable, because it is something I would like to read.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
I tried to think of an honest scenario that a professional dancer in New York would struggle with. The character traits evolved from there. I wrote the first three books in the series before I went back and wrote LIGHTS UP. Most of the characters in the series are New York hipster types. I thought a chef as the hero would be the perfect fit.
I close my eyes, trying to remember the steps. They were clear to me only moments ago, but now? My eyelashes flutter, and my heart pounds hard against my ribs. My mind is blank.
It’s not the first time this has happened.
The clock above the piano ticks.
A woman crosses her arms over a long table at the front of the room as she glares at me from behind a set of glasses that are too big for her face. Other dancers, stretching on the sidelines with numbers plastered on their chests, stare at me and fill the air with toxic whispers.
“Natalie White?” The woman with the glasses says my name louder.
I can’t think. Move.
Ever since my parents gave me an ultimatum—give up the dance dream to pursue academics or lose their financial support forever—my tendency to crack under pressure has escalated to new heights.
There is more giggling. Chatter. My stomach rises to my throat. The woman addressing me sucks in a long breath and wrinkles her lips together.
My pulse echoes in my ears. Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump.
She looks at the paper in front of her, shaking her head. Then, with one hard stroke, she stabs it with a pen.
Her eyes dart down the line. Another dancer steps in front, and the woman’s gaze turns to her, dismissing me.
The taller dancer opens her arms to either side and places one foot over the other. She rolls her shoulders back and strikes the opening pose.
Dammit. There goes another perfect opportunity down the drain.
My hot eyes remain focused on the floor as I duck out of the large room. Outside, my chest collapses into itself as my gaze hits the gum-stained pavement, which smells like stale urine. Steam rises from a grimy sewer vent. Beyond the stream of pedestrians, there’s the squeal of a teeter-totter, and the constant hum of cars braking and accelerating as they inch by.
Where is the glamor?
Two weeks later
At least there are no numbers this time. I’m in a changeroom, wiggling my toes through the holes of my tights and trying not to bump into one of the hundred females wrestling for air space. The changeroom is the size of a small walk-in closet, smells like sweaty feet, and has yellow linoleum floors.
It would have been smart to change at home, but my roommate decided she’d borrow my favorite jeans today, and my tights don’t fit under the long, skinny jeans she left me with.
I bite on a bobby pin while crouching to get a spot in the mirror. Gathering my light brown hair with my fingers, I loop my elastic around it twice and even out the bumps.
The same group of women, now joined by a handful of men, huddles outside the studio in a carpeted lobby, waiting to get in. An assistant with short, stylish hair is scribbling names onto white sticky name tags and handing them out as we parade through the door. The floors are marked-up hardwood, and the walls are covered in framed posters.
Dread. It comes in the form of a dry mouth and a suffocating get-me-out-of-here groan that reverberates in my solar plexus. I try to shake it out, bounce it out, stretch it out—anything—as I warm up, just like the one-hundred-plus others battling their nerves beside me.
The barre section of class breezes by. The casting director and dance mistress’s eyes even gravitate my way.
My grand battements kick to impress. My leg practically scales my nose, and I land all the pirouettes on the beat. Plus, I am extra stretchy today. I pull my face to my knees and get a peek at the people sitting at the front, who are pointing at me.
Yep. Today is the day. This is it. Finally.
It’s time to head to center. We compete for space as we learn the choreographer’s movement phrase. A foot just misses my chin, and as I reverse into another body, we bump sides. I struggle for space between a guy who’s one step behind the beat and a girl with a mean arabesque. There are other people sharing the floor.
Henry LeClair, the well-known New York choreographer leading the class, scrubs the back of his neck under his dark ponytail while squinting at my chest.
They all look at me.
My eyes drop to the glossy white name tag splayed above my right boob, where his focus has landed.
Yes, that would be what the name tag reads.
He narrows his eyes in contemplation, and then he waves the rest of the dancers to the side.
I’m an idiot. Of course he means me. My name is Natalie, after all. Duh.
“You’re up.” He takes a step back, bends into his chair, and waves at his assistant to cue the music.
My heart is jackhammering.
“Can we please see the movement?” he says in a classy French accent that makes me wonder if I heard him right. Because he just showed us the movement, and I was too busy trying not to get kicked in the face to memorize it during the quick demonstration.
“Ready?” He cocks a brow in my direction.
The music starts playing. Everyone is waiting for me. Me.
I suck in a breath and release a hard exhale. You’ve got this, Natalie.
The artistic staff, along with all the people on the sidelines, focus on me as my front foot crosses over the other into fifth position.
Knees pulled up. Gaze out. But…
I draw a blank. No, please, not this again, I beg myself. Yet there’s this thing about movement: it is so frigging elusive. Here one minute and gone the next.
Limbs frozen, my eyes scan the sidelines for a cue, and the first step comes back to me just in time. My arm cuts the air. My spine ripples into a leg lift followed by a slide to the ground.
My hands: they’re shaking. My whole body is one big adrenaline soup. But I push through and keep going into the next balance.
There’s a look of concentration on Henry’s face and on the others sitting up front. A man crosses his arms over his chest. Another woman’s stern eyes frown. Flustered, I lose it. Again.
I repeat the last movement over and over, hoping the next one comes to me. Henry lets out a deep sigh. He squints down at the paper in his hands.
Blank, blank, blank.
My shoulders sink. The music stops.
“Thank you, Natalie,” Henry says in a tone of dismissal, scanning the bodies on the sidelines. “Samsara?”
The next dancer breaks out of the pack as I wonder what just happened and make my way across the studio floor and out the door. I grab my bag, pass the changeroom, and sort out my shoes from the heaping pile as a heavy weight presses down on the wall of my chest.
Standing outside in my tights, I realize it’s starting to snow. I pull the fur-lined hood of my parka over my head and dig out my phone. I’m walking fast. My eyes swell with heat. A hot tear leaks down my cheek and blots the dirty ground. Did that really happen—again? I wipe the moisture away and weave through pedestrian traffic to the hiss of a bus hitting its air brakes and a parade of honks. Fuck this. I am better than this. But how could I be such a dud?
A voice calls me.
Numb to the soundtrack of voices that is New York City, I push on. But there’s a niggling voice inside that wonders why anyone would be calling me.
The voice calls again, and even though I’d rather not talk to anyone right now, I stop.
“You lost this,” the coarse male voice says.
Two people turn as they pass by on the busy sidewalk. Apparently, I am not the only one who heard it. But I barely know anyone in this city. I wipe my eyes with the back of my hand and take a deep breath before turning around. Whoever he is, he has terrible timing.
“Can I help you?” I huff.
A tall, lean hipster type with a pretty face offers me my white scarf. It must have fallen off of my neck. Maybe it wasn’t very nice of me to ignore him. But today is not my day. Call me human.
“Thanks.” I take the damp and dirty cloth from him and stuff it into a pocket on my bag.
“Everything good?” He tilts his heart-shaped face.
My eyes travel up the lean masculine frame, noting the moto boots and relaxed jeans, the hooded black pullover covering his caramel-brown hair. He has smooth olive skin and flushed cheeks. There is something oddly familiar about his eyes. Unusually clear and dark all at once, there are parts in them that are as blue as sapphires and others as cool as ice.
He reaches into the pockets of his low-slung jeans and squares his wide chest.
“I’m fine.” I swallow in concentration.
“You don’t seem… fine.” His chin dips and his nostrils flare. His gaze is smug. Great. He’s handsome, and he probably knows it. I have no time for his kind.
“Well, I am.” I shrug, feeling the corners of my lips quirk. “Thank you for rescuing my scarf.” Considering my emotional state, I aim to cut the conversation short.
“Natalie, right?” He wrinkles his brow in recognition.
Ugh. “Yeah.” My throat closes.
He smirks, and his eyes light up like sparkles across the water. He’s cute, but he has a man bun. Obviously a hipster. Oh, right, that’s how I know him—it’s all coming back to me. I knew I’d seen those eyes somewhere before.
“Dane?” At least I think that’s his name. He’s the hot bartender who went home with my best friend after a party at an uptown penthouse. We’d been invited because Lexi used to babysit for the family who lived there. “Sorry, but I just blew an audition, and I’m not—”
“In the mood for conversation?” He gives me a calm nod. “No worries. See you around.” He turns away, and I sigh in relief, ready to get back to feeling sorry for myself.
But he pauses, and my eyes widen. I hold my breath and pull the sides of my hood closer together, feeling the bitter wind on my damp cheeks.
“Sure you’re okay?” He looks back with a dip of his chin to accommodate my slight horizontal challenge. Though I’ve been told that my extensions give the illusion of height when I dance.
“Why wouldn’t I be?” I swipe away the moisture under my nose. There’s something else I want to say, but it’s buried deep inside.
“No reason.” He shrugs, analyzing me with those chilled blue eyes.
“Good,” I say, a little huffier than I would like, inhaling through my tight chest.
“Good,” he repeats after me, with a quirk of his full lips. Then there’s a stare-down where we are seemingly reading each other’s moves. “See you around.” But he stops himself again. “You aren’t going to blow any more auditions or lose any more scarves, are you?” His brow cocks, antagonizing me.
Seriously? “No, why?” I’m taken aback.
“Because I’d feel bad leaving you alone if you were.”
“No need to worry. I am perfectly safe in my own company.” I can’t believe I just said that. Crying on the street does not make one crazy.
“If you say so.” The sapphires in his eyes flicker.
“Jerk.” I grin. I’m not sure why—maybe because he does too.
I smile all the way down Lexington Avenue, shaking my head while inhaling the scents of fresh-brewed coffee, bakery pastries, and exhaust fumes. Wait until Lexi hears who I just ran into.
I stop on the way back to Brooklyn and text Lexi over a desperately needed coffee and almond-filled butter croissant: remember the cute bartender with the crazy eyes from the over-the-top party at the Harringtons’?
Lexi: do I have to?
I smirk as I read it. She’s obviously still embarrassed about her one-night stand, and I don’t blame her. She did make a scene at the party. The last thing I remember was her telling me not to worry, that she was leaving for the evening. I left shortly after. I’d only come in the first place because she’d begged me to.
My longish hair is tied into low pigtail buns. I’m feeling much more adventurous today than I did after my auditions last week. My boots are tied over my tights, and my favorite graphic tank—the one that says ‘foodie’—is under my hoodie.
I’m walking fast. It’s a New Yorker thing. There is no other way to walk, unless you’re standing on the corner with a sign offering free hugs or handing out flyers to a by-donation comedy show. And I’m listening to music that inspires me, because I have an audition with the best company in this city, and I have decided to put the trauma of the last one out of mind. This time I’m walking on the other end of the island. Yes, it’s an uptown company, but it does contemporary work. Ballet-trained but untraditional: that’s me.
Oh, and I got this audition because Lexi currently works for the company.
Dancers are smoking on the paved modern steps when I arrive at Driven Dance Theater. Lexi runs up and hugs me as a pretzel trolley fills the air with an intoxicating salty scent. Her dark hair is tied on top of her head, and she’s wearing heeled boots and a loose gray sweater over her black tights.
“Love the hair. You rock the pixie look.” She leads me inside with a toothy smile. “Here. Put this on.” She hands me a silver-wrapped package, and I look at her funny.
“Just do it,” she says.
The next thing I know, I am vacuum packed in the same tight black outfit as everyone else and taking orders from a ballet mistress nicknamed Sergeant in a ridiculously white room. Daniela Harrington, one of Driven’s principals, saunters in late and takes her reserved place at the front. She’s notorious for her attitude. Sleek in her catsuit and manicured nails, she looks across the room in a way that sends a cold shiver up my spine. She is the definition of glamor, which has me doubting my whimsical pigtails. But I’m not to be deterred. I focus on Sergeant Katherine’s demands, follow along with the music, and take cues from the body in front of me to stay on top.
Class is followed by a rehearsal led by Kent Morgan. He’s a big thing in the dance world, fabled for blossoming well before his time. But he has that way-too-good-looking, smug-hipster thing going on that really rubs me the wrong way. It makes me think of Dane. Again. Even though he’s not here, I’m determined to prove myself so that if I ever see him again, I won’t have to report that I blew another audition.
“You did great!” Lexi wears an ear-to-ear smile in the lobby after rehearsal.
“Really?” I frown. Though I know it went well, it’s still hard to believe. Anyway, no one put me on the spot or asked me to perform an unprepared solo. Phew.
“Kent terrifies everyone. I, um, can’t believe you didn’t blank.”
“Well, there were a lot of people to follow if I did. Besides, I don’t always blank.” I wrinkle my nose.
“I know.” Lexi rolls her eyes. “It’s just that most people are ridiculously intimidated by Kent, and you weren’t. Or at least you didn’t show it. What’s going on with you?” She gives me a glowing, suspicious look.
I don’t tell her I had something else on my mind—like proving Dane, the cocky bartender, wrong. Plus, it wasn’t one of those scary cattle calls where you never know what you’ll be asked to do or when you’ll be singled out. It was just a class and then a Kent Morgan group choreography. It was easy to blend in with thirty others. “Just didn’t want to blow another audition, that’s all,” I say, and she looks satisfied.
“Happy you made it through step one?” Lexi’s eyebrows shoot up.
I frown. “Why? How many steps are there?”
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